Observing, eavesdropping and overhearing – essential tools for a software development leader

I believe in Management on the Ground and what better way to be on the ground than to be sitting with the team in an open plan office. By simply observing, eavesdropping and overhearing I know what is going on and I also get early warning when I have to intervene.


I’m forever glancing around the room to see what is going on. There are tell tale signs that something is going amiss within the team and that I might need to intervene. This is partly about who is talking to who and partly about how they are talking to each other.

Social chit chat does not attract my attention but I will often, not always, intervene if I hear conflict. I’m interested in resolving conflict about the programme/project not if team members just don’t get on. When I intervene I offer facilitation, clarity on priorities, memory of previous agreements, or just an obvious observer so the participants stay civil. On one occasion I had to intervene to support a member of my team in a conflict with an external. I don’t mind conflict; I do mind unresolved conflict.

I’ll also intervene if the combination of people suggests they are talking about a topic I’ve an interest in. That applies to meetings as much as desk side conversations. A few months ago I gate crashed a meeting that I wasn’t invited to. The new User Experience (UX) Designer was clearly about to present to a bunch of folks. I’d not seen his stuff so I wanted to be in on the briefing as well. If I hadn’t noticed the meeting, or had been shy about barging in, then I would have missed out on some important content. I would have been behind the curve and I didn’t want to be.

Open Plan Conversations

Open Plan Conversations


When I notice an interesting conversation I usually walk over and join in. But not always. Sometimes I just eavesdrop. This lets me gather a bit more information before I decide whether to wander over or stay in my chair. Often the conversation turns out to be less interesting than I thought or the conflict resolves itself so I never get directly involved.


Eavesdropping is deliberate but overhearing is accidental. I wander past some people talking and catch a key phrase so join in. Or I wander into the kitchen to fill up my water bottle and discover an impromptu conversation about a key issue, and again I join in.

But isn’t that rude?

So I spy on my team, gate crash meetings uninvited, eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, and then barge into them. Isn’t that rude?

Maybe. I do try to do all of this in a sympathetic, engaging and friendly way. But I don’t particularly care if, sometimes, I have to be rude.

I am interested in everything about the products I build and ultimately I am solely responsible for delivery. I will do everything I can to intervene on an issue to safeguard delivery. And I don’t mind battering a few social conventions in the process.