Do the Google Hangout Hop

August 20, 2014 Simon Holroyd + static hangout links = quick feedback loops.

Quick feedback loops are core to the Pivotal process. Effective communication enables successful agile projects. Pairing, stand-ups, and retros are all designed to facilitate information exchange. But regular ad-hoc conversations between teammates are important too. Conversations should be short and frequent—Pivotal Labs advocates for teams to be co-located if possible for this very reason.

When teams must be remote, it’s common to rely on video chat tools for pairing and meetings. Pivots regularly use Google hangouts for video chat for these scheduled events. But often though the day a pair will encounter an unexpected problem or question that needs a quick consult from another team member.

These impromptu discussions are much more difficult when they require video conferencing setup. In person, one only needs to swivel a chair or tap on a shoulder. The remote equivalent is far more arduous.

Imagine your remote team working away chatting with their twin over headphones and suddenly one of those pesky questions pops up: would design be happy with this compromise to save on implementation? Should one pair embark on this larger refactoring or is it too early? Can we get some quick feedback on these designs from the product team?

What happens next for the pair with the question is a mess: get the attention of the question answerer, call them over physically to the pair’s local machine, unplug headphones so they can hear. Invariably this results in a few minutes of fumbling with microphone settings, followed by a very poor experience for the person who is not in the room as they struggle to hear or be heard in the conversation.

Add one or two more people to that conversation and it’s a disaster. Maybe we should get both offices into a conference room? Should we schedule a meeting? This was supposed to be a 2 minute chat…

As the laborious organic conversations became more frustrating, our team started to dread these interruptions. A team motivated to be less communicative with each other is in a dangerous place so we sought a better way.

After much iteration and a few consults with remote pair master, Joe Moore, we arrived at a very effective solution.

We already had a standing hangout link* for our daily standup meetings. Fumbling for the link in our calendars had naturally resulted in’ing the link for quick access. By extending this same idea to each pair on the team, we were able to create standing hangout links for:

Design pair:<project codename>-design
Product Manager pair:<project codename>-product>
Dev pair 1:<project codename>-<machine name>
Dev pair 2:<project codename>-<other machine name>

The result is a much more natural mapping of hangout rooms to physical spaces. And a huge reduction in logistics time needed for quick chats. Now the process looks something like this:

1. Discover a question/conversation that needs a teammate’s involvement

2. Ping that person on HipChat or make eye contact

3. Tell them which room you’re in: “Join the design hangout” or the “We’re in DevMachine” (Our machines all have friendly names clearly printed on their monitors)

4. Have the chat, answer your question, then switch right back to your regularly scheduled hangout.

Enjoy those tight feedback loops!

* Set up a standing hangout link by creating a calendar event with a video chat for a long time in the future. The hangout link will be active immediately and available for a very long time.

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