What is a Forcing Function?
Forcing Function: In the Agile space, a forcing function is a constraint that causes a change in behaviour as a team adapts to accommodate the constraint.
A Scrum Sprint is good example of a forcing function - the team has to figure out how to complete work in a tight timebox. If they work in a sequential waterfall approach: analysis – design – development - testing, then chances are, they will fall out the back of the Sprint with only partially completed work. The Sprint boundary forces them to reconsider how they shape work and collaborate to get it done, thereby driving behaviour change.
In the Agile world we have always favoured face-to-face over other forms of communication and this is enshrined in the 6th Agile Principle:
The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
When we design teams, we aim to co-locate team members so that we maximise their ability to directly communicate and collaborate. If you’d asked me a few months ago, I would have told you that a co-located team will always outperform a distributed team.
And then along comes the COVID lockdown! Organisations were forced to send their people home and fully distributed teams became non-optional. A new and far reaching forcing function had arrived!
Given the enforced distribution of their workforce, organisations were forced to rapidly confront a number of infrastructural and people challenges. Our experience over the past months is that many have adapted well and some teams (but not all) have begun to perform better in distributed form than when they were co-located.
At its heart, agility is about adapting. Those teams and organisations faring better have adapted, and continuing to adapt, their behaviours, policies and infrastructure to surmount the challenges. I think many of the adaptions may well be retained and incorporated into the new ‘normal’, whatever that might be…
Some teams and organisations bumped into limitations in their infrastructure and policies that dramatically reduced the ability of their people to productively contribute. Examples include:
- Severe and draconian security policies enforcing tight security, but preventing workers from actually working.
- Mandatory use of virtual desktops and VPNs where the performance is so poor that video conferences and use of online collaboration tools is impractical.
- Blanket ban on use of cloud based collaboration tools that sit outside of the corporate IT infrastructure.
- Overly rigid rules usually result in people finding ways to circumvent them (e.g. using their own PC) and potentially less secure.
Rather than blanket bans and rigid rules, security has to be contextually flexible and an enabler for a distributed workforce to work effectively whilst reducing risks to an acceptable level for the sensitivity of specific types of information.
Not all broadband connections are equal! Even those living in more populous areas, have really struggled along as 2nd class citizens, repeatedly having to reconnect or unable to support video and audio.
I’m hoping that in the UK, Boris’s “Build Build Build” slogan is going to have our national digital infrastructure at its heart! Meanwhile, organisations might considering investing in business broadband connections for workers that are regularly facilitating or leading large online workshops and are currently suffering poor quality consumer Internet connectivity. Consider the real cost of a disrupted meeting versus the investment cost of better infrastructure.
The home office needs to be equipped to support extended digital collaboration. Siting on the sofa with a tablet isn’t going to cut it! The home worker must have reliable WiFi, suitable laptop, screen, keyboard, video camera, microphone, seating/standing desks, etc.
IT strategy and services need to redraw the boundary and recognise their workers home infrastructure as an extension of the corporate IT landscape.
Humans are by and large social animals. Our social interactions in a coffee break or grabbing a sandwich at lunchtime are an important part of the relationship building that collaboration and trust are built upon. They also play a key role in psychological wellbeing.
Extra attention needs to be put into non-work social interaction. Regular virtual coffee breaks with random colleagues are one approach – we’ve used an add-in to Slack called Donut for this. A bit of banter at the beginning of a meeting helps get people relaxed and talking, as well as providing a bit of an interaction fix. Having video on also humanises interactions as well as adding richness and effectiveness to verbal communication – seeing the Programme Manager’s Star Wars models on a shelf behind their head really helps break down barriers!
Motivation, focus and sense of purpose can be harder for some, removed from the buzz and life of the office environment.
Additional support may be required, adding structure to people’s days with regular touchpoints with colleagues and leaders, coaching to break down larger missions into short term tangible goals and ‘micro-plans’.
Teams that had already formed before COVID have generally been able to adapt to the distributed world, taking their existing relationships and team identity into the online world. Where a new team has been formed from scratch there have been far greater challenges to building the team identity, cohesion and trust.
Additional thought and time should be put into online team building activities to accelerate the development of the interpersonal relationships. Systematic pairing or even working in threes will also fast-track the sense of team as well as increase knowledge sharing, common purpose, work quality and collaboration.
Zoomed out! Whilst Microsoft Teams and Zoom are essential collaboration tools for the distributed workforce, they can also become a prison. Back-to-back conference calls are draining and when there’s no time for a toilet break or lunch then they create an unstainable pressure as well as reduce the time for focused work. Another side effect, is that meeting start times are delayed waiting for everyone to escape from their last call, reducing the effectiveness of the meeting and leading to it running over time.
Schedule meetings with gaps and reduce meeting duration. Rethink how meetings are run, look for fresh alternatives to watching a slide deck presentation that really get participants engaged. We use virtual whiteboard tools as platforms to create interactive meetings with far greater collaboration and enjoyment. Check out: https://www.mural.co/ and https://miro.com/.
The whiteboard artefacts transcend the scheduled meeting period so collaboration can take place before and after the meeting, as well as in the session.
Shameless plug… whilst we’re talking about tools, have a look at our: https://www.leancoffeetable.com/ for online Lean Coffee format meetings.
COVID has forced us to rethink the way we work. The result is that we have proved remote working and distributed teams are viable and, with some adaptions and effort, made to work well. I suspect that a co-located team will still generally out perform a distributed team (especially if we include team formation). However that’s just one dimension and we should also factor in the advantages:
- Potential for a better life-work balance
- Reduced corporate office costs
- Reduced travel time
- Positive environmental impact
- Removal of geographical barriers to team membership
There are number of tools and techniques that I’ve used through this period that I will continue to use even when/if I get to work with co-located groups again.