TITLE: Walking Out The Door AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 19, 2007 4:05 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Today I am reminded to put a variant of this pattern into practice:
The old-fashioned idea (my door is always open; when you want to talk, c'mon in) was supposed to give people down the line access to you and your ears. The idea was that folks from layers below you would come and clue you in on what was really happening.

I don't think that ever worked for most of us. Most folks didn't have the courage to come in, so we only learned what was on the minds of the plucky few. We were in our environment, not theirs. We couldn't verify what we were hearing by looking, touching, and listening in the first person. And we got fat from all that sitting.

I ran into this quote in Jason Yip's post Instead of opening the door, walk through it. Jason is seconding an important idea: that an open door policy isn't enough, because it leaves the burden for engaging in communication on others -- and there are reasons that these other folks may not engage, or want to. This idea applies in the working-world relationship between supervisors and their employees, but it also applies to the relationship between a service provider and its customers. This includes software developers and their customers. If we as software developers sit in a lab, even with our door open, our customer may never come in to tell us what they need. They may be afraid to bother us; they may not know what they need. Agile approaches seek to reduce the communication gap between developers and customers, sometimes to the point of putting them together in a big room. And these approaches encourage developers to engage the customer in frequent communication in a variety of ways, from working together on requirements and acceptance to releasing working software for customer use as often as possible. As someone who is sitting in a classroom with another professor and a group of grad students just now, I can tell you that this idea applies to teachers and students. Two years ago tomorrow, I wrote about my open office hours -- they usually leave me lonely like the Maytag Repairman. Learning works best when the instructor engages the student -- in the classroom and in the hallway, in the student union, on the sidewalk, and at the ballgame. Often, students yearn to be engaged, and learning is waiting to happen. It may not happen today, in small talk about the game, but at some later time. But that later time may well depend on the relationship built up by lots of small talk before. And sometimes the learning happens right there on the sidewalk, when the students feel able to ask their data structures question out among the trees! But above, I said that today reminded me of a variant of this pattern... Beginning Monday and culminating today, I was fortunate to have a member of my department engage me in conversation, to question a decision I had made. Hurray! The open door (and open e-mail box) worked. We have had a very good discussion by e-mail today, reaching a resolution. But I cannot leave our resolution sitting in my mail archive. I have to get up off my seat, walk through the door, and ensure that the discussion has left my colleague satisfied, in good standing with me. I'm almost certain it has, as I have a long history with this person as well as a lot of history doing e-mail. But I have two reasons to walk through the door and engage now. First, my experience with e-mail tells me that sometimes I am wrong, and it is almost always worth confirming conclusions face-to-face. If I were "just" faculty, I might be willing to wait until my next encounter with this colleague to do the face-to-face. My second reason is that I am department head these days. This places a burden on communication, due to the real and perceived differences in power that permeate my relationships with colleagues. The power differential means that I have to take extra care to ensure that interactions, whether face to face or by e-mail, are building our relationship and not eroding it. Still being relatively new to this management business, it still feels odd that I have to be careful in this way. These folks are my colleagues, my friends! But as I came to realize pretty quickly, moving into the Big Office Downstairs changes things, whatever we may hope. The best way to inoculate ourselves from the bad effects of the new distance? Opening the door and walking through it. Oh, and this applies to the relationship between teachers and students, too. I understand that as an advisor to my grad students, having been a grad student whose advisor encouraged healthy and direct communication. But I see it in my relationship with undergraduates, too, even in the classroom. A little care tending one-on-one and one-on-many relationships goes a long way. (And looking back at that old post about the Friends connection, I sometimes wonder if any of my colleagues has a good Boss Man Wallingford impression yet. More likely, one of my students does!) -----