Top Reasons Agile Didn't Work for Us: #1 We Couldn’t Co-Locate Teams

Anthony Mersino
April 1, 2016

Most organizations today have tried Agile approaches and the majority are finding them helpful. There are a significant number of people for whom Agile has not been helpful or it hasn’t worked.  Or, they tried it but they did not get the benefits that they had hoped they would get.  When I peel back the onion, I hear some of the same reasons for Agile not working.

One of the top reasons for agile not delivering is that they could not co-locate their teams.  They had teams comprised of people from all over the globe and were not willing or able to create co-located teams.  So they tried to apply agile with their current distributed team.  Can that work?  Absolutely.  Will they get the benefits of Agile?  As Jeff Patton famously quipped, “If you want to run a marathon with ankle weights, don’t complain to me about your time.”  

If you want to run a marathon with ankle weights, don’t complain to me about your time.

— Jeff Patton

Why are organizations not able to co-locate teams?  Why have they focused on using distributed teams?  I think there are 4 main reasons:
1) They are seeking cost savings by hiring workers who are in low wage countries.
2) They feel they cannot get the talent they need in their local market.
3) They believe that a team can be just as productive if they are distributed or if they are sitting together in the same room.  
4) They don’t have the space to co-locate.

Let's take a look at each of these in more detail. 

Saving Money
This is really fascinating to me.  Do people really think that they are getting a savings because they can hire a faceless java developer in some distant land for 25% of what they would pay someone in Chicago, NY or San Fransisco?  That is really what we are talking about here.  

Is cost savings driving your team staffing strategy?  Do you live the rest of your life like that?
1. Do you buy the cheapest coffee you can find?
2. Do you select your clothes based on getting the best price, or do you consider what you look like? 
3. Do you drive the oldest and cheapest car you can find just to save money?

Getting the Talent
A few weeks back I wrote about Google’s recent quest to build high performing teams.  All the images I found of teams at Google showed them working together, face to face.  Separately I had an opportunity recently to observe a roomful of developers at Uptake (Uptake was recently named by Forbes as the 2015 startup of the year).  Teams were swarming around tables like bees in a hive - talking, developing, collaborating.  Google and Uptake both believe that they can attract the talent they need where they need them.  Then they put the the teams together in the same physical space.  Why does this work for Google and Uptake and not for these other firms?
I think the answer is that getting the talent also relates to the first reason, saving money.  Google and Uptake are creating the conditions to attract and retain the talent.  And paying appropriately.  If you are pursuing a lowest price staffing strategy, then you have already communicated that you care more about cost than about the talent.  What is your strategy and who are you attracting?
The question of productivity of co-located vs. distributed is puzzling.  One of the Agile Principles states that the most effective team communications are face to face. When there is a crisis we set up a war room or command center to get everyone together.  Why?  Because it is faster and more productive.  Why is it that when teams are needed to build high-tech and high-quality solutions, many people feel that the same focus and high-bandwidth communications are not needed.  Do we really think that teams that are distributed can be as productive as those that are co-located?

Studies have shown that it does make a difference having people in the same room, a BIG difference.  A study by the University of Michigan found that using a team room can more than double team productivity.  And this is just the productivity gained by moving people from cubicles and putting them in a team room.  Imagine the productivity boost if you were to eliminate the geographical and timezone separation!

 We Don’t Have the Space
This one is also a head-scratcher.  Team rooms actually take up a lot less space than their cubicle equivalent.  So that argument doesn't really hold.  I am beginning to think that when someone tells me they don’t have enough room, what they are really saying is “Gee it would be tough to change our current cubicle setup”.  Yes, it can be tough.  There are a lot of things that are tough but worth it.

What are your thoughts?

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.