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Welcome to our blog where we give you practical advice on facilitating change.

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Wait, who said that?

Regardless of the way you are organized or what your organization does, there needs to be communication between the leadership and the teams. We had for a while been struggling with how communication from the leadership team was misunderstood, led to uncertainty and a feeling of micromanagement in the teams.

In other words, communication was standing in the way of change and we decided to change the frequency and purpose of communication.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
  • Are leadership decisions and information bundled into a wave that hits your organization on a quarterly basis?
  • Does it feel like your organization is playing “telephone”, where intentions are misunderstood and the organization reacts with distrust and resistance?
  • Does it feel like your leadership group communicates more to inform than to involve?
  • If the answers to these questions are “yes”, you are likely to be able to benefit from moving towards a more frequent, drip-wise and direct communication style.

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In the beginning of 2020, we were experiencing organizational debt with regards to how we communicated from the leadership to the teams.

We had continued the old way of communicating where the CTO, flanked by the Line Managers, called in everyone in the department for an hour every 3-4 months where major news were released and changes announced. Smaller news or news that could not wait until the next townhall were conveyed from the CTO to the group of Line Managers who would then delay the message to the team leads who would communicate to the teams.

It was either communication-through-big-bang or communication-through-chains.

Symptoms

Do you remember the game “telephone” from your childhood birthday parties? The concept is that kids sit in a circle, and one (most likely the birthday child) whispers a message to the child next to him/her, who whispers the message to the child next to him/her and around the message goes until it reaches the first child again.

The original message is obscured along the way – and the message whispered to the birthday child is most likely very different from the original. Both due to mishearings but also due to deliberate modifications. 

This was basically what we were doing when we communicated from the leadership to the teams: we were playing an organization-wide game of telephone through the layers of the department.

Even though we had flattened our organization by only having one level between the CTO and the teams, we had not flattened and democratized our communication because it still was infrequent and filtered. 

Impact 

The impact on our department was that the changes we wanted to introduce had little tracktion and the information the CTO wanted to convey was not reaching the teams in an effective way.

The teams questioned the motives behind the information, decisions were “faceless” and there was plenty of hear-say going around in the organization. For instance, the intent with the open-source and free approach to the agile transformation was “telephoned” into mandatory Scrum meetings, and the intent to ensure backlog transparency was “telephoned” into mandatory Jira boards functioning as performance reviews for team members.

The leaders and agile coaches spent their time on dealing with confusion and resistance rather than facilitating change, and efforts that could have been spent on solving business problems were used for clearing up misunderstandings.

Internally, the teams were frustrated and instead of feeling empowered they felt like they were being micromanaged and handcuffed. 

Countermeasure

In Scrum@Scale this is related to “Metrics and Transparency” as it is about creating radical transparency in the organization to provide the appropriate context for decisions and reduce decision latency. We wanted to experiment with changing two things: the frequency of information and the purpose of information. 

Instead of presenting a wave of information on the townhalls every 3-4 months we wanted to introduce drip-wise communication. The idea was to move away from a big build up to communication sessions where the teams were wondering what kinds of major reorganizations that would be announced and instead give them the experience that there was no big news, just some new nuances to known challenges or topics.

Basically, we wanted to communicate so often that there was a risk that it would be a bit boring! Therefore, we started with 30 minutes sessions with the entire department every week, which was adjusted to every second week that felt like the right balance.

 We also changed the purpose of our communication from being informative to being involving. In the past, we had waited with communicating changes and information until we knew we had all of the information and settled all questions. Now, we introduced a principle that for 9 out of 10 changes the challenge itself should be communicated before the solution was decided.

This increased uncertainty in the organization but the increase in transparency about what the leadership was working on balanced the negative impact of the uncertainty as it reduced the “surprise factor” and increased the opportunities for co-creating solutions and involving teams.

Of course there were things that we could not communicate immediately. To help us navigate in what we could say and reduce the complexity, we introduced a new saying that went: “In all scenarios…”. We would ask ourselves that given the current uncertainty, what would then be true in all scenarios?

If for instance we saw a need for introducing new offerings to the business, such as was described in section 3.1, and we knew that in all scenarios the solution would be to add people to the area and split the team in two, we would communicate this even though we did not know what the split would look like.

This created opportunities for the team members to provide input to what the best solution would be, and it signaled that we were aware of the issues that needed to be solved. 

Learnings

Having the CTO communicating to the organization every second week has made the communication less formal, less anxiety-provoking, and more inclusive.

Decisions from top level management now have “a face” and there is a forum for the teams to get answers to questions.

Embracing rapid transparency will get you out of your comfort zone, but we recommend that you experiment with it to harvest the benefits of openness and co-creation.


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