Product development is hard. Simplifying a complex problem into a lovable product or service requires team effort, knowledge and empathy for the users. But it is still relatively simple compared to communication. To set the stage, let’s take Osmo A. Wiio’s law which claims that “communication usually fails, except by accident”. We are bound to fail unless we accidentally get things right.

At the same time, I can safely say that communication is the secret ingredient in any team effort. Whether it is sports, family or building digital services. It was until I was around 14 years old when I had my a-ha moment regarding the importance of communication. We had a basketball team of talented individuals, but failed to reach our full potential and lost tight matches. It felt miserable back then.

Lessons learned on the basketball court

Having watched our team crawl, our coach told us that we need to start seeing and hearing each other on the court. He stressed that to be seen and heard, we needed to make ourselves heard and seen as well. And that’s what we started to do. Communicate explicitly by speaking and complemented that with non-verbal body language and various mutually agreed signs.

Most importantly, we were always on the look for receiving signals from others, not primarily focused in self-centric talking. We transformed into a team that truly played together as a single unit, had fun on the court, and as a by-product of all this, we started to win and were the team to beat.

Communication and product development

That’s all fine and dandy, but how does this really map to software product development? In the good old agile manifesto we agilists prefer “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and “customer collaboration over contract negotiation“. Two of the four pillars guiding us in modern development processes emphasize the importance of crisp communication.

Also, the classic Five Orders of Ignorance publication states that software development can be viewed as knowledge acquisition and ignorance reduction. It is easy to agree with this, especially when working on a greenfield project. In these projects, the information is often gathered by applying human-centric design methods into product development. The success is highly correlated with the ability to communicate and capture the problem domain into designs and software models.

When discussing product development, we can’t bypass Conway’s law, which states that “organizations which design systems (in the broad sense used here) are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organization”. If we combine poor communication into this mix, then what kind of systems are we expected to create? We end up modelling mistaken and inaccurate communication structures into systematic machines that are very effective in executing wrong orders.

Failure to communicate

Many years ago, I had joined a new team and I was highly motivated to ship some code and show my skills. The team’s product owner played his part and we had a well-organized backlog at our disposal. But there was something awfully wrong. Silencio, our team was silent most of the time. We gathered for the mechanic daily stand up, had quiet lunch and then went home. The business problems we tried to solve were pretty straightforward with very little business logic, but we still had no clue of the correct business rules. The customer was not co-located and we were a disconnected team.

Technically we played the Scrum game well, but we did not deliver and I felt lost. Regardless of my feeble efforts to get communication to a par level, I failed. We had no connection and no communication medium. Luckily the team was dismantled due to other business reasons. That team had no capability to produce purposeful software regardless of our technical skills.

A success story and a hope for the better

The dysfunctional team was very difficult for me mentally, because prior to this failed team I had just worked in a team that communicated with a totally different mindset. The business domain was extremely complex and the team had no prior history of working together.

Regardless of all this, we were able to nail down the complex requirements. We discussed every corner of the domain from different angles and did that constantly. We listened actively. We modeled the domain visually and had it on our team wall. The customer was co-located and we were able to go through every single detail whenever there was a need for it. Also, we had a psychologically safe environment, so we weren’t afraid of mistakes and could question the requirements if we had a more suitable solution in mind. Without this high level of communication, the project would have been a disaster.

Methods for a higher signal to noise ratio

How to get communication right then? Well, according to Wiio’s theory we can only succeed accidentally, right? But there are a few things which we can do to increase our odds in hitting the accident. Number one thing is to learn to listen, which is a lot harder than many think. Listening is not waiting for your turn to talk. Listening is asking follow-up questions and being interested in the message and the one who delivers it.

The second most important thing is to make sure we are explicit in transmitting information and make sure that the message has been received. Also, when we receive information we need to be explicit in our acknowledgment response or ask complementary questions. We developers can look for an example from HTTP protocol or any programming API. The more explicit schema or type system we have, the more likely we are to succeed in utilizing third-party components. Communication is always a two-way street: request and response, not forgetting data validation and processing - listening.

Misconceptions are common and often the root cause of many failures. The more complex and difficult the topic the more likely one should favor face-to-face communication. Body language and facial expressions provide indispensable context-specific information when meeting people in real life.

Regardless of my efforts to focus on communication, I still often fail. There is always room for improvement. When we fail in communication, relationships can end, countries are driven into conflicts and the products we build to help our customers don’t serve the purpose. We make poor decisions based on misinterpreted and incomplete information. But I believe there is still hope. If we choose to put that little extra effort into communication, listen with empathy and be explicit in transmitting and receiving the data, we might well end up crafting purposeful products and make the world a better place. I challenge you to try it.

This post was originally published in Wunderdog’s Blog