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5 Studies To Help Software Development Teams  Communicate Better

Angela Bartels on November 7, 2016

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Collaboration in the workplace is increasing every year. According to a study in The Harvard Business Review, ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more” over the last two decades. However, for some, the rise in collaboration means employees spend more time in meetings than time working on critical projects and tasks. Teams need a way to strike the right balance between having meetings that are productive and having time to get their work done.

Software development teams are a group that can especially benefit from collaborative environments that are productive. Open communication is key for identifying issues early, brainstorming new and innovative ideas, and coming up with solutions when a crisis occurs. At the same time, developers keep businesses running by creating the websites, products and more. Meetings that aren’t productive can waste precious company time as time away from coding means deadlines are not met. This is why organizations that want to keep ahead of the competition need to understand how to help developers collaborate effectively. These 5 studies share insights on how to create environments that are more collaborative and productive.

1. Provide an equal forum for all

A 2008 study from psychologists at Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College found that the most successful and collaborative teams displayed certain types of social norms or “unwritten rules.” The study, Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups, showed that the most consistently successful teams were ones that raised the “collective intelligence” of the group by giving everyone an equal chance to talk. The most successful teams gave everyone a voice and a chance to feel heard. Giving everyone a voice can be as easy as using a tool like Slack, for example, that allows team members to discuss projects and share feedback. Using survey tools can also be an effective way to collect feedback — especially from members of the team who may feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts anonymously.

For example, we use Assembla and Cornerstone 3 for Mac Subversion as  collaborative environments for employees to engage and comment on specific projects. You can @ mention users within tickets so they can get a notification about something another employee wants to see. A very simple gesture gives complex development teams the resources that they need to express their ideas and needs in a streamlined, focused way.

More examples to model

  • Every week, the team at DoSomething hosts a standup meeting in which teams across the company share their wins and losses. Every team member receives a finite timeframe and can share ideas openly. Learn more about DoSomething’s process with this talk from Julie Lorch, the company’s former head of user experience.
  • At a larger scale, Adobe has developed a framework for employees in all departments to independently run their own business experiments. Through a process called Kickbox, the company gives every employee a kit with a pre-paid credit card and reporting framework to test and share results around their ideas. The process is open-source, so any company can test the method, themselves.

2. Create safe spaces

An added benefit of what researchers call ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘social sensitivity’’ is that both of these traits help to create “psychological safe spaces.” Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines this as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ In Edmondson’s 1999 study, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, she described how in a safe space, people feel confident that they won’t be embarrassed or rejected for being themselves. For developers, encouraging safe spaces makes it’s easier for team members to share new ideas and discuss mistakes, for example. This especially important in the technology industry, where the adage, “fail fast, fail often,” is often cited as the path to innovation. To increase collaboration, foster an environment where team members feel safe being themselves, taking risks and making mistakes.

We asked Jacek Materna, CTO of Assembla, on how he encourages a safe environment for his engineering team while following the motto fail fast, fail often. Here’s what he shared:

“Fast Fail is central to Agile thinking and a key tenant of ‘Humble invincibility.’ Not sure if your product should require users to give a lot of information before starting to use it? One approach would be to talk to a lot of people, get all the different points of view, assess their opinions, decide what to do, schedule it on the product roadmap, develop and test it, and then release it. Or you could just get something out there and if it doesn’t work, fail fast, pivot, and try something else - the same applies for our teams. Instead of keeping your code hidden from the team we practice constant commits and constant peer reviews; the faster you know your code won't fly the better the quality of the product and the faster customers get what they want. This obsession with feedback and change creates a major ‘safe’ zone where the team cooperates as one to get the best out the door to our customers.”

More examples to model

  • One CEO and co-founder, Amy Errett, has found that encouraging failure can actually improve employee retention. At her company, Madison Reed, the leadership team sets aside goals for perfection to keep morale high.
  • Jana Eggers, long-time technical leader and co-founder of Nara Logics has developed a series of tips to help engineers become better listeners through a few mindfulness-based techniques. Here’s a talk she gave on using listening skills to build more profitable products.

3. Break out of regular meetings

When you think of meetings, you typically think of a conference room. Turn meetings into walks to the coffee shop or a walk around around your office space. Getting out of the office helps to team members build rapport and make the personal connections. A 2012 study by researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, The New Science of Building Great Teams, shows that having conversations outside of formal meetings were important to team success. Teams fostered these informal meetings by scheduling coffee breaks and planning social events. The energy and enthusiasm inspired by these interactions even improved productivity between groups and contributed to creating a more cohesive company culture.  

More examples to model

4. Encourage teams to work virtually

A 2009 study from Cisco showed that virtual teams can actually outperform face-to-face teams. Cisco’s Teleworker Survey, an in-depth study of almost 2,000 company employees, found that 69% of employees said their productivity increased when they worked remotely and 83% said that their communication with their team either stayed the same or improved. Working remotely can help developers have better work life balance and add variety to their routine, making it easier for them to be present and mindful when they’re in the office. Additionally, working remotely means that employees have to communicate more in writing, which means that more information is captured and easier to access later. This can help reduce miscommunications that make it harder to collaborate.

At Assembla, 50% of our team works remotely from our development and engineering side to customer service side. We use Assembla to collaborate on issues and projects. We block times out during the day where everyone is online at once to discuss certain issues documented in Assembla over Slack, Skype or Google Hangouts.

More examples to model

5. Visualize positive interactions

Asking developers to imagine their interactions with colleagues going well may seem a little strange, but research shows that this strategy actually works. A 2013 study by Harvard University's Department of Psychology and Center for Brain Science, Constructing Memory, Imagination, and Empathy, found that imagined interactions between team members lead to:

  • Decreased anxiety
  • Higher collaboration
  • More positive interactions
  • Improved memory

Imagining positive interactions was shown to cause a psychological shift that inspired individuals to act on the imagined encounter by creating actual positive encounters. This is similar to how athletes imagine themselves winning before they start a race. By picturing a scenario going well in your head, you’re in essence telling your brain that a positive outcome is likely.

The core part to imagination is ensuring that developers are involved early on with positive business outcomes if their project is launched.  In business, often times, marketing, sales and support are the first to know about news like  customer growth and revenue. Developers should be included in the conversation and should know how they're contributing to the growth of the company - this would easily help developers imagine a positive outcome because their work is contributing to the bottom line.

More example to model

  • Here’s how Seppo Heleva, co-founder of game development company WonderSpark outsmarts his own perfection to create a culture of positivity within his organization.
  • Here’s a TED talk from mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe about how a 10-minute mindfulness practice can improve business collaboration.

Final Thoughts

Positivity is a major theme throughout the vast majority of studies on collaboration. You can defer that, while every team is different, creating a positive environment is the best way to start opening up the channels of communication and strengthening team bonds. Tackle this challenge from three angles: your collaboration software, high-level values as a team, and communication workflows. Remember that software development is similar to a team sport and you’ll need a multi-faceted approach to keep progress in sync.