Are You Dumb?
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Friday, September 13th, is a good day to write about one nasty communication prerequisite. I started on non-violent communication for agile software development teams a few weeks ago, and it looks like this subject is of interest to many people. The prerequisite I’m talking about is called “assuming dumbness”.
Here’s how this implication manifests itself. The example that I have presented here comes from years of my work with leads and customers. You probably know that they tend to want more and more new features from the software product they’re using, or just looking at. They keep asking, and not only about features. Customers also come with their troubles … and report bugs. It requires a certain toughness to deal with people who seem to never be satisfied with what they get, and maintain your psychological sanity. If customers keep asking for months, maybe even for years, and still don’t get what they want, then a nasty feeling of unfulfillment may creep in. Well, the reasons for what seems to be a never-ending “not available yet” answer might be obvious to product managers who have their priorities and strategic considerations in mind. The “assuming dumbness” syndrome appears if these strategic considerations are not communicated well to colleagues who interact with customers daily. Here’s what those folks-in-the trenches might think about the product people: “Are they dumb? How long can we go on living without this feature?" Or, "what's with this nasty bug, that is still unfixed?” If people are left hanging alone with such questions in their minds, it’s very dangerous. Not once have I said that customer-facing people deserve a monument for their mental toughness. It would be a lot easier for them to be solid, though, if they were aware that big brother is watching. Product managers listen and care. They just have their own priorities for the product in mind, while they appreciate all the hard work that their support/marketing/sales colleagues do.
The assumption of dumbness shows itself in myriad other cases. Whenever your first thought is: “Why have they done this? Why haven’t they done that? Are they dumb?” this is an alarm bell. I don’t remember now where exactly have I heard this, but one of the principles for working in a group is to assume that all people perform to the best of their ability. However, we do have our bad days, and when we are in a bad mood, we are more likely to think of the colleagues who add more troubles to our daily work as dumbasses.
This syndrome can be cured quite easily. First, if you work in a team of competent professionals, they can never be dumb. They always have their reasons for acting the way they do, it’s just that they might not have shared those reasons with others. Why have I written error messages in this screen like that? Believe me, I’ve given it enough consideration, and I’ve looked into the slightest implications and perspectives that this error message is supposed to bring. Just don’t forget to run it by me, will you? Why don't developers want to make this element dynamic? This would be so much easier for the users! Developers have their own reasons, too. It might be it’d take too much time to make this small thing alluring. So, developers weigh their options, and, yes, they’re aware that a dynamic element would look better here. But they have their own reasons for not implementing it. Why is marketing so eager to make a new release public? Are they dumb? It’s too early! No, they are not dumb. They are just overly optimistic about the progress, and they overlooked some technical considerations (that come first to the minds of those responsible for the infrastructure part). Things like that.
This is not exactly what Marshall Rosenberg writes about in his book on non-violent communication. This is a prerequisite. Keep your sensors tuned to it, and practice your ability to empathize with others. Your first thought when coming across something unclear should not be “are they dumb?” but “they must have their own reasons for acting this way, so I’ll leave it at that, or, if I need to, I’ll find out more about what those reasons are”.