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When we change the way we communicate
we change the society.
- Clay Shirky -

Agile cross-borders: 4 aspects to overcome the language barrier

In any agile teams that value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, good communication is key. We started our agile transition in Vietnam 3 years ago, in a multicultural environment, with French and Vietnamese all working in English.

In this article we share 4 aspects that we used to move up the “communication grid” and that we presented last week at XPDays Benelux (more pictures available here) through a session of improvisational theatre.

png;base64ea842a803db240d2Fig.1 : The “communication grid”

#1 – Use a structure and prepare

It can seems pretty trivial, but in the same way that in improvisation theater, teams put in place a structure for the play, we started to provide structures to our team for all types of communication.

The daily stand-up is a basic one: 3 things to say that can be prepared in advance: what did you do yesterday? what do you do today? is there any issue you want to raise?

The structure helps to create a comfort zone, people know in advance the rules and what to expect. They can prepare in advance and compensate that their English might be less fluent.

png;base64ded6b1d909032e87Fig.2 : Content vs. Structure

We also provided email templates: to acknowledge a problem, to inform about a release, etc. Instead of trying to write beautiful English with rich vocabulary, our team just stick to a simple and effective wording, that is common and understood by all.

If someone had to present at a weekly call with the customer, the first times they would prepare a script and almost read it out. We would give some tips on how to handle topic transitions, how to engage others in the conversation, how to close the call.

#2 – Express feelings

Only by sharing feelings do we start to realize that we are all humans.

And the findings about being human can be quite surprising:

  • the other might not speak English very well
  • misunderstandings can happen
  • it’s ok to ask to repeat or to clarify
  • it’s ok to say that you don’t know and that you’ll seek answers and will get back

Witnessing this through feelings ease the communication significantly. Before people can get to communicate together, they need to connect. It opens what we can call the Johari window of communication:

png;base647683881f274a7ce2Fig.3 : The Johari Window of communication

When the window is very narrow, there is a lot of pressure created by:

  • tensions due to personal issues that members bring in the workplace

  • implicit expectations from each others

With customers, they are often curious about us being in Vietnam. So instead of doing as if we were like a French team, we actually often start the conversation by talking about the weather or traffic jam so that they can feel the difference, picture our environment.

#3 – Use body language

In the improvisation theatre session at xpdays, the teams had limited words and they started to use more body language.

In our agile teams, we did too. We also used a whole range of other channels of communication. For each type of information, the choice of the channel was important.

  • Emails to share structured and detailed information.

  • Phone calls to deliver key messages such as status or risks.

  • Chat for technical support like how to, problem solving, etc.

  • Direct interaction for discussion in the team, with whiteboards as support.

  • Social media (we use G+) for customer or team related context news.

Not only are the channels more adequate for the person who receive the information, but also for the person who gives it out. It gives more options to envisage the English language in a more or less formal and interactive way. Team members are more or less comfortable with various tools.

png;base6487c5a9babe1e1205Fig.4 : Channels of communication & Comfort zones

In some cases, we would combine different channels to ensure good communication. E.g. First we would send an email, then give a call to notify of the important points in the email.

The geographical distance doesn’t have much impact on the choice of the channel.

#4 – Observe, keep silent, ask

For most people in our team:

  • if they are not expected to talk, they don’t

  • if they are more confident, they will talk more often

These 2 observations raise the issue of relevance. The environment to create is one where people feel relevant to express themselves and have the confidence to do so.

png;base641e773e7cdf94b2ffFig.5 : Confidence vs. Relevance

In our projects, we often make all of the team members visible to the customer. They know their names (even if Vietnamese names are difficult). Each have their expertise and are more comfortable communicating about certain topics. We actually assign them some roles that fit with their comfort zones: email support, chat support, slide preparation, etc.

In doing so, we explicit the relevance of each member and create opportunities for them to gain more confidence.

In some cases, team members will switch to Vietnamese and one of them will translate to English. But when they do then they already have overcome the relevance and the confidence barriers, and this goes beyond the language barrier.

Conclusion

As our team was going through an agile transition, working in a non native language was of course an issue. However, looking back, it helped us understand key aspects of communication in our team and with customers. We didn’t go the more straightforward way of using interprets, because this didn’t fit with what we value as a knowledge offsharing approach.

It is possible that if we had been in an all French team working with French customer or if we didn’t want to work in an agile way, we might not have hit these communication issues right away, but it is likely that they would have emerged in some way or another in the long term.

Being agile and diverse in the team allowed us to fail early in that aspect and to learn and improve accordingly.

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