Agile Anarchy – Death to the open plan feature image
Photo Credit: Retlaw Snellac Photography

Agile Anarchy – Death to the open plan

Once you only create rules when their benefits outweight their cost, you can start re-imagining how you work with your team. Mobprogramming gave us a new breadth of knowledge, but when we started, we were stuck in an open plan office.

When we started mobbing, there was only three of us, so it was manageable behind one computer. Very quickly, you realise that the monsters that are open-plans, with desks side by sides, with another row facing you, and a useless and harmful separator, are not actually helping communication with the rest of your team, they’re hampering them.

When the full team started mobbing, something else was needed. Unfortunately, open-plans are yet another cargo cult in some organisation. You see, I’m pretty sure it all comes down to this: managers, HR, head of departments do nothing and have no model to allow and foster communication and information flow inside the business, so they use open plans as the cornerstone of their lack of strategy. Remove the open plan and there is nothing left for them to hang on.

Nevertheless, we needed another solution, and the only rooms, beyond upper management, were the meeting rooms. So we did it Guerilla-style, we booked back to back a meeting room or another, and when a room change would occur, we would unplug everything, transport to the new room, re-plug everything and continue. This continued long enough that we were capable of moving 7 people and their stuff in a matter of 15 minutes.

We were very lucky to eventually see a room being cleared on a disused floor, for an impeding refurbishment. That floor had many rooms, and we took one over and installed ourselves in it.

I believe strongly that creativity is unleashed when people work in an environment they own, and where the environment is both a creative medium and a reflection of their occupants. Our team room gave us that. We added furniture that was recuperated from disused parts of the building, added some plants and decoration we brought in, pictures from the family and a few other tidbits. Our team was in their own room, that reflected their personality.

Unfortunately, this brushed many feathers and was seen by some as a desire to disconnect ourselves from the rest of the company. Yet, what we were trying to achieve was not to segregate ourselves, but to control our communication channels better, and allow the sharing and learning moments to happen willfully rather than through the medium of interruption.

Could other teams have invaded rooms themselves? Probably. Some even did for a few days here and there, but the practice only spread to one other team. I strongly believe that this wasn’t due to a lack of desire, but by the power of the norm. No one wants to be different, probably to avoid the difficulties that not following orthodoxy brings to a team in a sometimes hostile and often fearful environment. And yet, teams that do not feel afraid have the highest retention rates.