The Agile Architect

Respect and the Agile Workplace (a.k.a. 5 Failings of Your Humble Agile Architect)

Who needs respect? It's more important to be right! And to be right, you have to be heard. So go ahead and talk over your colleagues. It's for the betterment of the project. Am I right?

Of course, you're right. You're always right. As you sit in your meeting, listening to your colleague talk, you're just waiting for the moment when you can interrupt and hurry up the process. Sure, what the person is saying has some value, but he isn't quite there yet. You can help the meeting by jumping right to the correct conclusion. So you wait anxiously, until your colleague pauses to take a breath, and then you jump in. Just as your colleague starts to talk again. And now you're talking over him, trying to overwhelm him with the power of your voice so you can get your point made without having to wait even more.

Boy are you ever wrong.

Respect, Trust and Safety
When developing software, we often talk about the decision to build, buy or reuse. Unfortunately, when it comes to aspects of interpersonal relationships, you can only build. On an agile team, fostering respect and building trust are important factors in creating a safe environment in which to collaborate and create.

Below, I share some suggestions for building healthy working relationships based on some of my own challenges.

1. Be Aware of Your Body Language
I had a rather rude awakening the other day. In a feedback session, one of my colleagues told me that I have a "grumpy thinking face." She explained that when we're having a conversation and I'm thinking about what she's saying that I look grumpy She's learned from experience with me to ignore my face, but it was great that she told me because it explains so much.

You see, I often have conversations with others, technical or otherwise, where my colleague proposes something wonderful and while I'm pondering the implications, the other person says flatly, "You don't like it." Or I find myself in a heated conversation without understanding why since I actually agree with everything the other person is saying.

But the simple fact is that my body language doesn't match my mental state. I think I'm having this great exchange of ideas, but the person across the table from me thinks we're having an argument. And while I don't know how I can change my face (I'm thinking about getting an arrow-through-the-head hat to wear whenever I'm thinking), I can at least be cognizant that my own body language is a personal inhibitor to building trust and gaining the respect of others.

2. Be Aware of the Quirks of Your Co-Workers' Body Language
And just as its important to be aware of your own body language, it's equally important to be cognizant of your co-workers' body language quirks.

How do you react when you're talking to people and they close their eyes or they stare out in the distance? You may feel that they're being disrespectful or dismissive. But for some of us, it's an indication that we're thinking deeply about what you're saying. I often tell people that when I'm staring into space I'm actually looking at a virtual whiteboard in my mind. Others see that same whiteboard by closing their eyes.

3. Have Patience
It's quite common for me to be in a discussion when my mind races ahead to a solution for a problem that we're still spit-balling. And once I arrive at my solution, I'm anxious to get the conversation caught up to that point so we can just get on with it, dammit! But, of course, that doesn't work. Knowing this, I take a deep breath to calm myself, a technique I learned and have used since the sixth grade, and patiently help move the conversation forward at a more reasonable pace. And, of course, at this point I've made two mistakes. The first one, waiting patiently to get to my solution rather than helping the group get to some solution or a range of possible solutions, and the second one being the deep breath that's misinterpreted by others as a sigh of disinterest or impatience with them rather than my own frustration with myself. I don't know that I can stop breathing, but I can do something about holding on to my own ideas too tightly.

Which leads to ...

4. Don't Be Afraid To Try Other Paths -- Even if They're 'Wrong'
Following on with having patience, once I've latched on to my solution, it can sometimes be very hard to give it up in order to follow someone else's path. So I come off as being not just stubborn and inflexible, but also disrespectful of the experience and expertise of others.

But I shouldn't be afraid to try other paths. In fact, from a selfish perspective, I should embrace it. If we do implement my solution, only one of two bad things can happen. Either I'm right and I've learned nothing from the experience, or I'm wrong and we've got a bad solution. By going with someone else's solution, I have the opportunity to learn something new.

Of course, the situation isn't black and white. A better, more respectful course of action is to figure out what problems my solution solves and then expose those issues as part of an open-ended conversation that we can resolve together.

5. Don't Let Communication Lapse
Finding the right level of communication is hard. Too much and you're a bother. Not enough and you leave a knowledge vacuum that can easily fill with rumors that breed distrust. One of the challenges I have with agile teams is figuring out, for that particular team, the right ways to communicate information I learn in meetings with our clients or customers. If I call a big meeting to share and give time to receive feedback, some teams see this as wasting their time. If I try to have short conversations in the team space, then I'm seen as interrupting too often. If I send the information as e-mail, it might get ignored and the team loses the opportunity to give direct feedback. Since every team is different, I have to find that balance each time. The only thing I know for sure is that I have to find it and, in fact, I have to help the team find its right level of communication, or we end up with a tight-lipped situation that breeds rumors and distrust.

Final Thoughts
Recently, I was in a planning meeting when we realized that we were being disrespectful by talking over one another. We addressed the issue on the spot, deciding we wouldn't allow ourselves to interrupt one another, and came up with the term "SUP," which stands for "Shut Up Please." This was our little joke to warmly remind one another when we violated our agreement and help us maintain a respectful and productive discussion.

Whether it's an arrow-through-the-head hat, a humorous term or a direct conversation with constructive feedback, there are many ways to address concerns about being respectful to others. Perhaps one of my biggest takeaways from my personal experiences is -- when dealing with interpersonal relationships with others -- perception can be as important as reality. While we may all see ourselves as the hero or heroine of our story, how others see us can be quite different. When others help us see ourselves through their eyes, it's a unique gift that no one else can give.

About the Author

Dr. Mark Balbes is Chief Technology Officer at Docuverus. He received his Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics from Duke University in 1992, then continued his research in nuclear astrophysics at Ohio State University. Dr. Balbes has worked in the industrial sector since 1995 applying his scientific expertise to the disciplines of software development. He has led teams as small as a few software developers to as large as a multi-national Engineering department with development centers in the U.S., Canada, and India. Whether serving as product manager, chief scientist, or chief architect, he provides both technical and thought leadership around Agile development, Agile architecture, and Agile project management principles.