When a complex project is being achieved, across many teams, what do you hear (and see)? "The quiet buzz of the floor"


Exactly how people relate to each other as they work or act together, in communities or organisations, taking on a huge agreed task - say, a zero-carbon town, or bringing automation to the human scale - is of great interest to us.

In our "collaboratories”, with their “friendly” and “inquiry” stages, leading up to something called a “Citizens Action Network”, we’re trying to imagine the mood and the space in which communities feel their own power, and then act to make their visions concrete.

We talk to many people - like Loomio, or the Open Coop events, or CtrlShift, or Holochain, or Ouishare - who have shared with us their explorations into organisations that get things done, but on the basis of complex input from those acting or working within them.

What does the experience of this feel like? And what are the conditions that make it possible? We found an eloquent account of what this might be from the interaction designer Andrew Travers, who seems to be an advocate of the “agile” method of building software, defined by Wikipedia as:

…evolving through the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams and their customer(s)/end user(s). It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement. It also encourages rapid and flexible response to change.

Travers’ blog recalls his days in HMRC, the UK’s tax service, building a new internal and external digital infrastructure in their London and Newcastle offices. He describes when such agility is going well:

Not everything was right back then, but what those locations had in common was critical: row after row of delivery teams, all sharing the same space, and a quiet buzz of delivery. The floor.

…Designers sat elbow-to-elbow beside delivery managers, business analysts and user researchers, developers and product owners. In London in particular, teams were hunched over laptops around thrown-together desks and mismatched chairs.

There were few home comforts: the lighting terrible, the heating erratic, the toilets unspeakable, but the place had an energy I’ve missed since.

In all the time I’d been working around agile teams before that point – this, in my head, was what it was meant to look like.

Although to an outsider’s eye, there’s sometimes an air of lightly organised chaos, the close proximity of teammates is critical in making collaborative working not just desirable but inevitable. This isn’t a team making itself comfortable, it’s readying itself to deliver.

There’s a point in the maturing of an agile organisation where let’s-put-the-show-on-right-here spontaneity isn’t enough, and something more thought through is needed, to build on what’s already good and deliver it at scale.

And that’s when having the floor really matters. Teams scattered around buildings tend to isolate what’s good, relationships can’t form, it’s easier for struggling teams to suffer in silence, there’s a loss of common purpose. 

Physical environment matters as much as location.

When teams share a floor, you very quickly get a sense of how well they are working. It’s not too hard to see when a team is struggling and heads are down: agile by rote, not conviction. It’s easier to feel the teams where the energy is high, the momentum real.

And it’s easier for these teams to support each other, easier to share. Show and tells become more accessible, communal events – a thing for everyone can learn from. Walls share the thinking, serendipitous conversations in the kitchen unexpectedly solve problems. 

At its best, the floor sustains itself. It becomes a community.

More here. What can the establishment of a “floor”, with this sensibility and feel of a complex community, teach us about how best to mobilise and motivate people in civil society? What would a good “floor” look like to you? And have you ever experienced the same?