The relative effectiveness of collaborative work over individual work for many (not all) activities has become well-enough established by now that hardly anyone questions it. No one establishes an “agile” work space in such a way as to maximize disconnected, individual work and to minimize direct communication. That would be absurd.
And yet, people are determined to defend their comfort zones. A popular way to avoid working collaboratively is to say, “I’m an introvert.” Often, this is stated flatly, with a tone of finality, as if the word “introvert” completely explains why it is impossible for the individual to collaborate with others. Obviously, an introvert has to work alone all the time. They are hard-wired that way. It’s innate. It’s an immutable trait. There are no variations or nuances. End of argument. Now I’m going to turn my back on you and put my headphones back on. Go away.
There are a couple of problems with the way people typically throw the word “introvert” around.
The first is the very definition of “introversion.” It’s widely misunderstood, or possibly it’s understood but deliberately mis-characterized in order to support a person’s preference not to work collaboratively.
The second is the general requirements for an effective collaborative work space for a team that performs creative work, such as software development. Badly-designed work areas tend to be noisy and distracting. They create stress. They inhibit effective collaboration rather than enabling it. Often, people assume the problems they’re experiencing are due to “introversion” when in fact the cause is the physical work space itself; and it’s just as bad for the extraverts as it is for the introverts.
More on that in a minute. First, let’s consider what introversion really means and how it affects collaboration.
Introversion is a preference, not a hard-and-fast personal trait. It’s easy to find definitions and descriptions online. Most of them are pretty similar. Here’s an excerpt from the site Personality Max that’s representative of most definitions I’ve found.
“Extraversion is characterized by a preference to focus on the world outside the self. Extraverts are energized by social gatherings, parties and group activities.”
“Introversion is characterized by a preference to focus on theinside world. Introverts are energized by spending time alone or with a small group.”
That site has more to say about it, and so do other sources. The information is generally consistent with those two statements.
As an introvert myself, I can confirm the fact that spending a lot of time in a large group feels tiring and, at times, nerve-wracking. That’s especially true in an open-ended social setting where there are no explicit boundaries on what people might say. But here’s the thing: An “agile” software team is
- not a large group
- not having a party
Collaboration on software-related work takes place in a well-defined context. That’s helpful for introverts to cope with the need to interact with other people. The work has several characteristics that mitigate the effects of introversion, including
- conversation topics are bounded; introverts need not fear personal topics will be broached (talking about things that are within the defined context of the work doesn’t trigger stress)
- collaborative working sessions are time-limited; introverts need not fear there is no escape from “the group;” they know when it will end, and when they can go away and recharge
- based on the type of work at hand, some tasks are best done by the group, some by subsets of the group, and some by individuals working solo; intense interpersonal interaction is not continuous, and a good deal of interaction is in a small group (as few as two people)
Another thing people tend to forget is that introversion is not constant. The same individual may exhibit stronger or weaker preferences with respect to introversion and extraversion in different circumstances, or even in similar circumstances when their mood or frame of mind is different.
Context matters, too. You probably know or have seen speakers at conferences and user group meetings who seemed very animated and energetic, and who interacted a lot with participants in their sessions. You might be surprised at how many such speakers are introverts. There’s a big difference between making a prepared presentation or facilitating a session about a well-understood topic and having to interact in an open-ended and unbounded way with a bunch of strangers. Those are two very different experiences for an introvert.
The bounded context and time limits of “agile”-style work are quite acceptable for most introverts most of the time. Those things provide a sort of safety zone for introverts. It is absolutely not the same experience as being dropped into the middle of a party where 60 or 70 strangers are asking personal questions.
Can’t introverts “just get over it?”
Personal questions that seem normal to extraverts feel like an interrogation to an introvert. I’m talking about questions like “What did you do this weekend?” or “Do you have any children?” Extraverts often find it hard to accept, when this is explained to them. It doesn’t intuitively make sense to them. But it’s real. In a work context, introverts don’t have to worry about this. People are going to ask things like, “Do you think we should extract a method here?” or “How can we remove the blocker on Story #345?” Pretty safe stuff.
So-called “icebreakers” are horrifying experiences for introverts. I recall a time when we were facilitating a training event for a client. There were 5 or 6 of us in the room along with, maybe, 150 or so client people. To kick off the event, one of my colleagues asked us to stand and take turns telling the group something “interesting” about ourselves. I thought I was going to crap my pants. Had I known he was going to do that, I would have arranged to be outside the room at the time. As my colleagues took their turns, I began to tremble and sweat. When my turn came, I muttered something I can’t remember and sat down as quickly as I could. Extraverts have no idea this is a real “thing.” There seems to be no way to get them to understand. They say something like, “Oh, that’s nonsense! It’ll be fun! You’ll see!”
Well, guess what, extraverts: It isn’t fun.
Team-building activities have a similar effect on introverts. I remember a time when an enthusiastic new team member threatened to make us attend a baseball game together so that we could “bond” and become “like a family.” Well, for one thing, apart from golf I can’t think of anything less interesting to watch than baseball. There are certainly better ways for me to spend my precious time. And for another, I already have a family.
We can build good working relationships within our team quite well enough in the context of work. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy going out for lunch with team mates – between one and three team mates at a time – but spending three hours at a baseball game with 7 or 8 people, when I can really only hear the two who are seated right next to me, isn’t an enjoyable experience.
And yet we must get over it
There are things that are genuinely stressful for introverts, and it seems unlikely that most extraverts will ever comprehend that. And yet, collaborative work methods are clearly effective and they aren’t going away. We have to learn how to function as part of a collaborative team. For reasons I’ve already mentioned, a work context isn’t as stressful as an open-ended social setting. There are limits. When our extraverted team mates exceed those limits, we can set boundaries; we have the right to do so because it’s a work context and not an open-ended social setting.
So, to some extent, we have to adapt. On a deep level, we can’t “just get over it” in the way extraverts think we should. But we do have an obligation to learn to function on a team, both to ourselves as professionals and to our families and anyone else who depends on us. Just saying “I’m an introvert” as an excuse to avoid “agile”-style work doesn’t cut it.
Extraverts can get over it, too
It’s a commonplace that extraverts are the “overwhelming majority” of people. It seems, instead, that extraverts comprise about 2/3 of the population. By the numbers, they aren’t an overwhelming majority. They’re overwhelming because they’re always in your face, wanting to talk.
But we introverts actually comprise a very significant proportion of the population; we’re not outliers, and our needs are not to be trivialized. We and our extravert friends together can craft a collaborative working style that works for everyone. We don’t have to be the only ones who have to “get over it.”
Open plan offices
Many of the issues people tell me about, and that they attribute to differences between extraverts and introverts, seem to me to be related to the way the physical work space is organized. I’ve seen a lot of so-called “agile” team spaces in numerous companies. I’ve hardly ever seen a well-designed collaborative team work area.
The typical situation is that the company rips out all the cubicle walls (or the tall ones, anyway) to create a vast open area. Multiple teams are located in the same open area. The so-called “open plan office” is bad for collaboration, bad for productivity, even bad for workers’ health. Numerous studies and articles, like this piece on inc.com, explain the issues.
The Agile Alliance description of an agile team room is explicit about contrasting open plan office spaces with effective collaborative spaces. One of the key benefits is osmotic communication, a term coined by one of the originators of “agile” development, Alistair Cockburn. It refers to the ability to overhear relevant conversations and share information with team mates about the work at hand, by working in a common space.
But overhearing all the random noise in a large open plan office area is not the same thing as osmotic communication. Imagine an open plan office that takes up an entire floor of an office tower. The only enclosed spaces on the floor are the toilets and the break rooms. Within that open area are twelve “agile” team spaces, all wide open.
Now consider the things that newly-minted Scrum Masters and inexperienced “agile” coaches tend to do. At any given time during the day, someone in that large open space is making excessive noise. Look, that team over there is doing a haka to inspire themselves. And on the other side of the space, a team is loudly singing “Happy Birthday” to one of their members. In the center of the space, a third team is having their daily stand-up, right next to another team that’s doing a software demo. Another team is ringing a large bell to celebrate the completion of a User Story. Yet another team is clapping hands and shouting to celebrate a similar feat. Team Eleven just broke the build, and their “information radiator” sounds like an emergency signal on a submarine. Equipment is rattling and dinging and beeping all over the place. There’s a low rumble of conversations. You’re trying to pair program with a team mate (or maybe you’re just trying to maintain a train of thought) while people who are not on your team wander through your space on their way to or from the break room or toilet, conversing about things unrelated to your project.
If you feel stressed out, I’ll wager it isn’t because you’re an introvert.
Collaborative team work spaces
The value of collaboration is determined by the nature of the work at hand. A well-organized collaborative team work area has three kinds of spaces to accommodate different styles of work. The main area is the collaborative space, where the whole team can gather. In the context of software development activities, most of the work takes place there, with people working in twos or threes or possibly alone, but within earshot of one another to facilitate osmotic communication. Some teams like to do some of their work using mob programming, and the collaborative space is the logical place for it.
But the team should not be overheard by other teams. That would be distracting.
Some tasks are best handled by a small group of people. A good collaborative team area has semi-private spaces where two to four team members can gather to brainstorm or whiteboard design ideas or resolve problems without distracting the rest of the team.
Doing that sort of thing in the middle of a wide-open area would be distracting.
Some tasks require single-minded focus for some period of time, without interruption or noise. Besides that, there are times when a one-on-one conversation is necessary, or when a team member needs to make a private phone call, or just sit alone for a few minutes to decompress. Well-designed collaborative team areas have private spaces for purposes like these. They may be shared spaces or they may be individuals’ “home” desks.
An open-plan office makes no allowance for this very fundamental need. People have to leave the floor or leave the building entirely to have private conversations or take care of personal business that ought to require just a few minutes, but instead carves a big chunk out of the day owing to the need to go someplace else.
This is a concept that’s been called caves and commons; common areas for collaboration, and caves for individual focus. In their book, Peopleware, Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister describe a format for collaborative team spaces that includes an open area, semi-private spaces, and private spaces. To gain the benefits of team collaboration, an appropriate physical work space is necessary.
In my experience, many issues people report as having to do with “introversion” are really caused by trying to work in an inappropriate space, full of stress-inducing distractions and noise. The same people would probably have had little trouble working collaboratively in a well-designed space.
On the subject of introversion and its effects on collaborative work, I think there are conclusions to be drawn in more than one area.
- Introversion is real, but isn’t a static or immutable trait
- As long as there are well-defined boundaries and time limits, introverts can cope with working in groups
- Don’t force people to participate in ice breakers and team-building events
- People tend to look for any excuses they can to avoid venturing out of their comfort zone; “I’m an introvert” is often used to avoid collaborative work; stop making excuses and try new things with an open mind
- Extraverts have a hard time understanding introverts, and may even disbelieve that other people are different from themselves; they need to dial it back a bit if they want to work effectively with others on a collaborative team
- The effects of physical work space design can be significant; the source of your stress may well be the physical work environment, and not (entirely) your position on the introversion/extraversion spectrum
- If you must work in an open office setting, then respect the other teams surrounding you; take the birthday party to the break room, and do the haka outside