Collaboration in Agile Development: Should Agile Teams Work in a Bubble?

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When a developer posed a question to his Twitter followers a couple of weeks ago about collaboration between agile teams and the business side of the organization, a coworker passed the question my way. Despite the fact that I wasn't able to respond on Twitter right then (ah, travel), the question came at a great time. I had just finished an agile assessment for a client, and left with a fresh perspective on the topic of collaboration and agile team management in general.

The specific question was, "Is it healthy for Scrum teams to work in a bubble protected from the business around them? Should collaboration go beyond the team?"

There are two common threads that I see time and time again: What is the goal, and how is that goal communicated? Until these two threads are tied together, true collaboration won't happen. I don't see this as being unique to the world of Scrum. To help illustrate my point, I'll try to use terms from outside of the Scrum community.

Strategic Mission (Goals)

Executive leadership, in order to truly lead, must communicate the strategic vision of the organization. A strategic vision translates into a strategic mission or long-term goals. A strategic mission should be understood by the entire organization. If a team member doesn't know the mission, how will she be able to help the organization reach its goals? From there, the leadership needs to empower the people tasked to do the work to figure out how they will accomplish the goals.

Tactical Mission (Goals)

This is where you keep lines of communication open but insert a protective buffer. If you're leveraging Scrum, the Product Owner serves as the first buffer. The Product Owner (agile product manager) understands the strategic mission of the organization and translates it into a tactical mission. You could also refer to this person as an organizational liaison: someone who doesn't need to know all of the answers, but does need to be readily available to answer questions from the team and reach out to the appropriate subject matter expert(s) when necessary. The second buffer is the ScrumMaster (if leveraging Scrum) or could be referred to as a process manager. This person understands organizational process on a team level and is there to ensure the team consistently follows that process. Process managers such as ScrumMasters also work to keep those who do not aid in tactical execution from derailing the team from getting work done.

Collaborative Team

Okay, so now it's time for me to answer the first direct question about collaboration: "Is it healthy for Scrum teams to work in a bubble protected from the business around them?" Though I do believe the team should be protected from the people trying to change their tactical priorities, an agile team should never operate in a vacuum. If people from within the organization do try to change team short-term priorities, the process manager (ScrumMaster) should be right there to impress upon them the need to respect the agreed upon processes.

Collaborative Organization

The second question was, "Should collaboration go beyond the team?" My short answer is "yes," with the understanding that collaboration is different than communication, which needs to flow up and down the organization. Collaboration by definition points to working together, whereas communication can be limited to unidirectional imparting or transmitting. Effective agile product development and project management requires bi-directional communications (the flow of information back and forth).

Once the appropriate information is presented to the appropriate people, real collaboration can take place. The entire organization, which includes all cost and profit centers, needs to collaborate to discover the best solutions and work toward common goals.

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