Yanni wants transparency

Agile lessons from a smart service dog.

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I travel a lot on airplanes for work.  On a recent Sunday afternoon flight, the person sitting next to me was legally blind.  His service dog was a female German shepherd named Yanni.  As we flew to the East Coast, I had plenty of time to meet Yanni, and to reflect on how Yanni might teach us all some important things about technology, people, and the businesses we serve.

Jitters

Training for a service dog can take as long as two years.  For Yanni, this included several relatively complex tasks to be able to assist her blind owner.  Yanni is smart, capable, alert, and highly trained.  Despite Yanni’s training across a wide variety of situations and conditions, when the plane started moving towards the runway Yanni came a bit undone.  She whined and fidgeted, and it was clearly a struggle to keep her cool.  She did not like not being able to see and understand and see where she was going.  It unnerved her.

Just like Yanni, our business customers want to see where they are going.  They are uncomfortable when they cannot.  Most don’t understand our work and rely on us to help guide them to effective solutions.  To do this successfully, we should think differently about how we engage and communicate with them.  Translation is an important part of engaging business customers that we discussed previously, and so is transparency.  How does transparency work in our favor?

Transparency and pillars

Transparency is a pillar of scrum and agile methods, and it must exist for teams to work well together.  However, transparency is not something that comes naturally to technologists who have spent their entire education and career coding, designing, and creating technology solutions.  It involves engaging and working directly with our teammates or customers, something usually left to project managers or directors.  We have little formal training on how to engage customers, and often find these interactions uncomfortable or difficult. 

As a result, when project challenges occur, or problem domain questions arise, most technologists keep their heads down and keep pushing forward.  The results are all too predictable.  Things usually get worse.  Not communicating about the challenges and not obtaining feedback on vague or unclear requirements quickly leads to project delays and suboptimal solutions. 

One alternative to this dynamic is transparency.  This is one of the reasons agile and scrum works.  The Scrum Guide puts it this way:

  • “The process must be visible to those responsible for the outcome, and
  • Observers share a common understanding.  The Scrum Team and its stakeholders agree to be open about all the work and the challenges with performing the work. 
  • To the extent that transparency is complete, decisions have a sound basis.”

Towards common understanding

Transparency in scrum means everyone sees the work and shares a common understanding.  The result is that stakeholders make sound decisions based on the best information.  We measure our progress daily through burn down charts, and immediately understand when a challenge occurs. 

As a result, several positive things occur:

  • First and foremost, the best and most current project information is available to everyone.  This is a significant win for the business, as they need to adapt daily to constantly changing business conditions. 
  • Second, obstacles and unclear requirements are immediately identified and addressed.  Having an empowered product owner on the team results in real time feedback rather than trying to obtain clarifications over the course of days, weeks, or months. 
  • Finally, we completely shift the dynamic we have with our customers.  Subtly and gradually, we begin to face our problems side by side.

From opposition to partnership

Side by side conversations are a bit magical.  We are on the same side of the table as our business partners, working together on a common problem.  And, when difficulty arises, we are much better positioned to work through the issues together. 

Monique Valcour notes in the Harvard Business Review that this side by side dynamic shifts difficult conversations from opposition to partnership: “In the midst of a difficult conversation, it’s easy to see your conversational partner as your opponent.  Try repositioning yourself — both mentally and physically — to be side by side with the other person, so that you’re focused on the same problem. Use the metaphor of ‘coming around to the same side of the table’ to remind yourself to seek to build an alliance when a conversation gets stuck.”

When we stop and think about it, none of us really wants to work on the other side of the table from our business partners.  Our challenge is that we sometimes lack the training and understanding to position ourselves on the same side as our customer.  I see this dynamic in both the workplaces I visit and the graduate classes I teach.  The good news is that we can learn to have these conversations side by side and foster a completely different partnership dynamic.  The transparency of the scrum process is a huge step in the right direction.  Instead of confronting one other when a problem arises, we stand alongside our customers to discuss a problem we both have in common.

Ode to Yanni

The job of the technologist is to translate complex problems into solutions that are simple, straightforward, and efficient.  We cannot do this effectively without our business partners and customers.  The more feedback and communication we have from them, the faster we can develop solutions that drive competitive advantage and make a difference.  Transparency accelerates this progress and fosters productive relationships where our technical and interpersonal skills are valued. 

Yanni has learned a lot of new lessons in her lifetime.  Are we willing to learn to be more transparent in our interactions and relationships with our business partners, and to grow our soft skills?  The return on investment might be surprising, and we all might see the path forward more clearly.

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