If your Scrum Team's performance matters, it NEEDS to have excellent communication.

In this article,

First, I will show you why strong communication within the teams is more important than ever.

Then, I will help you with strategies to improve your Scrum Team's communication.

 

Before we get into the importance of strong communication, let me share a quick story of John.

John, a Sr. VP of a financial services organization was leading a 400 strong group. The lack of positive work environment was his biggest concern. John wanted to address it as soon as he could. John formed a team to address this issue. They collectively resolved to create a healthy and positive workplace. After months of investigations, surveys, observations and team brainstormings, they nailed one reason that had to be improved - Communication.

John's organization isn't an anomaly. Various studies show that poor communication causes over a half of the projects to fail.

Effective communication is equally important for the success of a Scrum Team.

Scrum is a high-intensity team sport. Good communication is one of the essential elements to build a robust Scrum team.

Lack of communication or poor communication will invariably cause your Scrum team to fall apart.

Strong communication among the Scrum Team is an essential element for effective collaboration and co-creation of value.

If the communication within your Scrum Team is broken, don't let it be.

IMHO, Scrum Master should be the first person to observe and act if such conditions within a Scrum Team prevail.

 

Signs of poor communication

Here are 8 most common indicators that you as a Scrum Master can sense in your team with sample tips and examples:

1- Using a monologue over a dialogue.

Reflect: Watch out how the Product Owner talks at the Product Backlog Refinement meetings.

2- Disregarding feelings of others.

Reflect: Let the truth be told but are the team members considerate and empathetic?

3- Making personal comments during communication.

Reflect: Is every team member being accepted for who they are and for their unique personality?

4- Being Subjective/Vague.

Reflect: What is the progress towards the Sprint Goal in last 24 hours? Actively listen-in during the Daily Scrum.

5- Playing the blame game.

Reflect: Does the team have a shared ownership of the outcomes? Watch out the Retrospective from turning in to a place for blame games.

6- Resisting feedback

Reflect: Is the feedback being given and received constructively?

7- Lack of shared language of communication

Reflect: Does everyone on the team speak and understand the common language? Do they have a clear and transparent Definition of Done?

8- No new ideas coming up during discussions

Reflect: What's keeping the team from sharing their ideas? Is anything holding them back? Are the team members focused?

What are the possible consequences of poor communication?

 

Here are 10 most common consequences of lack of good communication within the team:

1- Lack of shared understanding.

2- Conflict.

3- Trust erosion.

4- Us v/s They feelings.

5- Wastage in the process. Over-processing required.

6- Getting things done becomes difficult.

7- Additional Formal approvals, sign-offs required.

8- Reduction in the team empowerment.

9- Self-organization becomes difficult, giving back way for top-down management.

10- Reduced product quality.

I've used the below strategies repeatedly with Scrum Team's to help them boost the level of communication.

7 Proven Strategies to Improve your Scrum Team Communication:

 

1- Improve Transparency:

Lack of transparency of artifacts and information hinders active communication. Identify which artifacts/information lacks transparency and how can it be improved. Enhanced transparency helps establish the context for communication and enables quick decision making.

Encourage the team members to practice and promote transparency.

Show them examples of transparency, it's advantages and how your team can benefit from it.

2- Facilitate Interactions:

Observe what is restricting the interactions and what is promoting. As a Scrum Master design your meetings and environment for face-to-face interactions among the team members.

The Agile Manifesto rightly calls out the preference for - People and Interactions over Process and Tools as it's very first value.

Say, if you as a Scrum Master observe that the use of a particular tool/method of communication is reducing the interactions between the team members, what would you do?

One simple approach you can try is to pause the use of that tool/method for a week. Observe if the interactions improve.

Try to find approaches that improve interactions. For example: If your User Stories are written on index cards - it'll prompt further communication v/s Detailed User Stories written in a multi-page document or an electronic tool.

3- Bring Clarity:

Clarity in the communication is crucial and directly correlates to the success of the Scrum team. As a Scrum Master, ensure that the team members understand the basic rules of the Scrum.

Team members must have clarity about their roles, responsibilities, their team's Sprint capacity, and the scope of the problem that needs to be solved. Having a clear idea about the dates that are important for the success of the product, the purpose of the product, the customer feedback, the action items from the Sprint Retrospective, etc. helps the entire team take shared ownership of the team's results.

4- Make Communication Visual:

I can't emphasize on this enough. A lot of miscommunication happens because what is told is not what is heard, forget about the understanding. Sometimes people are not able to clearly say what they want to and the listeners may end up understanding something completely different.

Making the communication visual is a great way to bridge this miscommunication gap.

Whiteboards, flip charts, sketch-notes, graphic notes, etc. enhance the richness of communication by making the discussion contextual to the tasks at hand and also help visualize the ideas. The use of visual aids allow for quick + crisp dialogue among the team members and rapid decision making.

This one is a low cost and high ROI investment.

Supply your team members with enough of the dry erase markers and erasers. Let their meetings (formal and informal) make use of whiteboards and flip charts.

Two developers drawing and discussing the architectural design of the code on a whiteboard is one of the most common scenes we might be familiar with.

Having plenty of whiteboards (fixed and portable) and flip charts near your team's working area prompts the team members to use them. The PO discussing User Stories with the Development Team members, User Experience Design conversations among the team members, technical design decisions, user acceptance testing as well as customer feedback - all of these conversations can be enhanced with the use of visual aids.

Whiteboards promote face-to-face interactions. The use of whiteboards will allow your team members to move away from wasteful passive communication to valuable rich communication.

Frequent use of the whiteboards IMHO is almost directly related to the number of quality conversations, and ideas your team members will be able to discuss.

5- Create Trust in the Environment:

Lack of trust among people will directly impact the communication and openness. All the process improvements will matter less in the absence of Trust.

If the team members are not comfortable speaking up, investigate the reasons.

Try to create an open environment where people feel safe to share their ideas and can ask questions without being judged.

When the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect are embodied and lived by the Scrum Team, the Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life and build trust for everyone. - Scrum Guide 2017

Building trust in the workplace requires consistent efforts from everyone on the team. The Scrum Master can coach the team members to be consistent, responsible and truthful to build trust.

Building trust is a slow process. It also requires a high level of consistency in the behavior. However, the results of building high trust are far-reaching.

If you implement above three ways - Improve transparency, and facilitate face-to-face interactions using whiteboards, you can expect the trust levels within the work environment go a few notches up.

6- Unite People with Purpose:

If the people don't know why they need to work on something, if people are not excited about it, there is less motivation for them to participate fully. Disengaged employees will usually stay passive in the communication. Uniting purpose-driven teams becomes easy and yields long-term results.

It's important that the team members know the purpose that drives the product and the organization.

It doesn't hurt to repeat and remind everyone the purpose that binds the organization and drives their decision making.

The Scrum Master must ensure that every team member is directly able to interact with the customer.

Understanding how the product one is working on creates impact in the lives of the customers is highly motivating and massively rewarding in the long term.

7- Use Non-Violent Communication:

Understand the basic human needs.

 * Psychological Nurturance: food, exercise, rest, sex, shelter, touch.

* Safety: being able to show and employ one's self without the fear of negative consequences on the status or career" (Kahn 1990)

* Interdependence: acceptance, appreciation, community, enriching life, safety, empathy, honesty, love, respect, support, trust, understanding

* Freedom: the ability to choose one’s goals, values, plans

* Celebration: creation of life and goals fulfilled, celebrate wins and losses

When these needs are unmet, the resultant response is usually feeling of threat. In the condition of threat, the brain's normal logical reasoning function is taken over by Amygdala - a neurochemical responsible for fight or flight response in humans.

The usual communication style of people is to compete, judge, demand and diagnose.

The Scrum Master practices and teaches the team to practice Non-Violent Communication.

Benefits of Non-Violent Communication are:

  • Conflict Resolution: Get to the heart of conflict and disputes quickly, Improve cooperation and resolve the conflict.
  • Personal Relations: Deepen emotional connection. Get what you want more often without using demands, guilt or shame.
  • Organizational Effectiveness: Improve teamwork, efficiency and morale. Increase meeting productivity.
  • Business Relations: Strengthen employee morale and loyalty. Reduce stress and absenteeism. Maximize employee potential.

 

Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of NVC framework expressed it as more than a communication model. Below NVC elements offer a structural concept of the NVC process that leads to giving and receiving from the heart.

Honestly Expressing how I am and what I would like without using blame, criticism or demands

Empathically Receiving how another is and what he/she would like without hearing blame, criticism or demands

NVC focuses our attention on four pieces of information - irrespective of expressing or receiving,

Observations—Objectively describing what is going on without using evaluation, moralistic judgment, interpretation or diagnosis

Feelings—Saying how you feel (emotions and body sensations) about what you have observed without assigning blame

Needs—The basic human needs that are or not being met and are the source of feelings

Requests—Clear request for actions that can meet needs

 

Got Challenges?

Your team's context and challenges may be unique. Your people's communication preferences may be diverse. The communication skill level within your team may be extremely low. The motivation level of your people to cooperate, communicate and collaborate may be negligible.

The existence of all of these challenges warrants the need for an excellent and skilled Scrum Master.

A servant-leader who can facilitate the creation of an excellent communication platform for the team to benefit from and thrive.