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Blue in the face: Is my software development team listening to me?


Is your software development team listening to you? Good project communication helps prevent costly rework and ensures that product owners and development teams understand each other.

We don’t speak the same language, even if we’re both speaking English.

We all know that feeling of frustration when we’re trying to communicate and just not getting through. I spelled it all out in careful detail, and all I see are blank looks. Were they even paying attention? This is an important project! Is my software development team listening to me at all?

I need better project communication, and I need it yesterday!

Communication is hard, especially in the context of a software development project. The teams involved speak different languages: product owners speak in terms that make sense within their business context, while developers speak in technical terms. The same English word can have completely different meanings to these groups.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

One of my favorite, easy examples of this phenomenon is the word “case“. Depending on its context, it might mean a legal matter, a piece of luggage, a customer complaint, a specific instance of an illness, or any number of other concepts.

Another, funnier example is the Hollywood classic movie scene where Abbott and Costello are served “cat” (catfish) at a cafe while a stray feline lurks under their table. Their waiter knows exactly what he means when he recommends the “cat” special. Lou Costello knows exactly what a four-legged “cat” is, even though he’s upset about it being on the menu. There’s no need to ask for clarification, right? Both of them understand what “cat” means. The problem is that each person understands “cat” differently.

Even when teams avoid jargon, their points of view are so different that plain English isn’t quite plain enough. To make matters worse, though, language differences aren’t the only problem.

Hello, can you hear me?

This is not your father’s business environment. People are conditioned to pay attention only in short bursts – the 5-second sound bite, the 140-character tweet. That can be okay in certain contexts, but it doesn’t work very well when you’re trying to understand a business case. It doesn’t have room to convey a deep understanding of your brand, your market, your vision. It definitely doesn’t have room for complex processes or ideas. Good project communication needs more than a few bullet points.

Combine these short attention spans with differences in terminology, and the result can be a disaster. How can a business-oriented team communicate with a technically-oriented team?

I know: why don’t we try active listening.

An effective software development team is committed to good project communication. This takes a serious investment of time and energy by the team but pays serious dividends throughout the project life cycle.

Susco works hard to listen to our customers and partners and to understand them. The best approach we know of is “active listening”.

What is active listening? It’s a very focused way to listen and respond to a speaker. Using this technique helps people to understand and retain the message. Some components of active listening are:

  • repeating and paraphrasing the message.
    • “If I understand you correctly, this product needs to have an easy way for managers to trace all changes in a customer record over time.”
  • asking questions about the message to make sure that details are clearly understood.
    • “Managers need to see who changed the customer record and when they changed it. Do this include the time of day for each change, or is the calendar date enough?”
  • looking at the speaker.
    • Active listening might include taking notes, but it certainly doesn’t include looking at a phone or checking email.
    • Active listeners listen with their eyes as well as with their ears.
  • thinking about the message while listening, to develop a deeper understanding.
    • “If managers need to trace changes over time, do they also need alerts about their team’s benchmarks?”
  • noticing when attention begins to drift and returning focus back to the speaker.



…Well, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Effective consulting teams and software development teams need to resist the TL;DR impulse and commit to good project communication. The alternative is to risk poor communication and costly rework.

Active listening throughout your software development project helps ensure that the results meet your needs and the process is as smooth as possible. Click here to learn more about how we at Susco approach project communication and development.

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