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Touch and Intimacy in Agile Teams

by Dan Mezick on Apr 19, 2010 |

There appears to be a growing body of evidence which indicates that Agile as we know it is completing a phase of growth, and beginning a new phase.


Agile Thought Leader
Alistair Cockburn

Some supporting data points in this observation include Alistair Cockburn's Agile2009 keynote, "I Come to Bury Agile, Not to Praise It", where he states:

Agile software development was defined from small, colocated projects in the 1990s. It has since spread to large, distributed, commercial projects around the world, affecting the IEEE, the PMI, the SEI and the Department of Defense. Agile development now sits in a larger landscape and needs to be viewed accordingly.

Forrester research printed a report recently, declaring Agile mainstream:

Perhaps the clearest sign of the mainstreaming of Agile is the abandonment of orthodoxy: Teams are puzzling out the mix of methodologies and combining them to fit within their organizational realities, blending Agile and non-Agile techniques and practices to create a hybrid methodology that fits larger organizations. Other changes, such as new team dynamics and the redefinition of roles such as the business analyst, show the genuine force behind Agile adoption. It's time for software development professionals to stop sitting on the fence where Agile is concerned. According to those who have successfully adopted Agile, the benefits are well worth the effort, and with the recent dramatic increase in Agile adoption, the probability of working in or with an Agile team has increased for everyone.

InfoQ itself is reporting on this wider perception of mainstream Agile and what it means for organizations, sponsors, managers and teams.

So, if the consolidation and integration of elementary Agile practice is ending, that means something new is starting. Does a new phase of innovation lie just ahead? If so, who are the new thought leaders? Where is the edge of the new Agile frontier?


Agile Coach
Michael de la Maza

One man who is doing interesting research is Michael de la Maza, an agile coach and trainer from Boston with more than a PhD from MIT. Michael is researching controversial topics like intimacy in teams, and organizations. Blog posts like "Make Love, Not Money" describe how creating an extraordinary place for humans to work can generate just as much (if not more) profit than a traditional enterprise:

Some folks in business are pursuing a strategy that is not taught in business school: The best way to maximize profit is to stop thinking about maximizing profit and, instead, to focus on treating people right. That is to say, the best way to make money is to focus on loving people.

According to the thesis, the upside is that profit and human psychological health and wellness can co-exist and in fact must co-exist in the new, hyper-productive world that Agile innovators are actively working to create.

At issue is how to organize work, such that the "extraordinary workplace" can be experienced and encourage teams to the sustainable-pace, hyper-productive "flow" state.

According to de la Maza, companies like Zappos get it right:

Tony Hsieh of Zappos puts it this way: "Culture is our number one priority...Our whole belief is that if we get the culture right then a whole bunch of other stuff like building a brand...will happen naturally on its own.

Another example, according to de la Maza, is Fog Creek Software. The company posts a philosophy of workplace design on the company website:

...Fog Creek Software is an egalitarian company. Most of our technical people have the title Member of Technical Staff and work independently or on self-managing teams. There is no middle management.

...Fog Creek serves lunch, free, to the entire staff every day

...the average Fog Creek developer has 694 square inches of screen real-estate, 2 desktop computers, and an Aeron chair. Most have private offices with windows and doors.

...Project Aardvark Blog In 2005, a team of four summer interns built the first version of Fog Creek Copilot from start to finish. By the end of the summer it had paying customers. A documentary about the process, Aardvark'd: Twelve Weeks with Geeks, is available in DVD format.

...Our Software Management Training Program (SMTP) offers mid-career professionals the opportunity to earn a Master's in the Management of Technology while learning about the management of software companies from the inside.

Another controversial blog post by de la Maza entitled 'Touch' generated some interesting comments on the Scrum Alliance Google group site. In this post, he asserts:

Humans love to touch and to be touched. Parents hold their children to comfort them. We hug people who are in pain.

In prison, one of the greatest punishment that can be meted out is to place a prisoner in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement does not involve any direct physical deprivation. The prisoner receives the same amount of food, sleep, and exercise. But he does not have human contact for almost the entire day. Studies show that this loss of touch has debilitating psychological effects which, in approximately one third of all cases, persist well after solitary confinement has ended and the prisoner has rejoined the general population.

The de la Maza post on human touch sums up as follows:

As agilists, one of our goals is to create environments in which trust, respect, communication, care, and love are in abundance. Touch is one of the most powerful ways to create such environments.

This de la Maza post on touch has a summary video of about 4 minutes that clearly explains the 'touch thesis' and depicts a variety of touch exercises held during an Agile-related user-group meeting in Boston.

Many in the Agile community are skeptical at best. Consider this response on the Scrum Alliance Google group site:

I've been thinking about this idea since you first floated it a few weeks back on the Scrum Collective list. It makes me uncomfortable,and I wasn't sure why. But I think it is simply this. It is phony. I am a very physical person, and will spontaneously hug people I feel close with, or have an affinity with, yes, even in a work situation. But that comes from the heart, not from some exercise that tells me" hugging is good".

Where's the confirmation from others that de la Maza might be correct?

The confirmation may be coming from no less an authority on teams than Sports Illustrated. The leading sports magazine is the world is now publishing articles on the deeper meaning and effects of the 'high five' and other forms of human touch in pro sports.

One in-depth Sports Illustrated article on this, literally entitled The Winning Touch, is especially telling. It supports de la Maza's assertion that healthy human touch directly and immediately encourages team productivity:

"In a recent study with the daunting title, Tactile Communication, Cooperation and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA, to be published in the journal Emotion later this year, a team of researchers at Cal examined the effect of "touch" in the NBA. During the first two months of the 2008--09 season they observed 294 players, a sampling from all 30 teams, and tabulated how often and for how long each player touched teammates - touch being defined as any of 12 interactions, including high fives (by far the most common), head slaps and leaping shoulder bumps. The result? An impressive, if not surprising, correlation between smacking one's teammate on the head and winning lots of games."

According to established Agile thought leaders like Alistair Cockburn, the earlier phases of Agile adoption are probably now behind us. In the new phase, previously unknown and all-new thought leaders are likely to address the edge of the Agile frontier, and to bring a rich set of new ideas into the Agile thought space.

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