Effective Communication is Agility

By 23/11/2022 No Comments

Effective Communication is Agility

I work a lot in the “Agile” space…..apparently. I help companies release business agility but the more I work in this space, the more I wonder whether I really am part of this industry.

When it comes to “agile” it’s not uncommon for epic flamewars to fire up, or the worst in people to come out as they seek to control their own part of this lucritive and sprawling industry, or prove how knowledgable they are or how someone else is wrong. It often feels like comedy and tragedy and nothing in between.

I worked in a company once where some agile coaches got into a verbal fight about who invented Kanban and why. They both lost their jobs. It was clearly an emotionally important topic to know the answer to that question…or prove the other person wrong.

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I got slated big-style at a conference when I said Kanban isn’t the solution for all problems (it isn’t).

I was told the results we achieved in our startup wasn’t “agile” because it didn’t adhere to any of the well-known methodologies. Well, we shipped software, grew the business and had a successful run of it. I’ll take that over whether or not we used scrum properly (according to people who believed strict scrum was more important than business results).

It’s an industry pre-occupied with methodologies, frameworks and arguments over who is right.

I avoid all of this.

I’m more concerned with Releasing Agility by overcoming problems contextual to the business I work in – and helping companies move smoothly and quickly towards their business goals (and retain good staff in the process).

When I explain agility to business leaders who want it, I explain it’s really about communication. Long time readers will know I often say that 99% of problems in business are communication related. By spotting and improving communication problems you will be improving the world of work immeasurably. And likely releasing agility as a side-effect.

When we take a look at any agile methodology or framework you see lots of “processes” and “meetings”. The daily stand up is arguably the most universally well known and often adopted by teams not looking to “go agile”.

But what’s the purpose of this daily stand up meeting? To communicate, that’s what.

And the planning meeting; an opportunity to communicate. And the retrospective; an opportunity to communicate. What about the dreaded Quarterly Planning?; an opportunity to communicate. And the Executive Action Team meeting; an opportunity to communicate.

And I’m clear when I say “opportunity” here. Just because a teams do all of these meetings and processes, doesn’t mean they are using these opportunities well. I’ve seen daily standups last 2 hours with nothing useful being shared. I’ve seen retrospectives where no valuable piece of insight was communicated, or even worse, a retrospective that descends into fighting and blame. I’ve seen planning sessions descend into chaos with nothing resembling a coherent plan coming from it.

These “frameworks” can be helpful in creating these opportunities to communicate, but within this opportuntity effective communication must also happen. There is little point in more opportunities for ineffective communication – in fact, that could have a terrible effect.

So, the goal is effective communication.

And here’s the thing; if you work on improving personal and organisational communication, you don’t have to rely on frameworks and you may avoid the innevitable flame wars that can happen when people prefer their framework to others. After all, strict adherence to any single “agile” framework without effective communication is merely going through the motions. All talk but no communication.

Effective communication is the key to improved business performance.

Here are some ideas worth playing with:

  1. Create shared goals across teams so people must work together to get to a business outcome.
  2. Ensure the outcome, purpose, vision, painted picture, True North – whatever you want to call it – is clear, compelling, interesting and solving the real problems.
  3. Make all meetings effective, irrelevant of whether it’s a 15 minute standup or a planning meeting or a decision meeting.
  4. Coach and train people in effective personal communication – here are my 11 principles and we dig deep on these in my communication super power course.
  5. Look for communication breakdowns in the hierarchy or organisational construct. Does everyone have the right information to do their job? If not, why not? Communication failures up and down the chain are excellent leverage points in a system.
  6. Managers must be giving clear, behaviour based positive and negative feedback to employees about behaviours – this is the culture of your organisation. If you want a positive culture there must be clear, honest and effective communication about low performance and poor behaviours.
  7. Look for siloes and single points of failure in the work flow. These indicate a lack of training, sharing, co-operation or a breakdown in communication.
  8. Staple yourself to work and follow it on it’s journey through the system. Where does it falter, stop, move backwards and flow? This will show you where there are opportunities for improved communication.
  9. When work is “done” by someone is it communicated clearly to those who need to then do something with it? Where does work come from and go to? And are there effective communication flows and relationships at these boundaries?
  10. Are there hand-overs and hand-offs all over the place? At each of these is the need to communicate status, intent etc – and these are perfect places for poor communication to have an amplifying effect.

Here are just some ideas. As you may spot from this list – these items are what I share in this newsletter and on the blog/YouTube. They are all distinct ideas and activities but underneath all of these is the topic of effective communication.

It’s my belief that organisations who want to be agile, go agile, be agile etc – are really struggling with a series of communication challenges. And when I work with organisations I focus here first; communication.

Is it effective? Is it clear? Is it flowing? Are people listened to? Is it clear what everyone does? Is it clear WHY they are doing what they do? And are people interacting in a positive and effective way?

By focusing on communication, I believe you will spot many levers of change to pull. And if an agile framework helps you by giving you the “meetings” to make it happen – then go for it. But simply adopting a framework and filling the activities with poor communication won’t give you many benefits.

Interesting Links

  1. Building Trust whilst working remotely. Good article with ideas on how to build trust – yep – it’s a lot about communication.
  2. I’m a bit late to this news but how cool is this? Patagonia to give profits to the planet. Their main shareholder is the planet. I talk a lot about Yves Choinard in my work – a true leader in sustainable and responsible businesses.
  3. I tend to get a lot of grief and pushback from people when I talk about managers needing to give feedback about poor performance and unwanted behaviours.
    1. Many people see it as an afront to themselves – a kind of “what right do you have to talk to me about performance?” stance.
    2. But when poor behaviours go unchecked, it leads to a shady culture, and in some instances, complete mis-conduct going unchecked. Microsoft are seeing this, according to this article.
    3. What’s interesting is the statement about “avoiding conflict”. Giving feedback about poor behaviours should not be a conflict, if done right. And when the behaviours are gross misconduct, that (potential) conflict from addressing this behaviour is essential – for the well being of the staff affected.
  4. Speaking of conflict in the workplace, here’s a guide to handling it.
  5. Long and dense reading but the topic is valuable – are we losing intellectual curiosity?
  6. I’m so tired of OKRs. Objectives and Key Results. Tired because they are seen as the solution to business problems.
    1. OKRs still rely on some solid basics, just like goals, objectives or any other word you wish to use; they are business goals – and that requires the leaders knowing what the purpose of the business / team is, understanding the problems they wish to solve, painting a bright painted picture of the future – and addressing the true, honest reality of why that future is not here yet – and then you can set goals…….start with the basics first then choose your framework you like.
    2. And, if you really want to move to an advanced level – set the goals – then ditch them after focussing on building the routines and habits that lead to the goal’s outcomes.
  7. Forcing something to be big makes it small – Seth Godin – short and sweet
  8. Work life balance, fixed schedule productivity and professio sano in vitam sanam – a nice little ditty from Cal Newport. I’ve tried to live by the same idea – work when at work and then take time out for family.
    1. One of my core goals when my first son was born, was to be present with him and put him to bed each evening. I’ve been lucky enough to achieve this goal with each of my three kids. It’s not easy and it means switching off from work but the sense of balance it can bring is enlightning.
  9. A little light entertainment for your week – the comedy wildlife photo awards

Until next week!

Rob