Agile Spaces – I think I’ve been Wrong!

Agile Spaces – I think I’ve been Wrong!

You are currently viewing Agile Spaces – I think I’ve been Wrong!

Whew! There, I said it, and now I feel a little bit better.

For years I’ve been coaching agile teams and one of the themes I’ve been emphasizing is:

  • Co-location
  • Sitting together at open tables
  • Face-to-face collaboration
  • Pairing: pair-programming, pair-testing
  • Whiteboard, post-it notes, and flip charts

Have all been terms that I’ve emphasized during this time. I’ve pushed and tried to inspire teams to break down the walls and tooling and to sit together to build great products.

When I’ve been a leading force in companies, I’ve tried to create more collaborative space by tearing down walls and partitions. I’ve created team spaces with rolling white boards and short to nonexistent walls to foster collaboration. I’ve purchased powerful mobile laptops – so everyone can move around and dynamically configure their spaces.

In a word, I’ve been pushing strongly for teams changing their working dynamics as part of going agile.

Because one of the central tenants of agility is co-location and collaboration and office or high cubicle walls are truly a deterrent to collaboration.

Another way of saying it – I’ve drunk the cool-aid around agile collaborative spaces.

But, along the way I’ve received my share of push back. Many individuals are uncomfortable with the changes. And, depending on their generation, I’ve actually lost quite a few people who simply couldn’t handle moving from “private space” to “public space”.

So for years, I’ve been trying to emphasize the importance of collaborative space while still reserving space for individual work as well. It’s been a balancing act that I might not have struck properly.

When I read a book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. You see I’m an introvert. The last time I checked, my Myers-Briggs assessment was INTJ. What I learned about during that time is that +80% of knowledge workers in the computer and technology space are introverts too.

Sidebar: Susan delivered a highly viewed TED talk in 2012. I would highly recommend your viewing it as a part of understanding my “position change” when it comes to agile working spaces.

While I appreciate the power of collaboration that agile teaming can provide, most agile software teams are comprised of individuals who:

  • Loose energy as part of collaborating in groups
  • Need “think time” before deciding on approaches or creatively solving problems
  • Are most productive when they are alone – working on a challenge
  • Prefer quiet space over noisy, conversational space

This isn’t to imply that they don’t like to collaborate. They can and do. It’s just to say that, in order to fully realize their strengths, they need some time and space for themselves.

In our latest Meta-cast, Josh Anderson and I discussed this a bit. Josh is of the mindset that agile teams need to be co-located in fully shared spaces. Sort of the quintessential agile spaces of shared desks (tables), facing one another, in the same room, without any sense of “personal space”.

He then acknowledges that “diversity” is sometimes needed for those who need to occasionally exit this primary space, when they need personal time. So perhaps “throw in” a shared office or two and a game room and that should be sufficient space for a moderately sized team.

I realize I’m exaggerating a bit, but I still think my description is fair.

I used to have the same opinion, and taking it perhaps one step further than Josh, I would nearly always encourage (force) teams into these collaborative configurations.

But several things have caused me to change my position. My understanding of agile team performance has deepened over the years and I’ve softened on “one size, fits all” solutions.

I’ve also realized that many team members really struggle to adapt in these open spaces. One way to measure this is to walk around and count the number of headsets that people are wearing. Or the means they’re using to put up “separation” of any sort between themselves and their teams. Or the number of team members who find small nooks and crannies to sit in with the laptops to do some work.

Well it comes down to…what comes first; what is the prime-directive. And I believe I’ve flip-flopped. My prime directive used to be collaborative space first and I pushed it hard.

Now I think my prime directive is individual space first, with loads and loads of collaborative space options and support.

Another way of saying it is – it’s ok for agile team members to have their own offices or desks. To even be sitting in a cube with walls, as long as they and their team have a space for collaboration during the planning, execution, and deliver of their sprints. I guess I sort of want it both ways so that team members can feel a sense of private, quiet, productive space when it makes the most sense. But the TEAM also has a place to gather that is exclusively their own.

I’m sure many managers are reacting to this badly, as it implies that you need 2x the space for agile teams. I’m not sure that the multiplier is exactly two, but you’re right. I don’t think you can be “cheap” with your space in this model.

Now there are a myriad of ways to achieve an effective balance in your agile space planning. And if your team is fine with one specific direction, then go for it.

That brings up another requirement if you will. You’ll need to fully engage your teams in your space planning. Now everyone won’t agree – imagine that? But at the same time, you need to engage their ideas in the process.

Sidebar: I’m clearly someone who writes a lot. However, the value proposition of my writing is up for debate. For years, I’ve been of the habit of getting up early. I get up somewhere between 4:30am – 5am each morning. I get more done in the quiet hours of 5am – 9am, than most people get done in a day. It’s quiet, I’m alone, I’m uninterrupted, and I can think and create. In short, this is my personal “in the zone” time and I’m 2x – 5x more productive than if I’m in a collaborative space.

One of the last things that Josh and I discussed was the impact different generations play in this. And it made me think that it’s probably important. And by generations, I mean the mix of generations you have within your specific culture and teams. For example, if you’re a start-up with mostly Millennial’s on your teams, then Josh’s perspective probably works best. But if you’re in a more traditional Enterprise-level company with a wide variety of generational experience, then it might not work as well or at all.

So personality type can come into play (introvert vs. extrovert), but also your mix of age and experience. That’s one of the primary reasons to engage your teams – so that you can understand the balance from their actual engagement and feedback.

Anyway, I’d love to hear from anyone who has some specific “space related” comments to this post. Please share your thinking – either in Josh’s direction or mine. I’d also love to see some pictures of your agile spaces so folks can see real world examples.

Stay agile my friends,





Leave a Reply