by Matt McBride

Translating the unintelligible

Jun 18, 2018
Agile DevelopmentIT Leadership

Are we speaking a foreign language to our business partners?

'Hello' written in many languages on chalkboard.
Credit: Warchi / Getty Images

“Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.” ― Ken Liu

Have you ever had the experience of working or living in a culture with a completely different language that you don’t understand?  This can be a bit disorienting and challenging.  Simple tasks like ordering food become complex and time consuming.  You feel a bit lost and embarrassed as you try to muddle through, and perhaps you end up with a sandwich instead of the salad you were trying to order. Perhaps you simply sigh and think, “this is not what I really wanted, but it will have to do.”

Now let’s consider our business partners.  How much do they really understand technology, and what we do?  The answer in many cases is that they don’t.  They certainly do not have the training and background in technology that technologists do.  Just like you in a foreign land, they may try to bluff their way through.  However, their understanding is at best incomplete compared to our own.  And, all too often, they simply settle for what they get.

Now consider an average business customer’s interest level in what we do.  They are “hungry” for the technology solutions that we can deliver but speak a different language.  This is a challenge for every technology team, and often results in misunderstanding and confusion.  How can we overcome these challenges?


Agile and Scrum place a high value on communication and collaboration.  An important part of this is our ability to translate and interpret for our business customers who are not technically savvy.  Whether you are working in an agile cadence or not, translating is an important part of what technologists do.  This is how the Translator Pattern in Leadership Patterns for Software and Technology Professionals states this:

Translator calls us to effectively translate and tailor technical content for nontechnical audiences. To many of our stakeholders, we unfortunately appear to be speaking a foreign language. They don’t understand the jargon and terms we use, and what we do is a bit confusing and something of a mystery.  What they care about is an effective translation of our work so that they are informed and effective in their daily work.

So, whether you are in a hallway conversation or a boardroom meeting with business stakeholders, remember to translate effectively the details of what you are doing.  Avoiding highly technical terms and keeping the conversation focused on the business impact and results will help.  To know if you are doing this effectively, watch your audience.  If they mentally check out and disengage, chances are you may be speaking a foreign language to them. 

Agile methods provide additional levers to help us improve communication and our ability to deliver business value.  To understand how the improved communication occurs, let’s consider a critical agile role – that of the Product Owner – and the power of the sprint review.

Consensus and proxy

In Scrum, the role of the Product Owner accomplishes several goals that assist with translation.  The Scrum Guide tells us that:

  • “The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the Development Team (and)
  • is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog (prioritized requirements).
  • To succeed, the entire organization must respect his or her decisions.”

One of the beautiful aspects of Scrum is that the role of the Product Owner centers much of the translation and communication that needs to occur from the business into a single role.  The Product Owner is a single, empowered proxy to speak for the business.  Compared to approaches that involve obtaining business consensus with large and sometimes diverse groups (as I discussed in “Trust, partnership and agile”), this greatly simplifies our work.  It enables the Scrum team to make these decisions quickly, as opposed to taking days or weeks to reach a decision.  This clarity of focus drives the real-time feedback that teams need to deliver competitive advantage, and this directly translates to speed of execution. 

The power of “we can do that?!”

The Sprint Review in Scrum is an opportunity for the team, Product Owner, and other key stakeholders to review what has been accomplished during the sprint.  During the review, the team has an opportunity to look at the working software and discuss its marketplace potential and any changes to what they do next. 

One of the magical things that often happens during a Sprint Review is you will hear comments like “we can do that?!” from business stakeholders.  Usually what follows is a conversation that is both creative and refreshing.  Everyone begins to think about and focus on “what if” possibilities for dramatically improving and optimizing the way work is done.  These conversations spark creative dialogue and an exchange of ideas that continuously improves our product and adapts to market change.  The business stops “settling” for what they can get, engages in creating real-time competitive advantage, and along the way begins to value and partner with technology teams.

This iterative and adaptive process is a creative alternative to methods of technology development where we work on requirements developed weeks, months, or years ago.  Many times, these requirements have hidden limitations.  Business conditions may have changed, and they might be outdated.  They may introduce well-meaning but unintended constraints.  Perhaps most importantly, they are often the work of a single author who ignores the possibilities of synergy when bright minds interact and discuss a challenge. 

Translation and miracles

Sometimes those of us in technology feel like the business is asking for the impossible and wants a miracle.  Part of the reason this is the case is because they do not understand what we do, and we do not understand what they really want.  Organizational structures, email, technical jargon, constant change, and schedule demands erect barriers to creativity and understanding.  When we begin to value direct communication, clarity, and synergy in developing solutions, amazing things can happen.  Agile methods point us in the right direction.

The shortest distance between you and a much better outcome for your business customers may be effective translation and communication.  Avoiding jargon-filled explanations and leveraging the power of agile methods are good starts.  What changes could you make today that might lead to some miracles for your customers?