Coordination theory is one of the theories that are used to explain the application of agile methods in the management of projects. The theory was developed by Thomas Malone and Kevin Crowston in 1994 (Crowston et al., 2004). The central concept in this theory is coordination, which is defined as the management of dependencies between activities. The theory suggests that in order to manage a task that has multiple interdependencies effectively, coordination is necessary. Most social systems have some kind of dependency and projects are not any different.
Projects are characterized by diverse actors including the project owners, customers, financiers, the project managers, project team, and regulators (Strode, 2012). The project team also comprises of diverse individuals with different professional and cultural background performing interdependent tasks. These individuals also share resources such as space, equipment, information, system functionality, and finances. These features of projects create interdependencies, which refer to situations where the progress of one tasks depends on the timely completion of the previous task. The coordination theory asserts that one of the central goals of project management is to address interdependency in manner that leads to the realization of project goals (Hole, 2008). It emphasizes the need to understand and manage the motivation, incentives, and emotions of the actors involved in the project.
The theory also emphasizes the need to differentiate coordination activities from production activities. Production activities refer to tasks that have a direct impact on project goals such as laying the foundation in a construction project (Malone & Crowston, 1994). On the other hand, coordination activities refer to actions that seek to manage interdependencies such as communication and computing. Project managers can use different methodologies to manage interdependencies (coordination). The difference between agile methodology and the traditional waterfall methodology is found in the way coordination is realized.
The agile methodology emphasizes a flexible approach of managing producer-user interdependency where project users/ customers are actively involved in the projects so as they can clarify requirements as the project progresses (Hole, 2008). The project team and project users engage in regular and intensive interactions throughout the project where information is shared and requirements are negotiated. In the waterfall method, requirements are gathered at the initial stages of the projects and strict control mechanisms are initiated to prevent deviation from these requirements. The agile method also seeks to manage dependencies by decomposing the project into decoupled parts or phases with clearly defined interfaces.
Each phase of the project is planned and implemented separately from other phases. Another practice that is emphasized in the agile approach entails the use of small autonomous teams in order to minimize differences in interest and motivation making it easy for the team to work together (Strode, 2012). The use of small teams also enhances communication, trust, group information processing, and cohesion between actors resulting in enhanced coordination. The agile approach also calls for rapid execution of task so as to minimize the impact of changes in the external environment on the project. It also seeks to minimize information overload by directing information to only those who need it and minimizing documentation (Hole, 2008). The agile approach also emphasizes the use of cooperative work tools such as meetings, workshops, videoconferences, and social media among others.
Crowston, K., Rubleske, J., & Howison, J. (2004). Coordination theory: A ten-year retrospective. Management Information System, 11 (3), 1-37.
Hole, S. (2008). A case study of coordination on distributed agile software development. Paper presented to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Malone, T., & Crowston, K. (1994). The interdisciplinary study of coordination. ACM Computing Surveys, 26 (1), 87-119.
Strode, D. (2012). A theory of coordination in agile software development projects. Paper presented to Victoria University of Wellington.