Guest Post: Dealing with Split teams and Communication

Today we implemented a blanket Ban on emails!

We have a situation where our team is split between two locations; that’s bad. To compound this, one location has developers, and another has testers. You can already see that this story is not a happy one! The team is new at Agile, and majority of one of the groups has English as a second language. There is a lack of trust between the people in the two locations of the team. This means that the team is unable to raise a bug without an immediate conflagration. 

“That’s not a bug! You’re testing it wrong!”
“There’s no unit testing, we’re developing it wrong!”
“Show me the design documents.”

As a result the trust is being murdered via long-winded emails. So, in terms of collaboration – it’s not great! In the last two months we’ve been doing everything possible to help with the communication:

  1. We’ve travelled frequently.
  2. We’ve engaged in shuttle-negotiation. Back and Forth.
  3. We’ve setup video communications and instant messaging on the machines.
  4. We’ve had independent negotiators.
  5. We’ve encouraged use of phone over email.
  6. Everyone’s guardedly nice when we’re in one space … but the emails begin once we return home.

We’ve seen that, unfortunately, the email rocket wars still occur. 

One day in particular there was much anger, and the emails were getting longer and longer, and the silence was occurring and the tapping of keyboards was getting more insistent.

Something I heard at Agile Australia Conference 2011 was the order of priority of communication:

6.  No Communication: Nothing. Assumptions are made.
5.  Email: No inflection, no context, no honest signals in body language.
4.  Phone: Inflection, but no body language.
3.  Phone and Video: Inflection, some body language.
2.  Standing in front of a whiteboard & drawing: Getting to perfect.
1.  Face to face discussion, no distractions: The whole shebang!

So I got stroppy this morning with the whole stupid situation. I’m not going to get angry at the individuals but I was MAD at the dumb thing that kept us apart and kept us from working properly. Something one of our guys said rang a bell and I decided to give it a go.

My suck threshold was crossed.

After the Daily Standup I stopped the team from leaving, had a short discussion. We put a blanket ban on emails! No more emails between the team for at least a day. The Project Manager backed it up. The Agile Coach backed it up.

No copying everyone and replying to all. We agreed after the standup, rather than email we will pickup the phone, or use instant messaging, share screens and talk. The thought was we would remove the worst form of communication, and get the team to step up a level.

How did it go? On the day we did it: A sense of calm descended. Tempers cooled. People picked up the phone. The noise increased, people began talking again.

Was it harder?

Yes we found it harder. I personally found it harder. I forced myself to pick up the phone to answer every question. I deleted the junk mails that came in and not-right-now emails. I tried my hardest to not send emails to the team… I cut down my email by 95% and increased phone and video by 120%. And it involved thought, effort and willpower to change the habit.

Will it fix all the issues? No, it will not but we’ll keep at it, and by golly this might just work!

My hope for my team – if you’re reading this blog: Win the war against the tyranny of distance! Don’t hide behind your emails! Lean into the hard emotional work of communicating, Really communicating. Really seeking understanding, really connecting, really creating and being real.

About the Author: Jonathan Coleman is an Agile enthusiast at Suncorp. Jonathan’s journey has included many and varied roles, from large scale systems integration, to small in-house development projects, to BAU maintenance, to rolling out massive systems consolidation projects. Jonathan has worked as a consultant, for himself, and as a permanent staff member for large corporate.
Jonathan began to see the light in 2006 – when Agile and Scrum were introduced to him. He took some of these concepts into managing a small pseudo-IT team within the business, and really got it humming. The next steps came in managing delivery on large projects, working closely with coaches such as Craig Smith (Suncorp), Kane Mar and James Brett (Thoughtworks).
Jonathan is also an active & dedicated father, volunteers in coaching marriage and finance workshops, and runs a blog which addresses the deeper issues in life, love and child raising!

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