I had a really challenging question in a training course recently.
I normally like these because I get a chance to say “good question, hmm – what do the rest of the group think?”. Then I sit back and learn from the group.
This time the question stumped all of us though so my initial response was “what, no not really, er, yes but also … hmmm”.
Here is the context and the question. We had been discussing self “organising teams” (teams that take accountability for their own decisions rather than being told what to do").
I said that “colocation” was important but not always possible. In other words I said that the best way to run any project that involves human beings is to have them sit together (or stand together) in the same place at the same time. That was they stumble on more issues earlier, they build trust sooner and they can make important decisions faster.
We all agreed that this was the case. But we also agreed that it is not practical to be sitting in the same place at the same time on all our projects. But rather than just accepting that “unco-location” was going to happen we should treat it as a risk and actively discuss how to mitigate the communication risks and impacts of not sitting together (Essentially I would call a lack of colocation one of the “falling coconuts” on many projects).
So far so good. But a little later we discussed the theory of the “Wisdom of the Crowds”. This is the theory that in the right circumstances the group is smarter than any individual in it.
During this section of the course we discussed what would lead to the group being smarter than anyone in it and what would undermine this. We covered things like group think and egos as constraints and then discussed some key success factors.
We discussed the importance of bringing different skillsets, biases and personal histories to the team. So I mentioned that if I was going to role a project out to every state in Australia I should not just involve Sydney people on my project but also people from Hobart and Perth office (for example).
So .. .the question then arose – If you bring these people together they will be co-located. But won’t they become out of touch with their own office? In other words if you co-locate the team won’t you lost the diversity of having people in different areas of the business experience the project as their home team will experience the new product?
“Well”, I said, “I guess we should do additional testing then”. But then the follow up question got me – wouldn’t it be better if you were doing a national or international project if the people on the project were immersed in the different locations where the project will be deployed. That way they will learn first hand and be able to contribute more diverse views to the team who might otherwise lose this “wisdom”.
“Er, um”, I responded, “colocation good, unco-location bad”. But then the real answer hit me.
If we co-locate we might be losing our exposure to the challenges, opportunities and diversity of each location. So co-location is good in that it improves communication and bad because it may (does?) introduce a new risk – losing the valuable input of the home teams that will eventually (or hopefully regularly) receive the benefit of the project.
So I guess now I am unsure – is there a legitimate argument that NOT locating the team together might produce a better outcome than locating them together?