I was doing some training with middle managers the other week. We were exploring ways that they can help support their teams and organizational change. The topic of agile team co-location came up and we dove right in.
For them, co-location was a hard problem. They had little control over where their team members were located. Members of any given team might be in the same building, even on the same floor, but company policies made any moves difficult. One manager regaled us with the story of his efforts to move one team member closer to his cubicle. That team member was on the same floor but the opposite side of the building. In the end he successfully got his “move of convenience” approved but only after much effort. Seems moving people around is strongly discouraged to keep everyone from moving too often.
At first we all thought this policy was silly. How hard could it be to just have someone trade a cubicle or even move to an empty cubicle that is more convenient to the people someone needs to work with? Why would there be such a policy? Surely moving someone is not so expensive that pinching those pennies is a mandate!
Company policies are not created to make our lives miserable. They are put in place for a reason that someone thought was beneficial. We had to think about this policy and imagine how it could be logical. I brainstormed a bit on what would be the logic for such a policy.
- Moving often is disruptive to people outside a particular team.
- Moving a person does incur some costs in administration of the network and phone system, as well as some lost work time.
- People may want to move for non-work reasons, like wanting to change because one building is personally preferred over another.
- Any one person might be on multiple teams and multiple projects. Moving around for each team membership is not practical.
Wait. Did you catch that last one? That is the big hint!
Multiple Team Membership and Co-location
At this particular company they are still in the initial phases of using Agile. It is common for one person to be on several teams and be assigned to multiple projects. You know, the usual “Spend your time 30% on Foo, 45% on Bar and 25% on Apollo, along with the maintenance work of the legacy stuff.” Given that one person can be on multiple teams, moving to be closer to any one team does not look very valuable. And to which team would you move closer? Barmight be your “top” priority for now, but not for long. And when that ratio changes, should you move yet again? No, since one person is on many teams, it makes sense to stay put otherwise everyone would be moving around all the time!
Don’t Fight Symptoms
In this case, the managers could decide to take on the fight for co-location. They could burn up their goodwill with their managers and customers, fighting to have their teams’ members moved close to each other. They could make presentations and have many lunch discussions on the benefits of co-location. And all that work would probably be rebuffed. Why? Because in an environment where one person is on many teams, assigned to split their time multiple ways, co-locating is not logical. The policy against moving people is a symptom of the way people are given work. And no amount of arguing to solve the symptom will overcome a policy based on a different problem.
Before you take off on a long effort to “do agile right,” dig deeper to see where your effort could be better placed. Solving the real problem will fix the symptoms more sustainably than fighting for a righteous cause.