Why Communication Is Key to the Agile Process


We should all be much more active about improving our communication skills to be better at our jobs, but also (and more importantly) to make the most of the people around us. Whether you’re giving or receiving information verbally or through writing, no matter what your job is, communication is key.

Mary Gorman asked at Agile Testing Days 2013, “What is your most-used, top testing skill?” My first answer was “Communication.”

I quickly felt silly and listed an actual test technique, but in retrospect I stand by my first answer. This is what brought Lisa Crispin and me to the idea for our talk at Agile 2014. People might wonder what communication has got to do with testing, or any other role, for that matter. The answer should be obvious: lots. The fact that the answer is not always obvious is the epitome of why it’s an area we need to focus on.

Communication is a learned skill, one that many of us have put very little (or no) effort into improving, despite the fact that we spend about 70 percent of our waking time communicating. I personally have spent years trying to master my testing and technical skills, but as for communication, I think I gave it a solid three days during a neuro-linguistic programming course a few years back. Proportionally, this seems somewhat skewed.

Within agile it is all about the feedback loop and reduced cycle time, which means good communication underpins our ability to produce quality, working software at the end of each iteration. However, I remember a sprint planning where the user story seemed straightforward and we defined the acceptance criteria, so we all thought everything was covered. Little did we realize that at the sprint review the product manager would say that was not what he had meant. We collectively as a development team had assumed the same interpretation of the user story, but it was not what the product manager had intended. Especially as testers, we need to uncover these misperceptions and make sure to discover the correct information, which is why I feel one’s best asset as a tester is communication.

“Have You Turned on Your Listening Ears?”

This is a phrase you might say to your child, but maybe it also should be said at the beginning of any meeting. Researchers say we spend 70 percent of our time awake communicating, and 45 percent of that time is spent listening. Many of us have the misconception that we are great listeners.

There is a communication exercise called “The Witches of Glum” where someone reads an article aloud and then delivers some statements, and the listener has to say whether each statement is true or false. You only need to go through the first two paragraphs and a few statements to appreciate that your listening might not be quite as good as you thought it was.

To actually be a great listener is hard. People can talk at about one hundred fifty to one hundred seventy words per minute, but we can hear at six hundred to seven hundred, which gives our listening apparatus way too much idle time to potentially be distracted. Even with the few words we are hearing, our brains still manage to fill in details that weren't there, or even to omit words.

In agile we may take on smaller amounts of work in an iteration than when we used to try to plan out a whole product release in one go, but this means we need to focus in every meeting to make sure we are extracting and delivering all the necessary information. We no longer have extensive documentation to refer to and time to revisit it. We need to keep our own notes and make sure to listen to all the information so we do not miss any vital components, and also try to bring to light the information that people fail to disclose.

Complexity of Communication

Beyond the words, when someone is speaking there are so many more details we need to consider: tone, intention, volume, and speed, to mention just a few. These qualities can highlight subtle (or even obvious) nuances in what a person is trying to say.

We also often forget about the impact body language can have. I know there sometimes comes a point in a daily standup on a big team when I drop my head as I get a bit distracted (or, for lack of a better word, bored). I make the rude assumption that I know most of what is going on. However, I know that if I were speaking and I noticed someone doing this, it would affect me.

Many people need encouragement when providing information. To have a successful agile team, you need individuals to fulfill micro-commitments that work toward the team goal. If people continue to display discouraging body language, it can affect the trust and morale of the team, which can have an impact on productivity and focus.

Communication is a personal thing, and as such we often have different, personal obstacles, from struggling to hear in crowded rooms to language barriers. I am glad I am a passionate tester, but this often means emotions are my biggest obstacle. I get highly invested in what I work on, so I find it hard to always talk about the problem with facts and details without including some emotion-fueled narrative that does not benefit the situation. The advantage with communication barriers being individual is that you can look at yourself and try to identify your own barriers. If you struggle with this self-analysis, you can ask a trusted friend to work through it with you. Once you have identified some of your barriers you can then work to mitigate their effects.

Misunderstandings Lead to...

These gaps in our communications can lead to assumptions and misconceptions. You may have heard the parable of six blind men describing an elephant when each of them is only touching a certain part of its body. As you can imagine, their impressions of what an elephant looks like are all very different. This is not dissimilar to many conversations around a project: The aim is to draw from everyone's viewpoint, and like with the elephant, when you combine everyone’s partly right ideas you get a more complete picture.

Many of our perspectives are based on personal experiences or the feelings or values we have around something. We need to remember that different does not mean wrong and encourage open communication that allows for these differences and handles them. We need to learn empathy.

Giving and Receiving Instructions

Even when we give instructions, people can struggle to follow what we perceive to be straightforward directions. For example, please indulge me and get a plain piece of paper and recreate this image.


In the top right corner draw a line with a dot on it, in the bottom left corner write the date, in the top left corner write the first three letters of the alphabet backwards, and in the bottom right corner underline the word that means fast.

I will share what I meant for an answer at the end of the article. I would guess that your answer will not match mine, and yes, I was being a little perverse to illustrate the point. Even the simplest instructions we give can be open to misinterpretations. How much time do you dedicate to thinking about ubiquitous language? Probably not a whole lot, but as I’ve hopefully illustrated, it matters.

The more I read in the testing industry, the more I try to make a deliberate effort to watch the terminology I use and double check my written correspondence, making sure to consider the receiver of the information. Specifically, I’m checking that I have provided the information in an appropriate structure to highlight the “need to know” and “should know” without hiding them among a general splurge of information.

Better Communication, Better Job Skills

Communication is crucial to whether you are a good tester. Yes, you need the skills to do the testing, but if you can’t determine what you should be testing and why or provide the information that you found when testing, then you have not achieved your objective.

We should all be much more active about improving our communication skills to be better at our jobs, but also (and more importantly) to make the most of the people around us. In all the tasks where you are working on your ability to communicate effectively with others (e.g., planning and moderating meetings, interpreting body language, or improving your situational awareness), you are not only bolstering your soft skills, but these skills also are enabling you to become better at your job.

By the way, here is the answer I was thinking of for the earlier puzzle:

Brainteaser answer

Does this look like your answer? I didn’t think so.

This just illustrates how whether you’re giving or receiving information verbally or through writing, no matter what your job is, communication is key.

User Comments

Kevin Meyer's picture

Although touched on, a large gap in this is visual communication and it's role in describing and validating the Product Owner's (or other stakeholders) needs.  With 55 - 60% of the population visually oriented, just listening with our ears or writing user stories misses the mark.  User stories and other written textual forms of requirements are auditory in nature, not visual.  The visual learner tends to see pictures, i.e, models, memories of business operations, prototypes when communicating. The auditory learner "sees" words during communication.  

In a recent session, when I started to draw a mock-up of a graphic, bar chart version of the user's requested report, it suddenly became an,"Aha! or Opps!" moment as they realized that the request was  really for a 3 dimensional report that would have been very difficult to use."

I've seen many Agile practitioners mirror the Beatles, singing,"All You Need is Stories", when in reality, much time can be saved with a quickly sketched, truly visual model, diagram or whiteboard prototype.  Is it time for us Agilists to revisit Ambler's "Agile Modeling" and other similar works?

Best wishes,

Kevin Meyer

Mutual of Omaha

October 1, 2014 - 11:48am
Emma Armstrong's picture

Thank you for your comments Kevin, I totally agree with you that this is not covered in any depth in this article.  As you say there is a lot that can be gained by visual communication and we actively encourage this where I work.  I think the crux of it is that we all must appreciate and understand the needs of those we are communicating with and make sure we are providing them with the information they need and in a format that works for them. Best Wishes,





October 8, 2014 - 1:18pm

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.