With the holidays I somewhat took a break from blogging on our work on the distributed Agile case, but there are still quite a few things there that I wanted to share to hear what do you think. This one is a bit scary since I picked up some ideas from linguistics without having a proper reading of the work behind it, but at times this is the price to pay* for sitting between research and practice.
So, the picture on the right is a simplified version of the work of Herbert H. Clark:
According to Clark, in order for one person to understand another, there must be a “common ground” of knowledge between them. He shows how people infer this “common ground” from their past conversations, their immediate surroundings, and their shared cultural background. [This is from a back of Clark’s book “Arenas of language use”]
In my terms: communication is enabled by the common ground between the participants and, in turn, contributes to building more common ground over time. Taking it a bit further, it is useful to distinguish between two components of the common ground:
- information that the participants share (not necessarily explicitly, as it is often assumed that others know about X because of shared cultural, educational or work background) – I talk about shared knowledge and awareness of the bigger picture here
- relationships between the participants – knowledge about each other and trust
Now to the distributed Agile teams. At a starting point there is a big distance between the team members:
- different locations that make it difficult to rely on team-building and ad-hoc interaction that naturally happens in a co-located team;
- time differences that in some cases provide only a small window of opportunity for interactions;
- different cultures, organisations and levels of technical expertise create difficulties of getting a team “on one page” needed for seamless work.
- lack of common ground, the need for using technology and addressing time issues make communication challenging
- challenges in communication make it difficult to overcome initial differences between teams, to build relationships and shared understanding of the bigger picture behind work
This picture is not that far from what you can learn by reading about the challenges of distributed Agile and solutions to address them, but hopefully it can help to address the problems in a more systematic way: spending time on establishing shared understanding and relationships in the team (especially in the beginning) and finding ways to shape communication processes and tools that not only allow to get things done, but also contribute to growing awareness and relationships over time.
My personal “hobby horse” is around the last point. From what we have seen, the communication in distributed teams often shrinks to purely functional and, compared to face-to-face settings, there is much less unstructured informal interactions – this works for getting the work done (at some level), but seriously limits the opportunities to build awareness of the bigger picture and relationships. Most of the solutions in respect to building the common ground in distributed Agile teams still rely on making sure that there are opportunities to visit each other, while there is a lot of space for a technology-mediated ways to do so next to the f2f.
* The ideas behind this post are grounded in insights coming from research on computer-mediated communication and distributed teams, but I need more time to read papers and to integrate research ideas in a systematic way. Hope to blog about it soon.