Uncharted Waters

Jul 4 2016   8:32AM GMT

Agile and Introversion

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Office Setup

The software landscape has change, and somewhere along the way map designers messed things up for introverts.

I mean the literal landscape. Walk in a modern, with-it, software company and take a look around. Things are not like they were 10 years ago. Modern offices are built around forced, radical collaboration. The best examples of this are separate offices and cube farms being replaced by large rooms filled with long tables. Every one on the technical team now live and do their work in the same space.

This sounds like a productivity dream on the surface. Meetings disappear because everyone is already there, problems are solved fast because the people you need are just a table away. The reality is more like a dystopian future — noise, turf wars, and a general mess. Some people thrive on this, they like being around people and in the mix all of the time. Others though, people that are more introverted, tend to struggle because there is no refuge, nowhere to escape the constant murmur.

Let’s take a deeper look at why this new office topography may not last for every, and why it is hard for some people to work with.

I finally got around to reading the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain last month at the suggestion of a friend’s mother. Susan walks through several encounters with introverted people — students at the Harvard School of Business, communities of Asian people, a couple made of an extroverted man and an introverted woman, and a psychologist that does public speaking. Each of these people describe how they work through a world that tends to value loud personality and charisma more than quiet.


One of the more interesting parts of the book, for me, was Susan citing the work of Jerome Kagen. Kagen did studies over long periods of time that found correlations between people that are more sensitive to light, sound, and general stimulus, and introversion. In his study, kids that were less responsive to noise and light eventually went on to be extroverted adults.

Introverts in Software

The biggest exemplar I can think of for agile, is pairing, getting programmers or a tester and a programmer together at the same computer working on one problem till it is done and shippable. Some companies do this occasionally when the need arises, and some do constant pairing where no code makes it to production without having been worked on by a pair.

My personal experience has been hit and miss. I like pairing for short periods of time, an hour seems to be just right. Most of the time, when I extended the invitation to a (probably more introverted than me) programmer, they would say “yeah, sure” and then we would not always get around to it. The results when we were able to pair was varied. I worked with one friend that was on the chattier side of the spectrum. We would work together on and off for an hour at a time and go back and forth between finding and fixing problems. When I worked with people that were further toward the introverted side, pairing felt like stumbling and it was painful for both of us. Instead of feeding off of each others energy, every discovery slowed progress down. He needed time to think and digest new information and I kept shaking more onto the pile.

It wasn’t that we didn’t get along, he was actually one of my favorite people at that company, he just needs more space and time to think. One thing that did help was finding a quiet space to work or chat for a few minutes. There were no offices available at that company, but there was a front room with a table that did the trick.

In the words of Susan, solitude is a crucial ingredient for creativity. Modern offices might not need a complete redesign, facilitating group work is clearly important. But, giving a little breathing room — maybe one office dedicated to people that want to get away for a little bit, or allowing people to step out when they need some time to think — would go a long way to helping the quieter types bring out their ideas. I’d be surprised if anyone changes strategy or office design based on real information about where introverts and extroverts thrive. But, if you see productivity slipping away in an otherwise high functioning team, this might be a place to look.

4  Comments on this Post

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  • sully1609
    My experience is similar.  After two years working in an agile, open environment, I stopped going to stand-ups and even sprint planning.  I started focusing on selected, isolated conversations with co-workers, not as the norm, but the exception, like islands in a sea of quiet alone time.
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  • johnslaby
    When we talk about agile workspaces, we seem to focus on the open, collaborative part of the equation. But if you look at any of the excellent work done on agile workspaces, notably the work by Alistair Cockburn, it is a combination of what he calls 'caves' and 'commons'. Caves (small offices) for people to go when they need quite time to think or a private place to take care of personal business, and Commons, for the general open interactive environment. The focus has shifted to the collaborative environments because our work is knowledge work, and sharing is essential to be effective. To this end, introverts are being asked to move out of their comfort zone at least part of the time for the benefit of the organization. But there is a recognition that we need privacy as well. My experience has been that all too often the caves are lost because agile workspaces have become a convenient justification for footprint reduction, but those are not true agile workspaces, however they are labeled.
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  • sully1609
    Sorry, maybe I'm not being amenable to a viable solution here but I just can't fathom it.  I couldn't be any less annoyed by the prospect of having to leave my desk to seek out a quiet zone when I wanted to concentrate.  It would be like sucking all the air out the room (to conserve oxygen, no doubt) then asking me to go outside occasionally when I felt like taking a breath.  Again, this might be nothing more than me getting over the past trauma of working in a noisy, open environment for a sustained period of time; but I surely can't say that this experience makes me look forward to my next such project, should it have a similar environment.
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  • Justin Rohrman

    I'm not sure the argument is about comfort zones so much as creating an environment where employees can work effectively regardless of their temperament. Offices and teams of course can't be designed to satisfy every person that walks through their doors. But, in the commons and caves example you mention, the entire technical team lives in the commons and that is a drag for everyone.
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