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Effective Communication Inside Software Companies: What Agile Does Not Teach

The key for sustainable organizational growth is the intrinsic development of people. This is the challenge for managers today.  The software industry regards Agile methodologies as an approach for providing services in an efficient and effective manner. Agile has been a hot topic for many years now, but let’s take a look at some basic components sometimes left unexplored.

Agile refers to a set of methods based on incremental and continuous development practices through which self-organized teams collaborate to create solutions for business requirements. There are numerous Agile development methods and all of them try to minimize risk by organizing work in short cycles called sprints.

Since Agile methodologies generally favor face-to-face communication over technical documentation, they are criticized for being undisciplined. My objective is not to discuss whether technical documentation is an issue in Agile, but rather to address which skills and values are important for companies, teams and people that use and sponsor these methodologies.

Perhaps most important of all is to discuss two given assumptions of Agile: the existence of self-organized teams and face-to-face meetings. Both these skills are far from being innate to every human being, nor are they taught in school. They are most likely acquired through repeated exposure to work, in other words, practical experience. Because software developers usually start working at a really young age (the increasing supply of jobs force many to work while studying), they have not necessarily developed these sets of soft skills, posing a challenge to many organizations using Agile.

Face-to-face Communication & Self-Organized Teams

When validating the skills of a software developer, it is important that recruiting teams look beyond their raw technical talent and evaluate other less obvious attributes, like interpersonal/relational competencies.

Some examples of these competencies are:

➔      Handling differences/disagreements in groups.

➔      How to manage possible changes in group leadership due to unanticipated situations.

➔      Communicating with other team members who are not performing well or demonstrating sufficient effort to reach the group/project’s goals.

➔      Recognizing the importance of listening with the purpose of understanding over being understood.

➔      Being capable of identifying the interests of other team members. Does the leader fully understand the difference between arguments and interests? Does he/she recognize the potential impact that daily negotiations can have on the overall mood of the group?

All in all, taking into account Agile’s expectations, it is extremely important that both team leaders and team members are emotionally intelligent. Today, neurobiology has proven that emotional intelligence is made up of a set of skills distinct from academic intelligence (verbal, logical, spatial, etc.). A high IQ does not necessarily guarantee the relational attributes that are critical for managing relationships and social situations – both key for effective face-to-face communication.

Developing Emotional Intelligence: A Neuroscience Approach

Emotionally intelligence demands self-awareness and management in addition to social consciousness and relational skills. While this seems like a lot, the real challenge facing managers is developing the integral competencies in their teams.

Let’s take a look at neuroscience to understand how these habits can be shaped. You may have heard that we are born with a limited number of neuron cells that we gradually lose until we die. Actually, this theory has been proven wrong and it is now known there is a process called neurogenesis through which the brain generates thousands of stem cells on a daily basis. Once created, these stem cells split in two: one half forms a “daughter line” that keeps on creating new stem cells while the other half migrates to the brain where it provides support to cognitive learning processes by creating new circuits with other cells.

How is this related to emotional intelligence? Neurogenesis allows us to understand neuroplasticity better and realize that the human brain continuously restructures itself in terms of the experiences we go through. If we can potentially modify certain aspects of our behavior (like trying to pay attention when other people talk for instance), new circuits will grow to adapt and capitalize on these experiences.

If we want to overcome a bad habit, we must modify our behavior. This usually means fighting against ways of acting and reacting that have been repeated thousands of times and which have led to the development of strong brain circuits. Changing habits therefore demands perseverance and repetition. If we try hard enough, fortunately, new circuits will be created and will stronger with time and effort. When they are strong enough, they will be able to generate automatic action/reactions. The old (unwanted) habit will now be history.


Theoretically, we acquire a habit when we have expanded upon at least three dimensions: knowledge, capability and desire. Let’s see how this could be related to active listening, for example.

➔      Knowledge: This is WHY we have to listen, and the benefits of doing so.

➔      Capability: We may understand that active listening is the proper habit; however, we might not know HOW to put it into practice. The capability dimension refers to the techniques that need to be repeatedly practiced to incorporate a habit.

➔      Desire: It is intrinsic to a person. It refers to the motivational aspects often associated with willpower. It is more difficult to develop than the previous two.

Developing the Knowledge Dimension

Organizational workshops on effective communication and efficient problem-solving are of keen importance to address this dimension. All organizational layers should participate in these activities, from high-ranked leaders to support areas. These workshops should include role-playing activities that take place in a relaxed and leisurely environment different from traditional academic training.

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Developing the Capability Dimension

It is like riding a bike: you have to practice frequently and repeatedly. Monthly performance evaluations with feedback – as well as the integration of quantitative metrics with soft aspects like strengths and weaknesses – are necessary tools to maintain the performance level of a developing employee as well as for the boss him/herself.

Since agile methodologies include these features, it is important that each employee understands how certain behaviors quantitatively impact a project (positively or negatively). Evaluating which of the tools acquired in the workshops are properly applied is perhaps an easy way of measuring progress.

Developing the Desire Dimension

This dimension is core to every person and their deepest motivations. In this regard, inconsistency between words and actions can have a significant negative impact on employees’ motivation.

We have seen that organizations that sell Agile services to the market need their employees to develop soft competencies. In this regard, the example of leaders and managers constitutes a daily guidance of what adequate behavior should look like for employees. Employees are constantly observing and copying their leaders’ attitude and the way they relate themselves with others. Leaders should therefore put into practice the relational and emotional skills that the organization demands from the general employees. In that respect, actions always speak louder than words.


Walter Abrigo

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