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Friday, August 30, 2013

Chaos Control: Agility in transforming communication - SIT principle

One of the main ingredients of a Project Manager’s success is taking charge of communication. If communication is half of the struggle, then, how you communicate is the remaining part of the trouble. Recently, I observed a series of emails from a number of remotely distributed team members. Within a few hours, there were close to 35 emails on the same topic with various members not always picking up the latest thread and using that prohibited button, “Reply to All”. Reminding me of a war room where all members were screaming at each other, this observation is an example of “Email Noise” that serves its very opposite purpose of “Clear Communication.” Proving that emails loses transparency to project team (let alone executives), fails to hold people accountable in a situation that calls for collaboration, and loses control in prioritizing the work queue unless the project manages “takes charge”.

Agile principles promote that teams should be collocated for this reason. Besides, communication is structured to ask what happened yesterday, what is going to happen today, and what are the obstacles to reach the goals? While change is constant and agile accommodates it, this does not mean that some basic principles of productivity management for systems development (Barry & Wyatt, 1996) should fly out the window. These principles include 1) defining the job in detail, 2) getting right people involved, 3) estimating time and costs, 4) breaking the job down, 5) establishing the change procedure, and 6) agreeing on the acceptance criteria.

Remote distributed virtual team structures are not disappearing. Project Managers and functional leaders should become attuned to this requirement and need to be “agile” in their thinking and communication so that these team structures can still benefit from unambiguous communication that I believe can be can be categorized into one of the three categories – Semantics, Influence, & Technology (SIT). 
  1. When the question is relatively easy (Boolean response of somewhat fuzzy but still not complex), it can be categorized as technical. For instance, checking on availability of an individual to cover for someone during a holiday period (Boolean) or requesting someone to check for review error logs to identify the cause or review a long document for clarity, resorting to email is definitely better.
  2. But, when the same requires deeper discussions requiring prioritization of tasks to meet client needs, and working on multiple projects that have resource constraints, then, communication is no longer simple requiring one to exhibit influence over what the project team may think.
  3. When the team structure is distributed across time zones or the environment requires navigating through multiple client priorities, personality profiles, escaped defects noted by the client in production aggravating users, the communication evolves to semantics where ambiguity reigns.

One may find that this resonates to the principle of information theory where the Channel Capacity (C) the strength of “signal” has to be increased within the allowable limits of the bandwidth in the channel (B) over the noise (N) introduced. Interested readers can review the Shannon-Hartley theorem (n.d.) for the details . The same is true even in Project Communication:

Clarity in communication is directly proportional to the versatility of the communication style of the originator and inversely proportional to the presence of verbal communication in the communication medium. 

I view this clarity in communication as the utility value of the agility in communication. An email going out asking a question or answering a question for which another question is asked in response means that communication is ambiguous. Such iterative sprints of email communication will not be interactive yielding results when influence and semantics mandate attention. Use of video podcasts, conference bridges, and plain collaborative conversations will transform the signal strength in communication. Using this SIT model determining the right vehicle to communicate is more important than the communication. In order to be successful in agile, one has to be agile and think agile. Results will then speak for themselves.

Barry, T., & Wyatt, B. (1996). The six principles of productivity management - project management for systems development. 27th Annual Seminar/Symposium, Project Management Institute.

Shannon-Hartley theorem (n.d.). Retrieved Aug 27, 2013, from

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