One of our goals when working in organizations that have to deal with increased complexity is to bring things to the surface that would otherwise remain hidden. This applies both in agile working environments as well as in traditional project structures.
In the Scrum context, this often happens at the end of an iteration. Here, the team not only looks at what has been achieved in technical terms, but also works on improving the team’s work and performance in the retrospective. The Scrum Master takes on a special role in this situation, as he/she simultaneously tries to adopt a perspective outside the system. If this is successful, there is an opportunity to uncover insufficiencies based on concretely observed behavior and to agree on measures to deal with them.
Traditional project world
In traditional project structures, a similar approach should be achieved through regular coordination meetings in which every team member has the opportunity to provide feedback. Leassons-Learned, steering committees, milestone reviews etc. are intended for this purpose.
The same applies in other areas of application. For example, when working on strategic issues for a department or an entire organization. It is crucial to ensure that you focus on the really important issues. Concentrating only on the overly obvious issues jeopardizes the effectiveness of strategic work and leads to waste. Especially in a world that is characterized by high dynamics, i.e. frequent changes and surprises, it is extremely important to include as many perspectives as possible.
Or in design thinking, where perspectives and fragments of ideas are jointly developed into new insights and ultimately prototypes in short feedback loops. The success of the measure depends largely on being able to determine at an early stage whether an idea is promising or not. The design of the respective steps in the design thinking process must ensure that not only the obvious aspects are included. The gold often lies in seemingly unspectacular statements made by test subjects or participants.
Observe the culture
However, this requires a culture in the company or team that encourages the expression of contributions.
To avoid blind spots, the impressions and insights of all team members must be included, regardless of the chosen approach. This is particularly important in traditional project work, where a structured and sequential approach is often followed.
In all of these cases, we often observe that messages from people with a high need to broadcast drown out the quiet tones.
Some people find it easier than others to put forward their opinions and ideas or to sell them well.
This can lead to a retrospective being less valuable, a strategic decision being less effective, a project risk being recognized too late or a persona created in design thinking being based on incomplete or distorted assumptions.
The power of non-verbal communication
So how can we avoid this trap?
I have borrowed a very effective method from Tom Wujec. Essentially, it involves initially avoiding verbal language at certain steps in the process of collecting ideas or brainstorming etc.
If the fragments of ideas collected and recorded on post-its are presented during a brainstorming session, the structuring into topic clusters/groups can initially take place without language. To do this, the whole group stands in front of the wall/board and – without exchanging ideas verbally – groups Post-Its that belong together into topic clusters. The group members quickly discover conflicts in their understanding of the individual notes and have to work with them. These conflicts point to different views and invite us to a valuable exchange that can lead to completely new insights. Insights that we would only have gained later or would never have gained if we had only listened to the clearly perceptible voices.
Example of a retrospective
In a retrospective, whether in an agile or traditional project environment, colleagues can also present their impressions of the last sprint non-verbally instead of verbally as usual. The scrum master or project manager prepares a wall with as many photos of human emotions as possible: Curiosity, worry, joy, fear, discomfort, pride, sadness, happiness, etc. The team members are then asked to stick a sticky note on the photo that they think is appropriate. This often leads to very surprising reports that can be picked up on and discussed. This insight might also not have come up verbally. There are a variety of other formats for retrospectives that are suitable for obtaining non-verbal feedback. Your trusted Scrum Master will be happy to help you.
Example of design thinking
In the context of design thinking, regardless of whether it is used in an agile or traditional project environment, exemplary personas should be created. Typically, all kinds of data sources are used for this: web analytics data, interviews, personal experiences, reports from customer support, etc. Here, too, there is a risk of blending in with prominent reports. Not everyone feels the urge to voice contradictions or countering impressions. Especially when people with formal power are part of the team. One possibility is the use of so-called lean personas (Lean personas by Adrian Howard): Here, a scale is placed on the wall for each initially determined persona. On the far left is information that can be proven factually. On the far right are assumptions based purely on imagination. The participants can now distribute their impressions, analysis information, demographics etc. non-verbally on this scale. Again, the initial absence of language means that the participants do not have to resort to rhetoric and loudness. Rather, there is an opportunity to use deviations as an invitation to exchange and thus to reveal hidden, potentially valuable insights.
The inclusion of all voices in project work, in both agile and traditional environments, is critical to success and innovation. Utilizing various forms of communication, including non-verbal methods, allows for broad understanding and participation. A culture that encourages diversity in opinions and thoughts is essential to effectively tackle complex challenges and achieve collective success.