What’s Agile? Face-to-Face (Principle #6)

Agile communication is mostly face-to-face. That doesn’t mean you never write anything down. Written documentation has its place – even on an Agile project – but it can’t match the effectiveness of face-to-face communication.

The sixth principle of Agile is:

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

Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

Only Face-to-Face for All Communications?

The wording of this principle is interesting. They could have simply said that the most efficient and effective method of communication is face-to-face conversation. Instead, they added “conveying information to and within a development team.”

Why is it wordier than it needs to be? It probably isn’t.

The authors of the Agile Manifesto believe in simplicity, so I suspect that this choice of words is intentional.

It states that face-to-face conversation is best for communication within the development team. And for communicating to (not with) the development team. Noticeably missing is communication from the development team.

This would seem to suggest that face-to-face communication is not necessarily the most efficient and effective method of communicating with key stakeholders.

When Face-to-Face is Not Best

In my experience, face-to-face communication is still the most effective way to communicate with key stakeholders. But it may not always be the most efficient.

Why? Because unlike the development team, which should be colocated, key stakeholders can be scattered all over the place. It may not be very efficient to communicate with all of them face-to-face.

So, when it comes to communication with key stakeholders, you have to balance efficiency and effectiveness. This means choosing the method of communication that is the most effective within the limitations of what is reasonably efficient.

Choose the Best Method Under the Circumstances

By all means, if you can meet face-to-face, do it. This can be one-on-one, or in meetings, focus groups, workshops, presentations, and so on.

If that’s not possible, then perhaps web conferencing. At least that way you still get to have interaction and see people’s expressions.

Next would be phone calls, where you lose the non-verbal communication, but still get the tone of voice, and a full range of verbal expressiveness.

Then comes chats. Whatever tool you use, at least you get live interaction.

Least effective are methods of communication like email, in which you can’t see the expressions on people’s face, hear the tone of voice, or have quick back-and-forth interaction.

Should Face-to-Face Replace All Written Documentation?

Certainly not! Consider Scrum. You have a product backlog. And a sprint backlog. They’re filled with user stories.

Some refer to user stories as a promise to have a conversation about the item in the future. That’s not all it is. It needs to capture the role, need, and reason.

But Agile projects don’t spend a lot of time working out all the details up front. That comes later, when you have the face-to-face conversation about it. Then, you should capture the details as much as necessary.

You may need notes to remind you of what what discussed.

And don’t forget that you may need to update your automated regression tests with some of the details of the face-to-face conversation.

The key is to document as much as you need to, and no more. The trick is knowing where to strike that balance.

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