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Opinion: Working in isolation breeds mistakes

Should the team room be a sanctuary? or a jazz improv session? On, Tim Ottinger blogged about his belief that the quiet team room (or "bullpen") is where mistakes are born, and allowed to breed; he questions whether all the coding going on in a quiet bullpen actually accomplishes as much "work" as it might appear:
I fear that the same procedure is being performed multiple different ways and nobody realizes it. I fear that the same problems are being corrected in multiple bodies of code. Quiet isolation breeds waste.
Alistair Cockburn's "Agile Software Development"  has influenced many teams to take down their walls to collaborate better.  The book reflects Cockburn's studies on how information flows in software projects: Chapter 3 contains headlings such as "Convection Currents of Information", "Jumping Communication Gaps", "Teams as Communities", and "Teams as Ecosystems".   In relation to what he's written, a quiet bullpen sounds like a step backward: a return to cubicles, without walls.  And, if the team has removed excess documentation (no longer necessitated by those walls), the quiet bullpen may be breeding undocumented, uncommunicated mistakes... a recipe for future chaos.

Not everyone enjoys open team spaces... it's an uncomfortable challenge for the insecure, and distracting for those who can't adapt to the ambient sound level.  One key may be in hiring the right people to work in these collaborative spaces.  When the right team finds the right mix of open and closed spaces, unsuspected synergies can be discovered - as team members learn to rely on each others' strengths, and to talk openly about their challenges to foster collaborative solutions.

Which brings us back to the subject, raised by Ottinger, of jazz improvisation.  Jim Highsmith, writing in Agile Software Development Ecosystems, used the same comparison:
Agile individuals can improvise; they know the rules and boundaries, but they also know when the problem at hand has moved into uncharted areas. They know how to extend their knowledge into unforeseen realms, to experiment, and to learn. When critical things need to get done, call on the great improvisers.

Improvisation makes great jazz bands. From a few key structural rules, jazz bands improvise extensively. Having a solid foundation enables their tremendous flexibility without allowing the music to degenerate into chaos. The proponents of business process reengineering and software engineering methodologies probably blanch at the thought that improvisation, rather than carefully articulated processes, is key to success. Yet in today's turbulent environment, staff members with good balancing, judging, and improvisational skills are truly invaluable.
If there really is a parallel between Agile and jazz improv, it does seem that team members would need to hear what is going on around them.  Getting beyond books: Ottinger's experience suggests to him that this is true.

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