SAFe Mix-in’s: Radical Co-Location

April 18, 2019

Overview

One of the biggest challenges that I often encounter on SAFe transformations is dispersed teams. A dispersed team is a team that is spread across multiple locations and often across multiple time zones as well. I’m speaking specifically of dispersal within the team membership – for instance, a product owner in LA, two developers in Bangalore, three testers in Russia – that sort of thing. That’s a dispersed team. While it’s possible for team like that to get work done, it is also demonstrably one of the slower ways to get work done. In fact, it’s probably the opposite configuration of what’s needed for really high performance. There’s ample evidence to show that high performing teams perform better when co-located.

Often times, when you go into large organization you find that the product owners are in building A, the development teams are in building B, and operations is in building C (or some other horrifying configuration of the above). To make matters worse, there is typically little or no willingness to change that. It costs a lot of money to change that sort of configuration.

Normally, I wouldn’t think of co-locating teams as a big deal. It sort of comes with the territory with agility. However, the reason I’m including co-location here as a mix-in is that for big companies, it seems to be a harder challenge. So, my thought was, “Why not put focus on the co-location aspect during the transformation?” You could also argue that SAFe already encourages this behavior. I would agree, but…we still don’t do it. So, given that I’m pushing boundaries here, I call this a mix-in. You might disagree – fair enough.

You see, all too often, what we do is accept that dispersed situation as the status quo because the customer is unwilling to go any further. However, for those customers that are willing to entertain the idea of improving the performance of their teams then we should look at radical co-location. I call it radical co-location simply because for these organizations it’s a radical idea. It’s a really big deal to them. It’s a huge undertaking. But let’s face it, for those of us in the agile community, there’s nothing radical about it. We’ve been co-locating teams for decades now. So really, the only people that it’s radical for are these large, byzantine bureaucracies that we are trying to encourage, threaten or nudge towards agility. And so, if we have to describe it as something radical or new, if it gets them excited, then perhaps it’s useful. 

All we’re really talking about here is getting all the team members sitting together in the same location. For example, getting the product owner sitting with the team. All of the team members in the same building, on the same floor, in the same pod. This enables them to work together on a day to day basis with no delays in communication at all. That’s it, no tricks, no stunts, just getting everyone together. If that means that some sort temporary seating arrangement needs to be made, whether folding chairs or folding tables, so be it. The communication overhead goes down, delays go down, feedback loops improve. So, with all of that in mind, it really is essential that if a company is willing to go along with this, that we get it in place as quickly as we can. In terms of performance improvement, it would be nearly number one of the things to do in any transformation. 

Let’s take this radical co-location idea a little bit further. After all, SAFe is all about scaling, so the question is, how can we use co-location outside the team? How about a co-located release train? A co-located solution? The same issues with communication delays apply with cross team communication as they do with intra-team communication. 

At the end of the day, it’s important to acknowledge that there are a lot of very legitimate reasons that people can’t all be co-located. This isn’t for everyone. Folks have different learning styles, and different comfort levels with personal proximity. I want to acknowledge that those things are important…and for those who can tolerate it, let’s lean hard on co-location.

Forces

  • Teams are dispersed across geographic and time zone boundaries
  • There is pressure for faster team performance/feedback

Framework Impacts

  • None

Benefits

  • Faster feedback
  • Faster team performance
  • Higher quality (fewer handoffs)

Interested in more Mix-ins? Join Ron Quartel and I for a 3 day workshop on SAFe+FAST Agile. Combine the 2 to get max value from your agile transformation. It’s an opportunity to explore the latest scaled agile processes and practices with other agile innovators on May 15, 16, 17. ‪https://bit.ly/2HXCcKD ‬