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Is full time co-location critical to project success?

A daily part of my job is to pitch professional services products. There are a broad array of topics raised by prospective buyers as they evaluate risk and look for the best solution. A recent encounter got me thinking about co-location strategies and the criticality of full time co-location to project success.

What’s at stake? Managing risk on enterprise projects can be a full time job. With so many variables - it’s often easiest to simplify the issue of co-location and mandate it as a must do. The argument is that team co-location for the duration of an engagement means better oversight, better knowledge transfer, and a more efficient project. I’ve been involved in all of our largest and longest projects and put forth a counter hypothesis. I propose that co-location for the duration of a project doesn’t ensure project success, it limits your options, and drives up costs. Taking an agile approach however, provides a level of transparency and collaboration that changes the game.

Agile helps - but is it the holy grail? As methodologies go - Agile is fantastic - but it’s certainly not the holy grail. It has its own challenges like any process where humans are involved. But what it does give us is a great way to integrate teams in a more fluid and collaborative manner. The effective use of daily stand-ups, planning meetings, retrospectives and frequent demos, run by folks that know the drill, gives us a way to keep teams honest and highly integrated. Web based source control such as Github, and project management tools like Redmine offer new ways to share, review, and manage project assets. And as a result teams can be highly productively in a virtual setting.

At Acquia, we have successfully adopted this approach with our virtual teams and consistently deliver the business results we expect. We find it creates a win win for all parties including our customers and partners. It makes projects more economical (less travel and hotel stays, etc), its better for the environment, and its better for the team members because they develop and collaborate in their optimal environments making them more efficient and happier. It also means we can draw on the best fit partners and resources to deliver on key functionality - no matter where they are physically located. The benefits are great but at the end of the day, we need to be ready to take the right actions. At key points on projects, particularly at critical decision making and/or transition stages, there’s absolutely no argument that there’s HUGE value in face to face collaboration. It boils down to defining the right project strategy.

Defining your project strategy. Projects come in all shapes and sizes - some as short as a few months in duration while others can span multiple years. Some projects involve small teams while others involve teams requiring buy-in from multiple business units, regionally distributed subject matter experts, cross organization stakeholders, and large numbers of sub-project teams. So we have to carefully map out our project communication strategy, including co-location at key points in the project.

Depending on the project duration it can often make sense to hold quarterly face to face project reviews especially during scoping, requirements definition, and knowledge transfer. These are great opportunities for team bonding, effective planning, and expectation setting. And some projects will require extensive knowledge transfer that should be scheduled in parallel with the other key milestones of the project. It also emphasizes the importance of defining clear roles and responsibilities, and providing plenty of lead time for customer project managers and stakeholders to garner the feedback required from different parts of the enterprise. So when we look at the overall shape of the project, the timeline, the priorities, the associated project risk, geographic distribution, etc., creating a co-location plan is an essential planning ingredient. Let’s look at an example.

Case study. We have run several multi-year engagements. These are special beasts in their own right. Teams can transition over time; requirements can morph and evolve. And when they are geographically distributed you encounter subtle cultural differences - all of which can be hard to pick up on a virtual team. One such community collaboration platform development project has been running for about 1.5 years and is likely to continue for a few more. It involves 17 globally distributed stakeholders and the exciting challenge of taking an old platform that failed, moving it to Drupal, and packing it full of reason for collaboration to spring eternal again. So the challenge is not just a technical one, but one of user experience and solution adoption.

The first month of the project was spent wisely on the road - meeting stakeholders and giving them a familiar trusted face to work with while mashing up their needs into a single yet flexible platform solution. From there the project went pretty much virtual on a day to day basis. Once planning and design was complete the 9 globally distributed development teams collaborated with an agile approach. Key project reviews were held quarterly. Stakeholders gathered to review progress, adoption, and ways to fine tune communication.

Our engagement and project managers play a key role in periodically finding face to face opportunities to meet with key stakeholders and build relationships. But most communication involves remote collaboration with a cadence that ensures quality and the visibility that allows us to course correct quickly if necessary. All projects have their moments, but we have found the key to our success has been employing folks that know how to foster collaboration, teamwork and and have a passion to deliver high-quality results. And in this case we’re right on track with a very satisfied customer. We’ve been able to draw on experts in specialty areas of Drupal no matter where they’re located while keeping project costs reasonable. As a result, our customers receive the best value and quality of service available. What does that tell you about the need for full time co-location?

Remaining flexible. As we all know the best laid plans often need to change. And no matter how well we plan our strategy, we need to be ready to change course and quickly react to changing circumstances. Building in contingency for unexpected or unplanned face to face gatherings is smart. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a good old face to face to hash out an issue or two. So while I argue that full time co-location is far from necessary; there’s nothing like building relationships face to face. Aren’t we great at solving the world’s problems over a beer?

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