The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
Agile Manifesto – Principle 6
Traditional (especially waterfall) delivery methods are generally very document-heavy. Long before a line of code is written, an ocean of ink is spilt in the form of plans, requirements, specifications, manuals and all the rest. Some of this documentation is of long-term value, but a lot is there simply to support the delivery process, and only necessary because the number of individuals involved is so huge and the lines of communication so long. This makes most documentation an extremely inefficient method of communication!
To make matters worse, the more hand-offs development goes through (from analysts to designer to coder to testers to user acceptance to operational acceptance to Operations) before working software finally appears over the horizon, the less likely it is that the result will please anyone. At least when it is done as badly as it is in many organisations, the traditional waterfall lifecycle looks remarkably like a game of Chinese whispers – with similar consequences!
By working in small, lightweight teams delivering in rapid bursts, Agile eliminates the need for most of this paper and all these hand-offs, replacing them with simple, frequent, face-to-face dialogue, rapid decision-making and great flexibility.
Reasons to embrace face-to-face…
But why should Agile prefer – specifically – face-to-face communications? Here are 10 good reasons to talk to people directly.
|1. Speed.||With no documents to prepare or delay while your email gets to the top of the recipient’s inbox, the message is sent & received instantly. No delay, no wasted time. Just do it.|
|2. Economy.||Nothing is cheaper to produce than the spoken word. No documents to write. No travelling to a meeting. No wasted effort.|
|3. Information richness.||Written comms reduce the signal to an absolute (often unhelpful) minimum. Face-to-face, context, body language & speech patterns can all be taken into account. This allows the wider purpose, value, meaning, etc. to be investigated.|
|4. Fidelity.||No garbled communications. No intermediaries ‘editing’ or ‘improving’ the message. Noise, contradictions, doubts – the full spectrum is communicated & can be probed & the message refined on the spot.|
|5. Persuasion.||It’s often much easier to win over another person face to face. Or put them off permanently – often an equally useful result.|
|6. Agreement.||Most interactions have at least 2 phases: message & response. If a document needs agreement, you still have another lap of review-and-approval to go before you’re done. Face-to-face you can do the whole thing in one action. Likewise for settling disagreements.|
|7. Adaptability.||A written document says what it says. It can’t change its mind mid-reading. Face-to-face, positions can evolve as ideas are raised & new thoughts occur. So multiple cycles of debate are resolved in a single encounter.|
|8. Team-building.||Every act of face-to-face communication creates common ground, reinforces the team & its commitment & relationships with one another. Helps to build trust & repair relationships too.|
|9. Build wider relationships.||Face to face you encounter the messenger as well as the message. By having a conversation > send/receive, you not only start to develop a framework for future comms but you also intensify & build a much broader & more robust connection.|
|10. Personal development.||Nothing eliminates prejudice & bias more effectively than working together, face-to-face, as equals – exactly the opposite of a formal document descending from above.|
In summary, not only is face-to-face is a more efficient, effective & reliable mode of communication but it can help you to accomplish a huge range of tasks no document could ever manage!
Reasons to be wary of face-to-face…
So the case for face-to-face is as simple as that? No – there are risks too. Here are 10 reasons we should be wary of face-to-face.
|1. Personal aptitude.||Some people are simply better at expressing themselves in writing than in words. Relying on an inarticulate person being able to say what they really mean is seriously risky. Writing an idea down also helps it to evolve.|
|2. Forgetting.||Out of sight, out of mind. Individual memory is not as reliable as a written document for preserving the message. Stuff you hear but don’t have written down, you start to forgetstraightaway.|
|3. Decay.||How well do you remember over days, weeks & months? Face-to-face comms is especially unreliable for info that needs to be used & re-used over a long period, such as goals, standards, architectures, etc.|
|4. Distributed groups.||If your team is scattered across countries & time-zones, face-to-face may be inconvenient & place unreasonable demands of either side.|
|5. Cross-cultural communications.||Assumptions about how personal interactions work & what they mean are different, so face-to-face comms can be risky & highly ambiguous.|
|6. Distortion.||In the to-and-fro of conversation, the intended message can quickly be distorted as the participants strive to agree.|
|7. Reconstruction.||Memory is more reconstruction than recall. So as memory decays, some info is simple lost while other parts o the message are replaced with made-up info that ‘seems’ right.|
|8. Disputes.||Without the check of written material to show exactly what the sender meant, the two sides are likely to remember what was said differently. It’s a recipe for argument, conflict & damaged relationships.|
|9. Disruption.||Face-to-face comms is easily broken up by phones, noisy environments, individuals interrupting & other distractions. This lowers the efficiency of face-to-face meetings & risks creating frustrations, losing track, etc.|
|10. Misrepresentation.||Often the individuals meeting represent wider groups. Without documenting the message, each sides cannot review & agree what it wants to say before it’s said. So neither side may be happy with the result.|
All in all, although face-to-face communication has enormous benefits, it’s a risky strategy. In many situations it’s certainly the better approach, but always be careful that the result is going to be what you expect.