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Communicate. It's Simple. Not Always Easy.

Leadership must communicate to understand — not to demand— if they want to see real progress in their organization

By Bia Dimovski, Senior Agile Coach

Have you ever played the Telephone game? I played it a lot when I was a kid. It's a game in which the more players you have, the better. If you’re not familiar, it goes like this: The first person comes up with a word, phrase, or sentence and whispers it to the person next to them, then the second person whispers what they heard to the person next to them and so on.

When you play this game with a few people it doesn't seem to be challenging. But when you play it with say ten or more people, what the first person came up with becomes something completely different by the time it reaches the last person.

Why are we talking about a game you may or may not have played during childhood in a blog post about Agile practices? Because this reflects how communication in organizations works. It starts with leadership and by the time it reaches teams, the message becomes distorted and at times information gets partially lost.

Observing this is actually quite interesting. And reverse engineering to get to the bottom line of what was actually meant to be communicated, although rewarding at the end, can be really frustrating for everyone involved! Have you ever found yourself in this kind of communication vortex? ...I have.

What Really is a Communication Vortex

A communication vortex is a state of being where everyone in your organization is extremely busy and chronically overbooked, yet nothing (or very little) seems to get done. I have been on the observing side of these communication vortexes within an organization during multiple stages, from the time they start to form to when they take on full force.

There are many factors playing a role here that in and of themselves may not seem important, but if not considered on your Agile journey, will become strong contributors to your organization's communication vortex. I'm talking about:

  • Inconsistent levels of clarity organizations operate in at any given time

  • Assumptions on who needs to know what information when

  • Inconsistent levels of open communication

  • Lack of communication altogether

I'd like to point out here that in my experience most challenges organizations face can be tracked down to communication — miscommunication, minimal communication, or absence of communication. And even though most everyone in your organization will claim they communicate, is it effective? Nine out of ten times, a little digging will uncover a broken communication link somewhere. When this happens, it is not to cause an “I told you so” moment. On your Agile journey, this moment should be recognized as a “Great, now that we know this, how can we improve?” moment. But most organizations don't have the foundation for this kind of Agile approach to discovery and operating. Their foundation is based on numerous assumptions about whose responsibility it is to know and communicate what information when. So, there you have it! The communication vortex in all its glory... Assumptions are thrown around and unsurprisingly they are all mismatching causing everyone's head to spin. By now, frustration is at its highest and blame is the name of the new game. Welcome! You have entered the communication vortex in your organization.

Can Agile Help Us Escape the Communication Vortex?

To amend this, most organizations (here is that word again) assume Agile tools and metrics are the answer.

So, they use Agile tools to spit out reports and percentages as a way of communicating progress during endless leadership meetings. But at the end of the day there is this accumulative effect of confusion among everyone, yet no one brings it up! It's actually quite fascinating to watch. And it’s certainly a proven energy sucker and a motivation killer, especially for teams!

Then, leadership becomes frustrated because they don't see results as fast as they envisioned and assumed would happen. Teams become frustrated because what is being asked of them is simply not doable in the way and/or time demanded. Now we are full force in a communication vortex spinning so hard that in an attempt to get out of it, everyone defaults to what they know and are comfortable with. Leadership's frustration manifests in threats to work on weekends and/or late hours. Teams' frustration manifests in overwhelm and eventually withdrawal because they no longer believe what they do matters.

It's an understatement to say this negatively affects the relationship between leadership as the visionary and the teams as the force bringing that vision forward. When this relationship struggles, the entire organization struggles. In the meantime, to make matters even worse, as a direct result of this struggle, the customers are the ones who actually feel the most impact because they do not get the value they were promised.

So why does this happen? Why is there so much communicating happening in your organization, yet so little is translating into meaningful work done? It's because very little from what is communicated is actually understood. To go a little further, very little is understood because there is very little clarity on what leadership actually wants — even to leadership!

Again, why? Because as humans, as smart as we like to consider ourselves to be, we complicate things and hang on to things that do not and should not matter. Things such as being right, outsmarting the next guy, fitting into your organization's politics, and many other things that stand in the way of simply creating work that adds value.

That's it. That's all leadership and teams need to focus on — work that adds value! And to do that all that's needed is to start with a strong foundation in which communicating to understand is the only constant. Simple. Apparently also very hard!

Great. Let's start!

Communication is King! Follow the King

To build a strong foundation in which communicating to understand is the only constant, first we must establish that communication is the first thing initiated right after a vision is born. Almost always, that vision comes from leadership. Therefore, leadership in your organization must be open and willing to learn to communicate in a manner that is a bit different from what they may be used to — communicate to understand not to demand.

The challenge is that leadership often sees this communication thing as a one-way street. It goes something like this: I'll tell you my vision, you go bring it to life and while you are at it, keep the progress reports coming so we can stress ourselves and the entire organization out about a deadline we set arbitrarily over drinks. Done.

I will boldly state here that all one-way street communication fails. It fails because only one part of the communication happened. It's simply incomplete. If you tell me to do something and walk away without waiting for my response, you can't get upset when I either don't do what you asked, or I do but it's nothing like what you expected.

Communication is a two-way street. And within the context of an organization where there are multiple moving targets, this expands to a need for communication to happen full circle; The understanding part completes the circle.

How to CCC - Complete the Communication Circle

Start by stopping where you are and starting where you are. No, I'm not trying to trick your brain here... I actually recommend you stop where you are! Pause. Interrupt your flow for a hot minute. It's ok. Take a breath. Let everyone in your organization take one too. Then collectively commit to starting in a different direction because the direction you've been on does not give you the results you are looking for. Once you can do this, I recommend considering the steps below as you dive into your Agile journey.

  • Communicate that you are now communicating to understand

  • Make it official for your organization; make it a big deal; call it out — don’t be irresolute about it.

  • Encourage everyone to speak up any time they are less than 100% clear on any communication within your organization.

  • Document this in a central place, visible by all so there is no chance of misinterpreting what is meant by communicating to understand.

  • Create and document your product vision

  • Use a product vision template to help.

  • Make sure you understand your vision.

  • Make sure you know why you want this product built.

  • Make sure your vision is grounded on something that adds value, not just features.

  • Conduct discussions with your team(s) sharing your vision in the simplest terms.

  • Set aside your deadlines and project status reports for a minute (a very loooong minute).

  • What do you want?

  • What do you really want to accomplish with your product vision?

  • Tell that to your teams and ask for their input before you even set any requirements.

  • Spend time connecting with your team(s) — these are your vision movers!

  • Get to know them as people not so much as people reporting to you.

  • Get their input on what it would take to turn your vision to a functioning product.

  • Take their input seriously — if they tell you something is not possible within the timeframe you are suggesting or the way you want to go about it, believe them!

  • Then give them the time and space to show you how it can be done.

Doing this, you are setting a precedent and you are establishing trust all at the same time — nice!

Before you check out here...

Will you dare to take this quiz?

By no means is this quiz to be treated as the source of all truth when it comes to how well your organization communicates. There are many factors and circumstances unique to your organization that go deeper than what I am offering here. I can't know what your organization's unique situation is unless I'm directly involved.

However, this quiz is to be used as a potential check engine signal. It may be coming on because of something very minor and easily addressed or it may be a major part that needs to be replaced. So, treat this quiz as you would (or I hope you would) your car. If you see your check engine signal coming on even though you don't hear any strange sounds or smells, you may wanna check your engine.

The rules of this quiz are very simple. All the questions pertain to communication among everyone in the organization, not between specific groups/departments. None of the questions are trick questions. They are all yes or no questions. There is no in-between. But for each question I highly recommend you think about how your yes, or your no is true and then write it down. If you put the effort to be as objective as possible here, you may even find that you need to change some of your answers. That's ok.

Once you are done answering the questions and elaborating on your answers, go back and check how many questions you answered with a no. The longer the list of questions to which your response is no, the more urgent checking your organizations communication engine becomes.

Finally, how truthful you are in answering these questions and what follows after you take this quiz is completely and absolutely your decision. I hope you make it a right one for your organization.

Ready? Let's go!

  1. Our organization prefers to communicate via open meetings instead of email. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  2. We set aside time for one-on-one conversations. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  3. All our communication is facilitated around and founded on a safe environment for everyone to engage in. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  4. We incorporate concepts like pairing as part of communicating certain information. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  5. We communicate using simple words that are to the point and cannot be misinterpreted. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  6. Whenever possible, we use visuals to communicate. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  7. When our teams talk, we listen. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  8. We prefer to show our teams what we want them to do rather than tell them. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  9. We see our teams as our equals, and we talk to them as our equals. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  10. We always ask our team(s) if they are 100% clear on expectations and requirements. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

  11. We encourage and reward speaking up. Y/N - Why/How is your answer true?

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