Richness versus Recall

Alistair Cockburn presents an interesting insight in his presentation “I come to bury Agile, not praise it.”  On slide 12, he presents the richness of the communication channel as an important part to getting information across.  Surely, you’ve experienced this yourself with a never ending chain of back and forth emails that were quickly resolved with a single 1 minute phone call to clarify.

Therefore, it makes enormous sense to replace communication of low richness with communication of high richness, right?  Well, I’m not sure it’s that black and white.  In order to use information effectively, you not only have to be able to communicate it, but also to recall it when you need to use it again.

For example, you sit down and have a conversation with the user and then turn around to write some code.  The ability to translate what the user asked for into code depends not only on having the conversation but remembering all the details of the conversation correctly.

So, do you have an Eidetic memory?  Probably not.  How long can you accurately recall a conversation?  Long enough to turn it into code faithfully?  Probably not as well.  You can probably remember the nominal case, but what about all the exception handling you discussed?

Now, I’m not saying you should communicate via email or paper only since that’s clearly silly, but on the other extreme, you probably shouldn’t communicate orally only as well.  Indeed, merging the face to face conversation with documentation helps manage both the completeness of conversation and ability to recollect details when you need it.

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