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A few years ago I managed a team of learning content developers for an international consulting firm. One of my many trips brought me to Paris, France to check on the progress of a course being developed there. One of my friends and colleages, Thierry, honored my visit by organizing a dinner for some of the employees and their spouses.

We went to a hotel at Versailles and were seated at a large round table on the back patio – I think there were 12 of us. It was a beautiful summer night, and everything was perfect. The food was great, and everyone was chatting up a storm, so all seemed to be having a good time. In the midst of the chatter, Thierry shouted, “Hey everyone, you’re all speaking in French. Ken doesn’t speak French, so please speak in English.” I was a bit embarrassed, and I can imagine that some of the wives may have been thinking, “The lazy American comes to our country and he can’t even speak our language.”

One of the wives said out loud, “But why? We’re not even talking to him?” Although everyone laughed, she made an interesting point which begs the question, “What would have been the point of me hearing all those conversations that I wasn’t intended to be a part of?” I believe that in an informal setting like this, people are expected to eavesdrop a bit and jump in and out of conversations at will.

Recalling this story caused me to think about all the collateral and indirect communication that occurs in a team room. At times, the dynamics in the team room involve any number of impromptu conversations. Often times, others could contribute to (or learn from) those conversations, even though they didn’t receive an engraved invitation to participate.

The informality of impromptu conversations includes an implicit invitation to tune out, listen, or jump in fully and contribute. I contend that much of the high value communication that moves a project forward occurs this way.

A common complaint from folks new to Agile has to do with all the noise and interruptions when working in a team room environment. Are the noise and all the interruptions causing your tasks to take longer than you’d like? Don’t worry.

In Rashid Khan’s book Business Process Management: A Practical Guide he references a 2001 study which showed that 90% of the time spent on a task is “lag time”, and the remaining 10% represents actual task time. The 90% represents the time that work is spent waiting in someone’s inbox, in transit, or blocked by other tasks. If an efficiency expert were to drive workers to crank through a task in half the time, they may be disappointed to see only a marginal impact to the overall productivity of the project. If a 10 hour task is completed in 5 hours, and nothing is done to reduce the 90 hours of lag time, the 5 hour savings is hardly noticeable.

To compound the lag time issue, a 2002 study by Safari found that technology workers spend an average of 31 hours per month looking for answers, researching issues and solutions for problems, and helping colleagues do the same. This constitutes 20% of their time spent seeking out information.

Tactics employed on Agile projects can attack these barriers to productivity. When a team is brought together in a team room, some will complain that the noise and dynamics interfere with concentration, negatively affecting productivity. Even if these factors cause a 10 hour task to take 15 hours, the project still benefits when lag time is slashed from 90 hours to 20 hours. Additionally, imagine the additional time saved when a missing knowledge item is announced in the team room, and (because all information experts are present) the knowledge gap can be filled immediately.