26.3 The PRINCE2 Agile approach to communication
Communication on a project will always be difficult to some degree. It is often noted that a small team located in the same room and working on one product can be highly effective. Part of the reason for this is that the communication between the team members is so fast and clear.
A married couple who have been together for 50 years can still have misunderstandings and communication problems, so if a new project team is assembled to work on something demanding and with lots of uncertainty, communication problems are inevitable.
PRINCE2 Agile focuses on this situation because in order to succeed with PRINCE2 in an agile environment effective communication is essential. When communication breaks down in an agile context it can be very damaging.
26.3.1 Choosing the most appropriate channel
One of the most effective ways to improve communication is to use the right vehicle for conveying a message at the right time. Teams communicate in many different ways such as:
- using the written word in the form of documents, emails or instant messaging
- using visualizations in the form of figures or pictures
- verbally by telephone
- verbally face-to-face (perhaps by webcam).
People working on a project will be using some or all of these channels at some point and often mixing them together.
To run a project in the most effective way and to get the most effective use of PRINCE2 it is very important to move the communication traffic to the most effective channels, and one of the best ways to do this is to use as much face-to-face communication as possible, ideally accompanied by visualization. This is why a team room, where everyone is co-located, having lots of information readily available on the walls, is seen as an ideal situation.
However, projects have complexity, and they may involve several people and involve many teams – this is far from ideal with respect to the ease of communication.
Even so, it is still essential to move the communication traffic to the faster, clearer channels. The phone should be favoured over email, and face-to-face should be favoured over the phone.
Technology should be assessed with respect to making communication easier and more effective. Webcams and collaboration tools can help build a multi-faceted approach to communication.
The type and frequency of communication need to be agreed by the project management team and the level of formality agreed. It needs to be understood when informal channels are appropriate (e.g. a regular one-to-one meeting that is not recorded) and when there is a need to formally record decisions (e.g. that may be needed for auditing purposes). This should be recorded in the communications management strategy, which itself could be an informal document in that it is displayed as part of an information radiator.
26.3.2 The difficulties with the written word
The biggest problem with communication lies in the fact that human beings find it relatively difficult to process large amounts of information in the form of the written word. Communicating between two people, or two groups of people, with a document containing many pages of text has many disadvantages – for example, parts of it might not be read or the reader might be unable to interact with the document.
Why do many people use emoticons in an email or text message? Because it is easier to convey feelings than it is without them and makes the message more accurate and less prone to being misunderstood.
Typical emoticons: :D
This is not to say that there is no role for the written word. The opposite is the case. It can provide clarification and is ideal for relaying factual or uncontentious information. It can also allow the writer time to reflect and compose something that is carefully thought out. However, when communication involves opinions or emotions, the written word is not as effective as a phone call or a face-to-face conversation. Potentially, over-reliance on the written word can be counter-productive.
A characteristic of the agile way of working is the way team members will try to shift the communication traffic to the more effective channels (see Figure 26.1). But this takes effort and a desire to work this way. It is usually a lot easier to send an email than to meet with someone to discuss a problem. However, a face-to-face discussion is very likely to achieve a lot more in a very short space of time.
A significant point often missed with respect to face-to-face meetings or even phone calls is the emotional bonding and buy-in to a discussion or decision. Email and the written word are somewhat sterile and therefore this is harder to achieve.
An important point for anyone with a leadership or management role on a project is to be fully aware of how a team is communicating. A vibrant and interactive team using a lot of visualization should be easy to identify. Somewhat harder to identify is when a team, or some members of it, are relying too heavily on such things as email.
One particular example of a communication problem that can be very damaging for a project is when a project manager (or team manager) primarily manages a team using email. On the surface this will cause communication to be slow and open to misinterpretation. However, there is a much more serious problem that is likely to emerge with this form of communication, and that is that it takes the energy out of a team as people spend more time on email than interacting with one another. Ultimately, this has the potential to destroy the ‘heart and soul’ of a team.
26.3.3 Getting the right blend
Effective communication needs to be organized and planned. PRINCE2 is also very clear about the need to document only when necessary. It also describes management products as ‘information sets’ and not documents. This mindset should be built on by developing a blend of communication techniques that work when using agile.
When people interact face-to-face, they convey meaning with the words they use, the way they say them and the body language they use when saying them.
It is important to see communication in an agile environment as a shift in emphasis, because an agile team needs to work faster due to the iterative and responsive nature of agile. This is why agile makes extensive use of workshops, face-to-face meetings, visualizations in the form of models and prototypes, and video. But this does not mean there is no a place for email or written documents (which need to be used to record decisions and actions); it just means that some, or most, of this needs to be moved to the faster, clearer channels whenever possible. It is also worth mentioning that a team whose members are not co-located may have a greater need for email and written documents than a co-located team.