Enabling teams to better build understanding, open communication and trust is the lubrication that makes the human machines in a knowledge worker factory inter-operate smoothly. Without it gears grind, there are blow ups, and meltdowns, all of which result in highly ineffective and inefficient operations.

It has been said in many fields of endeavor, including agile software development, that we should do those things that we see as hardest (and often least popular) first and more frequently until they are not seen as being hard.

Unfortunately, in agile development organizations, it isn’t the processes, tools or hardware that generate the most significant challenges to delivering value, especially at scale. It is the human and organizational interaction dynamics that pose the biggest challenges, yet they are the least dealt with in the agile community.

Look at the books that are available, the speaking topics accepted at conferences, the white papers published and the posts on blogs within the agile community. The vast majority have to do with agile processes and tools for project and program management, automation and engineering practices.

One might say that the human and organizational issues are common to all teams and not just agile teams, so why focus on this? This observation is absolutely true; the problem is that agile approaches are far more dependent on highly iterative human interaction and communication. Multiply this by the need for this collaboration to be between a much more cross-functional collection of people and you quickly see why this is a huge challenge.

In a more traditional functionally siloed organization, people tend to communicate mostly with people that have the same functional focus and likely, more common motivations. These functional groups tend to have much less communication and collaboration with those in other functions that frequently have different motivations. In the worst cases the communication between such functions happens almost exclusively through detailed documentation, and rarely is communication face to face, except between managers.

Having worked in that type of environment during my career as I’m sure many of you have, I don’t think it’s necessary to go into why this leads to low levels of trust, dysfunction, low productivity and frequent customer dissatisfaction with the deliverables of such organizations.   Perhaps the biggest crime of such environments, IMO, is that it can strip people of their passion and drive them and beat them down to becoming “paycheck players” (do the minimum they have to collect their paycheck).

So how do we address this big “Elephant Impediment” in the room? First of all, I believe that agile teams and the managers in agile organizations should be provided with some training on basic tools to enable them to be higher functioning in communicating and collaborating out of the gate.  Over the past fifteen years that I’ve managed people, the one tool I come back to is SDI which stands for Strength Deployment Inventory. It is based on a psychological theory called Relationship Awareness Theory. It has proven to provide an excellent basic understanding for team members about the different Motivational Value Systems (MVS) that exist, which shape how people tend to communicate both when things are going well and when things are not going well. SDI also provides a simple conflict evaluation and resolution model. With the basic understanding of SDI and equipped with a basic vocabulary for describing styles, agile team members can effectively craft communication, verbal or written, so as to avoid misunderstanding and eroding trust and to just plain save time.

For managers, there are some agile techniques I’ve used with success that enable a people manager to gauge how the individuals they are responsible for are contributing and what their level of job satisfaction is. I will explore both SDI and agile approaches to people management in my next two posts.  Stay tuned!

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