Collaboration cues from successful mobile development teams

“Under the right conditions, large teams can achieve high levels of cooperation, but creating those conditions requires thoughtful, and sometimes significant, investments in the capacity for collaboration across the organization.” – Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson, Harvard Business Review

Earlier this year, I blogged about agile and how my team at IBM has been experimenting with new ways of working together, including (but not limited to) scrum meetings and rapid iteration of our project deliverables. Traditionally viewed in the context of software development, agile methodologies have demonstrated a track record of success, and practitioners are rolling them out across a number of functional areas such as marketing. Over time, my initial exploration has led to numerous conversations about agile initiatives with colleagues across IBM as well as opportunities for discourse with students at NYU and Columbia, and I am excited to see interest in the topic continue to grow.

While many teams are already working with agile or know that it may be able to help them, our IBM Center for Applied Insights (@IBMCAI) recently conducted a study on mobile application development that sheds some new light into this topic. Mobile development teams are under tremendous pressure today, as Gartner predicts that market demand for enterprise mobile app development services will be five times greater than organizations’ ability to supply enough capacity. Understandably, many projects fail to achieve success in this kind of high-pressure environment. Some star teams are able to distinguish themselves, however, as the Center’s researchers determined through a survey of 585 developers and development managers from around the world. Key differentiating factors included having a strong team with the right expertise, flexibility through cloud-based platforms and APIs, collaboration across the ecosystem, and innovation through analytics.

This post will focus on the third pillar, collaboration.

What is collaboration?

“With voice mail, videoconferencing, instant messaging, chat forums, blogs, wikis, social networking, microblogging (through services such as Twitter and Foursquare), voice-over-IP, telepresence, and, of course, mobile communications and computing, never have we had so many ways to collaborate without having to be in the same place at the same time.” – Jeffrey Rayport, Technology Review

“The performance of most organizations hinges increasingly on how rapidly people can share and act upon critical information.” – Samuel Greengard, BizTech Magazine

Collaboration is, more formally, a practice in which individuals work together toward a common purpose and a desired business benefit. On the technical side, IBM Lotus Notes was actually one of the players that brought tools for collaboration to the corporate market when business use of the Internet was still nascent. Fast forward to today and collaboration tools have proliferated widely, offering varying degrees of specialization for different types of projects. For example, I spoke to a team that utilizes, a virtual cloud-based tool that promotes collaboration and prioritization of work for remote teams by visually collecting and organizing thoughts and ideas. As a distributed group that might otherwise rely on exchanging an overwhelming number of emails back and forth, they were highly enthusiastic about its ability to emulate a whiteboard for simpler idea sharing.

Example of a experience map (Source: blog)

Experience map

Collaboration practices have implications for organizational change, too. One of the major principles of agile, according to IBM Global Managing Partner for Business Analytics & Strategy, Shanker Ramamurthy, is to “encourage self-direction for teams to unleash innovation, instead of concentrating leadership in the hands of a select few.” I think that agile collaboration can empower employees to become “intrapreneurs” with leeway to truly experiment with new ideas, knowing that teamwork, constructive feedback and failure are natural parts of the process (while bottlenecks from going through a large amount of organizational “red tape” are hopefully not). I have also found these principles especially valuable – even liberating – as a worker in the enterprise technology field since our world is changing so rapidly.

Survey says

According to the Center’s mobile development study, successful projects maintain close collaboration across the entire ecosystem, from designers to QA to end users. While study participants as a whole said the number one trait of effective mobile application developers is the ability to collaborate with others outside the core team, there is a nuance – those on successful projects also reported closer collaboration with key constituents, namely business stakeholders and end users.

Subject matter experts are important too – for instance, 51 percent of successful mobile application development projects involved security and privacy experts throughout the development process, versus 31 percent who involved those experts only when an issue arose.

Source: IBM Center for Applied Insights, “Star qualities: What it takes for mobile development projects to succeed”

Finally, three-fourths of successful projects in this study collaborated using agile methodologies.

At first glance, some of these findings may sound intuitive – certainly, it does make sense for teams to obtain regular buy-in from their clients and expert networks. However, this is sometimes easier said than done. Companies’ needs are changing, often becoming more sophisticated and outcome-based as they hone their focus on engagement with their end customers amid a competitive landscape. And some clients don’t know what they want since these kinds of projects are completely new territory. Agile practices also face some misconceptions, as the Dilbert cartoon below humorously indicates:


While not part of the Center’s study, a team that I spoke to recently has been working to help its client build a state of the art mobile website experience for its banking customers, and provides a good, quick illustration of collaboration in practice.

First, the delivery leads approached the project by building 18 agile scrum teams that would execute the work in manageable segments in three-week sprints over multiple releases. The program also used Agile Process and Agile Engineering Coaches to work hands-on with the teams.

Secondly, the teams demoed their progress every week to product owners and key stakeholders.

Some key features of the teams:

  • Scrum teams were composed of people with different skills that were sufficient to deliver customer-visible, end-user value in each sprint
  • Scrum teams were empowered to make decisions and take actions required to deliver business value
  • During a sprint, teams should be able to work independently in isolation (non-overlapping functionality with clearly defined integration points, if required)
  • The scrum team is 100 percent focused on scrum, participates in Sprint Planning by volunteering for tasks and committing to estimates, and delivering to its commitments
The team configuration (source: IBM)

The impact? The team was able to develop a user-friendly, seamless and enjoyable new mobile experience for customers. The client will also have a repeatable software-building capacity in its organization as well as scaled agile capabilities for future projects.

The new collaborative environment

“Agile requires a different type of space…a space that lives and breathes as a project evolves.” – Shanker Ramamurthy

“I find continually and repeatedly (sometimes to myself, sometimes out loud) asking ‘What are we / am I really trying to accomplish here?’ beneficial to a renewed sense of focus and the ability to cut through the detritus that can bog each of us down.” – Janni Cone, Strategist, Transformation & Operations, IBM

The shift to agile requires that we as employees take a disciplined approach to envisioning our desired project outcomes, iterate rapidly to achieve them, and navigate complex situations with speed and clarity. It means learning new skills and working together much more closely than some of us may be accustomed to, including with key stakeholders. This is an exciting opportunity to build relationships and focus our energies on what really matters.

One of the ways that IBM is helping to facilitate agile principles is through the development of workspaces designed for agile – spaces that stimulate the flow of ideas, encourage collaboration and integrate technology for improved interaction with globally dispersed teams. They are fun and fluid areas that can support projects as they ramp-up, grow and evolve, with features such as movable walls, private spaces for focused tasks, informal meeting areas and large open spaces for team interactions. Having worked with quite a few different types of collaborative tools and workspaces during my career, I am very interested to see how the thinking around collaboration and best practices continues to evolve.


Interested in boosting your own team’s collaboration through agile practices? Here are some suggestions to get started:

  1. Get together to discuss an agile article or book from the Agile Alliance or another similar resource.
  2. Print and post the Agile Manifesto in your office.
  3. Adjust your workspace to encourage agile practices, for example, creating flexible spaces and leveraging video conferencing tools such as Skype.
  4. Develop a team Working Agreement.
  5. Think of ways to work together rather than separately / individually.
  6. Run a meeting using an agile practice, such as daily stand-ups or retrospectives.
  7. Assess all team projects; prioritize your backlog.
  8. Organize a project into sprints or two-week goals that build on each other. Discuss how to achieve the goals in those increments.
  9. Inspect the outcomes of collaborating cross-functionally.
  10. Adapt and revise the ways in which you collaborate.

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  1. […] One differentiator was that on successful projects, development teams were more likely to collaborate closely with the entire ecosystem throughout the project lifecycle, including quality assurance (QA), interaction designers, user experience experts, IT operations, business stakeholders and end users. In addition, three-fourths of successful projects collaborated using agile software development methods. […]