Getting your teams to communicate effectively

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Lets be honest here. For a very long time, if I had to choose between an averagely skilled but well-spoken developer and a very skilled and experienced introvert, I would probably choose the first. And yes, I do realize that these are two extremes and that most people have characteristics of both. So please don’t flame me for saying this. Nonetheless, I (still) believe that multi-disciplinary agile teams need to foster open communication. In such a setting, you just can't work in isolation that long. XP practices like pair programming and swarming on stories is the common thing people do.

Consequently, having somebody in the team that has difficulty expressing him or herself in Dutch or English can be considered as a impediment. But before I'm going to talk in solutions, let me share some of the symptoms I've observed first hand.

Communication Impediments

I think many experienced scrum masters will recognize this, but when I was still part of a Scrum team, we regularly had retrospective and sprint demos. Somehow, the same people were either always speaking or always silent. Even tricks like brain storming using post-its and dot voting didn’t seem to give the result we were hoping for. Some of the more quieter persons simply didn’t participate. If you would be really lucky, those guys would send you an email with their feedback afterwards.

Another issue I've seen happening in multiple teams is developers shutting themselves off by using headphones. I don't really mind headphones and I understand that some people simply don't switch their attention that easily. But in my experience, the people that do tend to wear headphones, are also the people that are least involved in team discussions. I've noticed several situations in which some team members were discussing a certain topic in an ad-hoc fashion with the guy wearing headphones completely oblivious of this. Sure, the guys in the discussion could have asked the headphones guy to get involved, but they might not think he or she would have anything to add or they simply don't want to disturb him or her. Either way, unless the headphones guy is very perceptive of what's happening around him, I would recommend against headphones at all.

I myself am very sensitive to people that don't share their progress pro-actively. It might be my tendency for over-understanding what's going on, but somehow I tend to have more trust issues with people working from home if they don't actively share what they are doing. In my opinion, it should not matter whether you're working from home or at the office. The difference is that your team can't tap you on your shoulder if they need you, so you need to compensate for that.

A final impediment that I've observed first-hand is that developers that have difficulty expressing themselves are often overruled by product owners, business people or more senior developers, even though their point is very valid. For the bigger part of my career I would treat people like that as irrelevant and kind of walked over them. I've even been reprimanded for that at some point. However, over time I've learned that giving them more room to make their point can result in much better solutions in the long run. And not only that, it will most definitely improve your professional relationship. However, not everybody is aware of this or has the patience to give the other guy some slack. Hey, even with this knowledge, I still have days I simply can't make myself patient enough. So in a way, I still see this as an impediment for effective collaboration.

Based on these experiences, you might be tempted to take the easy road and only select developers with great communication skills. But over the last year or so I've learned that some colleagues just need a different means of communication. It might require a bit of patience, but if do give them room enough, they might surprise you with great solutions, ideas and feedback. They sure managed to surprise me on more than one occasion. In retrospective, I was just plain wrong in my assumptions. In fact, my wrongness was the primary reason for writing this post in the first place.

Tips that can help

Now that I've cleared the air, let's see what you can do to improve on this.

  • Use a chat tool like Flowdock, Hipchat or Slack to have discussions about certain topics. You'll be surprised of how people change when they have time to put their thoughts together without the pressure of a face-fo-face discussion.
  • Invite people for certain tasks by email or Flowdock. Where they might not respond to a public invite, e.g. during a meeting or stand-up, they might turn out to be very eager if you approach them 'digitally'. Happened to us many times.
  • Try alternative techniques for retrospectives. Just doing a round table inquiry about the good and the bad isn’t very effective. I particularly like Sandi Mamoli’s Deep Tissue Massage Retro and the 5-Why Root Cause Analysis Retro.
  • Have one-to-one meetings before or after that team retrospective to make sure his or her feedback is listened too. Since I can be pretty direct sometimes, meeting up with individual colleagues in a private meeting helps create a better environment for a respectful conversion.
  • Set-up a pairing station outside the vicinity of the team. This allows two developers to work together and have discussions and ask each other questions without the whole team overhearing them. That might give an insecure developer just enough confidence to ask the right questions.
  • Try to create a couple of tasks for those developers that just don't work well with other developers so that you can still benefit from his or her unique skill set. I know that doesn't align well with multi-disciplinary teams swarming on stories, but sometimes thinking outside the box is worth the trouble.
  • Speak in a common language, even if the people involved in the discussion were not planning to include anybody else and speak the same language. They might not even realize the other guys have something valuable to add to the discussion. We have mixed Dutch and non-Dutch teams and we don't force people to learn Dutch. So in our case, I recommend teams to speak English at all times. If you don't, you'll never give the other guys a chance to join in on the topic.
  • When working from home, actively share progress, e.g. by email, but preferably through Flowdock, Slack or Hipchat. It will increase the trust levels within the team. If I look at myself, when I work from home, I start to over-share what I'm doing and make sure the threshold for getting in contact is as low as possible.

Those are plenty of examples that I’ve seen in action, so I hope this helps. But regardless of how you approach your team members, don't forget the fundamental principles of effective communication: safety, respect, ownership and intention.

So what do you do to improve the level of collaboration between team members and teams? Let me know by commenting below or tweeting me at @ddoomen.

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