Disciplined Agile

Comparing Communication Strategies Between People

One of the principles of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development states that the most effective method of communication is face-to-face conversation, and in Agile Modeling (AM) we argued that want you really want is face-to-face conversation around a shared sketching environment such as a whiteboard. This advice is supported by a body of work called Media Richness Theory which compares the effectiveness of various communication modes. This advice is summarized in Figure 1. The basic observation is that the richer the communication channel – such as email, videoconferencing, or face-to-face conversation – the more effective it is in practice.


Figure 1. Comparing communication strategies between people (click to enlarge).

The implication of Figure 1 was that given the situation you find yourself in that you should choose to use the most effective communication strategy available to you. Figure 1 indicates that that the viability of communication options available to you varies depending on the situation that you find yourself in. For example, people on a co-located team can communicate in pretty much any manner they choose. Ideally they would choose face-to-face communication around a whiteboard or paper but there’s nothing stopping someone from writing a detailed document and then emailing it to someone sitting beside them. When a team is geographically distributed they have fewer communication strategies available to them, unless of course they invest in travel so that they can be face-to-face.

Figure 1 also indicates strategies for capturing, or persisting, a conversation. For example, a few people could have a conversation around a whiteboard, sketching the design of a screen perhaps. When they’re done, they might decide to take a digital snapshot of it so that they can retain the diagram to work on it later (many organizations still don’t provide permanent whiteboard space to their development teams). They may even choose to have someone write up notes, perhaps on a wiki or in a word processor, and embed the snapshot(s) into those notes.

To summarize, when it comes to how people communicate with one another they have choices. Disciplined agilists prefer to choose the most appropriate communication strategy for the situation that they find themselves in.

February 2022