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Shrunken communication in distributed teams (the egg of communication :)

As promised – more thinking from our project looking at the challenges in distributed Agile teams. One of the first things we have observed was a heavy focus on goal-oriented communication between people in different locations: they would talk (this includes ‘type’ 🙂 about solving particular problems around work, but hardly anything else. I drew a picture to explain what happens in this case that others found useful and quickly nicknamed “the egg” – so, here it is.

Communication in co-located and distributed teamsYou can look at communication in a team across two axes. The first one (horizontal) is about what triggers it. I find it useful to distinguish between goal-oriented and opportunity-driven communication:

  • Goal-oriented communication is about work-related problem solving and coordination. It’s the task at hand that forces you to approach others to sort out things with them. This is the case where you wouldn’t hesitate to plan a meeting, send an email or pick up the phone to call.
  • Opportunity-driven communication is about things not 100% necessary, but potentially useful, or, even, not very useful, but just said at the moment (“good morning everyone!”). Think of the cases where you wonder if your email is ‘spamming’, add “by the way, do you also know…” or most of the conversations at the coffee corner. In this case communication is triggered by an opportunity – bumping into people, interesting things happening, ideas floating by or just an awkward silence that forces you to look for a topic to continue. This type of communication is piggybacking on something else: either happening around goal-oriented communication (e.g. side conversations at a meeting), other activities (having a coffee together) or observing others (e.g. seeing a colleague and remembering to ask them about something).

Vertical axis is about the ‘pre-arrangeness’ of communication (I’m not sure with the terms here, so any suggestions are welcome):

  • Structured communication is expected and, to an extend, formalised. Planned meetings, promised memos and status reports are here. In this case there is time, space and resources needed to communicate (or, at least, nobody questions that they should be there).
  • Informal communication is about everything else. It’s also expected, but in a more fuzzy sense (“let me know if there is a problem”). It’s not likely to be known in advance when and how it will happen, so it’s more difficult to allocate the resources for it.

In a co-located team all types of communication have place (the whole egg :). There are enough triggers for an opportunity-based communication and being in front of someone makes negotiating about time, space and channels for informal communication easy (you rather make a minute to talk about the thing, say “no” or make an arrangement about communicating later on).

In a distributed team communication shrinks to the basics (egg yellow :). From one side, when there is no “easyness” of face-to-face settings, we are likely to rely on structured communication, since negotiating time and resources for informal communication is more challenging (e.g. email might be not read for a while, phone is interruptive and costly, etc.). Informal communication is still happens, especially in the goal-oriented space, but the chances for it are lower, because it’s extra taxing (e.g. questions that would be asked in a meeting may not get get asked in email or IM chat). For opportunity-driven communication it’s even worse: lack of shared physical space results in far less triggers that might turn into a conversation: there are not many non-essential activities (no drinking coffee online :), it’s more difficult to observe others and even goal-oriented communication mediated by technology tends to be more “on topic” (from my experience “social talk” at a face-to-face meeting happens much easier than in a phone conference or email exchange).

There are quite a few more things to add here (in particularly about the negative effects of shrunken communication and ways to extend it), but nobody likes very long blogposts 🙂

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