For the want of a whiteboard....
For the want of a whiteboard the vision was lost,
For the want of a new vision the release was lost,
For the want of a new release the product was lost,
For the want of a new product the customer was lost,
For the want of a new customer the company was lost,
And all for the want of a whiteboard.
With a nod to Benjamin Franklin.
Recently on the DAD LinkedIn discussion forum we’ve had an interesting conversation going on that strayed into the effectiveness of various communication techniques. This conversation got me to thinking a bit about an article that I first wrote over a decade ago, Communication on Agile Software Projects, based on material in my Agile Modeling book. This article extends some of Alistair Cockburn’s thinking on the topic, summarized in Figure 1, which in turn extends a body of work called Media Richness Theory. The basic observation is that the richer the communication channel – such as email, videoconferencing, or face-to-face conversation – the more effective it is in practice.
Figure 1. Comparing the effectiveness of communication techniques.
In the DAD book Mark and I said that the implication of Figure 1 was that given the situation you find yourself in that you should choose to use the most effective communication strategy available to you. We thought that this was all that needed to be said, but since then we’ve come to realize that a better diagram is needed. We developed Figure 2 which we believe communicates this strategy a bit more clearly.
Figure 2. Choosing the best communication technique for your situation.
Figure 2 indicates that that the viability of communication options available to you varies depending on the situation that you find yourself in. For example, people on a co-located team can communication in pretty much any manner they choose. Ideally they would choose face-to-face communication around a whiteboard or paper but there’s nothing stopping someone from writing a detailed document and then emailing it to someone sitting beside them. When a team is geographically distributed they have fewer communication strategies available to them, unless of course they invest in travel so that they can be face-to-face.
Figure 2 also indicates strategies for capturing, or persisting, a conversation. For example, a few people could have a conversation around a whiteboard, sketching the design of a screen perhaps. When they’re done they might decide to take a digital snapshot of it so that they can retain the diagram to work on it later (many organizations still don’t provide permanent whiteboard space to their development teams). They may even choose to have someone write up notes, perhaps on a wiki or in a word processor, and embed the snapshot(s) into those notes.
To summarize, when it comes to how people communicate with one another they have choices. Disciplined agilists prefer to choose the most appropriate communication strategy for the situation that they find themselves in.