When implemented properly, agility serves as a framework or methodology for the support of collaboration, flexibility, and continuous improvement.* Its basis is communication and feedback; agile working focuses on iterations, close cooperation between team members, and customer involvement. It is not possible without open and constructive communication among all relevant stakeholders. A culture characterized by collegiality and psychological safety encourages everyone to contribute fully without fear of negative consequences.
Imagine you are in charge of a new product in development, the so-called product owner. You work in two-week periods, the sprints, and you review the results at the conclusion of each of these periods. During such a session, one of the developers — let’s call her Jane — explains how she completed one of the required features. During the presentation, you notice that merely placeholders rather than the final graphics have been integrated into the frontend.
Since you expected that “finished” meant that the function was ready for use, you are a bit confused. When you raise the issue, Jane, the developer, becomes defensive and explains that she hasn’t received the graphics from the graphics department and that is why she hasn’t been able to close her task. Nevertheless, in her opinion, the function really is “done” since her part of the development has been completed. After some hesitation, she also admits that she did not know how to ask officially for the icons, nor does she consider doing so her responsibility. In the end, you, the product owner, express your disappointment to the developer and note that you expect her to work more effectively next time.
This example illustrates the significance of communication, feedback, and psychological safety. Most of you who have worked on an agile team have no doubt encountered similar situations or, at the very least, have observed some of the elements of this story. So let’s examine in more detail what happened here.
Clear communication — a self-evident aspect that is often forgotten
With the proliferation of remote teams, face-to-face communication is not always possible, despite often being essential to agile working. When this is the case, it is even more important that all team members have the communication skills enabling them to express themselves and their expertise in a common language.
A fundamental step is the creation of a common understanding of roles, processes, and expectations. The incident described above could have been avoided if a “definition of done” (DoD) for a function had been previously established and communicated as Jane could then have objectively determined that she had in fact not yet finished her work on the function. The same can be said about processes and responsibilities.
A further issue here seems to be the lack of an atmosphere in which Jane felt safe enough to talk about the information she did not have. The collaborative nature of working in an agile environment cannot be leveraged unless team members feel safe and know how they can communicate effectively as well as share their ideas, problems, and doubts.
Feedback — the fine art of agile working
A key advantage of agile project management is the incremental way of working. These benefits can be fully realized when feedback is an integral part of the system, and this goes hand in hand with clear, concise, and consistent communication. Feedback in all directions is critical.
Self-reflection is of major significance as it helps team members to identify their strengths and weaknesses and to improve continuously.
User feedback is important to provide insights from a business perspective to the team. The team must absorb the feedback and transform it into new ideas and features. They must be willing and able to accept feedback from customers, even if it is contrary to their own opinions. This type of feedback can be collected from stakeholders and customers during demonstrations or exploratory activities or by any other means that produce the required data.
Team feedback is decisive because team members are encouraged to learn from one another and to identify areas for improvement. An agile team performing the typical agile rituals will formalize the results in reviews and retrospectives. Simultaneously, all team members should be able to give and receive feedback at quite short intervals or even in real time if called for.
How can we do it better?
Returning to the case study described at the beginning, we can determine three basic factors for team optimization:
- A protected environment
- Clear communication
- Effective feedback
These factors are all closely tied to one another. Most actions a team member takes to improve one factor will have an impact on the others.
A secure and protected environment is often known as an environment of psychological safety. The Harvard professor Amy Edmondson has had a major influence on the formulation of the concept, noting that it describes the shared “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”** This lays the groundwork for communication and feedback.
Although managers are in a position to exercise greater influence on the creation of psychological safety, it should not be left up to them alone. In our opening scenario, psychological safety could have ensured an environment in which all developers talked freely about processes and difficulties, even if a solution had not yet been found. Here are some measures for the improvement of psychological safety:
Provide the team with the space and time that will foster open communication and encourage sharing. This can take place during the daily scrum or in formal retrospectives. Possible questions you might ask:
- What has changed since yesterday?
- Are we working on something that wasn’t planned?
- What is the desired outcome?
- What can we do next?
- Listen actively without interrupting or judging and express appreciation for each contribution.
- Focus on the learning potential of mistakes and avoid blaming or punishing anyone.
- Address conflicts while focusing on a solution that benefits everyone.
- Be a role model: offer support and ask for it proactively!
Research has shown that teams with high levels of psychological safety are more willing to take risks, to experiment, and to learn from mistakes. In an agile environment where iteration and continuous improvement are essential, psychological safety can help you to adapt quickly and to deliver high-quality products or services to customers.
As a complement to psychological safety, clear, precise, and transparent communication can prevent different assumptions about the status of each function and the responsibilities of colleagues from being made. Possible steps to promote this type of communication:
- Establish a common language: This goes beyond specifying the actual language to include agreement on a common set of terms, definitions, and professional jargon that is transparent to all and that ensures everyone’s ability to follow discussions.
- Communication of expectations, responsibilities, and processes: Everyone on the team must know what is expected of him or her.
- Use of digital tools for transparency: Everyone should know where to find what information, regardless of the tool being used.
- Don’t skip regular meetings: This is especially important in an agile environment. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to attend the meetings!
Effective feedback is a critical ingredient for successful communication. In an agile environment, feedback should always be specific, timely, and realizable. It should be objective, not personal, and communicated constructively and respectfully, without judgment.
What constitutes good feedback:
- Find the balance between feedback that is appreciative while directly pointing out opportunities for improvement*** — no feedback sandwich, please!
- One way to formulate feedback is to begin by describing personal observations without judgment, then clarifying implications, and finally expressing a desire for future behavior.
- Actively requesting and offering feedback is always good.
- Consider the person and situation: Adapt your feedback appropriately so that it is as effective as possible!
In our example, constant and timely feedback would prevent a recurrence of this situation. This principle is not only true of feedback within the team; it applies as well to feedback and communication with all types of stakeholders.
In this sense, keep this statement in mind: Communication and feedback are key elements of agile working — and beyond.
***For more, see Kim Scott’s Radical Candor Model