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Building Agile Relationships with Customers and End-Users

| by Ben Linders Follow 28 Followers on Sep 11, 2014. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes |

Teams can become so focused that they forget the world around them and risk losing contact with their stakeholders. This makes it difficult for them to know what their customers need and how end users will use their products.

Successful agile teams create synergy by being interdependent and highly collaborative with their environment says Daisy Rasing-de Joode. At the Agile and Software Architecture Symposium 2014 she will give a presentation about agile relationships.

InfoQ interviewed Daisy about the risks of teams being internally focused, collaboration and communication with stakeholders and building agile relationships.

InfoQ: You stated that teams can be internally focused and "forget" the world around them. What can cause this?

Daisy: When people are highly motivated to complete a certain task, it can cause a tunnel vision. We dive into the available information and complete our task as good and quick as possible. But wait a minute... Have we taken into account the impact of the task? Do we know for sure that we have not assumed anything without asking for confirmation first? And moreover, does completing the task even contribute to solving the initial problem?

The scenario above is not something to be ashamed of. Initially, our original state-of-mind works this way. We complete our tasks and go on to the next. However, wouldn't it be great to break this vicious circle? And create a wide understanding of how and why we fulfill certain tasks? Start to train your communicational antenna and signal the real solutions to potential challenges.

InfoQ: What are the risks when teams are being internally focused?

Daisy: Truly, I can think of a dozen risks, but the most important ones are these:

Not contributing to fulfilling the main wish
A project does not exist without a wish that has to be fulfilled (problems are wishes too, but phrased in another manner). Teams get together with the aim to fulfill that wish. Wouldn't it be a disaster when the wrong presents have been bought for fulfilling the wish? Much effort and money will be lost. But moreover, customer trust would be damaged. A precious good, which cannot be gained back easily.

Not responding to your environment
During a project, we have to have a 360 degree vision for environmental changes. Think of customer wishes that can change through new insights, but also think of changing governmental regulations. Notice potential customer doubts, end user habits, and other external changes. Let your stakeholders see what being agile is really about.

InfoQ: Your advice to teams is to become interdependent with their stakeholders. Can you elaborate what you mean with that?

Daisy: In a black and white world, we know teams that are dependent and teams that are independent:

  • Dependent teams can be characterized as: subordinate, even weak maybe, and not self-sufficient.
  • Independent teams seem like little islands. Not accounting for their environment.

However, there is an entrance between those two called interdependence. Let me offer you the definition of interdependency: “mutual dependence between two or more people, groups, or things”.

Training yourself and your team in how to become interdependent is not easy. People can fall back into old habits or can resist to process change.

Becoming interdependent has everything to do with communications. Verify everything that has the least suspicion of an assumption or uncertainty. Show your stakeholders that you really care, think about everything twice and discuss these considerations. Build relationships by offering stakeholders these proverbial 'presents' and you will see that your stakeholder automatically will do the same thing in return. Create this mutual dependency by being communicational and transparent and you will experience how synergy does its work.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples how you have used product demo's and agile retrospectives to help teams to improve collaboration with their customers and end users?

Daisy: At our company, we reach a high level of communication and collaboration with our stakeholders. Some personal examples:

  • Important meetings are mostly face-to-face instead of remote. We need to see persons' physical reactions to really understand what they mean or how they feel.
  • Test management: we plan test meetings with acceptance testers prior to our monthly release. We discuss test scenario's, which acceptance testers may have to deal with while testing. Do they need our support for their tests? Do we have any additional questions or test scenarios for them? Be mutual dependent.
  • Product demo's: these demo's really uplift product quality. We have successfully implemented changes for a better user interface, business-specific jargon, flows, etc. by inviting customers, a legal advisor, acceptance testers, and the technical team for a lifelike demo.
  • Focus groups: end users that come together to discuss the new or changed product. End users in every segment show specific behavior. It surely depends whether your end users are young scholars or experienced notaries.

InfoQ: Can you give some suggestions what team members can do to build "agile relationships" with the people that they want to work with?

Daisy: Of course, let me offer you some 'quick attacks' to begin with:

  1. Plan periodic meetings with:
    • Customers to re-discuss the wish we are working on. Has it changed or have we gained new insights? In other words: should the wish be adjusted or does it still comply?
    • End users, or people who represent end users, to show them what has been built so far. Do end users know how to handle the new product? Do they have specific habits that we have to take into account?
    • Other stakeholders that are important for fulfilling the wish. Your job is to make sure that we all have the same idea about the wish and the road to it.
  2. About point 1: send minutes of these get-togethers afterwards and make sure everyone agrees. Written and structured texts can clarify much more than people who are talking at the same time.
  3. Eliminate assumptions. Pick up that phone and talk about your considerations. Make decisions together.
  4. Make preparations for the future. Remember that every fulfilled wish opens the door to a new one. It would be great when your team noticed that and has made the product compatible to future insights.
  5. Provide honest feedback. Not only during retro's and on group level, but also on individual level. Learn that it is okay to 'correct' someone when feedback is provided in a constructive manner and in the interest of the common goal. And when it's the other way round, accept the feedback and discuss the remark instead of feeling 'attacked', perhaps.

InfoQ: Do you have a final advice for our readers?

Daisy: What comes around goes around. You will see that when your team takes the above efforts into account, your stakeholders automatically will return the favor. Engage yourself into your agile relationships and you will be rewarded with overall synergy.

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