Agile Conversations for Successful Software Development
Douglas Squirrel, a seasoned CTO, had been fired from multiple startups not because he was unsuccessful but because he had successfully done himself out of a job. He was struggling to find his place in the industry and was looking for ways to improve his leadership skills.
One day, he was approached by a friend who needed help with their software development team. The friend asked Squirrel for advice on increasing the odds of success in software development.
This challenge sparked a conversation and pivotal moment that led Douglas to share his experience in leading software teams and empowering organizations to use conversation to create productivity gains. In this episode, Douglas discusses the challenges involved in software development and shares their insights on overcoming them.
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About Douglas Squirrel
Douglas Squirrel is a seasoned CEO with an unparalleled perspective on the power of conversation in creating productivity gains across organizations. Having spent 45 years coding and leading software teams in various industries, including fintech, biotech, and music, Douglas has developed a knack for addressing common workplace issues such as trust and fear in conversations. Through extensive experience with over 170 organizations worldwide and coaching numerous leaders, Douglas has gained insightful expertise in aligning business goals and fostering productive conflict. He’s also co-authored the book Agile Conversations and runs a highly engaged community, the Squirrel Squadron.
Here are a few key areas we cover in the episode.
Conversations are crucial to success.
The world of software development can be a daunting task with high stakes. The average company invests a whopping 63% of its software development budget to design and build new software. Shockingly, almost one in four companies outsource their software development projects, yet only 17.8% of them are satisfied with the outcome. A software development project typically takes around 4.5 months to complete and costs approximately USD 36,000.
For non-tech founders, the cost and time invested can increase significantly without proper guidance. How can we increase our chances of success? According to seasoned CTO Douglas Squirrel, the solution is simple: conversations. With over 40 years of coding experience, Squirrel has led software teams for over 20 years. He has successfully improved products for over 170 UK, US, Australia, and Europe organizations, coaching leaders to improve conversations, align business goals and create productive conflict.
Squirrel’s area of expertise is not just technical but emotional as well. He believes that technical factors such as structure and process are essential, but emotional factors such as trust, accountability, and fear are even more critical. The solution to technology problems is sometimes a different outsourced company, better skills, or a new process. The problem often comes down to a need for more trust, accountability, fear of error, and other emotional factors.
Squirrel’s approach is innovative. He talks about emotional factors instead of technical ones. For instance, one of his clients had a team that spent their time avoiding mistakes instead of taking risks. Squirrel pointed out that the team’s fear had not been dealt with, and the client needed to understand their fear to improve.
Conversations are crucial to increase success in software development and other business areas. Squirrel runs a highly engaged community called the Squirrel Squadron, co-authored the book Agile Conversations from IT Revolution Press, and runs a podcast. By having conversations about emotional factors, leaders can improve their organizations and increase their chances of success. So, let’s start talking!
Mark to market for accountability.
Have you ever been stuck in endless debates about completion percentages as a software development team? It’s time to switch up your approach and focus on what matters – the market. By implementing the “mark-to-market” process, you can get your software in front of real customers and receive frequent feedback. This way, you’ll know exactly what the market thinks of your product and avoid building something nobody wants.
Think of it like financial organizations checking against the market to see what their holdings are worth. Knowing the actual worth of their holdings can help them avoid situations like the Enron scandal. Similarly, knowing what the market thinks of your software can help your team avoid creating a product that misses the mark.
Sure, mark-to-market can be uncomfortable and challenging, but it’s necessary. By facing whether customers want your software and what they are willing to pay for it, you can have a more productive conversation about improving your product.
So, how can you implement mark-to-market? Simple – communicate directly with your customers to source feedback. Answer their customer service phone lines and help them with their issues. By doing so, you’ll better understand your customers’ needs and improve your software accordingly.
Implementing mark-to-market can help your software development team improve accountability by focusing on real market feedback. Say goodbye to completion percentages and technical processes, and say hello to conversations about emotional factors such as trust, accountability, and fear. It’s time to take your software development game to the next level!
Customer-centric culture drives success.
Creating a customer-centric culture is not only essential but also critical for software development organizations to achieve success. It’s not just about understanding customers’ needs; it’s about incorporating them into all aspects of the organization. According to Douglas, every employee must understand the customer’s needs, from the CEO to the newest intern. Direct contact with customers is crucial for developers, project managers, and product managers to understand their needs and challenges and incorporate that knowledge into the development process.
To establish a customer-centric culture, organizations must work backward from their goals. For instance, if the company aims to expand into Eastern Europe, it needs to understand its customers’ needs and make cultural changes to meet them. Addressing emotional factors such as trust, accountability, and fear is also crucial. Gupta argues that a culture of fear and mistrust can hinder employees from effectively incorporating customer needs into their work. Hence, it is essential to establish a culture of trust and accountability by addressing these emotional factors.
In conclusion, a customer-centric culture is fundamental and vital to software development success. It involves understanding the customer’s needs, incorporating them into all aspects of the organization, and addressing emotional factors such as trust and accountability. By establishing a customer-centric culture, software development organizations can create products that genuinely meet the needs of their customers, increasing their chances of success. So, it’s high time every software development organization should embrace creating a customer-centric culture to achieve success and remain relevant in the market.
Address fear through conversation.
Creating a customer-centric culture requires tackling fear head-on through effective communication. Fear can be a major obstacle to organizational communication and collaboration, especially between employees and their leaders. CEOs and founders should be mindful of the fear they create within their organization, which can lead to a lack of feedback and a sense of isolation.
Cultural initiatives and attempts to change organizational behavior may fall flat if fear exists. This can be identified by observing if employees need to take action or if a lack of understanding or repetition is required. Once fear is recognized, there are several ways to address it.
One effective approach is to seek feedback from trusted individuals or an outside consultant. Leaders can also ask employees directly, but this can be challenging if fear is present. It’s important to understand that changing the conversation cannot eliminate fear but can be mitigated. For example, creating structures and processes that allow employee input and feedback can help reduce fear and foster a more collaborative environment.
Building trust within the organization is also critical to success. This can be achieved by gradually taking the time to understand the other person’s story and using a ladder of inference approach to build understanding and communication. By establishing trust and reducing fear, software development organizations can create a more customer-centric and successful culture.
In conclusion, addressing fear through communication is crucial in creating a customer-centric culture in software development organizations. By recognizing the presence of fear, seeking feedback, and creating structures and processes that allow for collaboration and input, leaders can reduce anxiety and build trust within their organization. This can lead to better communication, more effective collaboration, and ultimately, more successful products that meet the needs of their customers.
Use a structured process for empathetic understanding.
In software development, empathetic understanding is a critical element for success. A podcast episode on test-driven development for people highlights the importance of comprehending the reasoning behind an individual’s actions rather than just their actions. The guest speaker advocates for a structured process that includes asking questions to uncover an individual’s observations, assumptions, conclusions, and actions. This approach is not limited to people with high empathetic potential. Anyone can learn to use this process, better comprehending an individual’s reasoning and motivation, resulting in more effective communication and collaboration.
Fear is a significant barrier to effective communication and collaboration that must be addressed. To overcome this obstacle, it is essential to recognize its presence and take steps to reduce it. Creating structures and processes for open feedback and collaboration and seeking input from all team members is crucial. By doing so, leaders can foster a culture of trust and transparency, leading to better communication, more effective collaboration, and, ultimately, more successful products that meet customers’ needs.
Building trust is vital to empathetic understanding and requires constant attention and effort. Creating an environment where all team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas and their contributions are valued is crucial. By doing so, leaders can promote trust and foster effective communication and collaboration, leading to better products, happier customers, and a more successful organization.
To create a customer-centric culture, software development organizations must adopt structured processes for empathetic understanding. Leaders can foster effective communication and collaboration by addressing fear, building trust, and using a structured process to uncover the story behind an individual’s actions. This can result in better products, happier customers, and a more successful organization.
Simplify your why for success.
Understanding the “why” of an organization is crucial for success, as it provides direction and purpose. However, many organizations struggle to articulate their “why” clearly and concisely, leading to confusion and a lack of focus. Organizational psychologist David Clutterbuck suggests simplifying the “why” by distilling it to something small enough to fit on a beer coaster or a napkin. This process helps gain greater clarity and focus by boiling down the explanation to its essence.
It is important to note that relying solely on origin stories to communicate the “why” may not be effective, as they tend to be inflexible and fail to incorporate current information. Instead, a joint design process involving a broader range of people in the organization is recommended. This process encourages new perspectives and ideas, leading to better decision-making and improved communication. A clear decision-maker and a time box should be established to prevent endless discussions.
In conclusion, simplifying the “why” of an organization is crucial for creating a sense of purpose and direction. By distilling the explanation to something small and communicable, it can be effectively communicated to others. However, a joint design process involving a broader range of people should ensure that current information is incorporated and foster collaboration and communication. This can lead to better products, happier customers, and a more successful organization.
Ensure agility is customer-focused.
During the podcast, the discussion centered on the exciting concept that agility is about putting the customer’s needs first. Douglas, a guest on the show, emphasized prioritizing customer results and progress over sticking to a rigid plan or following traditional processes. According to the guests, true agility means being able to adjust quickly based on customer feedback and the demands of the market. This is thrilling because businesses can stay ahead of the curve and deliver exactly what customers want and need.
Douglas also talks about how crucial it is to have commitment and buy-in from team members. They suggested that clear and meaningful metrics should be established to encourage a focus on business outcomes rather than just measuring inputs or easy-to-measure items. Organizations can foster creative and unexpected behaviors that lead to better results by incentivizing team members to commit to business outcomes. This prospect is exciting because it means team members can be empowered to take ownership of their work and deliver exceptional results.
Douglas also cautions against relying too heavily on set processes and creating a culture of fear and mistrust. They argued that organizations should encourage creativity and embrace unpredictability rather than sticking to safe and comfortable routines. This is liberating because it means that employees can think outside the box and develop innovative solutions to problems.
The podcast highlighted the significance of prioritizing customers and working collaboratively to achieve agility. By prioritizing customer results and involving a diverse range of people in joint design processes, organizations can establish a culture of cooperation and communication that ultimately results in better products, happier customers, and greater organizational success. This is a thrilling prospect because businesses can achieve incredible success by focusing on what matters most: their customers and people.
Slice projects into visible pieces.
Do you ever find yourself working on a project for what seems like an eternity, only to realize you’re still far from the finish line? If so, the “Elephant Carpaccio” concept might be just what you need to break things down into manageable pieces. Imagine slicing a large project into shapes that resemble the final product, such as an elephant. This helps ensure progress toward the end goal while saving time on individual components that don’t meet customer needs.
Believe it or not, many engineering projects need help with this issue. Developers approach them horizontally, focusing on individual components without considering how they fit together to create the final product. This can result in spending months or even years on individual components without meeting the end goal. To avoid this, consider slicing projects vertically, where each slice represents a visible piece of the final product. For instance, a software developer might release a version that includes a button that doesn’t do anything but is in the right place and says the right thing. By monitoring how many people click the button, they can determine if they’re headed in the right direction.
The tricky part is making wireframes and prototypes visible and understandable to customers and stakeholders throughout the development process. This is where the magic happens, though. Consider a hedge fund that replaced a spreadsheet-based system with a web-based one by copying individual numbers onto a static page. By doing this, they got feedback and made adjustments before building out the entire system. It’s all about adopting a culture of collaboration and customer focus through vertical slicing and making wireframes or prototypes visible. Doing so will undoubtedly lead to better products, satisfied customers, and overall success.
Keep accountability through back briefings.
Collaboration and communication are crucial to success, but holding individuals accountable can take time and effort. To avoid this, team members should be responsible for their work and progress, similar to how tax collectors and sheriffs had to account for the taxes they collected and report back to the king. In an organization, team members should regularly report progress and receive feedback and accountability from their leaders.
The podcast recommends using the briefing and back briefing structure inspired by the Prussian military to make this accountability process more effective. Leaders give team members a goal with constraints and freedom to achieve it. The team member then presents a plan for achieving the goal, and the leader provides feedback and accountability. This process is repeated regularly to catch mistakes early on and ensure progress is being made.
By creating a clear feedback loop between team members and leaders, this structure frees up the leader’s time to focus on larger business problems. It also fosters a culture of accountability and collaboration, leading to better products, happier customers, and a more successful organization. This approach holds everyone accountable for their work, leading to a more productive and efficient team.
Effective communication drives profits.
The episode delves into the power of effective communication and how it’s critical for driving profits. The guest speaker highlights the significance of having conversations that prioritize understanding each other’s perspectives, building trust, and creating empathy. These are especially important in software development, where technical teams and business leaders often need to establish more connections and work cohesively.
Furthermore, Douglas stresses the importance of addressing undiscussable issues, often ignored due to their uncomfortable or sensitive nature. However, leaders can create a culture of transparency and openness by tackling these issues head-on. This leads to better decision-making and more effective collaboration, resulting in a more productive and successful organization.
The episode also highlights the usefulness of effective management techniques, such as the action science management technique. This technique focuses on modifying people’s communication and behavior in high-pressure situations, enabling teams to operate more effectively even when fearful or under threat. By utilizing these techniques, leaders can create an environment that fosters accountability, innovation, and growth.
Overall, the podcast episode underscores the critical role of effective communication in driving profits. By fostering a culture of transparency, addressing undiscussable issues, and using effective management techniques, leaders can create a more successful organization that delivers high-quality products and services to its customers.
Have better conversations with technical teams.
Effective communication with technical teams is crucial and exciting for organizational success. Leaders may need to gain complicated technical knowledge from these individuals, but aligning their work with the organization’s goals and objectives is essential. The podcast suggests approaching these conversations similarly to how one would speak with a car mechanic or hairdresser, someone who understands something in great detail that the leader may not.
To ensure technical teams deliver results that align with the organization’s goals, leaders should hold them accountable with enthusiasm. Clear expectations should be set, progress should be tracked, and regular check-ins, goal setting, and performance evaluations should be conducted. This creates a sense of excitement and motivation for all parties involved.
Undiscussable issues critical to the organization’s success should be addressed. Leaders should create a safe space for these conversations to address them head-on and find solutions that benefit the organization. This approach ensures a positive and collaborative work environment and allows for creative solutions to be generated excitingly.
Creating a culture of accountability and open communication through effective management techniques is also important and thrilling. These include setting clear expectations, providing feedback, and using data to track progress. By doing so, a more successful and dynamic organization can be created that focuses on delivering high-quality products and services to its customers.
In conclusion, the podcast episode emphasizes that better conversations with technical teams drive profits and excitement. Leaders can achieve this by creating a culture of accountability, innovatively addressing undiscussable issues, and using effective management techniques that inspire all parties. This approach will result in a more successful and thrilling organization that delivers high-quality products and services to its customers.
Some areas we explore in this episode include:
- Enhance productivity through engaging agile conversations.
- Discover the role of trust and fear reduction in organizational transformation.
- Learn the power of agile discussions for effective teamwork and business success.
- Unlock the potential of a trust-based culture to maximize software profitability.
- Master joint design methods for consensus building and pursuit of common objectives.
- How to consider outsourcing software development projects to save costs, increase flexibility, speed to market, and access to tools.
- How to ensure that the software development project is tied to real outcomes by implementing the Mark to Market process, which involves getting software in front of real customers who might buy it or give feedback.
- Encourage engineers to talk directly to customers to understand their needs and challenges better.
- How to work backward to set medium-term goals for the tech organization by understanding what the whole company is trying to achieve and identifying the barriers.
- Repeating a new strategy frequently to create cultural change and help people align.
- And much, much more.
Listen to the episode
Related links and resources
- Check out Douglas’s site
- Get a copy of Agile Conversations: Transform Your Conversations, Transform Your Culture
- Discover more from Andrea Fryrear – How to Use Lean or Agile Marketing Principles to Boost Business Growth
- Learn more from Prantik Mazumdar – Startup Valuation: How to Drive Growth And Increase a Company’s Valuation
- Check out the article – 20+ Powerful Marketing Strategies You Should Copy to Grow Your Company Fast
- Learn more from Nelly Yusupova – The Essential 10 New Product Development Stages for Successful Projects
Connect with Douglas
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