By Mike Griffiths
“My team has stopped talking to me, and I like it!” This may sound like heresy since agile teams are centered on face-to-face conversation, but as with most sound-bites it is missing context and clarification. A more accurate description would be: “We are replacing some face-to-face conversations with other communication channels and this practice seems to improve flow.”
Like all good stories I have started in the middle, let’s back up and examine the full picture. “Flow” is the quiet and highly productive state of work when you are really “in the zone” and making real progress on a topic.
In the book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains what makes an experience genuinely satisfying and how people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement in their work when in this state of flow. We experience flow when work is challenging enough to provide a reward of problem solving yet not too crazy difficult that it is frustrating. So, not too easy, and not too hard, but a perfect “Goldilocks” rating of “Just-Right.”
Shimon Edelman, a cognitive expert and professor of psychology at Cornell University, offers some insight in his book “The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life.” He explains it this way: “Flow is the enjoyment derived from being engaged in an activity that is challenging, but not frustratingly so. Evolutionarily, we are selected for being good at certain kinds of things. You’re not challenged if you’re not tested, we get rewarded incredibly with this feeling of well-being and excitement.”
Enjoyment and Productivity are self-reinforcing factors that give rise to high performance.
The befits of flow on productivity are so significant Tom DeMarco and Anthony Lister in their book “Peopleware” recommend designating two hours a day as “Quiet time” with no meetings or interruptions. Programmers need sufficient quiet time to get into this productive mode, and as Alistair Cockburn observes, it takes only a minute or two of other conversation to disturb it.
This is the flow / communication paradox, on the one hand we want to get to a state of flow, on the other we want a collocated team environment with lots of high bandwidth, face-to-face communications to get questions answered quickly. There have been a few suggestions strike to balance . In the “XP Applied: Playing to Win” book Ken Auer suggest the “Caves and Common” idea. Caves are quiet rooms to work in, Common is the common work area where we learn via osmotic communication and get our questions answered quickly. People can go an work in the quiet “caves” when they need to focus and return to the common area to share and learn when they are done that high concentration task.
Why my team has stopped talking to me, is because they now use instant messaging. So instead of them coming over and asking a question mid way through my angry birds, status report, instead I get a little pop-up at the bottom right hand side of my monitor for me to reply to. The key difference is that this is not so interrupting as having someone physically come over. I can continue with my chain of thought, reach a convenient checkpoint and then type a reply.
Working this way flow seems to be less interrupted, it is no longer a cold reset of re-establishing where I was in my work and getting back into the groove, the interruption was less obtrusive and flow returns quicker. Perhaps because we decide the exact moment when to reply, allowing us to reach a better checkpoint/return point.
When team members who sit 6 feet away started sending me messages rather than talking to me I dismissed it as the poor communication skills of today’s younger workers, the product of text messaging generation, and generally a cop-out of having a meaningful conversation.
Now I realize that many quick questions are not worth the flow interruption penalty of a full face-to-face conversation. So items do however, if we think there is a problem, or need for a direction change then a full stop and discussion is exactly what is required, but for perhaps 5 times as many questions an electronic ping gets the answer without the interruption of flow.
I am not disputing the advantages of face-to-face communications, we will always benefit from the emotion and body language we lose electronically. However, given the value of flow and being in that productive zone, if we can keep that speed going for longer with less disruptive questioning, perhaps the overall business value delivered can go up with fewer face-to-face interruptions?
Likely this is very environment dependant, some projects will be constrained by their rate of learning and more face-to-face communications would help. However other projects, or perhaps the same project at a later phase, could be constrained by productive flow and better served by less intrusive Q&A. Balancing flow and feedback will always be dynamic.
What do you think, does technology help us here in balancing flow with being informed? How are you managing these competing demands? I would love to hear alternative solutions to this widespread issue.
(Note: This article first appeared on Gantthead.com here)