Stop missing out on collaboration opportunities by creating situation awareness

by on April 5, 2012 · 2 comments

Yesterday, I was waiting for the train to arrive for my daily commute. After it pulled up to the station, a mother with a baby carriage tried to disembark. She struggled with the carriage while carrying a heavy bag, a second child pulling her arm. Naturally, I jumped in to help out and she was very grateful. I was able to help because I a) saw her struggling and b) was standing right beside her when she needed help. I was aware of the situation she was in and spontaneously collaborated with her to get her kids and stuff out of that train. But, how does this story relate with your agile team?

The same forces are at play within your team. Everyone is doing his best to optimize their work. When optimizing, you take all the information you have about the current situation and try to make the best decision based on that information. The more information you have, the better your decisions.
For maximizing information flow, it’s a good idea to make your team sit together. Sitting together fosters passive information gathering. This passive information consists of both the colleagues’ moods and a feeling for how things are progressing. Having information about moods and progress creates situation awareness. Situation awareness enables you to make well informed decisions.

Unfortunately, situation awareness is very fragile. As soon as people are physically separated (i.e. by continents, cities, or even floors and walls), they begin losing those passive information sources. Suddenly, they must actively search for information. But you can only search for information you already know exists – in short, you miss everything you’re not aware of.

Even the information you know about is hard to actively collect if you’re separated from the team. You need to decide to do it, you need to activate whatever communication channel you’re using (phone, chat, email, walking over, …) which consumes energy. If you’re already short for time, you might not be able to do this. Which means you lose even the information you know is out there waiting to be consumed.

Walls kill situation awareness and this leads to severe loss of information for the entire project team.

Situation awareness enables spontaneous collaboration.

  • If you spot a problem, you can interrupt (stop the line) and deal with it
  • If a team mate needs help, she can just ask for it (no barriers like chat, email, or even getting up from the desk)
  • If a discussion nearby sparks your interest because you think you can learn something or add value, you just open your mouth

But you’ll miss out on these opportunities if your team setup does not foster situation awareness. Make sure you’re able to spot the trouble of the mother getting off that train and that nothing prevents you from jumping in and lending a hand.

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