Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Introverts and Individualists and Collocation

I am seeing a general trend (in several small things I am seeing lately) ...where the logic of what people are saying is (at the extreme): we should bend over backwards because implementors are introverts. (Yes, way over-simplifying a complex issue, but bear with me.)

OK, we must say that a good team always has (at least somewhat) talented individuals. Mastering the machine is probably a skill set and an interest more common among introverts than extroverts.

But we also know that people who are very good (maybe even the most talented on the team) can ruin the productivity of a team by being too much an individual. We see this in sports (Tyrrell Owens maybe), in life and even in our work.

OK, fine.

Let's unpeel this a bit further.

We have lots of geeky guys (yes, usually guys) on SW teams who prefer to "talk" to real people via technology. Almost exclusively.

And we have lots of managers who feel that distributed, or even disbursed, teams are best. (Disbursed is every person in a different location. Distributed, ideally, is a team composed of two pods, each pod composed of collocated individuals.)

And it is true that there are some disadvantages to collocation. People chit-chat too much (actually useful up to a point), you get more "people issues" (or so it seems), more interruptions (controllable if people want to), etc. (Yes, I am not very impressed by these disadvantages.)

Note that, in a face-to-face team it is much easier to see people-issue impediments. When not F-T-F, it is easy *not* to see people-issue impediments. If there is a will to fix impediments, it is better to see them.

Now, I am fine to accept and work with a distributed team.

And, I still think there is a strong argument for more collocation and more face-to-face conversation.

Yes, we have to accept that each person is different. And make some accommodations to that. It is silly to try to make introverts into extroverts (or vice versa).

But that does not mean that everyone should stay in their comfort zone all the time.

To some degree, for the good of the team, we need to ask the introverts to "step out of the cube, dave" some too. (I hope that phrasing injects a tad of 2001 humor. If you know that movie.) And we need to ask the extroverts "could you shut up a moment, please."

In a broader sense, there should always be a tension between individualism and "the team". We contribute everything that we are, as individuals. We that the team can have a greater success as a team than any one of us alone. Or so it is when we play team sports, like new product development.

I say this as a bit of an introvert myself (per Myers-Briggs).

One more thing...

Why do we seem to think that a distributed team is so obviously best for our situation?
(Some introverts like distributed teams because of lower interaction with those pesky people. Not normally an argument I find compelling.)

I am distressed when I see firms "assume" a distributed team or partly offshore team, without any analysis of whether it beats a good alternative (eg, a collocated team). Each time it must be analyzed, in my opinion.

Quite often (most of the time?), if you get a diverse group of 4-7 people in one location, given a bit of time, they should be able to beat the pants off a distributed team. Even a distributed team with better skills or knowledge at the beginning. (Certainly this is *not* true at the extreme: low quality individuals collocated vs very high quality individuals distributed. But that's an extreme comparison I seldom see out in the wild.)

So, I am assuming you can often get 4-7 people with good skills/knowledge in your product domain areas. That could be collocated at relatively low cost. I posit that usually the special knowledge or skills or lower cost that distributed people bring, at first, is less important than the knowledge creation, and skill creation and team "emergence", that a collocated team can create.

Remember three things:
* knowledge is useless unless it can be turned into effective action (in the context of a team)
* knowledge decays rapidly
* the best way to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (or into tacit knowledge in another person on the team) is to work together, collocated


PS. Some reminders:
* I have worked, and still like to work, with distributed teams
* To me, it has been proved that distributed teams can be hyperproductive (if done right)
* Scrum works fine with distributed teams
Nothing I said earlier contradicts these statements.

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