Why There are Competing Priorities in ‘Agile’ Cultures

Written by Simon Gibbs

On September 3, 2019

Scrum is a project management method from the Agile school of thought. As you are in the interiors industry you have probably heard the word agile used already, but this agile is a different agile and the two agiles can create conflicting priorities.

Let’s explore these priorities and perhaps we’ll find we can diffuse tensions on your next refurbishment project.

Scrum is the most popular agile method. Briefly, it has been around since 1995 and actually predates Agile by about six years. It has achieved a large user-base in project teams.

For clients with a software delivery department of any size, uptake of Scrum will be about 40%. Another 10% will be doing another kind of Agile, such as Kanban or XP.

Agile is especially popular in modern online businesses but is spreading beyond software. Since agile ideas are well established, it has a strong claim to legitimacy in any debate over office features.

The two schools of ‘agile’ differ on what they focus on.

Interiors people help businesses to be agile by letting them move people to the best places to do their work. They work to optimise spaces.

Project people help businesses to be agile by moving the work to the most appropriate team. They work to optimise teams.

These goals needn’t always be in conflict, but tensions arise because, in projects, the agile culture values individual interactions more highly than every other aspect of their work style. Face to face is seen as the best way for individuals to interact.

The gold standard is a stable team located together near to their customers and collaborating using paper tools attached to a whiteboard. Advanced setups will likely add large video display screen equipment to the mix.

These requirements conflict with a definitive principle of the agile office, that desks should not be permanently assigned. Getting whiteboards and displays set up for an audience that is moving freely around a space seems like a contradiction.


Collocation is highly valued because continuous communication is needed to maximise decision making and problem-solving. Team members will talk about trust, familiarity, and about tight feedback loops.

They will want to tailor their environment by creating displays on walls using appropriate stationery. They will want to meet in front of those walls to discuss the work visualised there. They will refer to the wall displays frequently during the day as they collaborate on the work.

The emphasis is on bringing more minds to work on each problem and removing barriers to communication. Barriers such as finding where someone is sat, switching on a video call system etc, are identified as distractions and avoided. Remote working and hot-desking are both done but are both also avoided much of the time.

Stable Teams

The focus on collaboration has an interesting corollary for agile software teams. Traditional projects often require the setup of a project team, which is planned to eventually be shut down when the project is completed.

A popular optimisation in agile projects is to keep the team set up for periods longer than a single project and fit the work packages to the available teams.

This means that agile is no longer strictly a project management method at all, but rather a method for managing continuous streams of complex empirical work. Scrum itself can be viewed as a continuous stream of tiny projects.

An advantage is that people are no longer being pulled here and there to work on different projects but build a focus instead on some specific category of work. For an e-commerce business, for example, this might be catalogue pages, user management, the checkout procedure, SEO, order fulfilment, etc. The team will build deep expertise and strong collaborative relationships in the business area they focus on.

These stable teams, if collocated, are less amenable to changing desks on a daily basis, but that does not mean change doesn’t happen.

Cross over

There are areas where agile project management styles and agile office styles seem to be aligned.

The most obvious is meetings. In the Scrum method full team meetings are mandated to happen twice monthly, or perhaps as often as three times a week. Smaller mandatory meetings occur daily or sometimes twice daily, usually at the whiteboard. These stable collocated teams are walking about fairly often for high-value mandatory meetings.

There is an obvious opportunity for interior designers who are willing to learn about and support these meeting patterns. For example, solutions like the Hotbox 1 enable the stationery to flow with the team. During refurbishment efforts, or as teams move into new spaces, avoiding problems for these key meeting requirements is good customer service.

Pair Programming is a practice from XP (eXtreme Programming), another long-established set of technical working practices which is considered part of the agile school of thought. Pair Programming (or pairing) is when programmers sit at one computer to do computer programming, or similar work, together.

This can happen for set purposes and short durations, or continuously every day. How much pairing is done is dependent on the organisation and the personalities of the team members.

Pairing requires a sympathetic physical environment including good input and output devices and extra desk space. Also, since rotation of pairing partners is actively encouraged it can mean seating schemes begin to resemble a form of very structured hot desking. Anything that helps a programmer to move desk will be of interest.

Dynamic Reteaming is a newer practice that is being talked about on the agile conference circuit in 2019 although it has also been observed in some form in 2007. This principle recognises the value of long-lived teams but finds that there are reasons to refresh team composition from time to time.

Sometimes this might be to simply shake things up and avoid stagnation, or it may be an effort to manage the spread of knowledge and skills or adapt to changing circumstances. This can happen wholesale, with computers rolling about on wheels in every direction, or piecemeal with only certain individuals moving. This is an area agile office companies should be seeking to support.

So, we have seen that agile and agile do not align perfectly. They want to make organisations more responsive to market conditions by enabling agile changes to different aspects of the organisation, but they recommend optimisations that are somewhat contradictory.

There are also opportunities where agile solutions from the interiors school of thought can be recommended for reasons of sound agile project management or technical best-practice.

We would be delighted to help anyone from the interiors or architecture industry supporting Scrum users. We will be able to put you in touch with experts from our network of coaches and consultants.

Agile Stationery make paper tools for agile teams of every kind. Support your next client’s move-in day with a Scrum Team Kit, available to buy from Hotbox.