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How to use cognitive styles and Atlassian tools to better communicate with your team

This is an exciting time to be working in technology – tools like JIRA and Confluence make working as a team more efficient than ever before to the point it is almost surreal. Yet at the core of any major project are teams, consisting of individual people with different backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses to bring to the table. You can have the most cutting-edge tools on the market, but if your team is out of sync you’ve got a much bigger problem on your hands.

Trello recently published an article 8 Teamwork Myths To Tackle At Your Office, which summarised a survey they conducted to better explore the relationships that take up most of your time and energy – the ones you have with your coworkers. In a nutshell, the take away is this: seemingly truths about how people work are myths because people process and value information differently. For example, take these conclusions from the study:

“Communication is the biggest team improvement wish: Over 20% of respondents would like to communicate with their team members more often, and an additional 20% would like to communicate more efficiently in meetings.

Teamwork may or may not inspire co-workers: One-third of surveyed professionals prefer to work on a team, one-third prefer to go solo, one-third are fine either way!”

Ironically, it is predictable that people will react differently, yet this doesn’t seem to be an anticipated element –  fluid communications is the biggest challenges for teams. Human capacity is essentially the same –  even if the tools are evolving at a faster rate than ourselves.

Neuroscience and psychology can be applied to how we interact with our teams through project management tools, therefore improving both the efficiency of your project and the relationships with your coworkers.

The foundation for thinking agility

In order to improve communication in a team, it’s important to acknowledge different cognitive styles, meaning the different way individuals think, perceive and remember information. One model that exists is the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), which identifies four different models of thinking. Essentially, the tool asks 120 questions in order to gauge which style of thinking is dominate for you. It is possible that two or three styles are dominate for some people.

  • Analytical thinking: People who relate to this cognitive style can be described as logical, factual, critical, technical and quantitative. They prefer activities such as collecting data, analysis, understanding how things work, judging ideas based on facts, criteria and logical reasoning.
  • Sequential thinking: People who relate to this cognitive style can be described as structured, organised detailed-oriented, and excellent planners.  They prefer activities such as following clear processes, detail oriented work, step-by-step problem solving, organisation and implementation.
  • Interpersonal thinking: People who relate to this cognitive style can be described as kinesthetic, emotional, sensory and feeling-based. They prefer activities such as listening to and expressing ideas, looking for personal meaning, sensory input, and group interaction.
  • Imaginative thinking: People who relate to this cognitive style can be described as visual, holistic, intuitive, innovative, and conceptual. They prefer activities such as looking at the big picture, taking initiative, challenging assumptions, visuals, metaphoric thinking, creative problem solving, long term thinking.

A quick disclaimer – I do not claim to be the ultimate expert in neuroscience or psychology and the brief description above is just a scratch on the surface to the available information out there. Also, this is just one model of thought that exists and is subjected to limitations – the test is self-reporting, its underlying basis is in the lateralisation of brain functioning theory, etc.  However, I have personally taken the HBDI test and it has helped me gain insight into how I process information relative to my team members….

Given this framework, how can teams better communicate when people have different thinking styles?

Adapt how you present information

The easy answer would be to build your teams based on one style of thinking – that way no one gets irritated if meetings run too long for the interpersonal thinkers or if processes are not followed for the imaginative thinkers.

However, as the demands rise, teams get bigger and projects scale, the above solution becomes not only impossible but also detrimental. The diversity of personalities across teams allow projects to avoid blind-spots and thrive from different strengths. However, diversity without adapted communication leaves teams frustrated.

You can see this phenomenon improving right within the Atlassian ecosystem. Historically Atlassian tools were built for developers. Typically, this profession is defined by being very analytical. However, as Atlassian scales there is a need for teams with different skill sets to use these tools: HR departments staffed by strong sequential thinkers, communication departments staffed by strong interpersonal thinkers, etc.

One solution, if you are lucky to find the right people, is to build teams that have more than one dominate thinking style – if your marketing team and developers need to interact, hire your respective developer and marketer with both an analytical and interpersonal dominance.

However, more likely you’ll need to adapt your communications style based on who you are working with.

Using Atlassian tools for better communication

Leveraging HipChat

HipChat is designed for informal, quick conversations. For the analytical types, this works perfectly: I need this one point, fact, or criteria addressed by you – however after a quick response we can move on with our day.

However, if the person on the other side of the chat room is an imaginative thinking type (let’s say your CEO for example, normally a personality type that is innovative and has a global overview of your business), he won’t know what do with the information. How does this point tie into the bigger picture? If you haven’t given him the information necessary to make that connection, he might wonder why you are wasting his time with a seemingly small task that doesn’t intuitively lead up to something bigger.

In the above case, HipChat might not be the best tool. Instead, you might need more room in a Confluence page, where the tool is designed for more editorial space – allowing you to not only define your message, but also explain how Point B helps the team get from A to C. Or if your CEO is the more interpersonal type, a HipChat video might be more suitable.

Conversely, if you a working with analytical types – who want the facts and nothing but the facts – forcing yourself onto a HipChat channel may help to make your message more concise for your team member.

Leveraging the new user interface of JIRA and Confluence

You’ll see how the new user interface of Atlassian tools plays into helping different personality types work together. The original JIRA designs had a lot of pieces of information – the project, the workflow, every single associated due date, etc. For analytical thinkers, the board might not have seemed cluttered – after all, their talents lie in juggling separate facts. However, for imaginative thinkers, the lack of space didn’t leave room for bigger ideas – they were tangled up in the details. For the interpersonal types, the design seemed to dry – a problem which they’ve solved by showing the people’s faces who are involved on each project and also adding reactions, to better let these people express and connect to the work at hand. And for JIRA admins – the sequential thinkers in the ecosystem – a clear view of the workflow and processes have been added, giving them more control over the process.

With the launch of the new interface, make sure you are highlighting the key strengths of the tools based on the personality types of your teams. Make use of the redesigned issue (notably markdown support and better hosting of images) to expand upon the bigger pictures and add visualisations when necessary.

By having a clear strategy for how you address each member of your team, you’ll be able to anticipate what type of information they value and frame your messages on Confluence/JIRA/Hipchat in a way that resonates with their working style.

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