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This post is from the CollabNet VersionOne blog and has not been updated since the original publish date.

Last Updated Sep 25, 2013 — Enterprise Agile Planning expert

The Agile Coach on Phone Zombies

Enterprise Agile Planning


Image credit: MiYung Youn

I lovingly refer to people in my own personal clan that spend way too much time on their smart phones as ‘Phone Zombies’. They seem ‘severed’ from the real world directly in front of them. Texting, apps, social media, news, weather, games, music, video, and the entire world wide web at their fingertips. Oh yeah, they tend to talk a lot on it too, as it is a phone afterall (although it still seems more like a walkie talkie to me).

What suffers with the ‘Phone Zombie’ is the face to face communication and personal interaction. When I’m sitting with a Phone Zombie, I’m thinking “Here we are, smack dab in front of one another, and you’re more interested in texting, updating your social media page, or playing a game than having a real conversation.” I see this a lot at restaurants. And before we get all high and mighty as the ‘adults’ here, this isn’t just something teenagers do. We adults are just as guilty, and are largely the ones that make up the teams that develop software.

This video below really reasonated with me…

I Forgot My Phone

When I see this type of behavior on an Agile team, I consider it a ‘smell’. And as an Agile Coach, it disturbs me when the smartphone (or any other device or tool for that matter) impedes effective communication on a team. There are so many ways to lose ourselves into this little device we carry with us every waking minute of the day. It’s personal. It’s cool. It’s interesting. It’s fun. It’s addictive. And it can, in fact, serve as a truly great communication tool. But when I’m on the clock, I try to use it to check only for urgent items that come across the wire. If it’s not an emergency (a tricky definition, I know), I try not to get distracted, although we all know that’s easier said than done. If I’m delivering a training course, for example, I might do a quick check of my emails over a break, and if I have time, respond to the more urgent ones in short order. Otherwise, I try to keep my attention and focus on the goal for that day.

And that’s the real issue here; attention, engagement, and focus.

While clearly one of the greatest inventions in our lifetime, I believe the smartphone has become, for some, an impediment to effective communication and getting work done. By the way, I’m still waiting for someone to raise this as such in a daily stand up meeting. The Principles behind the Agile Manifesto tell us that:

  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout a project.
  • We build projects around motivated individuals, giving them the environment and support they need, and trust to get the job done.
  • And the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face to face conversation.

Clearly, this all requires our attention, engagement, and focus. I suggest letting the team decide what’s the best use of mobile technology. This can be easily spelled out in the ‘Team Rules’ you create when starting any project. Accordingly, I do this at the beginning of all my Agile training classes, with the help of the students. I believe most folks appreciate it, as it acts as a reminder of the importance of what we’re talking about and gives them a certain ‘permission’ to focus on the project or task at hand. For example, the team may collectively decide that Twitter is a good tool and should be used to share with their followers what a great Agile instructor they have today, or something groundbreaking they just learned about writing good acceptance criteria. The only warning I would put out is that while someone may be tweeting that important message via their iPhone, they could also be missing something crucial to the conversation going on right in front of them.

I’ll leave the topics of ‘context switching’ and ‘active listening’ for another blog post, but they definitely apply here.

How has the smartphone affected your attention, engagement and focus?

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