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Small Talk

Conversations often stray from project-related topics. This is inevitable with even the most focused, driven members of a project team. Discussing the weather, yesterday's football game, or the price of tea in China may seem to be a waste of time at work. However, this "small talk" can contribute to the communication dynamics of members of the project team.

In the 2009 movie "The Invention of Lying," characters live in a world in which all thoughts are freely expressed with complete openness and honesty. Nobody tells lies, and nobody withholds information. This leads to unexpected conversations with everyone blurting out what they actually think. These conversations are unlikely in real life, not because all people are liars, but rather because most people tend to withhold thoughts or disguise sensitive and personal interactions with those that are nondescript. This "language" of topics that are mundane and noncontroversial is referred to as small talk.

Most people have a love/hate relationship with small talk. Consider the following interaction. Dave Developer is reluctantly attending the mandatory project kick-off event in the company cafeteria. All members of the project team will be there, along with business executives who will be funding the project (and beneficiaries of the software created by the project).

Barbara Business-Stakeholder had been looking forward to the get-together all week. She was excited about meeting and chatting with all members of the project team. Barbara enjoys things like this—Barbara's favorite part of her job is talking with people.

Dave, on the other hand, was stressed about the whole thing. What was the point of the social event anyway? A bunch of people standing around jibber-jabbering about meaningless dribble. Dave would go because it was expected, but he was not happy about wasting time talking about things that will not advance the progress of the project.

Table 4.1 presents a snippet of a conversation between Dave and Barbara as they meet. The first column indicates what was said (the small talk), and the second column shows what the speaker actually meant (a literal translation of the small talk).

Table 4.1. What Was Said and What Was Meant

What Was Said

What Was Meant

Barbara

Hello Dave.

His nametag says "Dave." I don't know him, and he's not talking to anyone, so I'll go ahead and break the ice.

Dave

Hi Barbara.

Okay, here it comes...

Barbara

What is your role on the project?

So let's see if we have anything to talk about.

Dave

I'm a software developer.

Asked and answered.

Barbara

Sure has been hot outside this week!

I know nothing about software development, so let's shift to something I do know about. I'll pick something safe... noncontroversial...something that he's certain to respond to. After all, there's nothing worse than hitting a dead end in a conversation.

Dave

Yup, sure has been hot.

What a lame topic. There's nothing more boring than talking about the weather. See, I knew this thing was going to be a waste of my time.

Barbara

Are you excited about the project?

Okay, he hasn't abandoned the conversation, so let's dive into something more relevant.

Dave

I don't know that much about the project yet. What do you know about it?

Hmmm...maybe this lady does have something real to talk about.

Barbara

Well, I am head of one of the departments that will be the primary users of the new system. We are excited about getting this new system built.

You may not be interested in talking to me, but I want you to know that I am someone important who you will want to get along with.

Dave

Oh, I look forward to getting to know more about what your expectations are for the new system.

This is someone who will likely determine the success or failure of the work we do, so I'll want to get along with her!

Clearly, what had started as a dry small talk session turned into an important meeting for both Dave and Barbara. Agile projects can succeed or fail based on the quality of the communication on the team.

For communication to occur between individuals, some form of a relationship must be formed. If Barbara were to discuss the weather with Frank, the cashier at the grocery store, that relationship may be fleeting. Barbara might have never met Frank before, and she may never see him again. The small talk she strikes up with Frank has no long-term purpose. She is just being friendly in this case.

The small talk that Barbara uses to launch a conversation with Dave Developer, on the other hand, has a more lasting purpose. She is breaking the ice with someone with whom she'll be working on an important project. It would seem odd to dive directly into rich, intense subject matter. The small talk serves as a warm up that allows a productive working relationship to begin to form.

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