SPA Conference session: Comic Communication and Collaboration

One-line description:Discover and reflect on problems created and opportunities provided by various restrictions on communication in a collaborative team environment.
Session format: Simulation (75 mins) [read about the different session types]
Abstract:Alistair Cockburn and others have reported on the varying effectiveness of
various forms of communication and the importance of communication in the
success of a software project (see,+first-order+components+in+software+development).
These communcation variations are usually discussed in terms of the
limitations imposed upon two parties who are trying to reach a
common understanding of some piece of design work. As characteristics of
communication are lost, such as vocal inflections, quick question and
answer cycles, shared culture, and so on, the quality and quantity of
a group's output declines.

Although many software practitioners know and accept the effects of these
communication difficulties, we often get little chance to experience the
difference that small changes in communication can have on the cohesiveness
of a team and the quality of their work. This session provides a way to try
out these variations in a controlled environment and reflect on the effect
they have on our ability to work.

Participants will work together in small groups of around three or four
under time and communication constraints to complete a creative task. The
task involves completing a comic strip in which the group is provided with
a starting point (a single panel from which to start) and a goal (the final
panel of the strip). The group needs to work together to create a series of
panels that completes a story of the group's devising and connects the
starting panel to the goal panel. As this is not an exercise in artistic
ability the comic strips will be simple stick figure drawings much like
those used in the online comic XKCD (

The groups will all be working under communication constraints that attempt
to model those possibly encountered in the real world. Constraints will
range from only being communication via small written notes (to simulate
teams that can only communicate via email) to one-way communication from a
controlling member of the team (to simulate siloed teams with a single
point of control). Each group will be given the chance to try each
variation of communication. After each round of work the groups will come
back together to hold a common retrospective and discuss their experience
and the comic strip they were able to produce, or not able to produce as
the case may be.
Audience background:No particular background required; however, those from a project management
or team lead background may find the session the most interesting.
Participants should be open to creative thinking and drawing stick figures.
Benefits of participating:Appreciation of the effects of limited communication when trying to achieve
a goal. The session will provide a simulated experience of various patterns
of communication in software development teams. Participants will be able
to better understand the tradeoffs found in various communication
circumstances they may find themselves in.
Materials provided:Scratch paper, pens and markers, comic strip panels, adhesive for
placing paper on walls.
Process:The session will start with the presenters explaining what they hope to get
out of the session (a better understanding of how people communicate with
each other). They will then explain the communication structures selected
for simulation and what these structures are modelling from the real world.
The process that will be used for the session is then explained and any
questions from the participants will be answered.

The participants are next split into groups of three to four. Each group is
assigned one of the communication structures and a starting and ending
comic panel. The groups are given five minutes to work on completing the
comic strip. After the five minutes have passed the groups are brought
together for a retrospective. This process is repeated four times so that
each participant has an opportunity to try each communication method.
Detailed timetable:00:00-00:10 Intro
00:10-00:15 Splitting into groups
00:15-00:20 Round 1
00:20-00:25 Retro
00:25-00:30 Retro/Split
00:30-00:35 Round 2
00:35-00:40 Retro
00:40-00:45 Retro/Break
00:45-00:50 Break/Split
00:50-00:55 Round 3
00:55-01:00 Retro
01:00-01:05 Retro/Split
01:05-01:10 Round 4
01:10-01:15 Retro/Closing
Outputs:The comic strips that are created will be put together into a poster that
will be displayed at the conference. Each comic will be labeled with which
round it was in and what team conditions it was created under. This will
provide an opportunity for other conference participants to see differences
in the work artifacts caused by different restrictions on communication.
1. Andrew Parker
2. Tom Denley
3. Ryan Alexander