Effective Communication for Developers.
We spoke to Simon Cookson, founder of Northern Value Creators, about communication in businesses, focusing on the technology sector in particular.
- Simon Cookson
- 30 mins
Tom: Hello and welcome to Episode 24 of the Make Things Better podcast. Today I'm joined by Simon Cookson, co-founder of Northern Value Creators. Welcome on Simon, how are you doing today?
Simon: Not too bad it's a lovely sunny morning so yeah really good.
Tom: Yeah. Thanks a lot for joining us today. We're going to talk about communication, especially in the world of tech, developers and everything else. So do you want to start off by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got into helping people improve their communication in the world of technology?
Simon: Yeah, no problem. I've been working in tech for probably about 25 years I reckon. And we founded Northern Value Creators nearly six years ago now, and we're a team of coaches and learning and development specialists that help subject matter experts, technical specialists, developers.
You know anybody with a subject matter expertize become better leaders. And one of the massive, massive areas that we talk about a lot is communication.
Tom: Yeah. And what have you found is like a barrier in communication, is there any barriers that you've found?
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. There's loads and loads of barriers to communication. It's often something that we think is easy because we do it naturally, we're doing it now we're just kind of talking, you know, we haven't got a script, we've not planned it out, we're just talking.
So we kind of think, "Well, it's something I've been doing since I was about 18 months old. And so it's something I'm kind of pretty good at. You can understand what I'm saying. I'm using words that you know what they mean. So yeah I am alright at communication".
But when you introduce the world of work and the complexity of work, particularly when you work in the tech sector, that is, you know, all the clichés about tech, fast pace, always changing, super complex, new technology, lots of specialist teams in different areas doing their own specialist thing - that's where communication gets a lot trickier.
And I think one of the fundamental things I'd like people to have a think about when they listen to this is that we've got a choice. Okay? So all of us as individuals, it doesn't matter what role we've got, no matter how senior we are in an organization or whether it's your first day, we've got a choice.
And that choice is either we can communicate with each other in a way that makes work harder. Or we can choose to communicate in a way that makes work easier okay? We all have that choice.
But we often don't think about that choice because as I say, we think we know what communication is all about, and we just do it subconsciously. But I think what I'd try and encourage and what we do at work is we try and encourage people to be a little bit more conscious about their communication.
Think about that choice, about whether you want to make it easier or whether you want to make it harder. And I'm all for an easier life, so I'll always veer towards trying to make stuff easier.
Tom: Yeah. So awareness is a big part of this then?
Simon: Mm hmm.
Tom: Yeah. And how important do you think communication is in technology in this sector?
Simon: It's everything. It's absolutely everything. And I think it's something that can get a little bit lost because you think about the technology sector.
We call it the tech sector. 'We work in tech.' Actually it's people based business most of the time because as I say, in my experience, most tech organisations are actually teams of individuals, teams of people trying to solve really complex stuff that, as I say, is always changing.
You know, clients have got different requirements. Customers have got different changing requirements all the time. There isn't a manual that you can just pick off the shelf and go, 'Right, yeah, that's how we're doing this' because that manual either hasn't been written yet or it's been rewritten on an almost daily basis.
So communication is the absolute thread that runs through everything.
Tom: Have you noticed in your time working, any organizations where the communication has maybe not been so good and that's caused problems within those places and those teams?
Simon: Yeah totally.
A phrase that is often used, particularly in larger organizations, is 'The Business'. If you hear teams talk about the business, then you know that there's a communication problem in the organization because there's that separation, there's that silo stuff going on.
You know, so many times in my career, I've seen technical teams, teams of developers, engineers, infrastructure, teams of whatever at loggerheads with product teams or more traditionally the enemy - marketing, the big bad team over in marketing. And you know, you get these conflicts, you get these silos.
And I think at the heart of those problems is communication and how you communicate, because particularly when you're looking at teams of experts, you all have your own language. You all have your own priorities, your own biases, your own perspectives.
And that comes out in how you communicate, how you interact with each other, the language that you use. And I think it's a massive challenge, particularly for technical teams, because there is so much jargon. But to you, within the technical team, it isn't jargon. It's just the names of stuff. It's your everyday language.
But for somebody coming in, you know, being invited to a meeting, for example, you've got to sort something out, coming to that meeting, if you are not part of that team, not part of that culture. That could be really alienating and really triggering. Because one of the big things that I want people to understand is that the words that we use, the conversations that we have, are chemical. So conversations are chemical.
Tom: What do you mean by that?
Simon: What I mean is that the way we communicate, the words that we use and how we use those words trigger certain chemicals in our brain.
Simon: Okay. So we can use words that trigger positive chemicals, a chemical called oxytocin, which is the kind of good mood hormone. And it encourages sort of openness, trust, collaboration, more creative thought.
Or we can choose to use words that trigger the opposite. Okay. And you flood your brain with a protection hormone, which is all about, "Oh, my God, what the hell are they talking about? I feel really triggered here. I don't feel included. I don't feel listened to, I don't feel understood, I feel like I am being excluded." So that that's what I mean when I talked earlier about that choice.
So we've got a choice in the words that we use and the way in which we communicate. Do we want to trigger those positive chemical reactions which will create collaboration and trust and openness where people feel that they can say what they really want to say or do we want to communicate and use words that produce the opposite, that shut people down?
And that's the choice that we've got really about choosing those different words. And it's something that we don't particularly think about a lot of in our day to day communication. It just all comes out, doesn't it? You just talk.
Simon: And I think stepping back a little bit. Thinking about the situation that you're going into, thinking about the conversation that you're going to have. Think about the email that you're going to write. Think about the audience and all of that sort of stuff and just move into that space of being a bit more conscious of all of this will make communication so much easier.
Tom: Yeah, definitely. And people are going to respond differently chemically to the ways in which people interact and use their words. But how do you like set up an environment, or like what processes can you use to help understand how other people are going to react to your words so that you can then use the right words and like interact with them in a way that's going to produce those more positive chemicals?
Simon: There's a lot you can do, and a lot of it rests on preparation and understanding.
So if you've got important conversations, you've got important meetings. It's about taking a little bit of time to think about, who's the audience? Who's coming? What do they know? What are their priorities?
Where are there biases? What's important to them? And if you don't know the answer to these questions, then it's about going out and finding out. The best way to find out is to ask questions.
So I guess, you know, there's a couple of kind of hints and ideas that I'd like to share. So you can make that choice to have more positive, more effective communications. And the first one of those is quite simple, but it's about ask more than tell.
Simon: If you can do more asking and thinking of questions, going into conversations, preparing to write emails, what kind of questions can I ask?
You know, what would be, you know, we're talking about this particular topic. We've got this challenge we want to overcome. If you can sit down and prepare some questions. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that you want to write a script and you've got a piece of paper in front of you and you've got a list of questions that you're running through, you're not doing a survey.
But just do a little bit of thinking in advance and think about what kind of questions that you can ask, because questions are an absolute superpower.
Because if you want to communicate in a way that makes other people feel better, included, you know, makes the flow of information much easier. Make work easier as I said at the very, very beginning, questions are a brilliant way to do that because they immediately include the other person.
If you're asking somebody a question, you're immediately included. And the other thing that makes it a superpower is that it forces you to listen, because that's the other big thing around, you know, how do you do this? You need to listen.
Tom: I'm guessing when you're asking questions, they need to be quite open as well.
Simon: Open questions are always really good. Always really good. You know, so if you can, when you're thinking about questions, take your perspective out of it.
Frame the question. Come at it from the point of view of discovery and curiosity, because one of the worst things that you can do which will shut down a conversation that will make the other parties feel uncomfortable, not listened to, is if you come at it with too much ego or come at it from a place of knowing is a phrase that we often use.
So, "I already know the answer to this, I'm just asking the question because I feel like, you know, some bloke on a podcast told me asking questions is a good idea" - that's not really the spirit of it. You need to stay in that space of curiosity and discovery, even if you've got an opinion that's fine to have an opinion on things. But you need to ask the question, to frame the question in a way that stays in that space of discovery and genuine interest in what the person's got to say.
I think one of the worst things that I see, you know, and have seen over the years is where, you know, you're working on a project or there's something that needs to be done, there's a big challenge that needs to be overcome.
So what you do, you organise a meeting. We will invite someone from that team, someone from this team, someone from that team. We will shut them in a room, you know, we'll get the whiteboard out, all of that stuff. And that is alright, but if you don't spend the time preparing for that, if you don't think about how you're communicating in that kind of meeting, those meetings can be utterly worthless. And you all come out of it thinking, "Well, that was a complete waste of time. We haven't progressed anything and nobody's listened to me. I haven't felt heard.". And that's because you're just bringing your preconceptions and you're not approaching it from that place of curiosity and that place of openness and that place of inclusivity.
And I think that's where, you know, if you can stay in that curious, inclusive space, then that is fantastic.
Tom: Yeah. Do you think there's a reason why people find it hard to get to that place of curiosity rather than just like projecting their own thoughts and ideals as to how to solve a problem?
Simon: Absolutely. I think part of it is a sector problem. We can get obsessed with delivery. Pace of delivery. You know, we're all really busy. We've all got a lot of stuff that we need to do. So the focus is on doing it, doing it as quickly as possible.
We've done this before, this projects like the last one that we did. This challenge is just like the one that we did last year and we solved it this way. So let's just do that. And, you know, so that's a bit of a sector problem.
The other problem we have is when you're in that scenario where you've got that meeting and everybody around the table, generally everyone's an expert in their own field. So, they know what the answer is 'We will do it like that'.
And so you're walking into the room and I've seen and heard this particularly from technical experts, developers, engineers and stuff is that they know what the answer is. "I already know what the answer is. Why the hell are we having another meeting about it? Why does marketing have to come along? Why do they have to come along? Because I know what the answer is, you just do that."
And I'm not saying that that's wrong, but what you're missing from that is the perspectives from everybody else.
What you're missing from that kind of approach is bringing everybody else along on the journey. And I think that is massively important because all of the representatives of the different parts of the business need to be working together, collaborating and moving together, because that's how you actually deliver high quality stuff at pace.
And that's why staying in that place of discovery and actually being genuinely interested in the opinions of the people and how they might be able to change your mind on something or add something to the equation.
Tom: So do you think it's important when you already feel like you know the answer. Do you think it's important to kind of put that to one side and still be curious about what other people maybe think an answer is but also get their opinions and views on it?
Simon: Absolutely. Because I think in today's world, there are no easy answers. You know, as I said earlier, there is no manual that has all the answers in. If you just do A, B, C, D, and then you are sorted, the world is not that simple, particularly in the tech world, it's not that simple.
And I think we need to solve complex problems, there are complicated answers, complex problems. And it's about solving those problems in the best way possible for clients. For customers, you know, for users, whoever, whatever you're creating, whoever the end user is, it's about creating things that work for them.
And that's hard. And the best way to do that is to get a wide perspective on things. And if you think you know the answer to every single situation all the time, you're going to miss stuff. And the other thing that's going to happen is that you're going to stay in a particular place.
So if you keep reusing the same solution because it worked last time. Because it worked last time. Because it worked last time. You are standing still. And you know, I've been involved in organizations like that that were absolutely at the top of their game.
You know, technically, you know, commercially, really successful organizations that thought they were the biggest names, that stayed in one place, didn't have that sense of curiosity, didn't seek different perspectives. Three or four years down the line, dead in the water.
Simon: Because you've stayed still.
Tom: Do you think without curiosity, anyone or a company, an organization, do you think they can still grw without curiousit? How important do you think that is in communication and just as a skill in general really?
Simon: I don't think any organization, commercially or otherwise. I am kind of thinking now, you know, socially, family unit, workplace, whatever it is, you need that curiosity because if you are not curious, you are not growing, you are staying still.
And I think, you know, if you're staying still, you're just slowly reducing and reducing your perspectives, reducing your interaction with the world, reducing your opportunities. You know, one of the central things in our organization, we've got three central beliefs, and one of those is that we can all change, we can all change, we can all grow, we can all learn and curiosity is at the heart of that, particularly when you're dealing with experts, where their expertize is central to their identity and their value of work.
So yeah, curiosity is massive.
Tom: What do you think can hold people back from being more curious, is there perhaps a fear of change there, or anything else?
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. There's a fear of change. There is a fear of loss of status. I think, again, in the tech sector, there's a real thing with experts, developers, that whole awful thing about the rockstar, ninja developer that we pay, you know, ridiculous amounts of money to.
We're always searching for like that perfect person that will just come in with all of the knowledge. And where you've got an industry that's based on your status in the team, in your organization, is based on your knowledge.
If you put your hand up and say, "I don't know", that's really exposing, isn't it?
Simon: And so I think, you know, it is hard to stay in that space of learning and growth and change, but it's absolutely, massively important.
Tom: How important is it to create a culture where people can be vulnerable so that they can admit like, I don't know this, I don't know that and therefore be more curious.
Simon: Yeah, it's something that, you know, is not uncommon to hear people say, but it's really hard to do.
Simon: And it needs everybody in the organization, particularly those in their organisation with lots of status. So they're like senior people, line managers, you know, that kind of thing.
Tom: Do you think they need to like set an example?
Simon: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
You know, you can't sit in an ivory tower at the top of an organization and say "You lot down there need to be vulnerable. You know, bring your whole self to work, be authentic." and then just close the office door.
No you've got to do it first, and everyone's got to see you doing it at the top of an organization or at the top of the chain. And then people will follow because they know it's safe to do it.
They've seen you do it and not get knocked down for it, not get criticized, not get ridiculed for it. Not be penalised for saying "I don't know.". And therefore they will see it's safe and will be able to do the same. So yeah, that's got to be something that comes from people with status within an organization.
Tom: Does that happen often? Do you see like leaders in organisations opening up and being vulnerable about their weaknesses?
Simon: Not enough. Not enough. There is there is plenty of it. And, you know, I think over the last two years, COVID, lockdowns, homeworking all of that blah, blah, blah.
One of the big benefits of that is that there has been more humanness, if you like, at work. You know, all the cliches about cats crawling across the keyboard in Zoom meetings and all of that stuff I think that has been really good.
We've left some of that old view of professionalism behind, I hope, where you've got to leave your emotions at the door, you've got to look a particular way, you've got to dress a particular way, which was all wrapped up in professionalism, where actually it was all just wrapped up in exclusion.
It was all just designed to exclude people. If you didn't look, sound, think in a particular way, we're going to exclude you. So I hope that some of that has started to disappear.
Tom: Yeah, one thing I've definetely taken away from this chat so far is that I've found it really interesting how, before we started, I asked you how to introduce you and you said just introduce me as Simon, like you didn't want any big title or anything. And then we talk about the tech industry and you bring it all back to the people. It is the team. And I guess that is maybe why the communication side of things is so important and then again talking about 'The Business' and how that can be a bit of a barrier as well and that shows a certain side.
So yeah it's been really interesting to hear. So in terms of developers then, and I know we've kind of touched on quite a bit already but how do you think developers specifically can communicate more effectively? It's quite a broad question.
Simon: No, no, no. I think I think that's a great way if we can kind of wrap this up with 'Okay. Well, that sounds great, but what can I do?' Yeah, so I've talked about that asking more than telling. I think that's a massively important one.
The other one is try and minimize the use of the word why.
Simon: Which sounds a bit weird because whilst we've been talking about curiosity and discovery, why is a word that kind of pops into your head, but why can be a little bit triggering.
"Why do you think not? Why do you think that might work?". Try and use a phrase like tell me more. "Could you tell me more about this, please?"
Simon: It just opens the conversation rather than going, "why?".
Tom: It's really interesting that you say that as I've been doing Samaritans training as listening volunteer over the last few week.
And you've got the five questions like you know how, what, where, when, blah blah blah.
And they specifically said the only word that you should avoid using is why and they talked about that for probably like a good half hour. Yeah, because as you say, it can be triggering and it can kind of sound like you are pointing the finger at someone.
Simon: Yeah it puts people under pressure instantly. So yeah, it's not that why is an awful word it's just that in certain circumstances if you can avoid it, you know, using something like tell me more is better.
The other thing which you might have picked up from, you know, listening to this is I can talk a lot. And I can fill spaces, and a really good tip to avoid talking too much is an acronym WAIT which stands for Why Am I Talking?
If like me, you can talk too much. Just think about WAIT - why am I talking? Whilst you are doing that, if you put your teeth together and push your tongue to the back of your teeth, you can't talk.
Tom: I am trying it now.
Simon: You can't talk.
So just think if you just stop. Wait. Think about why am I talking? Okay. And then that just gives the other person that chance to come in, to equalize the air time a little bit.
And finally, what I think I would like to finish with is two really, really brilliant words to use in lots of different conversational communication settings, particularly if you are trying to problem solve, you know, if there's something we don't know the answer to and are trying to problem solve.
Those two words are "Yes, and...". So someone maybe suggests an idea and rather then going "That won't work, that's a rubbish idea. It won't work because it didn't work last time so it's not going to work this time." If you can say "Yes and..." and then take it in a different direction or add to it - people don't feel dismissed. People don't feel shut down. People don't feel feel unheard.
And there's a really great little game, if you want to do a little icebreaker type thing. It's the "Yes and..." game where you suggest a scenario. "Right. We need to build a new house", and one person has to suggest something.
The next person says "yes and..." then adds to it. And you could go round and round round. And what is beautiful about that is not necessarily where you get to because it could be nonsensical. I once played it and we had like some sort of theme park run by penguins.
But the important thing of the "yes and..." isn't the words but it's that it feels brilliant to be part of the conversation. Content of the conversation isn't important. It's how you feel. And that is a really important takeaway about effective communication for anybody is that people will forget what you say, but we never, ever forget how it made us feel. And I think that's a quote from Maya Angelou. And I think if there's one thing you can remember from from today, it's about what you said will be forgotten, but the way you made someone feel when you said it they will never forget that.
Tom: Yes and...
Simon: There you go, there you go.
Tom: I do think that's a really good tip because it keeps people involved.
Simon: It does it keep it moving, moving forward.
Tom: Okay so before the final question, do you think you've covered everything you wanted to discuss today?
Simon: Yes really enjoyed it.
Tom: Brilliant so the final question is what can people do to make things better? And you can interpret this however you like.
Simon: I think people could be more conscious. So this kind of relates to what we've been talking about.
You know, be more conscious of the way you communicate. But it also applies more widely to your life, to your relationships, to your family, to what you buy and what you use and everything. Just be more conscious.
Think about, you know, what impact am I having? What's the impact of the words that I'm using? What's the impact of my actions? What's the impact of me buying this other thing that I probably don't need? You know, so be more conscious.
Tom: Do you have any tips on how to implement that?
Simon: Oh, God, that's a hard one. And I guess to be more conscious, you've got to take more time. So that's that finding time, pausing, reflecting and just thinking.
Tom: Okay, awesome, that's a brilliant answer.
Thanks so much for coming on. Where can people find you on, like, social media?
They're our main kind of social media platforms and our website is - northernvaluecreators.com
Tom: Okay great. Thanks so much for watching or listening (Or reading) and I hope you have an amazing rest of your day.
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