Communication drives agile culture change: Levi’s lessons learned

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Agile represents a profound shift in the way we work — not just the way we work on tasks but how we view work, plan for it, and produce it as a whole within teams. Communication is a huge part of all these agile processes. During a recent webinar hosted by Bret Piontek of Levi Strauss & Co. and Derek Holt of Digital.ai, both hosts agreed that “90% of the job is communication” when managing or working directly with agile teams.

Why is communication so important? Communication guides collaboration between teams, including how they coordinate and perform work, while accomplishing big goals through the accumulation of small daily tasks. Specifically, communication is important in the agile workplace because it is used to:

  • Establish goals/vision
  • Set expectations
  • Align priorities
  • Review work
  • Check-in with progress
  • Discuss challenges
  • Analyze results of the sprint

At the same time, organizations seeking to improve agile communication methods don’t necessarily need more communication but better communication. Excessive meetings can be counter-productive, especially when meetings don’t have a set agenda.

Instead, organizations can rely upon agile software development collaboration tools as well as data analytics. These technologies help organizations walk the careful balance between staying in sync and inefficiently using up time through various forms of communication. Through a combination of leveraging technologies and carefully analyzing its agile communication methods, Levi Strauss & Co. has been able to incentivize the right types of communication without eating away at productivity.

Scrum ceremonies seek quality in small time quantities

Agile frameworks encourage teams, managers, and leaders to stay in regular communication. When using an agile framework like Scrum, for instance, teams ideally meet at least once a day for a quick stand-up discussion. 

Encouraging these meetings gives rise to a common complaint from those resistant to agile: there are “too many meetings”. Such a complaint is especially common in organizations that add on agile meetings to the existing meeting burden.

The reality is that when practiced by the book, the core concept of Scrum intends for meetings to be short but highly productive. 

  • Stand-up meetings should be just 15 minutes (even if they often go over this time). 
  • Sprint planning involves collaborative work that necessitates communication, ultimately saving the time needed to discuss work and coordinate among teams mid-sprint.
  • Sprint reviews can be tiresome when they just involve proof of work for stakeholders, but data gathering and presentation is an essential step (one that could potentially be replaced with dashboards)
  • Sprint retrospectives are vital for saving time in the long run
  • A Scrum of Scrums meeting is called usually only when a discussion and feedback is needed, when a long-term strategy is discussed, or when a cross-department email simply won’t do

Despite these assurances, many agile teams feel plagued with meetings. In 2014, Harvard Business Review documented a VP who spent 44 hours a week in meetings and an IT manager who spent 35 hours a week. As an important note, the IT manager admitted they would send emails in 85% of those meetings, meaning they were splitting their attention most of the time.

The problem has been compounded with many teams working remotely as a result of COVID-19 office closures. Team members were required to submit proof of work, engage in multiple daily discussions, or jump on a call any time a discussion was needed. The response to wrap up remote workers in such meetings, admittedly, stems from the larger cultural challenge of how to tackle communication when many people are at a distance.

Bret Piontek, Enterprise Agile Coach at Levi Strauss & Co. observed that “people who were trying to spin up things really fast on some of the platforms where there’s major work going on, they were on meetings all day long, all-day strong.”

IT leaders felt forced to rely on video calls as a substitute for the face-to-face interactions used to determine strategy or solve challenges. But even those not in planning or strategy were roped into regular meetings, at first. Piontek theorizes that the intent was, “Well if we don’t do that, then people aren’t going to do their work,” so people were made to check-in.

As teams were able to adapt, though, the temptation to add more and more meetings waned. In its place was a more realistic approach to communication that aimed to exercise restraint and increase reliance on digital tools over digital cameras.

Fostering effective communication without meeting madness

Over the course of the past few years — not just during the pandemic — IT leaders like Piontek have learned a number of vital lessons for improving communication without bogging team members down in meetings. The following three key practices have been shown in practice at companies like Levi Strauss & Co. to effectively fix communication issues and reduce the time spent in meetings without sacrificing team coordination.

  1. Ensure meetings have a specific focus with a clear entry point and exit point to the discussion
  2. Keep meeting attendance only to those who are directly involved or who elect to be there
  3. Work to ensure people’s needs are being met through communication — gather feedback, document pain points, and ensure team members feel as if their time is being respected

Give every meeting a purpose

  • Whether the meeting is a routine stand-up check-in or an emergency meeting called for specific challenges, attendees should know what the purpose is and what input is expected from them.
  • Piontek advocated for a shift at Levi Strauss & Co.: “Let’s make our agile team ceremonies focused, with a natural input/output.”
    • Make sure that we reduce the time spent on meetings so the team can disband and get to work
    • The team can still stay connected on a chat forum or jump on a live call as needed
    • This directive was part of an overall goal of repurposing ceremonies
  • “Short but concise meetings help to keep the focus on what needs to be done,” advises Agile communication and culture coach Luciana Paulice. “If issues arise, deal with them in a separate meeting only with the personnel directly involved.”
  • Try to incorporate key updates/info into standup meetings; share the info beforehand so people have the opportunity to digest the info and comment during or before the meeting.

Keep meeting attendance to those who have an interest in the topic

  • Always ask “who should attend daily Scrum meetings or be present for strategy-focused ceremonies?”
  • Realize that there’s no need for an all-hands meeting that involves a specific team or group of teams.
  • Keep team attendance small, shoot for the “two-pizza” ideal.
  • No one should feel pressured to attend meetings they feel aren’t relevant; they should have the psychological safety to be able to refuse attendance if they feel they don’t need to be there.
  • Having an agenda and providing documentation/information in advance of the meeting can ensure everyone arrives with a clear focus and an end-point to the discussion.
  • Difficulty determining which exact teams need to be in the room for a meeting can indicate a need for team restructuring; this is why Levi’s is switching to teams working on a specific feature area.

Keep communication lines open to foster a collaborative culture and the feeling of psychological safety 

  • Organizational leaders should regularly seek input on communication practices in general, and they should then use that input to consider changes to existing practices.
    • e.g. If team managers see reluctance among people they think do need to be there, they need to ask how to make meetings more focused and relevant
  • Reliance on collaboration tools, analytics, automation, and dashboards can get people on the same page without having to call a meeting, improving productivity as a whole.

Leverage technology to make collaborative teamwork happen all the time

Agile is a dynamic shift compared to the legacy “waterfall” approach of setting strategy, directing work, and communicating directives. For example, in place of top-down directives for a product to be developed or changed in a specific way, teams are given a user story challenge and invited to determine ways to solve it through creative engineering. Communication in this type of framework is organic, and it goes far beyond the one-way direction communication used to take from management to staff. 

Yet, the profound shift sparked by agile doesn’t have to be a big, visible change to communication. It can instead manifest itself as tiny changes to daily practices that have a large net cumulative effect. In the words of Piontek, “we’re seeing a shift across the board in ways of thinking and doing things” but also “making little adjustments over time.”

One such major shift for people is that feedback and collaboration between business and IT teams are now encouraged at all stages of the process. 

Piontek admits that to some, the change can be a little uncomfortable. “People are like “oh, I have to be involved the whole way along?”, and it’s like ‘yeah, you do! We need your feedback so that we don’t deviate off what your bigger vision.'”

Shifts like these can happen gradually, but they can also happen quite rapidly. As a fairly all-encompassing example, the need to social distance and temporarily close down offices in the wake of the pandemic has encouraged a whole new way of doing work.

As Derek Holt, General Manager of Agile & DevOps at Digital.ai recounted: “Back 18-12 months ago, the general consensus was when you do your PI (program implement) plan you gotta get 150 people together in some office somewhere.” When such a meeting became physically impossible, teams learned to adapt with a surprising level of flexibility.

The right agile platform can solve communication pain points and improve productivity

Both Piontek and Holt emphasize that one key to making these cultural changes happen successfully is to give people the tools they need. If they can make the “new way” of working an easy part of their daily workflow, adoption will be more widespread, and progress through the transition will be made smoother.

Software like Digital.ai Agility, for example, allows Piontek’s teams to see the same metrics and the same progress on work. Tasks can be arranged and enacted without a face-to-face request. Comments and chat functions can facilitate communication without disrupting workflow. Monitoring work metrics like code committed and tests performed can reveal not just work progress but whether performance benchmarks are being met.

As an example of how the right platforms can improve communication, consider a common cause of meandering meetings: a lack of proper task prioritization, indicating a lack of shared vision. When everyone involved in a sprint cannot know or understand what priorities are, miscommunications and mistakes can result. This type of discoordination is often directly caused by a lack of a single information source everyone can consult.

With a platform for task coordination and metric reporting, tech and team structure can work hand-in-hand. For example, many organizations aren’t sure what teams would find particular user metrics most relevant. This uncertainty often arises because personnel working on a specific feature function or a specific conversion path are fragmented across multiple teams. Considering this, Piontek decided to rebrand everyone into teams focused around features, not specific technology stacks or internal processes. Such a structure allows info generated by analytics-based machine learning pipelines to be handed to the team that can use that info most readily.

Another way to reduce the need for direct communication, Holt notes, is to automate the things that need to be automated. In agreement, Piontek states that Levi’s currently is investing in automation with the goal of having a friction-free pipeline, getting things to market more smoothly, and speeding up the team’s sprint cycles. Their ultimate goal: seek to be consistently, regularly releasing at predictable cadences. At the same time, the company aims to reduce the pain of everyday tasks and coordination, so that meetings can be less about minutia and more about long-term vision.

Get more work done through effective communication

Collaboration is essential for the promised benefits of agile and Value Stream Management (VSM) frameworks to be realized.

In the words of Scrum Master Christiaan Verwijs: “Scrum is built on the observation that software development is a very complex endeavor. As we work together, our understanding of both the problem and the solution grows. This requires collaboration between the people that are doing the work. By bringing in our individual perspective, expertise, creativity, and wisdom, we have a better chance of making sense of this complex problem we’re trying to solve. Central to this collaboration are conversations.” 

Based in this principle, management needs to foster trust in communication and make teamwork feel valuable. Most often, they can accomplish this goal by ensuring that teams can collaborate rather than working in individualized silos. They also have to protect the productivity of teams by keeping meetings functional and purpose-focused. Otherwise, the very least they can do is make meetings optional — or restricted to only the most absolutely needed personnel.

Without the proper Agile communication methods and tools, fragmentation results. Consultant Anthony Mersino has observed the common dysfunction with “so-called agile teams” that are in reality”a group of individuals all working separately on their own work. They don’t collaborate or pair, and the sprint backlog is essentially a set of tasks each person will do. They are not a true agile team.” 

The problem with such a team, Mersino notes, is that they would see “no value in the meetings because they don’t care to learn about or understand what other team members are working on. They don’t need to, since they are just a group of individuals. Often, they sit grudgingly through these meetings waiting to be asked about their work, while feverishly working on their laptop.”

In other words, if teams aren’t seeing a point to meetings, then consider their perspective. Aim to improve the level of interconnectedness and creative collaboration among teams, and represent the work of the entire product team through demonstrable analytics, not just individual quotas.

The work of improving communication should include consideration of the most logical way to structure teams and meetings, all while providing the tools needed to facilitate productive collaboration with minimal friction. These gains have been realized by companies like Levi’s, and the lessons learned can be spread as we reach a new point of improvement with each passing week.

Learn more about improving Agile communication and making teams more collaborative and efficient in our recent webinar: “Changing Culture with Digital Transformation featuring Bret Piontek from Levi’s