Embracing Agile mindset & agility can provide immense value to teams & customers alike. However, building a team which actually implements Agile values, principles & techniques to make positive impact on their projects & overall business is hard work. In the first article of the series on various topics on Agile & Project Management, we start with some basic, value generation skills, which will help your team truly be successful.

Active Listening

Communication is one of the most important aspect of successful project management. How information is passed and understood, influences the behavior and actions of others. From an agile practitioner’s perspective, both – conveying and understanding – information being passed is important. Developing better listening skills becomes very important for agile practitioners as it empowers you to optimize communication with others, helping you create an environment of trust and open communication on your project.

Active Listening is a set of techniques to help you improve as an effective listener. It involves creating an conducive environment for communications, establishing trust between people, focusing your attention on what is being communicated, and providing feedback to others to ensure that you have understood them correctly and completely.

Active Listening can be basically described as having three dimensions; Understanding the communication, probing and questioning for even greater understanding and dealing with emotional aspects of the communication.

The basic aspect of understanding the communication involves focusing on what is being said completely. Checking emails, mobile phones, browsing internet all are to be avoided. You can’t zone out on the speaker. A very basic requirements, but we do see so many people not following it today. You must be present, in body and mind in the conversation.

A good practice to ensure your involvement in the conversation is to voice your encouragement to the speaker. This gives the speaker confidence to open up and allows the smooth flow of conversation. It also demonstrate that you are really, really listening to what is being said and are interested in the communication.

To ensure that you are really understanding the crux of the matter, two techniques are useful. You might repeat what you have understood, in your own words. This is called paraphrasing. Sometimes, words assume different meanings depending upon the context, culture, pitch & tone of voice etc. The listener must put them in right context. Paraphrasing allows you to do exactly that.

Another technique is to summarize what has been said. This helps –just like paraphrasing- to ensure that you have paid attention to the entire communication and have really understood what the speaker was trying to convey. Summarizing also helps arrive at conclusions and helps developing an action plan to take the communication to its logical conclusion.

The second dimension to active listening is to probe deeper in order to understand the communication in right context and in sufficient details, to be able to think over it objectively. Sometimes the listener might not be able to present the complete context for the communication. Or the communication might have been influenced by their own opinions and biases. Asking questions, to further clarify about certain points during conversation, or asking for more information helps get the complete picture. It also might be a good practice to ask the speakers about their opinions and analysis around the communication.

A couple of things to remember regarding such questions is that one should always listen till the end of what is being said. Cutting of the speaker half-way through and assuming the rest of the part, will not help in getting the complete picture. Also, open-ended style of questioning is to be preferred. This will allow the speaker to come out with more information. In case you don’t understand what the speaker said, ensure that you let them know. An incorrect understanding of the communication does not really further the cause of active listening.

The third dimension to active listening deals with the non-verbal and emotional aspects of the communication. Observing the speakers body language and controlling yours, has a deep impact on how the communication is perceived and understood. Occasional nod, or smile will let the speaker know that you are listening to them.

Along with body language, using silence effectively can also help improve the listening. This gives you and speaker both time to think, and allows the speaker to open up more.

It is also important that the speaker feels her concerns and emotions being understood by you. Acknowledging this, will help create an environment of trust.

The last and important action is to ensure that you don’t rely on invalidated assumptions regarding the communication taking place. You can ask questions, and confirm whether what you are assuming is correct. This will ensure that you understand the communication correctly.

Assessing & Incorporating Community & Stakeholder Values

Agile is a value driven project management approach. What it means is, that the value to the stakeholders is the driving factor behind all project decisions and actions. Unlike traditional projects, the plan plays a secondary role to the value. Every agile methodology builds upon frequently assessing and incorporating processes and actions that will optimize the value to the stakeholder community for an agile project. Let us try to understand how it is done.

Before we move any further, let’s talk a bit about stakeholders. The definition of who the stakeholders are is not limited to only customer or management. Every direct and indirect users of the product of the project, the business management, the team itself, the product owner, everyone is a stakeholder on the project. Every entity, which either can affect the project or is affected by the project is a stakeholder project. By this definition, the project stakeholder community is a rather large group.

In order to ensure that we understand and incorporate what is of most value to this community, we will have to roughly follow the following process;

The very first step would be to identify all stakeholders for the project. To identify the stakeholders, you would need to ask questions like who are going to be impacted by the outcome of this project? The impact can be positive or negative, direct or indirect. This becomes the first category of stakeholders. End users, customers, the local community all can be stakeholders depending upon the project.

The second category of stakeholders have those people who can positively or negatively impact the execution and outcome of the project. The sponsors, managers, team are all such stakeholders. While assessing the value that needs to be incorporated in the project and imparted by the project, all such stakeholders must be taken into account.

The next step will be take into account what is of the value for all the stakeholders. These values may represent product quality and characteristics and project processes. It defines the improvement from the status quo. By virtue of being a value-driven approach, the process to assess the stakeholder values is an iterative and incremental process in agile. The stakeholder requirements are prioritized, in order to provide optimum value at the earliest. From the customer & end-user perspective, agile seeks to delivery value through prioritization, incremental delivery, acceptance to change, and by eliminating wastes. The team values are delivered through empowerment, trust and self-organization. The business value is provided by continuous process improvements and collaboration.

Agile Value Management is a continuous learning process. At each stage, the value is assessed, prioritized and incrementally delivered to all stakeholders, including customers, team and business.

Brainstorming Techniques

The process of finding solutions on agile process is not top-down, as in traditional projects. Agile teams are self-organizing and empowered to chart their own course and decide their own actions. Effective self-organizing is a result of mutual trust between team members, open & continuous flow of communication between team members and respect for each other. The brainstorming techniques derive strength from these qualities of agile teams, to generate ideas, possibilities and options for finding a solution or a resolution, collectively as a team. It is a group creativity techniques which relies on generating a list of ideas, contributed spontaneously by participants in order to find solution to a specific problem. Alex Faickney Osborn popularized the technique through his writing. He claimed that collective brainstorming was more effective at finding creative solution to problems than individual thinking. The technique involves four general rules;

  1. Focus on quantity – The idea of brainstorming is to collect as many divergent views, possibilities and options as possible to find most effective solution. The assumption here is in the process of generating a large number of ideas, the team has a greater chance to find a more creative, radical and effective solution to the problem.
  2. Withhold Criticism – In order to allow the large number of ideas, it is essential that the process is not hampered by early criticism. The critical review of ideas can happen at a later stage. Not jumping to judge the idea will allow participants to express more openly and freely.
  3. Welcome Unusual Idea – Creative solutions do not come with run of the mill ideas. Even if an idea sounds unusual, the team must not reject it just because it is unusual. We have to let go of our biases and assumptions.
  4. Combine and improve ideas – This value indicates that it is possible to combine many different, individual ideas into one greater idea, which may provide more value that the sum of the parts.

The entire process of the brainstorming goes something like this; You first generate a big list of ideas; the bigger the better. Once you have this list, clarifications on each idea takes place, so that it is understood in its entirety. There may be a case where you may combine multiple ideas. Once you know all the details about the ideas, they will be evaluated in terms of their effectiveness; the ensuing discussions may lead to modifications in some of the ideas; Based on the evaluation, a possible solution is formed.

In order to have effective brainstorming, some of the areas where care must be taken are these;

  1. Location – The participants must meet at a location which is conducive for open & creative discussions. The room must have enough space and other necessary items, like whiteboards etc.
  2. Purpose – The problem must be specific and be made clear to each participant. This will ensure that the discussions remain focused. Each brainstorming session must deal with one specific problem.
  3. Facilitation – Either you must know how to facilitate brainstorming sessions or you must designate an experienced facilitator. This will ensure that the discussions are effective and participation is inclusive. It is important that each participant contributes and the discussions are open and free.
  4. Ground Rules – This is very important. Ground rules will define how people raise questions or contribute an idea, how will be proceedings be recorded, who will record the proceedings, how would participant propose a counter argument etc. Ground rules ensure that the sessions are effective yet allows freedom of expression to each one without any negative side effects.
  5. Postpone Criticism – When ideas are getting generated, everyone should refrain from jumping to criticism. Ideas must be evaluated at a later stage, when the entire details behind the idea are known.

Brainstorming sessions, when conducted effectively, allows the team to find a creative and efficient way of solving a problem or dealing with issues. It also allows for learning from diverse views, knowledge and experiences, to provide an edge to the project.

The next in the series will be “Team Building” skills for agility. If you wish to be notified when the subsequent articles in this series are published, just provide your email below & we will let you know. Don’t worry, we hate spam as much as you do.