Measure Once, Cut Twice

3 minutes, 3 hours, 3 days

Posted in agile by steve on March 30, 2010

Communication efficiency on projects is intrinsically linked to distance. Consider the following scenario: you have a blocking issue that can be answered quickly by the right person. You’re not exactly sure who the right person is but you know roughly the team or group you should talk to. It is a bit tough to describe in an email, so you need to articulate it verbally, or even better, with some drawing and wild gesticulating. The other group is:

a) Your immediate team. You lean over to the person next to you and start describing it. Within 30 seconds, they probably know if they are the right person or it is someone else. Bonus: ‘accidental broadcast’ — if you are sitting close together one or two other teammates probably overheard and may chime in. Within a 3 minutes, you have your answer and everyone is back to work.

b) Another team down the hall or on another floor. You’re not sure what their schedule is, so instead of walking over and risking the key person not being there, you book a meeting at least a couple of hours in the future just to be courteous. The meeting time-slot is at least 1/2 hour long since Outlook defaults to that. 3 hours later you have your answer.

c) Another team across the Atlantic/Pacific. You have a one or two hour window the next day that is a good conference call time for both parties. If that isn’t open, you try the next day. After the call, inevitably, there is a dangling thread so you send a quick clarification email. You get an answer the following day, unblocking you. Total calendar time: 3 days.

There are in-between brackets too. Someone who is on your team but not sitting next to you is more likely 30 minutes than 3 minutes (“I’ll wait until I get a coffee to swing by their desk”). Someone only three timezones away is likely 30 hours rather than 3 days.

But that is not the worst part. If anything goes wrong in the communication or clarification goes beyond a quick follow-up email, the communication delay typically jumps up to the next bracket. 3 hours turns into 3 days and 3 days quickly turns into 3 weeks.

At a large company with widely distributed teams three week delays happen all the time. A conference call requires a follow-up or two, a key person is on holidays for a week, people are booked during the two hour timezone window until next tuesday, and so on.

The important thing to understand is that *there is no fix*. Consider it a fundamental latency attribute of the medium. Timezones, the lack of face-to-face communication, the inability to “instant interrupt” for minor issues, less awareness of people’s “micro-schedules”, and other practical issues such as room bookings and the dreaded 15-minute-delay-while-the-organizer-fights-the-web-conference-software all conspire to alter the bandwidth of the channel.

Higher average latency and less bandwidth means people will default to trying to solve issues themselves when it could have been solved more efficiently with input from someone else. If every person on a ten person team needs to communicate on a weekly basis with someone far away, that adds up to a lot of friction.

What can be done is to organize in such a way that you don’t need to communicate across that channel as often. Conway’s law is a reflection of this. The small, co-located teams recommended by Agile methods like Scrum and XP are a realization of this. They advocate re-organizing the project backlog and/or the teams so you can avoid having to communicate across slow, thin pipes. Break up into mostly independent sub-teams. Invest in the up front retraining or knowledge transfer to make it possible.

When those 3 day or 3 week delays happen repeatedly, instead of creating more processes to improve the communication or looking towards to technology (video conferencing!) to solve the problem, try to figure out how to avoid the need to communicate in the first place.

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