The Problem with the 6th Agile Principle on Communication

The Problem with the 6th Agile Principle on Communication

The sixth agile principle from the Agile Manifesto states: 

“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

This may be true. Certainly, there are a lot of reasons that face-to-face communication is a rich form of communication. However, a lot of changes have happened since 2001 when the Manifesto was first written and we now have opportunities to take advantage of different types of communication.

Social media, the cloud, and mobile technologies give employees the opportunity to work from anywhere, and most of us want to take advantage of that flexibility. However, many employers don’t allow this because “it’s not agile.”

But what about that principle? Is it “anti-agile” to participate on a distributed team? Though I don’t know if all agile coaches would agree with me, my answer to that is a big, fat “No!”

Personally, I think it’s kind of anti-agile to insist that teams must be co-located, but I also think it’s anti-agile to call anything anti-agile, so let’s just say the agile thing to do is to adapt to your context and circumstances.

Understand the issues and the pros and cons of different solutions or why a certain practice (in this case, face-to-face communication) is encouraged, and ensure that objective is being fulfilled.

We want the team to effectively and efficiently communicate, but there are ways to do that in today’s modern world, without having to work on face to face daily.

Before getting into some of the advantages of distributed teams, first let’s look at some negative outcomes I’ve seen as a result of the insistence of face-to-face communication being necessary for effectiveness:

- If there are any “remote” members – even if they’re temporarily traveling or working from home – they feel excluded and don’t have the latest information because the team is using processes and tools that depend on physical locality.

- People who are face to face feel that they are communicating “more effectively and efficiently” than those who are remote. This may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If teams feel they’re at a disadvantage, their mindset and attitude will be different than if they feel positive about the diversity and advantages of distributed teaming.

- Teams that are globally distributed may ask some team members to come to daily Scrum meetings outside of business hours in the name of having face-to-face meetings over telepresence or webcam. However, because of cultural differences or communication difficulties such as heavy accents, written communication may be easier and clearer for everyone. Being forced to come in off-hours may build resentment, not closeness between team members.

- Though strong team relationships can form from the bonds and friendships that grow from co-location, this may result in clique-ish behavior. Strong communication and teamwork is something that needs to be fostered, not only between team members, but also between stakeholders, other teams and various supporting groups. Invariably, these people will not all be co-located.

- Agile team members may be asked to come into the office every day when their colleagues who don’t work on agile teams are allowed the flexibility of some work-from-home days. This can lead to resentment at not being allowed the same privileges as others.

- Agile team members may be asked to sit in a workspace that promotes “osmotic communication.” However, the resulting additional noise and lack of privacy can frustrate the team member who will often wear headphones to drown out the noise, thus defeating the purpose.

- When there’s a conversation without follow-up documentation, there is later debate about what was discussed and agreed to. Two parties often remember things differently or have different understandings. Documentation can help to make sure everyone is on the same page.

While, again, there are advantages of face-to-face communication – deeper trust, the ability to read body language, the deeper relationships that can be formed, positive osmotic communication, the ease in explaining a technically challenging concept – we now have tools that weren’t available in 2001 when the sixth principle was created that can help us with these objectives.

As agilists, let’s remember to adapt and look at all the additional forms of communication we have available to us in 2016, and use those to foster teamwork, regardless of where team members physically work.


Yvette Francino has more than 30 years in the software development industry, and is an independent consultant, experienced agile leader, coach, author and trainer in various methodologies including SAFe, Scrum, Kanban and large-scale custom methodologies.

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