‍‍‍‍Communication‍‍‍‍ is at the heart of Agile and Agile Projects and is prevalent throughout many of the component processes and practices.

Overview



Communication has been identified as being key to project success. It has been suggested that a high percentage of the faults found on projects, whether resulting in missed delivery dates or misinterpretation of information, can be directly linked to a breakdown in communication (Sievert, 1986). Pikkarainen et al. (2008) describes communication as a success factor that is common in software development. Melnik and Maurer (2004) describe Agile communication as a social process in that they encourage close and constant communication with the team and the customer. They describe how the communication chain is shortened to enable a more Agile response. Whitworth and Biddle (2007) supported this by suggesting that Agile teams are complex social systems that require motivation by aligning personal and team goals with customer objectives.

The Chaos Manifesto 2011 report was reviewed in the PM Network magazine in August (2011), and a contributory factor for the rise in IT success rate was "straightforward Communication". It is important that the communication stream is "pollution free" of secrets, mistrust and lack of openness. There are project success 'assassins' that must be exposed before unquantifiable damages are done to a productive team. It is important that relevant information is fed to the team to build trust, cohesion and loyalty. Withholding crucial information from team members who have devoted their time and energy can be demoralising and does not foster team spirit.

To address these issues, Agile has placed communication at its heart. Out of the four key values stated in the Agile Manifesto, two are closely related to and build upon communication:
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Communication Methods



In his book Agile Software Development, Cockburn analysed common methods of communication within teams (Cockburn, 2006). The image below interestingly breaks the communication types into two common areas - documentation and modelling options, presenting their associated effectiveness.

Communication_method_Agile.jpg
Managing Agile Projects by Kevin Aguanno


The image above shows that when work is being planned and performed, face-to-face conversation, and when appropriate with a whiteboard, is highly effective. This is characterised within Agile by practices such as the Daily Scrum, Pair Programming, Iteration and Release ‍‍‍‍Planning‍‍‍‍ meetings.

Factors Affecting Communication



There are internal and external factors that contribute to the effectiveness of team communication, but Aguanno (2004) introduces us to five primary factors:

  1. Physical proximity – effective communication thrives when team members work together in close proximity. Technologies such as video conferencing are fast becoming the norm within organisations who promote virtual teams, and the humanistic aspect of working side-by-side with colleagues presents greater benefits than teams working in different buildings or countries.
  2. Temporal proximity – it is not unusual for teams being formed for ad hoc projects and the need to be located in a new team for a defined period. The mode/style of communication may differ but the onus is on the team member, depending on their role, to seek and adopt the new team's style or mode of communicating.
  3. Amicability – one of the key principles that sets agile apart from other known project management methodologies is the frequency of planning and update meetings as opposed to production of documentations. If openness, trust, cordiality and friendliness is not fostered, communication can be strained.
  4. Tools – the methods being advocated by agile seem to be moving away from software-based tools to more simplified, non-conventional tools such as whiteboards, Post-It notes, flip charts, and index cards.
  5. Anxiety – as alluded to in the body of this report, there are various tool sets team members use to communicate with each other. Whilst some may be expert in report writing, some prefer to communicate verbally, there is this notion developers generally love to code but shy away from writing. In other situation, you may have the flair for presenting in front of teams and client, but some may shy away from it due to lack of confidence. Hence, anxiety plays a major role and it is the responsibility of the ‍‍‍‍project manage‍‍‍‍r (or scrum master) to find and promote techniques that can minimise this and create a comfortable environment.

Advantages



  • Agile practices such as Collocated Teams, Daily Scrum, Pair Programming, Iteration and Release Planning meetings help improve communication by putting people within close proximity of one another. One common missed communication method is osmotic communication (Cockburn, 2004), which is the process of gaining information by overhearing other people's conversations. A collocated team's communication is greatly enhanced due to this method.
  • The regular updates via the practices such as the Iteration and Release planning meetings, along with the XP Planning Game, help share knowledge and reduce the sharing of knowledge via documentation. Further to this, by having a Customer readily available, or Product Owner, there is the opportunity for immediate feedback to resolve issues or queries which may be raised.
  • The use of tools is directly addressed via the creation of User Stories, along with the working area being supplemented with noticeboards, which Beck (2004) refers to as 'stories on the wall', to indicate the current status of tasks within the current iteration or sprint. The 'stories on the wall' also ‍‍‍‍give people‍‍‍‍ external to the project team the ability to understand how the work is progressing.
  • Agile communication practices increase motivation and encourage team building (Whitworth and Biddle, 2007).


Disadvantages



  • Due to the communication aspect being prevalent in so many of the agile practices, they can unfortunately become time consuming and resource intensive. Indeed, there is an additional requirement on Customers to be available to provide feedback and clarity throughout the iteration cycle.
  • Furthermore, many of the practices in agile require teams to be collocated to gain the full benefits, and this may not always be possible in the modern world, as teams turn ever more virtual. Whilst the strands of communication built into Agile will still bring benefits, the benefits may not be as fully realised.
  • Pikkarainen et al.(2008) found that open office space could be detrimental to concentration, although it was found to be more beneficial than detrimental. The main critics appeared to be experienced developers who were not willing to try different working practices. It should be noted that when the team lacked open office space they complained that the ability to collaborate was reduced. Building upon this there has been research into acknowledging that individuals may be introverts and thus creativity in these working environments may be stifled rather than enhanced (Cain, 2012).

‍‍‍‍References‍‍‍‍


Aguanno, K (2004) Managing Agile Projects: First Edition. Multi-Media Publications Inc.
Beck, K. and Andres, C. (2004) Extreme Programming Explained: Embracing Change. 2nd edition. Boston: Addison-Wesley.
Cain, S (2012), The Rise of the New Groupthink, NYTimes.com, [URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-new-groupthink.html?_r=1 , accessed: 13/03/2012]
Cockburn, A. (2004) Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams. 1st Edition. Reading: Addison-Wesley Professional.
Cockburn, A. (2006), Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game, Addison Wesley
Melnik, G. & Maurer, F. (2004), "Direct Verbal Communication as a Catalyst of Agile Knowledge Sharing" In Proceedings of the Agile Development Conference (ADC'04)
Pikkarainen, M., Haikara, J., Salo, O., Abrahamsson, P. & Still, J. (2008) 'The impact of agile processes on communication in software development'. Empirical Software Engineering. (13). pp. 303-337.
PMI Magazine. (2011, August). Volume 25, Number 8 , pp. 10-11.
Sievert, R. W. Jr (1986), Communications: An Important Construction Tool, Project Management Journal pp 77.
Whitworth, E. & Biddle, R. (2007) "Motivation and Cohesion in Agile Teams" In Computer Science 2007
Whitworth, E. & Biddle, R. (2007) "The Social Nature of Agile Teams" In Agile 2007
Yourdon, E. (1997) Death March: The Complete Software Developer's Guide to Surviving "Mission Impossible" Projects. Prentice Hall PTR.