What’s in a Voice? Communicating Who You Are [Updated with edits]

In our professional lives and in doing business, we commonly follow the advice to “dress for success.” We make certain to wear that business suit, or a particular pair of snazzy heels, or a certain color of tie. For better or for worse, we can be judged in the first few seconds of contact with a potential employer or customer by our attire, our hairstyle, our facial expression, our nose ring…

A more subtle way we evaluate a person is through the sound of his or her voice. The voice is a very personal instrument, and it can communicate so much about who you are, your abilities and your intentions.

The voice can tell you whether someone is nervous or at ease. Whether they’re authentic or stringing you a line. Whether they care if they communicate with you or not. When I was a kid, I thought I could detect when someone was lying to me by a certain glitch in the voice, or a tell-tale tone. Often, our brain makes intuitive judgements about what’s being said to us, and is sensitive to vocal rhythm, clarity, tones, and the use of language.

One may think it’s not fair to judge someone by their voice. Let’s face it, a voice – like being short, or having a large nose – is usually unchangeable. But it’s how the voice is used that matters. We all have an inherently full, expressive voice, but things happen to us in life that can negatively influence and/ or harm that voice.

Think of the person who speaks so quietly it’s almost a whisper – you must lean closer to catch what she says. This person may have had some trauma in her life, like being constantly told as a child to ‘be quiet’, to de-voice her. I know people whose greatest fear is public speaking, who quake inwardly and outwardly, even if they have something important to share with others.

Personality is also expressed through the voice. Imagine the annoyingly loud talker sitting nearby in a restaurant. This is certainly someone who wants too much attention and tries to get it by being overbearing. Or the fast-talker, who doesn’t want any other opinions but his own to be expressed, and doesn’t give the listener an opportunity to think or to respond, lest they disagree with him.

Anyone can be trained to use their voice for positive communication. A voice is an instrument that can become effective and optimal with practice.

Here’s a few things to think about in how you use your voice:

  • Are you clearly enunciating your words so as not to be mis-heard?

  • Are you directing your voice to the person or people you want to communicate with?

  • Are you speaking in a rhythm that’s neither too fast nor too slow?

  • Are you allowing your true feelings or intentions to come through?

  • Are you being honest?

The voice is just one of the important tools we use to communicate. If your work requires relating to other people in any way, for example, making presentations, or promoting a product, consider how you use your voice and what it may communicate about you!

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A Conference Call in Real Life (youtube)

I’ve started to show this video in my public CSM classes (see sidebar for scheduled courses) as part of the discussion about why co-location for Agile teams is so important.  The video is a humorous look at what conference calls are like.  Probably the most notable part of it is the fact that on a conference call you can’t see people’s body language and facial language which are important cues for efficient communication:

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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner is allowed to communicate directly with any stakeholder of the team

The Product Owner needs to be in contact with all those that are invested in the work of the team (aka stakeholders). These stakeholders have information on the marketplace, the users’ needs, and the business needs. The Product Owner must be able to communicate with each of these individuals whenever the need arises. If this is possible, the entire Scrum Team will have the most up to date information that will aid them in their execution of the product. If not, the team will have to wait for information and/or guess which will cause confusion, blame, distrust, and unhappy customers.

To learn more about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.

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The Rules of Scrum: Your ScrumMaster is allowed to communicate directly with any stakeholder of the team

It is the ScrumMaster’s job to remove the Scrum Team’s obstacles that occur through all levels of the organization. To do this properly the ScrumMaster must be able to connect directly with all stakeholders of the team including those outside the organization. This direct communication aids in addressing identified obstacles with the appropriate individual or group. Without the ScrumMaster being allowed this direct communication, he will have to deal with a third party which may distort the information and/or be unable to convey the importance of removing an obstacle or addressing a need. The ScrumMaster is like a catalyst that should be able to set ablaze those individuals that are interacting or connecting with the team either directly or indirectly.

To learn more about ScrumMasters, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.

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The Rules of Scrum: I attend every Sprint Planning meeting in person

This rule of Scrum aligns with the Agile Manifesto principle “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”  In-person attendance of all Scrum Team members allows for the plan to unfold with minimal communication overhead and for the team to keep the meeting within the short time-box.  In-person attendance also allows the team to effectively collaborate in the work of creating the plan. The efficiency and effectiveness of the Product Owner’s presentation of the Product Backlog is optimized as well as the Development Team’s ability to collaboratively assess and select what it can and will accomplish in the Sprint. It also allows for everyone to be clear about the Sprint Goal and why the Development Team is building the increment. In-person attendance also allows the Development team to efficiently and effectively come to a decision as to how it will build the increment of functionality. In-person participation of all team members also increases the likelihood that the team will create the right design for the increment.  If even one team member attempts to attend this meeting by any other means, either by phone or even video conferencing, efficiency and effectiveness of the planning becomes compromised. Compromised collaborative planning yields compromised collective ownership. The successful delivery of the Sprint Goal requires full commitment on the part of the whole team. Lack of in-person participation increases the likelihood that the team will fail to deliver on its Goal because the planning will lack effectiveness. People are prone to estrangement from hazy goals reached through ineffective planning. In-person planning, therefore, is paramount to succeeding with Scrum.

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Communication at XKCD

The comic strip at XKCD today is brilliant.  It takes a bit of effort to follow it, but the punchline is brilliant.  Communication is tough.  How does this apply to agile teams?  You be the judge! (PS.  XKCD is a great comic for geeks, but sometimes nsfw.)

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Five Tips for Distributed Agile Teams

Actually, this is six tips because my first tip is really about deciding to use distributed teams…

Some in-house studies that I have been privy to have shown 2-1 or 3-1 productivity difference between good co-located teams and “good” virtual teams. Creating a true, high-performance virtual team is incredibly hard emotionally, incredibly time-consuming, and costs a lot in terms of tools and travel. If this is being done for convenience of the team members or for cost savings, it’s a bad idea. The only good reason to have distributed teams is if there is a compelling strategic reason that trumps the hit you will take financially and morale-wise. (That was tip “zero”.)

That said, it is worth trying is to create an environment as close as possible to what you would get with a co-located team. To do this, here are some things to try:

1. Set core hours (at least 3 contiguous) every day when everyone on the team, regardless of time zone, will be at work simultaneously. If you have a globally distributed team, this will mean that some team members will have to make an ongoing personal sacrifice to be available. This sacrifice should be compensated financially. Avoid rotating the core hours in the mis-guided idea that it is better that everyone is uncomfortable some of the time vs. some being uncomfortable all of the time. It is much easier for a team member to get used to a consistent schedule and although initially there will be discomfort for some team members, they will (relatively speaking) get used to the new schedule.

2. During core hours, use a good video conferencing tool (e.g. Office Communicator), in an always-on state for all team members – be in the same space at the same time. Cameras should be set up so that it is possible to see an individual’s facial expressions, yet also to allow that person to move around and still be in-view. The video conferencing tool should have good full-duplex audio so that no one ever gets cut off because someone else is louder.

3. During core hours, all team members agree to forego the use of headphones or anything else that would prevent them from instantly being aware of something happening with any of the other team members. Again, for some people this might be quite a sacrifice. The idea is that communication is paramount for agile teams and anything that isolates one team member from another will hinder communication.

4. Have a live update task tracking tool that all team members use. (Most agile team management tools that I am aware of do not work because you have to refresh to see updates. Cardmeeting.com is a decent virtual wall that has live updates.) Any task-switching should be visible on this tool either through a color change, an audible cue, or a movement. So if I complete a task and start on a new one, everyone else should notice this immediately even if I do not actually say anything. The team members should get in the habit of using this tool even outside core hours.

5. Have a second (or third) monitor for every team member that is dedicated to the always-on communication tools (video conferencing, task tracking). These always-on tools should _never_ be covered by anything else. All the real-time communication tools are useless if they are not constantly visible. If your team members currently have two monitors, then get them a third for these tools. There should never be any excuse for a team member to hide these tools.

Basically, these suggestions are designed to maximize the quality, bandwidth and minimize the latency of communication among the team members. If you have a distributed team, and you try these things, please let me know how it works for you!

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Collocate the Team

Collocation of the team is used to improve communication efficiency and to allow the team to learn to be more collaborative. Perfect collocation would have all stakeholders and work performers in the same work space (e.g. a large room) during all working hours. This level of collocation is not usually possible, so adjustments are made.

Collocation reduces wastes associated with waiting, movement, and inefficient communication. Collocation increases learning and feedback and assists with team empowerment.

Collocation can present challenges to people used to working on their own. For these people, a careful consideration of how to accommodate their working style is important, but more important is helping them to understand the need for and benefits from collocation. As this understanding grows and as the team starts to produce noticeable results, most people start to enjoy the close working environment.

When perfect collocation is not possible, consider part-time collocation, video conferencing, having a decision-making proxy represent the stakeholders, getting rid of closed offices, moving into open or shared work spaces or collocating part of the team.

I typically hear a great deal of positive feedback from teams that were previously not collocated after they come together in a common space. For example: “I don’t have to spend hours dealing with email anymore – it takes a few seconds to lean over and ask a question and get a response.” “Meetings that used to take half an hour to organize on people’s calendars now happen spontaneously.” “I can work much more efficiently because the people who I need to collaborate with are right there. No more emails, phone calls, scheduling, and pestering.”

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