To continue the conversation of valuing development, we're going to explain how we use the expectations (covered in the first chapter) to help mitigate the risks (identified in the second chapter) with the crucial concept of ongoing communication. While this defines a process and mindset that is used throughout the relationship, communication practices are often not discussed or considered at the beginning of a relationship. Vaporware takes great pride in defining communication practices for a healthy relationship up front. If the communication expectations don't match (or become misaligned) it can often cause rifts in a relationship that fall to a bitter end.
Is this marriage counseling?
Actually, a professional relationship is very similar to a marriage. Even in business, humans are very emotional and social beings. You don't have to look farther than the largest capitalist entities, like the NY Stock Exchange or Apple Inc., to see how social and emotional our personal relationships to "corporate" entities are. So how, like marriages, do we keep development relationships healthyWe communicate frequently, in great detail, and with respect.
Frequency and detail
In order to maintain a relationship, communication must be frequent. While frequency is a blurred spectrum, it's often better to over communicate and risk annoyance than under communicate and miss vital information. Just as the Lean Startup defines customer communication as vital to a product's success, we as developers desire to communicate frequently with our clients. The key is balance and healthy moderation, and with varying levels of detail.
Since different levels of communication come in different frequencies, it's important to define which frequency receives what detail. If you're constantly communicating the overall goal of the project, it could seem redundant and a disrespect of contributors' time. Also, if big-picture topics are continuously brought up for discussion, it often can be perceived as indecisiveness and churn instead of clear execution. No matter how you like to communicate, it's important to create a culture around a common understanding of these expectations and practices.
How Vaporware communicates
We use 4 different levels of communication at Vaporware to effectively communicate frequently. Starting with the rarest level of communication:
- Monthly Estimates and Reviews. This communication usually comes in the form of signed documents. These short (1 page) documents define how the last phase went and how we expect the next phase of work to happen - defined as bullet point goals and high-level time estimates. A signature on these documents shows that the topic was discussed and many individuals had input into the overall process. These documents and review sessions are the perfect time to discuss major pivots, reprioritization of work, and cost effectiveness. We often bring on or wrap up contributors here as well. Note that in our experience these documents don't line up with the regular (weekly or monthly) invoices, as they review "sprints" instead of delineated time segments.
- Weekly Face-to-Face. These meetings are designed to keep people socially comfortable with the entire team of contributors. Since we're social beings, we require some physical face-to-face contact. While these meetings are scheduled weekly, projects and schedules flex, so they realistically happen every 1-2 weeks, depending on the relationship health (length of relationship, trust, or other immediate issues). This 1-2 hour meeting is more about connecting on an emotional level with all the participants. Due to remote working, we've found that Google Hangouts is an acceptable solution for most meetings.
- As Needed (Daily) Task-Specific. Persistent communication over Asana and Google Drive allow each contributor to rope in another as-needed on individual task issues. This 'unblocking' exercise is persistent enough for the whole team to keep chatter to a minimum and on topic to particular issues. Asana also doubles as an overall project health list which allows stakeholders to view the status of projects during weekly face to face meetings. Pro tip: we also use the completed tasks to help recap what was done the previous month.
- Constant IM/Group Chatter. Up to the minute messages build culture and enhance happiness. Even though it's easily muted, funny GIFs or slack "pings" are enough brain release to allow a remote or part time team to be effective. It's vital that this is flexible for remote/part time workers, that documentation and larger discussions can fall back to persistent communication tools, and decisions are made with appropriate stakeholders when necessary.
How to Stick to Plans and Continue Shipping
When working in a collaborative (always connected) environment, it's difficult to split your time between communication and productive work. While our experience in Corporate America definitely had too many meetings, we've found that constant communication heads off problems and road blockers before they cause cascading problems. We're also strong believers that everyone is a contributor (more on our open allocation approach later).
In an always connected environment it's important to develop a culture where interruptions aren't constant, as it's detrimental to other contributors productivity. For example, when using an always-on video chat tool like Sqwiggle, it's effective to instate a policy like headphones mean do not disturb. Or with Slack, we reserve the right to use notifications to levels of responses. When everyone understands the consequences of their interruptions, communication becomes more concise. This is especially noticeable in a co-working environment, where open walls, loud environments, and headphones are standard.
While there are a few opponents to this physical-space approach, the underlying truth is that each team behaves and interacts differently. We've found that everyone in the same room needs to be working towards the same goals, or minimally, the same client.
bmlProbably less common, but more important, is the impact of frequent meetings from decision makers with extra time on their hands. Without a decisive project lead, it's easy to constantly second-guess and revisit past assumptions or ideas. If these assumptions are too loose, then work can churn without forward progress in one direction.
For those familiar with the Lean Process: if the entire loop (including the measure and learn stages) is not completed, then the work that was performed can be considered waste.
Communication is (paid) work
A much longer discussion that we will have in another post, but communication is part of the work that we do, and part of what our clients pay for. I recently got a $500 bill for playing phone tag with a lawyer. Outrageous situations like this are avoided through our communication methods above, as we're often able to communicate effectively in hand with high returns work (coding, designing, training).
The final piece to communicating effectively is in the way you treat others. We use key phrases like "How Might We" and "Not Now" to soften passionate topics. Humor and sarcasm, carefully placed and mirrored, often lighten the mood when things get tense.
People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
How might we respect each other when communicating in all of these different environments? Each medium has a different feel and efficiency, but respect is vital to all methods and platforms of communication. It's important to realize that everyone has an off day and makes mistakes. Things get passionate, ideas can be born or killed, and people can get hungry! Stay focused, stay positive, and be respectful.
Find your communication soulmates
At the end of the day, you've used processes to get things done. Maybe you can adapt to another, or are still searching for the best one yet, but you'll be comfortable with at most two forms of communication. Be sure to evaluate this up front to make sure your development team communicates best through your languages. If not, be sure to estimate for longer communication sessions. Time, common understanding, and respect will assist in bridging the gap.
Want to see if we're communication soulmates? Come meet us in person during my HQ Raleigh Office Hours or request a time to meet.