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Why Less Communication is Better!

“People were saying that groups needed to communicate more. Jeff (Bezos) got up and said, ‘No, communication is terrible!’” Alan Deutschman, 1 Aug 2014, Fast Company

Yes, you read that right. Less communication is better. The reason for this is that more communication doesn’t scale while just enough communication is essential for the high performance of a team and particular teams of teams. More meetings and more reports cause higher decision latency, the primary cause of project failure.

Projects, where the average time it takes to make a decision is greater than 5 hours, have a success rate of just 18%. If decision times average less than one hour, project success rates rise to 58% (50,000 project sets of 8-25 projects each in the Standish Group database).

A properly implemented Scrum radically reduces the need for communication while assuring the right communication happens.

The roots of Scrum lie in fighter pilot training and that training was based on the work of John Boyd, the world’s greatest fighter pilot. His strategic thinking is taught in all the war colleges and is the core strategy of the U.S. Marines. Professor Ikojiru Nonanka, the grandfather of Scrum (coining the term in the HBR paper “The New New Product Development Game” which was read and adopted by the first Scrum team) is currently writing a book on the Marines and says “John Boyd’s OODA loop is more important than Toyota’s PDCA cycle!”

Fundamental to systems theory is the concept of “policy resistance” which says that anytime you try to implement a policy, procedure, strategy, or operation, side effects immediately arise to thwart the change (see Sterman 2000 Business Dynamics. McGraw Hill). This is dramatically obvious in aerial combat and John Boyd developed a strategy to allow him to win 100% of his aerial encounters usually within 40 seconds.

He says first you have to Observe (situational awareness), then Orient (reinterpret your thinking about what is going on), then Decide (to do something different), then Act (in a way that disarms your opponent by striking in a different and unexpected place. Before the opponent can realign their opposing forces you execute the OODA loop again (get inside the opponents OODA loop) and this will confuse and disorient the opposition making you certain to win.

This works in business as well as in air combat and in Scrum, the Product Owner is the most important person to be constantly executing the OODA loop to win in the market and disarm both external and internal opposition to success.

These core concepts are illustrated in Boyd’s standard briefing called Patterns of Conflict. He starts by addressing how successful military operations are based on Schwerpunkt, the German work for Mission Intent.

  • “German operational philosophy is based upon common outlook and freedom of action … and emphasized implicit over explicit communication.
  • “The secret … lies in what’s unstated or not communicated to one another—in order to exploit lower-level initiative yet realize higher-level intent, thereby diminish friction and reduce time, hence gain both quickness and security.
  • “This allowed the Germans to repeatedly operate inside their adversaries OODA loops.” (Boyd 1986, Patterns of Conflict, slide 79)

This approach is called Auftragstaktik (mission command), or more accurately Führen mit Auftrag ("leading by mission"):

  • A contract between superior and subordinate (Daniel Ford 2011. A Vision So Noble. Amazon)
  • The subordinate agrees to make his actions serve his superior’s intent in terms of what is to be accomplished, while the superior agrees to give his subordinates wide freedom to exercise his imagination and intuition in terms of how intent is to be realized.
  • “I always prized most highly those commanders that needed to be given the least orders, those you could discuss the matter with for 5 minutes and then not worrying about them for the next 8 days.” Hermann Balck crossing the river Meusse in 1940

In Scrum we have leveled the playing field as the Product Owner is not the superior. However, the Product Owner is responsible for clearly articulating the what and the mission intent and if the team can quickly understand and execute with minimal discussion and delay they will move into a hyper-productive state. In the initial phase, extensive discussions are required to form a team (a group working toward a common goal) and a backlog that is clear and executable with shared goals. Until this happens, teams cannot perform, but once it happens, this can move very fast. The right communication is essential and it will be tedious until the organization is aligned but with alignment the right communication is minimal. Without minimal communication you cannot achieve high performance and the scalability required to turn inside your competitors OODA loop.

Scrum is structured to allow small self-organizing teams to work together in small groups of teams, the Scrum of Scrums. This implements information hiding, an object-oriented technology concept, that allows communication through a higher level interface that eliminates over 90% of communication pathways for a large group of people.

Exploding communication pathways caused production per individual to slow down on large teams. This is the root of Brooks Law in “The Mythical Man Month”. “Adding more people to a late project makes it later.” A properly implemented Scrum@Scale is scale-free in the sense that communication requirements do not explode as you add more teams. This allows linear scalability in the sense that doubling the number of teams can double production, a feature that is not possible in traditional project management.

So less communication is a feature of self-organizing, self-managing teams and allows more rapid decision making that avoids decision latency, the primary cause of project failure.

While the communication of mission intent is critical, less communication in execution is better. Elon Musk refuses to go to meetings with more than five people and Jeff Bezos refuses meetings in any group that cannot be fed with two pizzas. Systematic, a large CMMI Level 5 consultancy has eliminated all meetings except the Scrum five events and has abolished all other meetings and reports, particularly for senior management. A properly implemented Scrum will always reduce meeting time and reduce communication overhead.