Opinion: Working in isolation breeds mistakes

| by Deborah Hartmann Preuss on Aug 11, 2006. Estimated reading time: 2 minutes |
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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Agile as Jazz by Jeffrey Hulten

That seems true to me but at the same time improvisers hear each other to play together, but also practice alone. I find that my stack is only so big and the more the inputs I have (noise, conversations, etc.) the less room I have for the things I am trying to hold onto.

Re: Agile as Jazz by Deborah Hartmann

Hi Jeffrey.

I am sensitive to visual distraction but not aural... but I realize that it's the opposite for some people.

There are two kinds of "aural" pollution that go beyond the normal ambient team sounds... outside information (listening to unrelated talk from a nearby desk or over a wall) which Cockburn calls a draft. And unmodulated or off-topic team conversation, which takes time to work itself out, and requires frank discussion of noise issues. Recently, a colleague sensitive to room layout made a great contribution to reducing noise levels by simply suggesting that we lay out the room differently to keep conversations more localized. This was an opportunity for the team to self-organize and learn that their space really is theirs.

I generally recommend several nearby small meeting spaces available to every team for private conversations, spirited brainstorming, and occasional quiet work. But the ideal arrangement for those sensitive to sound is to find (or create) a quieter corner of the team space and move there or ask the team to make it available to you. Oh, and make sure whiteboards (sure to draw discussions) are not in places that will constantly distract team members not involved in those conversations. One solution is many smaller whiteboards - or whiteboards on all walls.

I'd be interested to hear from any who've experience difficulty with sound in an Agile team room and how the team solved the problem.


Is the jazz metaphore useful? by John Purchase

It's a myth that jazz improvisation is the height of creativity and that jazz musicians can make novel musical masterpieces at the drop of a hat. For a bit of proof, pick up some of the old recordings that have been re-released on CD with alternate takes and note how similar the takes are. There is more than "a few structural rules" and jazz is extrordanarily idiomatic - if you don't know the arbitrary idioms, you're not playing jazz. There was a great recording unearthed recently of John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk playing at Carnegie Hall. I assumed that that these two masters would just show up and play, but according to the liner notes Coltrane had to do a lot of work to pull it off because he couldn't play and improvise on the melodies of Monk's tunes well - those darned idioms strike again! Even free jazz is relatively structured. Ornette Coleman had to rehearse with his band for months before he was ready to record the landmark "free" jazz recording The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Asking a businesses to adopt new software development practices by likening them to jazz isn't going to be convincing anyway - most people don't like jazz. Lots of people hate it for the same reasons they hate agile: it's unfamiliar and counter-intuitive from the conservative perspective.


Re: Is the jazz metaphore useful? by Jim Standley

At the risk of wandering off topic, two observations.

Mike Douglas passed away the other day. I watched his afternoon talk show just for the closing theme. His tenor player ad libbed something completely new and different every day. I was always surprised at how many ways he could treat the same tune.

And I recall Winton Marsalis abandoning the small band with head-solo-solo-solo-head structure becuase it was so much "musical masturbation." He turned to big bands to feature the arranger's art rather than the improviser's.

Jazz can be as agile as you like. Or not. :-)

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