Face-to-face with Agile

Volodymyr Frolov
Sep 16, 2018 · 5 min read

One of the core principles behind Agile Manifesto is fundamentally flawed. After reading this article you will understand what’s wrong with it and how to repair the disruption it creates.

disclaimer

The content of this article might seem to be in opposition to common knowledge; but don’t get me wrong. I personally think that Agile is by far superior to other methodologies. It seems to be able to run faster and steadier than others even having one of its legs broken. But it doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvements here. It shouldn’t be a big problem to accept the necessity of revising Agile Manifesto core principles from time to time assuming that we want to be agile about everything we do.

Face-to-face conversation

One of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto reads:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

There are multiple Agile practices based upon this principle. The most prominent ones are Daily Stand-up meetings in Scrum and Sit Together in Extreme Programming. This principle is nothing more but false intuition and superstition though. It is unbelievable how many good traits this principle disregards so we will go through all of them one by one.

non-discrimination

The founding fathers of Agile Manifesto seem to be extroverts. They give talks to the public on various software conferences and enjoy it. But there are Software Engineers in the industry all across introvert-extrovert spectrum. It means that what is pleasant and relaxing for the founding fathers is subversive and devastating for these introvert Software Engineers. What is intuitively the most efficient and effective method of conveying information for Scrum Masters could be obstructive and sub-optimal for their teams.

And introversion is not the only factor here. There are other concerns as well hindering developers’ ability to participate in face-to-face conversations. It could be health conditions, language barrier and so on.

There is absolutely no good reason to exclude all these people from Agile.

voluntarism

Even if all parties of a face-to-face conversation are extroverts the conversation itself is often non-voluntary for some or even all (see Daily Scrum) of the participants. The fact that your collocutor is typically glad to see your face doesn’t mean that right now it is a good moment to talk. That’s exactly why we politely start a phone conversation with “can you talk right now?” phrase. By initiating a face-to-face conversation you can simply kick people out of the state of flow.

Reversely you cannot stop an unwanted face-to-face conversation by just saying: “go away”. You have to partake even if right now you don’t want to.

auditability

Unless recorded a private face-to-face conversation is intrinsically non-auditable. Nobody except for participants knows what was discussed exactly or even about the very fact that the conversation took place.

persistence

Even participants often don’t remember discussion in all the details as our memory is not a perfect recording device. The conveyed information is simply damaged or even lost entirely. This is anything but the most efficient and effective method of conveying information. That’s why we often ask our coworkers to send us the same information via email if we want any guarantees that the information is going to be preserved.

Humanity dramatically improved its information preservation capability after invention of writing. There’s no good reason to disregard all benefits of literacy in Agile.

mindfulness

Face-to-face conversation is synchronous meaning that when asked participants have to answer promptly. People might need some time to process all the pieces of the information they receive but in face-to-face conversation they don’t have this luxury. They think fast where they really ought to think slow.

scalability

A dozen of people might have a meaningful conversation were all of them have an opportunity to express their thoughts and react to what others say. It is absolutely not feasible to have the same face-to-face conversation for hundreds or thousands of people.

That’s the root cause why Scrum doesn’t scale well. It relies upon the method of conveying information that fails after number of participants exceeds some threshold.

remoteness

Face-to-face conversation requires participants to gather together in the same point of space and time. Remote teams might not have this luxury.

Martin Fowler tackles this problem in details in his “Remote versus Co-located Work” article.

throughput

You can be involved into multiple asynchronous conversations, but you cannot be involved into multiple face-to-face communications at the same time. Also, you can read almost infinitely long books whereas you cannot be involved into face-to-face conversation for a very long time. Basically, the amount of information that can be ingested in self-paced manner (provided that you have self-discipline) is much bigger than the amount of information that can be ingested during a series of scheduled face-to-face sessions over the same period of time.

Repairing the disruption

This faulty principle creates so much havoc that I don’t believe we could repair it completely. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though.

respect agency

Respect another peoples’ agency. They may have different schedule and priorities from you. It doesn’t mean that it is okay for you to impose your schedule and priorities on them. Even if these people report to you directly it doesn’t mean that they need to be micromanaged.

Do not initiate a face-to-face conversation if there’s no urgency to it. Do not drag them into unwanted face-to-face conversations.

Over-communication is a real problem. Do not make it even worse with excessive face-to-face conversations.

means of communication

Consider using other means of communication as well. There are many fantastic knowledge bases (for example Stack Overflow for Enterprise) out there.

document important face-to-face conversations

Take notes on all face-to-face meetings. You can think of any information conveyed during a meeting as lost if it is not included in any minutes sent to the participants afterwards.

Conclusions

Face-to-face communication is neither the most efficient nor the most effective method of conveying information. It is just one method of conveying information among many others. It has its own pros and cons. It adds urgency to the message, yes; but there’s also a cost associated with that urgency. There are no good reasons why you should pay this cost by default or inflict it to others.

Volodymyr Frolov

Written by

Software Architect

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