Time and Distance Enemies of Agile Project Management

f you haven't read Nassim Taleb 'Anti-Fragile,' it's time to break out your e-reader. Big software projects are constitutionally doomed because they're fragile. Agile may be the way to go, but what can you do to make sure your agile project doesn't become fragile?

By David Taber
Thu, July 11, 2013

CIO — Although I'm a card-carrying agile bigot, even I have to admit that agility has its frailties. I even wrote a snarky checklist of the best ways to make an agile project blow up. But that checklist was a bunch of symptoms to avoid, rather than something you can specifically measure and set project thresholds for.

Let's examine the two constitutional enemies of agile project management, then, and see how they can be measured.

First Agile Project Management Enemy: Distance

The closeness of collaboration between developers and users makes Agile projects so cost-efficient and responsive. Ideally, there's continuity of relationships, with daily updates for all team members. After all, daily "stand up" meetings aren't for motivational or other pointy-headed-boss purposes.

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As a consequence, physical proximity helps. We recommend that the core team be within shouting distance of each other. If users discover a subtle new requirement, every hour the developers work before they understand the ramifications may be an hour wasted. If the developers identify an alternative strategy for satisfying a user requirement, it really matters what day the users validate (or reject) that alternative.

With physical distance comes increased opportunity for misunderstanding or delayed communications. Even if team members are just on a different floor of the building, you need more checkpoints and redundant communications to keep everyone in sync.

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Once the team's no longer in one building, the problem doesn't get much worse until some team members are in different time zones. The staggered work schedule makes tight communication that much harder.

There's another axis of distance, though: Distance on the org chart. An Agile team thrives by bridging the gaps and making direct connections between developers and users. Part of the Agile magic—minimizing the bureaucratic buffers that insulate effective collaboration—becomes more vulnerable as team members are farther and farther flung.

Things take an exponential jump when the team must span national borders. It's not just a matter of language. It's management culture and the ability to communicate subtle, perhaps painful points without miscommunication. This is particularly troublesome when one culture is very direct but another is highly nuanced and embarrassed to communicate any negative information.

Of course, technical and management tricks can mitigate each of these issues. It's amazing how effective even free services such as Google Drive and Google Hangouts can improve remote collaboration. But every one of those techniques requires some discipline and involves some cost to the project. When you have to take all those costs into account, then the flexibility and speed of Agile can be called into question.

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