Engineering Leadership

When I was working in a small agency, years ago, in Germany's warmest city, Freiburg, my boss introduced the team to agile working methods that he had read a book about. We had a whiteboard with some columns on them named To Do, Doing, Done. Some stickies were on these columns. We had a fast-lane which was filled with tasks all the time. I felt I was doing quite some work when fulfilling the tasks and moving a pile of them from one column to the next. Anyway, projects didn't finish on time. The feeling of being productive vanished as soon as we felt we were delivering late. Was there a problem in productivity?

The more projects I saw, the more I discovered patterns of not being productivity. And with that I don't mean the time you spend at the coffee machine, talking to your team mates or play table tennis to get a short break from all the things floating around your head. But what patterns than?

I just watched a documentation of firemen working together when fighting a fire or crack-opening a car after a crash.

The operation kicks off with an alarm. The firemen get in their heavy outfits, put on gas masks, plan the next steps. All that while on the way to the location of the incident.

Communication is clear, straightforward. Everyone knows what the team mate is talking about. Sometimes it get's rough – they're not mad at each other for that. The next thing they need to do – in the worst case, save people's lives – needs to work like a clockwork. They need to trust each other. They have to know their strength and weaknesses. And they need to surpass themselves. Accelerate.

After each operation the firemen meet. They speak about what happened, what went good, what needs change so it will be better next time.

Watching these firemen work with each other reminds me of my work in the digital field.

A couple of days ago I visited some friends in the beautiful north of Germany where the sea is, where summer is that one day in the year where people go out to do barbecue. We were sitting at the bonfire and talked about job life. A chap who works with off-shore wind power companies to build projects that have a development time of 20, 30 years tells me about his day to day work to find a solution for upper management to work closer together. He is a skilled engineer. He says communication is the major key to the success of his projects.

When my last project got difficult and the team became unproductive it wasn't about the skill-set of people involved, it wasn't about the output every single person on the team created. It was about the communication between one and another. One time I was angry on a designer because I hadn't gotten the correct instructions before a day of absences of my co-worker. After he came back he had the feeling I wasn't talking to him freely. We didn't speak about it right away. Escalation in a bigger discussion was foreseeable. It limited our ability to work hand in hand.

Improving productivity, staying productive, staying focused for me ultimately means better communication. I have a hard time seeing teams fail projects because people are too focused on their own or don't talk to each other.

Here in Germany a lot of companies discovered agile working methods throughout the last years because they hope to get teams to be more productive. The majority doesn't understand what it means to become agile for real.

I have decided to change the way I work in teams. Even though I am a Software Developer most of the time I am able to help the team become more productive by using agile methods. Let's say peer-reviewing or, even better, pair programming, continuous delivery. Better methodologies for reviewing our work, retrospectives. It all comes down to more and improved communication.

Nowadays I know that back at the agency in Freiburg we should have planned out our tasks more extensively. We should have moved tasks from the fast-lane to a well refined backlog. We should have talked more about our work, about interaction with each other.

My theory is: The more open you can communicate in a team, the less barriers you will discover that hold you back from accelerating productivity.

I hope more people in management positions will understand that accelerating productivity is about how we communicate with each other. But let's begin with ourselves. Let's reflect more about our way to communicate. Because communication is so much more than talking to each other.

This article was first published at SUPERYESMORE on 28. July 2017.