Communication = Information * Relationships

Have you noticed that problems in software projects are (almost) always the result of lack of good communication? (Some would argue it is actually lack of good management, but read on and you'll see that's basically the same.) As the Chief Information Officer (CIO) in our organization it is my job to be interested in informational problems. But I believe my territory (information) is just one part of the following equation:

Communication = Information * Relationships

In Complexity: Life at the edge of chaos Roger Lewin writes that abysmal relationships are the root of organizational problems. But again, that's only half of the equation. Without information to share, there wouldn't be any valuable communication. And without relationships, there wouldn't be a way to share the information. (Seeing this equation makes me wonder why organizations don't have a Chief Relationships Officer (CRO) and a Chief Communication Officer (CCO) as well. But never mind, I'm always happy to expand my territories.)

In Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking Gerald Weinberg writes about the human interaction dynamic:

"As the number of people increases, the ways they can interact tend to multiply faster than you can control them."

It is a strange remark. Weinberg's quote seems to imply that there are ways to control people's interactions when there are only few of them. Maybe I don't understand what he was trying accomplish, but such a conclusion looks incorrect to me. People will interact with each other, whether you want it or not. Control is never possible, unless you lock them up in prison.

With his book Complexity and Management Ralph Stacey convinced me that top-down systems thinking is a management fad. Weinberg's diagrams may be useful to understand communication problems in an organization, but managers shouldn't think these diagrams can help them solve those problems. Managers cannot directly control a social system by adding or removing relationships, nor by enabling or disabling communication. Managers are part of the system themselves, and communication simply happens. They can draw circles and lines until their fingers turn blue, but diagrams will never properly represent what happens on and off the work floor.

Of course, this doesn't mean you can only stand aside, feeling helpless. I see two important responsibilities for managers:

1) Open up information
You must make information available and accessible. And in general, more is better. Give everyone access to the Internet, all network folders, project information systems, and source control systems. Make books and magazines available, promote your company's intranet, and publish time registration reports, project burn charts, profit & loss figures, and other kinds of corporate information. Withholding information is (in general) a bad thing. Don't just assume that nobody will be interested in something. You may be right, but keeping information to yourself is not a good thing, because people will communicate something, and it can only mean that other (mis)information will be communicated.

2) Cultivate relationships
Roger Lewin talks about cultivating relationships between people. Resilience and innovation in an organization are the result of people having good relationships with each other, so that information flows freely and undistorted. You have to make sure that people enjoy working together. Remove cubicle walls, have informal meetings, facilitate coffee and smoke breaks, and promote people having lunch and dinner together. And most important: let people solve their problems together. When there's a dispute about something, refrain from stepping in for as long as possible. When people find solutions together it will often make their relationships stronger.


Improved communication
Following the formula above, if all goes well, communication should automatically improve.

There's nothing you can do to improve communication between people directly.

Redrawing circles and lines in a diagram will not solve your organization's problems. But you do have something to say on the accessibility of information, and you do have some influence on the quality of people's relationships.

While writing this, I realize that a Chief Communication Officer would have nothing to do. A Chief Information Officer only needs to work with a Chief Relationships Officer to make a real difference together. However, given the number of flowering relationships I have noticed in our organization, the work of a CRO (in our case) might not even be necessary.

(pictures by and myself)

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    This article goes to the heart of an issue many software engineers ignore. But it omitted one crucial word: trust. Communication doesn’t help much if there isn’t any trust. That is where the relationships come in. Relationships aren’t just another component of communication, they are an integral part.
    I would say: Relationships = Communication * Trust
    This issue is more complicated as teams get larger, but also as they get farther apart. Separate people by a few time zones and relationships, trust, and communication are more important and more difficult. Engineers need to understand the importance of communication, information, relationships, and trust. Without understanding the benefits they will never put in the time and effort to make it happen.
    Thank you for the thought provoking article.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    @Zack: Thanks for the useful comment.
    I had assumed Trust to be part of Relationships, because if you don’t trust people you don’t have a good relationship with them. But your view works just as well.

  • Gerald M. Weinberg

    (I’m not sure my first post went through)
    “People will interact with each other, whether you want it or not. Control is never possible, unless you lock them up in prison.”
    Absolutely correct, without doubt. When I wrote about “control,” I didn’t mean “stop.” I meant more in the way of steering, at least statistically.
    For instance, you as CIO can influence the chances that people will communicate with you about their issues, rather than hide them or gossip about them.
    Another example: you can make it more or less likely that people will bring their technical issues to a public forum (like a technical review).
    Or, the way you lead meetings can encourage or discourage people to speak up, or keep quiet.
    I’m sorry about the misunderstanding. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    @Gerald: Thanks for clarifying that! I know all too well that it is hard to write without being misunderstood! 🙂

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