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Agility Requires Clear Communication

The topic of communication has become a bit of an irritant lately.  Certainly I’m not the best communicator in the world, so I work at it.  I’m starting to wonder if many others have forgotten this key to productivity and enjoyment.  I have many thoughts on this subject.  Today I’ll address communication as an enterprise function.

Context

If Agile is about people, it’s surely about communication.  Let’s start by looking at a few things we know about communication:

  • Some say human communication is only 7% words while the remaining 93% is verbal and visual (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Mehrabian).  While some might argue the exact ratio, I agree that face-to-face communication is by far the best way to share information and create.
  • The ability to grasp abstract subjects and invent is severely damaged by context switches and distractions.
  • Understanding the history and context of a subject increases the ability to be productive in that subject.
  • Any change in the membership of a group (team) will disrupt the relationships and communication paths of the group.  It will take time to reestablish the previous levels of efficiency.
  • Any person highly experienced in a general skill area will need to learn the basics of any specific situation before they can be fully productive in that specific situation.

Almost anyone would find the above statements as reasonable, even intuitive.  And yet, point by point, common real life situations continue every day:

  • Work environments are designed such that the use of anything more than email, instant messaging and documents very difficult, if not impossible.  IT policies and work requirements force dependency on only words and eliminate the rich audio and visual channels we naturally know.
  • Day after day we are required to change projects, product focus and attention.  Some engineers I know have as many as 12 or more projects to keep in the air.  Details are lost in the context switches.
  • Developers and other workers are thrown into projects with no information about the purpose of the work, the roles of the people involved or the value of the product.  Instead of listening and building the confusion of purpose reigns.
  • Individuals are “resources” to be plugged in and out of “teams” at will and whim.  Long term relationships with shared experiences building high communication connections never happen.
  • Questions about basic information are met with chastisements from peers and managers.  For some reason people are expected to know already without any training or orientation.  People learn to not ask questions.

Innovation Sabotage

Pushing people into situations of poor communication, severing communication paths and obfuscating information will not produce real innovation.  Working harder and longer will not make up for the damage.

I’ve attended meetings where top executives tout technology and projects that will propel the company to new heights of profitability.  They point out the places in the plan where differentiating innovation will be created.  Difficult problems will be solved to create the products and success that will come.

And, the company does not allow the use of internet video conferencing.  And defines projects based on “resource” skills without regard to geographic location.  And has key projects running with no defined structure or governance models.  And considers “fire fighting” just the way the industry works.  And requires heavy sign off processes by people who don’t know what they are approving.

Many times the disconnect is both huge and invisible to the executives and even the people working under fog and confusion.

Agile Means Transparency

To be Agile means communication about everything.  Finding ways to easily share everything such that when data is needed, it is readily discovered.

  • Don’t eliminate up to 93% of human communication capability, enhance it.  Put teams in their own rooms, not cubes or offices.  Design product development structures to support co-location instead of distribution of people.
  • Give teams goals that don’t change all the time and members that are dedicated to the team, not split multiple ways.
  • Explicitly define and publish team structures.  Allow new people to be trained on products and processes before they are required to be fully productive.  Organize the information in radiators that passively keep people in the know. Give people time to learn them.
  • Projects and products come and go.  Teams should not.  Allow deep relationships to form and cultivate over time from project to project.  Soon you’ll have teams that can do anything you throw at them.
  • Basic questions should be welcomed and the answers immediately available.

People Problem, People Solution

Every problem is a people problem.  Every single one.  Ask people to solve the problems.  If you are a manager, business owner, vice president, you are the creator of the work environment.  Don’t forget the people and people attributes.  The power of people allowed to communicate fully is far beyond any technology or process.  “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is not just some feel-good mantra.  It is what we need to solve our problems and innovate!

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3 Responses to “Agility Requires Clear Communication”

  1. Alex Forbes March 3, 2011 at 3:44 PM # Reply

    Agree with 99.99 % of this, and it may only be splitting hairs over the final .01. But the statement:

    ”Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is not just some feel-good mantra. It is what we need to solve our problems and innovate!”

    To me should read: “Individuals and interactions can be enhanced with the right processes and tools.” There is some good tool innovation in the market that many teams appreciate to help communicate and collaborate, even improve resource allocation, especially when they don’t share the same office walls. “over” is just too strong a statement for me.

    Otherwise, great read.

    Alex

    • dayleyagile March 3, 2011 at 7:28 PM # Reply

      Alex.

      I agree that the right use of excellent processes tools can enhance communication. I would say your statement still puts the emphasis on the processes and tools, which I do not agree with. Let me explain.

      Nearly every team I have worked with that only used sticky notes, index cards, markers and tape to enhance their communication learned faster, gelled sooner and improved more rapidly than teams using any computerized tool. This is because basic tools such as these play on the strengths of human communication DNA and history. The tangible touch, visual information and natural use accelerates a team. Fancy tools and processes designed to eliminate mistakes require humans to communicate in abstract and remove flexibility.

      “Over” does not mean “instead of.” As the Agile manifesto states, processes and tools have value. They just should not be the first avenue of response when attempting to solve performance problems. If it helps, reword it as “Individuals and interactions before processes and tools.” That means look to individuals and interactions to solve problems and create solutions before looking at process and tooling.

      I’m certainly not against processes and tools. Scrum itself is a process framework and a tool to build great stuff. Just choose wisely and look at the possible negative side effects of a new process or tool instead of blindly expecting only benefits.

  2. Alex Forbes March 4, 2011 at 7:35 AM # Reply

    Much clearer. Thank you.

    You may appreciate this article about white boards:

    http://www.softwarequalityconnection.com/2011/01/informative-workspaces-using-white-boards-to-increase-productivity-and-build-trust/

    I forget who said it, but it went something like, “a picture of your Agile whiteboard is not an audit trail. Enterprise Agile needs an enterprise tool.”

    Best,
    Alex

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