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Lost in space: The value of teamwork

What is the higher-order bit in software development: individual productivity or feature team productivity? Five years ago, in The flow fallacy, I argued that responsive delivery of customer value was the goal, and that goal was best achieved by feature teams, not individuals. Thus, feature team productivity outweighs individual productivity.

While many readers agreed that feature team productivity prevails, many hyperventilated.

  • Some saw feature team productivity as an attack on the glorious state of flow. I delight in flow and agree about its importance, but flow shouldn’t be allowed to isolate engineers completely from their feature teams.
  • Some saw feature team productivity as an excuse for clueless, coddled, corporate custodians (like me) to force engineers into open space. I despise open space, yet love team space—more on that seeming contradiction shortly.
  • Some questioned why feature teams are better positioned than individuals to deliver customer value. After all, can’t teams be just as detached as individuals, and individuals be just as connected as teams? I failed to explain why feature teams are better positioned than individuals to deliver customer value—a major oversight. Correcting that oversight is the primary focus of this column.
  • Some attacked me and my ideas personally. The internet is a rough place. With a name like I.M. Wright, you reap what you sow.

Why are feature teams fundamentally better than individuals at delivering customer value, and why are team spaces fundamentally better than open spaces or individual offices? You’ve read this far—read just a little further. I promise this will be productive.

You talkin’ to me?

It’s true that entire feature teams can be detached from customers and miss critical issues in design reviews, code reviews, or usability studies. It’s also true that a visionary individual alone can foresee customer needs and trends. However, the common case is that teams, collectively, spot issues and empathize with customers better than individuals do. Why? Probability.

Say you’re part of a usability study (or design/code review). Being human, you’ll miss some issues. Say you only spot 30% of the issues—not that great. Say five other people are part of the same study (or review), and each only spots 30% of the issues. What’s the probability that there are issues everyone misses? The probability that you didn’t see an issue is 70%.  The probability that you and one other person missed it is 49% (70% x 70%). The probability that all six of you missed it is 12% (70% ^ 6). The group of you caught 88% of the issues—pretty good!

The odds improve if your group contains folks who excel at spotting issues, but even pedestrian teams are better together. Team members just need to discuss designs, review each other’s work, and agree on direction to gain the benefits of teamwork. That means collaborating frequently and easily. Sitting near each other helps.

Eric Aside

Six team members is my favorite feature team size, as I derive in Span sanity—ideal feature teams. When I’m building teams, they may start smaller or grow larger than six, but over time I work to see that mature teams are that size.

So happy together

The worst work environment for feature teams is open space. Team members can’t talk to each other without interrupting and being interrupted by other people, and they can’t do focused work on their own without headphones and blinders. Lost in space—danger!

Isolated individual offices are better, since engineers can at least do focused work on their own. However, interactions with their feature team are more limited, as are the benefits of that interaction we just reviewed, not to mention the serendipitous ideas that arise organically from casual conversations among people working the same problems.

As I discuss in Collaboration cache—colocation, the best work environment for feature teams is team space. Think of it as an individual office for your feature team. Add one person from outside your feature team (are you listening admins?), and your team space transforms into open space—from best work environment to worst.

However, if only feature team members are in your team space, then collaboration is frequent and easy. Flow freaks might fume that you can’t focus, but that’s flawed foolishness. Remember, it’s just you and your small feature team in the room. You can come up with your own focus hours and your own do-not-disturb rules. Plus, team spaces often have focus and code rooms for complete silence.

Many recently built or remodeled Microsoft buildings contain team rooms, but they are too big, holding 12 or more people. Remember, squeeze even one nonteam member into your team’s space and productivity is lost. Fortunately, facilities designers now recognize the issue, and realize how people get packed into every square inch, so they’re designing new buildings and team spaces that are right-sized or resizable for feature teams.

In the meantime, you can create semiprivate team rooms by sitting your feature team members in offices across from each other in a hallway or by dividing up larger rooms with rolling whiteboards or partitions. These alternatives are better than sitting apart, but unfortunately you still get outsiders walking through your space—an imperfect compromise.

Nobody’s perfect

Maybe you still think that individual productivity is king and feature team productivity is overrated. Maybe you still think I’m lame and my column is trash. You have a right to be wrong.

The customer is king, and while individual outliers like Steve Jobs exist, you’re not Steve (and even Steve brainstormed ideas with his team). Rather than relying on yourself to understand every issue and design every interaction, engage your customers and your feature team.

Together, feature teams are better at identifying issues, generating ideas, and staying focused on our diverse customers. Yes, design by committee can go horribly wrong, but we’re talking about peer collaboration, not bureaucracy.

Design individually (or as you prefer), but discuss and review your designs with your peers and your customers. Learn from each other. Share the same dedicated team space and delight in your innovation as our customers delight in our creations.

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