Improving Agility by Optimizing Your Communication Channels
Agility thrives on communication. Yet so many organizations struggle to create the systems, processes, and culture needed to facilitate effective communication.
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Improving Agility by Optimizing Your Communication Channels
Agility thrives on communication. It is almost a platitude to say that effective communication among team members, and between the team and their stakeholders, the rest of the organization, and the outside world is essential to building high-performing agile teams and organizations. Yet so many organizations struggle to create the systems, processes, and organizational culture needed to facilitate effective communication.
In this article, I will try to address one angle of this problem — namely, how we identify the communication channels that are effective and the ones that need optimizing, and then how we go about optimizing the channels that are under-performing. My purpose is to demonstrate that once we start looking at communication not as a broad phenomenon (we communicate well — we're not good at communication) but in terms of specific communication channels and the different aspects of their effectiveness, we stand a better chance at improving how we communicate. You can't improve what you can't measure.
Identifying Communication Channels
A rather useful model I've found to help conceptualize any organizational system is the Viable Systems Model. I won't go into the details of VSM here, but one aspect of it that is relevant to our purpose here is how it identifies different communication channels within an organizational system (which, in our case, could be a tribe, a value stream, a team, a program, a portfolio, etc.):
- Channel 1: The communication and info sharing mechanism between the different constituent components of the system in question (so, if the system is a tribe or release train, then this refers to how the teams that make up the tribe or release train communicate and share information) — this is the channel that the sub-teams comprising the system in question use to coordinate activities and organize how not to get in each other's way, as well as share information, best practices, etc.
- Channel 2: The channel through which leadership/key stakeholders has visibility around progress, challenges, etc., and through which leadership decides on how to allocate resources to the different units comprising the system in question.
- Channel 3: This is the channel that provides our future planning efforts with information regarding our current capacity, performance, existing bottlenecks, etc., to ensure that our perspective of what we can accomplish in the future is guided by a realistic assessment of what we can currently do.
- Channel 4: This is the channel used to ensure that the strategy, plans, and road-maps of our system in question are informed by/aligned with the broader strategy and vision of higher-order systems.
- Channel 5: Our system's channel to communicate with the broader environment/outside world — this is what conveys information about competitors, regulatory landscape, technological changes, etc.
The System Is Recursive
As you have probably noticed, all references above have been made to a 'system' rather than to a team, tribe, etc. — and the reason is that this notion applies to multiple layers/levels of systems: from organization to team. Organizational systems are nestled within each other, which means that we can look at this from a business unit perspective, for example, comprised of tribes, and try to map out the communication channels between the different entities (tribes) that collectively make up the business unit. We can then take each tribe independently as the system in focus and map out the communication channels within it: how the different squads/teams that comprise it communicate, how they align with tribe goals and objectives, etc. We can take it even further, and take an individual squad/team as the system in question, and map how different team members communicate, how their personal goals are aligned with the team's goals and objectives, etc.
How to Assess the Effectiveness of A Communication Channel
Here's a proposed framework to assess the effectiveness of a communication channel by looking at different aspects of the channel:
- Existence: Does the channel exist?
- Frequency: An assessment of whether the channel provides the latest, up-to-date information.
- Accuracy: A general assessment of the accuracy of the information we receive through the communication channel.
- Promptness: How often do we receive the info at the right time to make time-critical decisions? How confident are we that we can rely on the channel to provide timely info to make critical decisions? This is of paramount importance because, in order for the system to adapt quickly to changes in its environment, it needs to receive prompt feedback.
- Accessibility: How easy is it to access the channel and make sense of the information it transmits?
- Richness: This is a measure of the diversity of pertinent topics/areas covered by the information transmitted through the channel. A rich channel is one where multiple (and relevant) aspects of something are conveyed to broaden the scope of the solution.
- Action-ability: How likely it is that the information received through the communication channel can help us take action/make decisions (as opposed to info that can't be leveraged to make decisions that fit the context, a sign that the info transmitted isn't the info we need).
- Suitability — Not Information Overload: How often do you feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of info shared?
- Signal/noise: An assessment of the portion of 'useful' stuff in the info shared vs. the noise.
OK, So How Do We Use All of This to Improve Our Communication?
As I mentioned earlier, this assessment could be done on any organizational level (portfolio, tribe, Value stream, team, etc.). This assessment (and later optimization) could be done on one or more of the system's communication channels. Many organizations start with analyzing and trying to optimize one communication channel — for example, a tribe may choose to focus on analyzing and optimizing the communication channel between the teams that comprise it — and then expand to cover other communication channels.
To gather information, you can run a facilitated workshop with members of the organizational system in focus to rate the statements above and provide narratives/examples to qualify the answers/ratings given. The ratings, together with the narratives provided, are analyzed by the group to generate insights regarding root causes for communication deficiencies and where improvement efforts would yield the most value. In cases of large systems, it might make sense to first send out a survey where team members rate communication channel effectiveness and provide qualitative narratives/examples to justify their ratings, and then organize a workshop where representatives from the broader team get together to analyze the results and come up with experiments for what to improve moving forward.
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