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Tales and Tips from Agile Software Projects

Go Ahead and Eavesdrop

Posted by kenhoward on December 8, 2008

A few years ago I managed a team of learning content developers for an international consulting firm. One of my many trips brought me to Paris, France to check on the progress of a course being developed there. One of my friends and colleages, Thierry, honored my visit by organizing a dinner for some of the employees and their spouses.

We went to a hotel at Versailles and were seated at a large round table on the back patio – I think there were 12 of us. It was a beautiful summer night, and everything was perfect. The food was great, and everyone was chatting up a storm, so all seemed to be having a good time. In the midst of the chatter, Thierry shouted, “Hey everyone, you’re all speaking in French. Ken doesn’t speak French, so please speak in English.” I was a bit embarrassed, and I can imagine that some of the wives may have been thinking, “The lazy American comes to our country and he can’t even speak our language.”

One of the wives said out loud, “But why? We’re not even talking to him?” Although everyone laughed, she made an interesting point which begs the question, “What would have been the point of me hearing all those conversations that I wasn’t intended to be a part of?” I believe that in an informal setting like this, people are expected to eavesdrop a bit and jump in and out of conversations at will.

Recalling this story caused me to think about all the collateral and indirect communication that occurs in a team room. At times, the dynamics in the team room involve any number of impromptu conversations. Often times, others could contribute to (or learn from) those conversations, even though they didn’t receive an engraved invitation to participate.

The informality of impromptu conversations includes an implicit invitation to tune out, listen, or jump in fully and contribute. I contend that much of the high value communication that moves a project forward occurs this way.
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2 Responses to “Go Ahead and Eavesdrop”

  1. Brett said

    In my meager experience, those conversations have nothing to do with the project 80% of the time. The very informality that you speak highly of lends itself to talking about anything. On top of that, say I’m (with my pair) is trying to solve a problem, one that is intrinsically difficult. Someone starts talking to someone else and says something that is blatantly wrong concerning an important part of the project. I now have to make a choice: interrupt the progress of two people, progress that took 15-30 minutes just to get into so that I can correct something or I can choose to ignore it so that we can continue making progress. That’s a moral decision now. Anyone who would do the latter is obviously a poor teammate but they choose to be a good teammate at the expense of a full hour of productivity (30 minutes getting in, 30 minutes getting back in after an interruption). I think that’s a bad situation.I don’t disagree with you that much of the high value communication for a project happens just as you say it does. I just have serious doubts about how much high value communication ever happens at all. And when it does, even though it may be high value, it comes at an arguably equally high cost. Brett

  2. Henri said

    Hum… The language question is complicated.

    First a reply to the first comment: It depends. My role is to be a technical leader / business architect. I think open spaces and eavesdropping are necessary. It frequently occurs that a developer just start something the wrong way. It can be because I failed to see the complication, because I left him alone or because he just went the wrong way. Anyway it happens. Eavesdropping allows me luckily to catch this. Yes, I’m loosing half an hour, but it saves 3 men/days so yes it totally worth it. I used to say that you should always help everybody. You will loose 15 minutes to help but the other will loose half a day if you don’t. There’s no point to search for something that someone near knows already. You loose time but on a project scale, it’s always the what gets you the best ROI. If you boss can’t understand that, change job, your project is doomed anyway.

    I’m from Quebec and working in banking. It means that I frequently am with french guys that have to speak in english because there’s an English guy around.

    Quebec IT used to and international french guys still think that whatever the language that is spoken, it doesn’t really matter. That’s just not true.

    When you are not speaking in a language where you are fluent, you tend to get shy. So if you have a bunch of French guys in an english meeting they just stop talking. So the meeting is useless. Decisions are taken in french afterward on a desk corner.

    A typical trick in Quebec to solve that is to speak in whatever language you are the most fluent in. Since most people understand french and english they can follow the conversation in any language. And you just don’t hire someone that can speak both…

    In France, they will switch to french if they can and do a summary afterward to the “aliens”.

    And, one funny thing is happening. English is becoming the common language. But most not English persons are speaking a limited english. The CIO of a big french company (I don’t remember which) wrote a book about this. He even gave a name to that kind of english. The thing is that a native English will frequently speak an english that is too good for others to understand. So the others will understand each others with their simplified english but the English guy will have to level down and even to badly pronounce to be understood. So it’s weird but it seems that not speaking english that well can now be an advantage…

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