Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky to be a part of different organisations all trying build a delivery culture at scale. And it might surprise you that my favourite example of making that work remains HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
Back in the early days of 2015, HMRC’s two locations — in London and Newcastle — didn’t have as much in common as they should have. Different working cultures, different agile maturity.
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.
If you wanted to know anything about government, tax and digital services, you could see it right in front of you.
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.