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Effective team communication strategies: Structured conversations, product partnerships

Consultants provide insight into logical strategies that aid in team communication in Agile organizations that include structured conversations.

When teams transition to Agile, or even if they've already been using Agile, communication amongst the different stakeholders can be lacking, and goals and product values may be unclear. Ellen Gottesdiener, principal consultant, and Mary Gorman, VP of quality and delivery at EBG Consulting, are co-presenters of The Product Partnership: Using Structured Conversations to Deliver Value at Agile2012, and they have worked with numerous clients to develop a set of team communication strategies for getting stakeholders on the same page.

They recommend using "structured conversations" to help counter the difficulties that often arise on teams that are transitioning to Agile; namely, wasted time in planning meetings, siloed conversations and unclear understanding of product value.

For a more in-depth discussion of these issues and defining value, read Software Quality Insights' Agile2012 preview: Defining and delivering value with structured conversations, in which Gottesdiener and Gorman describe the importance of making requirements ready, as well as accounting for the various stakeholders' different perspectives on value.

Communication and collaboration can be a challenge on smaller teams, and in enterprises transitioning to Agile, they become even more complex.

"The larger organizations have specialists. … So what happens in those larger organizations is sometimes an Agile team doesn't have access to those people when they need [their] help. They're almost not allowed to do certain things. They might not be allowed to do any user interface design. They might have to call in a specialist to do that," Gorman said.

In response to this, Gottesdiener and Gorman have developed what they call the "7 Product Dimensions" that team members can explore holistically, regardless of the individual "roles" that each team member may be filling. The 7 Product Dimensions facilitate team communication and break down barriers between these often siloed disciplines, giving rise to a true product partnership that focuses on "the goal, not the role."

So how do teams create a partnership amongst these disparate roles? Gottesdiener explained: "The product partnership is made up of customer, business and technology stakeholders," she said. "While people may have some special skills, one thing everyone has to have in a shared way is their understanding of what the product needs are; what the requirements are."

While some traditional teams may do too much analysis, some Agile teams have gone to the opposite extreme, doing no analysis, according to Gottesdiener. "Sometimes what we are doing is helping them calibrate back to just enough analysis, just in time, and focusing on conversations that are what we are calling 'structured conversations,' that are deep and rich and useful and timely around those 7 Product Dimensions," she explained.

The 7 Product Dimensions

The diagram displays the seven dimensions, which include four functional and three non-functional requirements, as well as the symbols and color associations Gottesdiener and Gorman developed to represent the multi-faceted nature of product conversations. The 7 Product Dimensions enable teams to view the project holistically and communicate with a common language.

Gorman explained how teams distributed across the globe have employed the 7 Product Dimensions to facilitate communication. "It's not just a way for English-speaking people to use them. It's also a way to bridge the language situations that we have many times on projects where people don't necessarily immediately grasp the concepts. This has been a way for us to use this visual language to ensure some rich communication."

Gorman discussed how the structured conversation pattern is easy to use for both business and IT stakeholders; it's clear, repeatable and "a normal way of communicating, not a special language."

Gottesdiener added, "The meta pattern of the structured conversation is Explore, Evaluate and Confirm." She explained there are several options and possibilities teams will uncover by exploring the 7 Product Dimensions. Then, they can use the value criteria to evaluate what option is best. And, finally, "Confirmation is about both verification and validation; it's making sure that we know specifically how we're going to verify that we built that selected portion of the product correctly, and then the validation comes in," where teams ensure they have built the right product.

Participants in their Agile2012 workshop will learn how to holistically explore requirements using the 7 Product Dimensions, how to better identify and define business value criteria that can be used in planning conversations, and how to apply the Explore-Evaluate-Confirm pattern in structured conversations to achieve effective team communication.

Gottesdiener and Gorman have passion and energy around this topic. They are currently publishing a book that discusses the product partnership and structured conversation in more depth, Discover to Deliver: Agile Product Planning and Analysis.

In addition to their shared half-day tutorial at Agile2012, The Product Partnership: Using Structured Conversations to Deliver Value, each are giving her own presentation at the conference as well:

The Contracting Two-Step: Patterns for Successful Collaborations, Wednesday afternoon, August 15, 2012 with Mary Gorman.

That Settles It! Techniques for Transparent and Trusted Decision-Making on Your Agile Team, Wednesday morning, August 15, 2012 with Ellen Gottesdiener.

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