Market musings

Optimizing Agile Communication for Lean Teams

by Sasha Viasasha
June 24, 2017

Disruption will always be possible while there remains inefficiencies to exploit. Although technology has advanced at a rapid pace, and individuals have been willing adopters, organizations have moved at a more ponderous rate. Many are still stuck in old legacy models and mindsets, even if they’ve had a digital makeover. Agile communications requires new thinking and structures as well as the latest tools. 

Even if the cutting edge of disruption doesn’t bite as sharply as it once did, there is still plenty of space to carve out of the mountain of irrelevance that obsolescence has left behind.

The advantages of the lean methodology are speed and agility. This was true at it its inception and it remains true today.

Business communication must be fast and flexible, too, in a lean operation.

Improve and iterate

The lean methodology was pioneered by Japanese engineer Taiichi Ohno in the fifties. Inspired by sources as diverse as Henry Ford and the United States Department of War, the Tokyo Production System, as it was called, embodied the principle of kaizen, or continuous improvement. Or, in the more modern language of Lean Startup author Eric Ries: the build, measure, learn loop.

Small companies and independent teams, unhindered by the baggage of legacy processes, have taken this methodology into technology, finance, manufacturing, and even fashion.

And yet, what can be an advantage can also be a hindrance. Small companies can move very quickly, but have less to lose from the risks they take, they are less bound to rigid traditions, but a lack of process can create disorder and make it difficult to evaluate progress.

It’s possible to quickly assemble a team of formidable talent, but if your business can’t communicate well, learn quickly and apply those lessons to the next stage of iteration, it will quickly lose its lean advantage.

Experimentation is at the heart of the lean methodology, and for it to succeed, communication must be rapid, concise and accurate. When everyone is working together, in an incubator or office, this is easily accomplished. Open office plans were created to create the conditions for rapid communication and mutual immersion.

But, as is more often the case, people are working at different places at different times. Digital technology has allowed people to collaborate and rally around a shared mission, even in the absence of a physical space. But there are some unique challenges faced by distributed teams, especially when they never meet face-to-face.

Some essential conditions must be met for people to want to communicate clearly in the first place. These amount to a strong and cohesive culture, trust and a lack of politicking. 

Buy-in

In a large, mature company, the defection of a few individuals can’t possibly have a catastrophic effect because a well-developed company is pretty much driven by institutional process. In fact, the mechanical nature of larger companies often defies the well-intentioned efforts of individuals who are brought in to implement change. But, in a small company, the buy-in of each and every individual matters. If one single individual isn’t invested in your company’s success, trouble is brewing.

There is only one formula that makes this possible.

Individual success = business success 

In the early tech startups, this was often accomplished by creating a compensation system that paid out the winners. There are many other motivations besides financial ones, though, and learning how to motivate people means reading their motivational map. However, you decide how to structure it, making your company’s success the direct interest of the players involved is essential for buy-in to occur.  

A results-oriented, data-driven process is essential. Micromanaging work is fatal to the lean process; evaluating and rewarding results is all that matters.

Ownership

With buy-in comes ownership and a clear vision of what needs to be done. Collaboration and teamwork only work when everyone has well-defined roles and responsibilities. Think about a sports team. It only works because each player knows their assignment and sticks to it. Even if team members wear different hats at different times, the demarcation between roles should be clear. When team members are fighting for ownership over tasks, they aren’t fighting for the true big win—against the competition. This doesn’t mean that roles can’t change as often as needed, but individuals must own their work.

When individuals don’t own their work, they can’t perform their best.

Mission-driven

A clear mission and road-map will keep everyone rowing in the same direction. A mission should be as tangible as possible. Mission progress should be the benchmark on which success is evaluated and rewarded.

Awarding teamwork and not individual success may seem contrary to the principle of ownership, but it isn’t. Measuring success on a team level allows people to make and own mistakes, and for everyone to work for the team, not just themselves.

Ownership is about responsibility and control over tasks. Without this ownership, people can’t control outcomes, and they begin to feel helpless.

Mission-driven teams have clear goals and metrics that should be regularly reevaluated for fitness.

This need for course correction has sometimes spawned a culture of failure, which Lean Startup author Eric Ries never intended. Failing is never a goal, as he explains in his interview covering the four common misconceptions about the lean methodology.

Recovering quickly from your mistakes is different from valorizing them. 

Scrum

The effectiveness of sports teams and the potential implications and applications to the fast-moving and competitive business landscape weren’t lost on Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka. For a timeless piece of business history, check out this introduction to the concept of a scrum for product development, published in the Harvard Business Review in 1996 based on their earlier work.  

Though the authors geared the article towards in-house development, often in the context of a cash-flush corporate environment, they nonetheless present important lessons on team development and the importance of a well-constructed business communication strategy.  

Among the six characteristics they found in successful product development teams, the ability to learn from markets and to learn from each other were important in nearly every phase. Comparing this Agile process to the work of a rugby team moving the scrum down the field established this metaphor as a fixture in startup mythos.

But while a team’s movements on a field seem fluid and coordinated and even effortless, a lot of planning and hard choices go into it. Even the game itself is a structure that dictates limits, and creates opportunities.

Putting Agile communications in your pocket

Even though there are multiple tools available for communication, most channels work on today’s smartphones, so workers can remain accessible anywhere, anytime, which is becoming increasingly important for today’s mobile workforce. In addition to actual phone calls, smartphones support chat, email, voice conferencing, video conferencing, and even file sharing.

More organizations are building their agile communications around smartphone technology, leveraging their unified communications capability to power all business communications. The smartphone is the ideal UC platform, and can host a powerful VoIP business phone system. A virtual PBX can be deployed across your mobile phone infastructure, tied to a single business phone line or a virtual phone system, and managed from an app on your phone. 

As the workplace becomes more decentralized, companies are turning to technology such as Spoke to keep employees connected and help them prioritize communications.

Spoke is designed to convert employee smartphones into a next generation VoIP business phone system. Installed as a simple app, Spoke allows you to effortlessly route and prioritize incoming calls, set up group calling, look-up calling, create personalized greetings, access the employee directory, and more. To promote agile communications, Spoke also offers caller presence, call context, and importance to let people know why you are calling, as well as setting up reminders and rescheduling. There also are features such as auto-groups, auto-availability, and schedule availability.

And because employees are using their smartphones, they have access to all the other communications tools they might need, such as email and file sharing. For example, a phone call can readily be escalated to a group chat session or video conference, complete with reference materials, to quickly resolve a business issue.

However you approach agile communications, your best strategy is to funnel business-critical conversations to as few channels as necessary. Having employees rely on their smartphones for office communications is one means of keeping your team connected, while providing the tools to make fast, efficient business decisions.

To learn more about how Spoke can convert your mobile phone network into a powerful VoIP phone system for a fraction of the cost of hosted PBX or a traditional VoIP service providers, port your number over for a free, no risk trial, or choose a virtual business phone line. To learn more about how Spoke works, visit our features page or contact us for a free demo. 

The Productivity Hacker's Guide to Integrating Remote Teams
The Productivity Hacker's Guide to Integrating Remote Teams