Quality Interactions

©2005 Esther Derby

This article originally appeared in insights Vol. 3 No. 1

Usually, when we think about software quality, we think of
good designs, maintainable code, or low defects.
In my view, quality starts long before we start writing the software.
Quality starts with interactions and relationships.

Consider a situation I ran in to a couple of years ago.
Kelly, the team lead for the FinWiz product, worked 30 floors below Jon, the
main customer representative on the team. Whenever Kelly had a question about
how the software should work, she phoned Jon. Jon always did his best to give
an answer. As the release date grew near,
Kelly asked Jon if he would stay late and participate in conference
calls with team members who worked several time zones away.
“No way,” Jon said. “You can’t even take an elevator ride to meet me
halfway. Why should I go out of my way for you?”

Kelly had always appreciated Jon’s responsiveness, so she
was surprised by his reaction.

Jon felt as if he’d accommodated all of Kelly’s requests
without getting much in return. In his view, Kelly wasn’t interested in
learning about his work context or the way he did his job.
She only called when she wanted a specific piece of information.
Because he perceived that Kelly wasn’t interested in the challenges
he faced in his job, he wasn’t willing to help with her challenge
meeting the off-site team’s time zone difference.

Fortunately, we can improve working relationships without
group therapy or group hugs. Here are five practical ways to build and
strengthen working relationships.

#1: Build a Foundation

Most effective working relationships don’t happen by
accident. Strong working relationships start from a foundation. Take time to
establish a relationship with the people who contribute to your success.

You don’t have to be best friends, but do work to broaden
your relationship beyond ‘strictly business’ transaction.
Make a point of initiating friendly contact when you
don’t need something. Go for coffee. Go for lunch.
Make conversation. Showing interest can have a big effect
in building goodwill and relationships.

Foundations are built on give-and-take. Talking to someone
only to obtain something from him or her doesn’t build a foundation.
In the example above, Kelly could have asked Jon about his work,
shadowed Jon for a day, or offered to show Jon early versions of
the software to demonstrate interest in Jon’s work.

#2: Focus on Interests Rather Than Positions

Conflict is inevitable in close working relationships.
It’s a fact of life.
How we handle the differences that show up effects our success.
Conflicts can escalate when people speak in terms of
positions and can de-escalate when people talk about
interests.

A position describes a possible solution or course of
action: “We must achieve 90% test coverage!” Positions often feel like
categorical statements—this is the best or only thing to do.

An interest describes the outcome desired: “We don’t want to
have egg on our faces after the product ships,
so we want to cover all the high-risk, high-use areas of the product.”

People often agree on interests, but disagree on how to get
there. When people are arguing about positions,
try stating the interest behind the position:
what each will gain by following the course of action he’s
arguing for. Ask questions such as “What are your main concerns in this?”
or “What problems do you see this solving?” to surface interests.

When you explicitly agree on the goal, it’s often easier to
reach agreement on the means to get there.

#3: Seek Solutions Together

Most people are much more inclined to embrace a solution
they helped to devise. Rather than trying to persuade colleagues to do it your
way, engage them in developing a solution.

State the problem you see, and ask for participation in
generating potential solutions. For example, you might say,
“I’m concerned that our tests aren’t finding some serious bugs our
customers are likely to encounter. Can we brainstorm ways to increase
our testing effectiveness in this area?”

In addition to building relationships, involving others
brings creativity and a broader range of perspectives about the problem.

#4: Communicate Face-to-Face Whenever Possible

Words are only part of communication. Humans rely on vocal
tone, body position, gestures, pacing, and facial expression to decode
communication. The more cues available, the richer the communication channel.
The richer the communication channel, the more likely that the message you
intend is the message received.

When I’m face-to-face with someone, I can see a puzzled look
or a furrowed brow. Then I can check on what’s happening for the other person
and clear up the puzzlement or misinterpretation right away.

Talking on the phone provides verbal cues, but eliminates
visual cues. Participants in phone calls can help by articulating when a
statement puzzles them. If you are leading the call, help everyone participate
by polling and checking for reactions.

Email removes visual and auditory cues. Nonetheless, I’ve
heard many dramatic readings of email that imply anger, sarcasm, or
condescension on the part of the sender.
These dramatic readings are an interpretation
of the text; the sender may have had neutral intentions. Once the
misinterpretation starts, it tends to escalate,
and the hard feelings can linger for weeks.

When you sense that a communication may be going awry,
switch to a richer mode of communication.
If you’ve been using email, switch to the phone.
If you’e been on the phone, talk face-to-face if possible.
When it’s not possible to talk face-to-face,
switch out of the content of the conversation and comment on
how the communication is working. Talking about the process of
talking can help avoid a conversation that degenerates into bickering and
defensiveness.

#5: Make a Generous Interpretation

It’s human nature to attribute our own errors to
circumstances and other people’s errors to personal failings. This little bit
of human nature doesn’t help us build strong relationships. When you see
someone else failing or acting in a way that seems foolish, give him the benefit
of the doubt. Start by assuming that the other person is trying to be helpful,
no matter how it looks to you. People normally don’t do things that make no
sense within their own frame of reference. Try to imagine what must be true for
the other person’s actions to make sense. Then ask questions to understand
where the other person is coming from. Acting out of a generous interpretation
almost always creates more possibilities for constructive interactions.

Rebuilding

If you are starting with a clean slate, it’s easy to
practice these steps for building strong relationships. But what if a
relationship is already off on the wrong foot or in conflict? It is possible to
rebuild a working relationship.
I’ve found that a simple approach works best.

Begin by clarifying what you want for yourself and the other person:
Do you want a better working relationship? What would you be willing to
do if you really wanted that?
Next, approach the conversation with statements
about yourself—”I” statements—and clarify what you want:
“I feel there’s tension between us,
and I want to have a better working relationship with you.”
Then ask: “Is that something we can talk about?”

It takes two to rebuild a working relationship. However, if
the other person’s answer is no, don’t give up right away. Create another
opening by asking:
“What would need to happen for you to be willing to talk
about rebuilding our working relationship?”
Give the other person time to process your request.

I’ve both used this approach and recommended this approach.
And I’ve seldom seen it fail. A sincere intent to improve the working
relationship—in and of itself—can help remove barriers
and soften hard feelings.

I was once in a situation where I needed to work with a
fellow, Gordon, who (it seemed to me) was avoiding me:
When I passed Gordon in the hall and said “Hello,”
he looked at the floor and didn’t respond.
When I tried to engage him in conversation,
he turned away from me. I began to wonder what I’d done to offend him.

I decided to try the rebuilding approach outlined above.
Gordon seemed relieved that I’d brought up the tension between us.
He assured me it wasn’t something I’d done,
but that I reminded him of someone he’d had difficulty with.
Even though we never became friends, the conversation helped
create a smoother working relationship.

Effective working relationships don’t happen by accident.
Consider the people you depend on for your success, and then ask yourself which
of these practical steps can help you improve your working relationships.
Strong relationships grow out of consistent attention.

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