the top 5 secrets to improving team communication – live blogging from qcon

Top Five Secrets to Improving Team Communication so that you can Scale your Tech Team without Failing
Speaker: Debbie Madden @debbiemadden200
See the list of all blog posts from the conference

Works for Stride – an agile development consulting company – co-locate with team to improve code and team

“We back a good team and a team is the most important criteria for investment” – venture capitalists

Communication gets harder as number of people grows. Plus teams you need to interface with.

Books Referenced

  • The Advantage by Patrick Lencionoi – why organizational health trumps everything else in business
  • No Man’s Land – what to do when your cmpany is too big to be small but too small to be big – Doug Tatum

#1 Recognize chaos

    1. Recognize status quo
    2. Much easier to see someone else’s mess than your own
    3. All teams go through alternating periods of calm and chaos
    4. Greiner Curve – 6 periods of calm/chaos as company grows/time goes on.
      • Start with creativity
      • Leadership crisis – who is in charge
      • Then get direction
      • Autonomy crisis – who is empowered to do what
      • Then get Delegation
      • Control crisis – c-suite fighting
      • Then get Coordination
      • Red tape crisis
      • Then get Collaboration
      • Growth crisis
      • Then get alliances
    5. Chaos looks like hard things, unhappy people,procedures in the way and misaligned management
    6. Your engineers didn’t get dumber. You scaled to the next level of chaos
    7. Peers are most accurate gauge of understanding where team is – don’t hae to be peers on team

#2 Change it up

    • Chaos doesn’t happen overnight; creeps up on you.
    • “Implementing these changes won’t be easy; we’re pretty set in doing things the wrong way”
    • Change meeting rhythms: ex: people/roles/length/cadence/agenda
    • Kill/combine/keep retrospectives on meetings every 6 month
    • Verbally decline to attend meeting
    • Create a spreadsheet of all meetings you (or your team) attend. Which can you get rid of completely? Which meetings have same people and can be merged?
    • “It’s not that people hate meetings; it’s that they hate bad ones”
    • Fist of fives – all rate meeting on scape of 1-5 with finger voting. 1 is waste of time and five is best meeting ever. If didn’t vote five, have opportunity to say what would makeit a five. Can see opportunities for improvement and trends. Did something change?
    • Wipe the slate clean and identify what roles are needed. Figure out most ideal role for team members amongst current team members. People work best if passionate about role. See what gaps remain. Big companies struggle when keep people in wrong seat. [seems scary to have to worry about whether “right person for job” every 6 months. she framed it as setting people up for success, but it still seems scary]
    • People are more productive when have right values more so than having right skills. The people with great skills and bad values are the toxic ones because they have influence
    • As you grow your team, standards increase. This means people who used to be “A players” now aren’t and they don’t want to pair/mentor/etc because struggling.
    • Hard to recognize your own mess. A coach can help. Everyone has own view and can share.

#3 Communicate the why

  • Feel the meaning
  • Understand the why/how/what of what doing
  • Repeat the why – it takes time to “take”
  • Need employees to believe in the “why”

#4 Prioritize team productivity

  • vs individual productivity
  • Referenced the Google article from the previous session
  • On a good team, people speak in same proportion. Encourage people to speak at meeting. Suggest quieter people email thoughts the next day so have time to think
  • Disagree and commit – silence is disaggreement)

#5 Protect team health

  • Without a team that trusts each other, none of the above matters
  • Trust has capability (skills) and desire (want to be there) aspects
  • Healthy conflict – don’t want to avoid conflict entirely

This was a higher level presentation than I thought. I expected more about teams all less about company wide topics. [I double checked the abstract and confirmed it says team]. She ran out of time for #4 and #5 so they were rushed despite importance

She also went on a rant about telecommuters not collaborating. That’s not always true. Just because YOUR team doesn’t do Google Hangouts well doesn’t mean remote people don’t contribute. I don’t telecommute often, but my co-workers do. And they are effective. She also dismissed remote pair programming and telecommuting being about saving a 30 minute commute and being in your PJs.

the trust cycle vs the hype cycle

Most of have seen the Gartner hype cycle graph – shown here from wikipedia.  This got me thinking about what would happen if we tried to do the same thing – except with trusting our teammates to see how they compare.  I’m calling that the “trust cycle.”  While we do hear a lot about trust and team in agile, the only place I found using the term “trust cycle” wasDavid Weiss’ blog.

The beginning:

With the hype cycle, we start at basically zero.  We haven’t heard of something and we remain skeptical until we hear a little.  Then we get too excited.

With the trust cycle, I think you start more in the middle.  When you first meet someone, you don’t inherently trust or distrust them.  And at the beginning, people are pretty cautious and don’t do anything to change that.

The middle

With the hype cycle, the trigger for change is reality.  We go from inflated expectations to seeing what the technology can really do.  Since our expectations were too high, we fall harder.

With the the trust cycle, the trigger for change depends on whether it is positive or negative.  For positive trust (teambuilding), it just takes time.  Our trust level slowly goes up until we trust the person fully.  For negative, the jump happens much faster.  Either as a series of little things that make you suspicious (as shown in the graph) or as one big thing that causes a series drop.  Once we’ve dropped, trust either stays at rock bottom or gets re-earned very slowly.

The end

Both cycles stabilize at the end.  The hype cycle stabilizes at reality.  The trust cycle stabilizes at either trust or distrust.


This stickyminds article talks about how to build trust.  What do you think about the trust cycle?