War Room and Their Proper Place

posted on 06/26/08 at 08:00:00 pm by Joel Ross

WarRoomThe other day, Matt Blodgett made a few comments about War Rooms, wondering whether they were actually helpful, or if they did more harm than good. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I work with Matt at RCM, so I have some background on what he's been up to. His project team has been holed up in a room for a few months now. It seems like every time I'm in the office, I see members from his team bringing in supplies (read caffeine, usually in the form of pop - or soda for you southerners!). I stopped by the office on a Saturday, and a subset of the team was there - they're always in there!

Anyway, I piped up that War Rooms, when used in moderation, can be extremely useful.

Let's back up for a second and look at what a War Room is. I haven't heard the term "War Room" thrown around in software development that much, but we use them a LOT at RCM. So I decided to do a bit of research and see what it means and where it came from. Here's how Dictionary.com defines War Room:

1. a room at a military headquarters in which strategy is planned and current battle situations are monitored.
2. any room of similar function, as in a civilian or business organization.

War Rooms got their start, not surprisingly, in the military. I picture a typical War Room as a group of Generals sitting around a table with each getting information fed to them from the field. Then they share that information with each other, and form a high level strategy that gets sent out to the field to be implemented. The field teams implement the new plan, and report back on progress. The process is repeated, until the war is either won or lost.

RCM is not a military organization, so we're not trying to win any wars. We fall under the second definition, and for us a war room is a room in which strategy is planned and current situations are monitored. Or at least that's the intent is.

In reality, War Rooms, for us anyway, have been used as a place for developers to all work in the same room, so that communication is easier. That sounds good, but in reality, it becomes a distraction, because any major debate results in pulling the whole team into the discussion. Those rarely end well. The discussion usually pits two of the development leaders against each other, and, under normal circumstances, they would work out their differences and present a unified front to the team. When the disagreement is public and in front of the whole team, it makes backing down more difficult. Saving face becomes the priority rather than finding the Right Solution. And no matter what the outcome, the team loses faith in their leadership, because of it's perceived fracturing at the top.

I've been on a couple of projects that have effectively used War Rooms. When they're used correctly, they can have a huge benefit. Some research suggests they can double efficiency. But constantly holing up in a room for months at a time doesn't seem like the best way to me. What we've done is move people's desks to a certain area of the office, so the whole team can be close, but not necessarily stuck sitting around a table. The room is reserved for what a War Room was intended - strategic planning and tactical discussions. We use it to flesh out our plan for the next iteration - high level design with just the parties that need to be involved. Tasks are assigned and then everyone disburses back to their desk to actually do the work. We meet up weekly to sync on tasks and more often if needed for a particular component.

Besides weekly meetings, about the only time the whole team actually gets together in the War Room is after we're pretty much functionally complete for an iteration. Those typically involve lots of back and forth between sub-teams and the QA team. Because of the rapid nature that issues are found and fixed at that point, it's imperative that we're able to work close together. Because the stints are usually short - 2 or 3 days at the most - people don't get burned out being in there, and we usually get a lot accomplished while having a good deal of fun. The free lunches don't hurt either!

The best arrangement for a physical team structure is to have the War Room close to the team's desks. That way, you can quickly get in there, and if the room is dedicated to your team, you don't have to worry about it being used - even if the room sits empty sometimes. It's more difficult if the room is physically separated from your team's desk area, but still workable. Back in the Sagestone days, we had at least one conference room physically close to desks, and we would move teams to that area while the project was going on. At RCM, we don't have conference rooms close to the cube farm, so it makes it more difficult, but we still can move desks to get teams closer, and that definitely helps.

Anyway, I definitely see the value in War Rooms - but I think they are much more effective when used in moderation.

War Room photo courtesy of John Beagle

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Categories: Consulting, Development, Software