Many Agile development teams are not geographically co-located. The idea of working together in a war room (or at least an open office), is central to the vision of Agile, but runs contrary to the reality that most of us live in.

Collocated teams have conversations in the aisles, hallways, and over lunch where work gets done both formally and informally.

Much is lost when teams are geographically distributed.

Cockburn and Highsmith (two of the authors of The Agile Manifesto), wrote, “people working together with good  communication and interaction can operate  at a noticeably higher level than when they  use their individual talents”

Face-to-Face Communication has Redundancies and Error Checking

Communication can be difficult under the best of circumstances and with the best of intentions. Because words come in through our own filters and assumptions, even well communicated thought can be misunderstood. When we are face-to-face, we have multiple systems of redundancy to help us understand the message.  We can hear tone, we can see body language.

Fine Tune the Message

When we are face-to-face, it’s not difficult to fine-tune the message based on the recipient’s body language.. As we are speaking, we can notice a nod, a scowl, crossed arms, and adjust our message accordingly. We can see if we’ve made an error in our communication.

Using remote web meetings, Skype, phone, email, and anything but face-to-face communication, we lose many of the “channels” that help us to understand each other.

Albert Mehrabian is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA  noted that when words and body language contradict, the body language is the more credible source of information.

He found that:

  • 7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).
  • 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.

These are the channels that are reduced or lost in geographically distributed teams.

Recommendations for Geographically Distributed Agile Teams

It is important that team members are fully aware of the communication challenges within distributed software development teams.

One of the best ways to temper this issue is by practicing the Principle of Charity by assuming the speaker is rational and has good intentions.

A Summary of the Principles of Charity

  1. The other uses words in the ordinary way;
  2. The other makes true statements;
  3. The other makes valid arguments;
  4. The other says something interesting.

Whenever possible, increase the bandwidth of communication channels:

  • Add a web cam to a virtual meeting to allow for the ability to read some body language
  • Add VoIP to add paralinguistic information in tone of voice
  • Get together face-to-face when possible

In summary, being aware of the limitations of communication mediums and trying to compensate for them, will help geographically distributed Agile teams more functional.

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