The Psychology Behind Agile Practice and Better Communication

Asif Hafeez 1st March 2018

As the number of unfilled technology based jobs increases, companies can no longer only rely on computer science graduates. Companies need to seek new sources of human capital – one being career changers. Employers of career changers, particularly in junior positions, often benefit from a number of transferable skills that might traditionally fall outside the average developer’s repertoire.

I am a career changer. The main transferable skill I bring along with me from my previous life in sales and teaching, is effective communication. This is a skill I have now honed and adapted to fit within the realms of the tech world – a world where the only common language is code. 

But when I entered the world of software, there was a notable difference to my previous jobs. Although people were willing to talk about technical concepts to a newbie developer like me, there was no willingness to ensure I could understand what had just been said, which was hardly supportive or empowering.

It’s strikingly obvious to anyone looking from the outside that there is a massive communication issue within technology today. Developers need to be able to explain technical concepts in a way that is accessible and comprehendible, not just for the sake of career changers, but also for key stakeholders and other departments. Using layman’s terms will lead to greater transparency, clearer communication and a better understanding of technical issues – both within project teams, as well as at a business level.

The most successful organisations I’ve observed and worked with tend to think a bit deeper about how they can address these issues beyond the obvious agile processes and ceremonies. Their leaders are willing to innovate and even change their own behaviour with employees. These organisations also have certain processes in place which facilitate better communication and agile practice.

Below are some of their tried and tested approaches that you might want to use or encourage at your own organisation:

        1. Questions can take your organisation a mile

Often, those in technical roles can be so absorbed in their own work that they unintentionally encourage their peers to not ask questions. There is an assumption that the rest of us in similar roles are well versed in all technology and technical concepts – an unrealistic assumption given the changing nature of the industry. Differences in skill set and experience levels make it probable that your colleagues don’t fully understand everything that you’re trying to communicate. This assumed knowledge can also become an issue, especially for new employees who are trying to prove their worth in a new workplace. 

What’s worse (and I’m sure you’ll all agree) is when people respond by ‘filling in the gaps’ or just nodding emptily through the jargon. This will always affect the end product/performance of a team, which makes it so important to encourage questions – realising that individuals learn in different ways. While some people like reading independently, others might need somebody to break it down and explain concepts to them. 

This culture of blagging is actually advocated in some companies. New employees are forced to “fake it till they make it.” But why? Sure, you should expect someone working in tech to be a quick learner and know how to research. However, instead of assuming they know everything or have the perfect understanding from their own research – why not assign someone to clarify and confirm if their current understanding is correct, whilst also explaining areas that they’re unsure of and generally just practice being helpful? The consequences of not encouraging questions is far more costly for the industry in the long run. 

TLDR: Don’t make it difficult to ask questions and don’t encourage a culture of blagging. 

        2. Leave unwanted attitudes at the door

In technology-focused roles it’s not uncommon for the staff to be highly opinionated. Having a unique perspective or understanding should be encouraged – as long as it doesn’t turn into a way for you to look down on others.

If a new developer is paired with someone who thinks they’re right all the time and doesn’t invest time bringing the newcomer up to speed, it can be detrimental. It can lead to frustration from both sides and hinder the learning process significantly. This attitude can also lead to poor productivity on a particular project – leaving both employees with low morale or blaming each other for the end result.

Ultimately, developers shouldn’t look down on each other or non-technical individuals for not knowing. Instead, they should be concerned when someone doesn’t understand a certain concept and try their best to explain. Technology affects all areas of business and developers need to practice explaining even the simplest of concepts. Although difficult and seemingly arbitrary, the knock-on effect for business growth is huge. The more others understand conceptually how things work, the smarter questions they’ll ask and the more empowered they’ll feel to tackle issues on their own – helping to foster a culture of innovation and agile practice.

TLDR: Don’t look down on people that don’t know and don’t encourage a culture of snobbery.

        3. Two heads are better than one

Employees should be encouraged to learn, teach and mentor one another. There are a number of ways to do this and facilitate communication. Many companies don’t understand the benefits of pairing and believe it can slow teams down. From experience at Makers Academy where we paired 100% of the time – I learnt much faster and the productivity levels of both parties involved increased dramatically.

I believe this is because it’s no longer a solo mission. To get to the other side successfully – communication becomes necessary. Discussing ideas and bringing your pairing partner on the journey can help cement your own understanding, as well as iron out any creases along the way. As we know, two pairs of eyes are better than one – errors are resolved faster and code is cleaner.

Another advantage to pairing is that distractions are minimised – because your very presence prompts your partner to keep working and vice versa.

Experienced developers who have been coding alone for a long time may not want to pair. The question they need to ask themselves is “why.”  Does it relate to looking down on people? Are they slowing you down? What these developers don’t realise is that they are also missing out on a great opportunity for their own learning and progress. Whether it be another technical perspective allowing you to see a blind spot or improving your soft skills. Everyone has something to learn from someone and pairing facilitates that.

TLDR: Do Mandatory pairing – helps bring people out of their comfort zones and creates basic rapport.

        4. We’re not all bots

During my first role, I noticed that developers preferred to communicate with each other over Slack. As great as having a communication tool like Slack is, it’s hardly a substantial replacement for face to face interaction. A number of studies have been conducted on the limitations of virtual text-based communication. These seem to indicate that no matter how many emoji’s or gifs used, text-based communication still cannot accurately convey the messages found in facial expressions, gestures, body language and eye contact. Text-based communication is a comfort space for many highly competent software developers but companies need to encourage other methods of communication as well.  

With reports coming out about mental health issues across the tech industry, stemmed from living isolated lives in high-pressure environments – this could be one of the most important things to consider and changes to make. A simple smile, a hello or even a ‘how was your weekend?’ would do the trick. Developers need to speak to each other in person and use the interaction muscle on a regular basis. Discussing work in person not only forces us out of isolation and from being in front of a screen all day but creates better working teams; teams comprised of actual people to connect with and not eating-sleeping-coding machines.

TLDR: Don’t communicate using only technology – talk to your colleagues face to face!

        5. Lunch ’n’ learn

Everyone loves to have a conversation over lunch. So why not take advantage of it? Lunch and learns are a great way to facilitate better communication and create a communal culture of learning. For example, internal and external individuals could speak regularly about a variety of topics. Facilitate this with a free lunch for those attending and you’re well on your way to communal culture of learning…

TLDR: Create a communal culture of learning – by providing lunchtime activities.

        6. Wellness matters

The wellbeing of your people, is a key success factor in business today. Activities such as meditation have been proven to lead to increased productivity. The de-stress effect leads to better work and can even motivate people. If the mind is in the right place, clean and organised, then code will follow. It also helps people communicate and talk to each other because they are relaxed, less anxious or stressed. Encourage this by promoting Calm or Headspace subscriptions. Another idea might be communal meditation sessions after lunch.

Wellbeing can also mean providing access to counselling, discounts at gyms and generally encouraging a healthy work/life balance through flexibility where possible.

If you’re not convinced why addressing mental health in the workplace is important, see this Deloitte article. 

TLDR: Do not neglect mental health, physical health, work/life balance and the important role they play in technology today. 

We know this kind of change is not going to happen overnight and will require some serious cultural and psychological shifts. There are gatekeepers, financial concerns and the general but ubiquitous ‘fear of change’. People can get very defensive about keeping things as they are – often to their own detriment. But even implementing one of these approaches within your place of work will help massively in truly being agile and improving communication.

Visit our services to explore how we enable organisations to transform their internal cultures, to make it easier for teams to collaborate, and adopt practices such as Continuous Integration, Continuous Delivery, and Continuous Testing. 

Found this interesting? Why not share it: