Building Glass Houses: Creating the Transparent Organization

October 11, 2014

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Visual management occurs at many levels. There is personal transparency: the ability for people to see what you are working on within the team. Then there is team transparency: the ability for stakeholders and other teams to see what the team is working on. Finally, there is organizational transparency: the ability for people within and outside the organization to see what the organization is working on. Ideally, we have all three levels of transparency fully developed in an Agile organization.

Individual transparency consists of the ways in which we communicate the state of our work to the team. We can use both active and passive mechanisms to achieve this. Active mechanisms are things like using one-way broadcast like yammer, or just shouting out when you need help, achieve victory, or otherwise want to share with the team. Then there is two-way broadcast like the status in the daily standup, one-on-one communication, working meetings like the planning and demo. Passive mechanisms include updating things like task boards, wiki pages, and status reports. All of this information is primarily directed at the team.

At the team level there are active and passive mechanisms for communication. There are burn down charts, task boards, calendars, which are all passive. Then there is the active communication that takes place at the scrum of scrums and other larger forums where multiple teams and stakeholders meet. I’ve often seen teams struggle to get information out at this level. They tend to do really well at the individual level, but at the team level it is not uncommon to find that teams aren’t getting enough information out beyond their own boundaries.

Finally at the organizational level there are active and passive mechanisms for communication as well. There are passive communication mechanisms like annual reports, company web pages, intranets, and billboards in the coffee room. There is also active communication at company meetings, and…often not much else. This is an area where as Agilists we need the most improvement. It seems as though the communication demands get more challenging the higher up the organization that you go.


Disappearing Radiators

October 2, 2014

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A little while ago I wrote an article sharing all the amazing information radiators that you can find in a 1st grade classroom. It’s been a while since that eye opening experience and I found myself at “curriculum night” at her middle school. As I wandered from class to class, listening to teachers drone on about their teaching philosophy, I found myself once again staring at the walls, and yet again they seemed to be telling me a story.

In my first article I was astonished by the richness and variety of information radiators that you find in the typical elementary school classroom. Nary a square inch of wall space is wasted. Middle school, as it turns out, is somewhat different. In middle school there was still information on the walls, but it was more subdued and there was less of it. You can actually find bare stretches of wall space. Not many, but definitely more than what you see in elementary school.

As I sat there in those dreadful little plastic chairs, I wondered, “Do we put less information up on the walls as we get older?” What will I find in the classrooms when my daughter is in high school? In college? I remember the classrooms in my college well, and there were often entire rooms with nothing at all on the walls. Why is that?

So here I am today, living like a nomad in that information radiator desert we call a corporation. Simply asking people to put a task board up on the wall is a revolutionary idea. What happened to us? Do we stop learning? Do we not require as much information?

I don’t think so. Working in technology, all we do is learning: about our customers, about technology, about the business domain. If anything, we are required to learn at what feels like an ever faster rate with each passing year. For instance, I know C/C++, which qualifies me as a Jurassic techno-dinosaur. I know Java too, which probably brings me up to the Cretaceous period (Woolly Mammoth?). These days there are functional languages that just completely leave me in the dust. The lizard brain just can’t keep up. We live in a world now where our ability to learn is being constantly tested. With each new silicon valley startup, the pressure increases.

So, why on earth do we leave all those wonderful, rich, learning environments behind? Do our inner worlds become so abundant and complex that we no longer benefit from the additional input from the external world? I doubt it. I feel like I need to start a campaign to bring back the information radiator. Agile task boards are a good start, but there is so much more we could be doing.

 


Broadcast Communication

September 27, 2014

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In the agile development community, we are all hip to the notion of two way communication. It can be via any mechanism you choose: email, instant messaging, smoke signals or the hands-down, all-time winner – face to face. That’s fantastic, but there is another form of communication that we can develop: one-way communication.

What’s the value of that, you ask? Isn’t two way communication a lot better? The answer is yes, two way communication is great and has it’s place, but one way communication has a different purpose – one that agile teams should learn to develop as well. In fact, most agile teams don’t do very well at the one way communication beyond the team at all.

Let me explain: One way, or broadcast communication doesn’t require any response. You just shout out the news and go about your business. Now of course if there is no one to hear the news, then it really doesn’t make much difference (if a tree falls in the forest…). However in the case of working on a team, there is usually someone around. Broadcasting simply shares information with absolutely no expectation of any information or reply in return. It’s all giving and no receiving. Others can get the information and then act accordingly without ever engaging in dialog.

Some examples of one way communication include: status reports, information radiators: including burndown charts, kanban boards, etcetera. There are tools that promote one way communication such as Twitter and Yammer. I suppose even a wiki or blog qualifies too.

There is one other thing about broadcast communication that I like, especially when it comes to swarming. One way communication removes any expectation of compliance. When you broadcast information, the receivers get to decide what they want to do with it. There is no expectation of any sort of action. Commands are weakened or non-existent with this type of communication. That’s a good thing if you are swarming.

A few sentences back, I made the claim that Agile teams aren’t very good at broadcasting information beyond the team. Many of the teams that I work with tend to be very inward facing. The communication is rich between team members, but it’s very sparse if you are outside the team. This may also be a reflection of the hierarchical nature of many of the companies I’ve worked with. Teams need to take advantage of every mechanism they can find to radiate information outside the team. Some opportunities include:

  • The Scrum of Scrums or other program or portfolio meetings
  • Information radiators OUTSIDE the team. Broadcast doesn’t work if everyone has to come to you to get the message.
  • Attending other forums, other teams status meetings
  • Status reporting – yes, status reports are the root of all evil, but they are a form of one way communication.

If you aren’t using one way broadcast, give it at try. It’s a powerful communication tool – and essential to promote swarming.