Everyone Communicates!

Everyone Communicates!

Without good interpersonal communication between development team members, the product owner and subject matter experts will need substitute interaction and communication with artifacts (requirements documents, design documents and more). The fallback when conversations aren’t productive, in most organizations, is to produce documents followed by the performing formal reviews on the documents and finally to accumulate sign-offs on the documents. This type of behavior is not considered to be Agile, lean or efficient. Communication is just about the most important behavior underlying successful Agile. All of the techniques used in Agile either anticipate or are geared to facilitate the transparent flow of information between all parties involved in the process. Unfortunately, old organizational habits are hard to break. Three of the most common problems impacting Agile communications are information hoarding, information hiding and avoiding feedback. Actively facilitating and encouraging the creation of communication channels inside and outside Agile teams becomes one the primary roles of Agile coaches, and will foreshadow successful implementations of Agile.

Constraining the transparent flow of information will negatively impact productivity and change. The same is true for overall organizational culture change or a single project: constraints on information flow make delivering value more difficult and more expensive. All projects, whether delivering software or supporting organizational change, depend on teams and team member knowledge. However, when people hoard information for either positional power or perception of personal value they negatively constrain information flow. For example, everyone involved needs to know the ultimate business goal of the project, so that the most effective decisions can be made.  Unfortunately, this piece of information is easily hoarded and provides the hoarder with a feeling that he or she is “in the know.” In these circumstances, information (and potentially knowledge) becomes important in its own right rather than delivering value to the organization.

Information hiding generally happens because someone is avoiding the delivery of bad news.  Hiding information breaks the bond of trust between the delivery teams and their stakeholders. Historically, the types of data that are hidden include being late, being over budget or not being able to deliver on commitments. An article in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology[1], presented data that as a project gets closer to completion, decision makers are more likely to conceal problems that may jeopardize the project. How many projects have you seen move from green to red overnight, just before delivery? Many types of bad news are VERY difficult to hide if projects are using Agile techniques.  Techniques such as burn-down or burn-up charts, daily stand-up meetings and demonstrations (or sprint reviews) are effective information radiators. In Agile, it is very difficult to avoid discussing status and how to re-plan on a daily basis.  Hiding the details of issues at a task level still does happen (this is especially true as the organization learns Agile). The hidden details and nuances are usually what keeps a task from being completed for a few stand-up meetings. The Scrum Master or coach needs to facilitate and teach the transparent flow of information at the team level. Ensuring the interaction of the team members will make hiding details that can make Agile ineffective less likely to occur.

Feedback is a major tool used by Agile teams to self-correct and stay on track. Unfortunately many people instinctively shy away from feedback due to defensiveness and fear. The words of W. Edwards Deming in his famous 14 points, insist that for organizations to be effective “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”  Where team, department or organizational culture inhibits the free flow of feedback, the culture must change. Education and training on delivering, accepting and using feedback need to be an integral part of embracing Agile in any organization.

The premise of Scrum and Agile is transparency (generate no surprises), inspection (detect variances early) and adaptation (adjust processes as needed). Open and honest communication between team members and stakeholders is necessary for Agile to emerge or to be implemented.  When hoarding or hiding information becomes an issue, it is easy for information to become the currency of one team member or team.  When information becomes the goal in its own right it will quickly obscure the real goal of any project, which is business value. When organizations, teams or individuals don’t use or listen to feedback there is no mechanism to self-correct from any of the other communication problems, which will kill any project or change program.


[1] Journal of Applied Social Psychology Volume 41, Issue 2, pages 401 428, February 2011