This article is part of a six-part series on software team dynamics. Did you miss the beginning? Read the Introduction to the series, the first article on Composition, and the second article on Compassion first.
Otherwise, thanks for returning to learn more about the origins of high-performing teams! In this article, we’ll discuss communication as the cornerstone of collaborative work, and look at strategies to improve the quality and quantity of communication within a team.
Let information flow freely, and encourage members to share in equal proportion.
Reduce Alienation, Increase Trust
In a digitally connected age, it’s easy to disregard the art of focused, face-to-face communication. But glorified chat rooms and electronic messaging have a way of clipping the social signals we use to exchange information, and they enable us to fragment our attention too easily during important conversation.
Poor communication breeds loneliness and distrust among a team. If I have poor insight into my teammate’s responsibilities and decisions, it’s easier for me to imagine stories about their motivations, and harder for me to recognize them as a sane and reasonable person who shares my priorities. Free-flowing information, on the other hand, helps us remember that we share a common vision and mutual investment in the success of our group. It helps us to share responsibility with our co-workers more confidently, delegating more effectively and micro-managing less. And it bolsters our sense of belonging and our satisfaction at work.
Eliminate Bottlenecks & Waste
A popular presentation from Netflix highlights the ways that communication among team members can help draw attention to problems and opportunities within organizational processes that may not be visible to everyone.
The more freely team members communicate with one another, the easier it becomes for the group to identify and root out sources of frustration and waste, to seize opportunities to streamline and elevate worker experience, and to identify and cater to their co-workers’ strengths and development needs. Why would any team pass up opportunities to mine the wealth of information and inspiration available within each of its members?
In their book Crucial Conversations, authors Patterson, Grenny, & McMillan describe the “shared pool of meaning” that team members create together through communication, and how it is necessary for effective cooperation. It is each team member’s responsibility to help fill the pool with the information visible to them, and to recognize others’ contributions as valuable because they add to the collective knowledge.
The Netflix presentation mentioned above describes the role of communication in aligning team members’ vision so managers can give them freedom to do their work. CEO Reed Hastings explains that freedom and autonomy are cornerstones in his company’s strategy for attracting and retaining top talent; they strive for a balance he articulates as, “highliy aligned, loosely coupled”.
It is each team member’s responsibility to help fill the pool with the information visible to them, and to recognize others’ contributions as valuable because they add to the collective knowledge.
Less is More More is More
If team members can be intentional about the timing and content of their communication, it’s actually quite difficult to overdo it. Establishing predictable rhythms and channels for communication will help people to discern the appropriate time and place for their messages, and to hold on to information that is not yet relevant to others.
Organizations should strive for as much transparency as they can manage without bogging down employees with gratuitous details. In an increasingly connected world, attempts to restrict the flow of information may backfire and should be considered carefully. Speaking directly to the patterns of gossip enabled by social media, two HBR authors suggest that “you’re better off telling people the truth before someone else does.” They detail some of the barriers to radical honesty in the workplace:
Some managers see parceling out information on a need-to-know basis as important to maintaining efficiency. Others practice a seemingly benign type of paternalism, reluctant to worry staff with certain information or to identify a problem before having a solution. Some feel an obligation to put a positive spin on even the most negative situations out of a best-foot-forward sense of loyalty to the organization.
TL;DR: This is not helpful.
Even Distribution of Participation
A previously cited article on Google’s team research found that on really good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers termed, “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking” (super nerd alert). It didn’t matter so much whether team members spoke up equally during each task, rather that by the end of a given day, members had contributed roughly the same amount.
On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.”
With that in mind, let’s remember the old developer adage, "weeks of coding saves hours of planning." Communication works the same way; invest early and often in clear, evenly distributed communication to avoid waste and frustration among your team.
Ta-Ta For Now
Thanks for reading! Are you curious to learn more about what drives great teams? If so, stay tuned for the next article in this series: Coordination.