Of all the things that need to happen for a company to run well, internal communication might be the most impactful.
Done well, great internal comms mean the team has a clear understanding of the company's mission, priorities, and status. Done poorly, people have no idea what's going on and have to fill in the blanks with back channels and their imaginations.
Without effective internal comms, a company is a loose collection of people working on an overlapping set of tasks. They might eventually get to the end goal, but it will be in spite of the organizational support, not because of it.
But when internal comms are handled well, a company can operate as a single, cohesive unit, with everyone working on their piece of the larger goal, confident that it will all fit together in the end.
At Netlify, we're continuously learning and working to improve internal communication. I've observed several common factors that predict whether a given communication effort will improve trust and confidence on the team – or cause frustration and uncertainty.
Here are my top five tips for getting internal comms right.
1. Set good expectations
A hill I'm willing to die on is that failure to set good expectations is the root cause of personal and business relationship misery. If you change nothing else about your behavior, you can vastly improve the impact of your communication with one change: tell people what will happen and when, and stick to those plans.
If something changes, communicate it clearly before a deadline is missed – then reset expectations appropriately.
This may sound simple, but it changes everything.
2. Make a plan for a plan
When we know something needs to happen but we don't know what we're going to do about it yet, telling the team that we need to ‘make a plan for a plan,’ as Lauren Sell puts it, is far more effective than staying quiet until you have a plan.
Make an announcement that you're aware of the situation and that you've set aside time to make a real plan and will come back with more information at a future date.
3. Weigh in, then buy in
At Netlify, one of our values is ‘weigh in, then buy in.’ In practice, this means we need to communicate plans early, ask for feedback, adjust as needed, and then ask everyone to commit to the adjusted plan.
Discuss your plans with the team, then ask for their input within a timeboxed review period. Make adjustments to the plan as needed based on feedback, and – once the review period ends – ask everyone to buy in and commit to executing the plan that's been decided upon.
Teams can't function if people are arguing at every step. Set the expectation that you will debate different approaches upfront, then ‘disagree and commit’ to deliver on the chosen plan.
Keep in mind this only works if the team is provided with a review period. If there's no opportunity to weigh in, asking people to buy in is effectively saying, ‘Do this my way because I said so.’ This makes team members feel like you’re using them as a pair of hands rather than capable professionals – and top performers won't tolerate it.
4. Create clear milestones
Break the plan into milestones. For example, at Netlify, Akram Hussein and Dana Lawson recently made substantial changes to the way we run Product and Engineering. Instead of the plan being ‘reorganize Product and Engineering’, Akram broke the plan into milestones and sent out a weekly email that clearly indicated what phase we were currently in and what would happen next with clear instructions on where to find documentation and (when appropriate) add feedback.
The milestones and ‘you are here’ status made it immediately apparent to the team where we were going and what to expect next. If we were worried something wasn't being considered, we could look ahead and see that it was in the plan already (or submit feedback if something important was missing).
Having milestones that were frequently and clearly communicated had a significant positive impact on the rollout of the changes. There were still bumps, but very few of them had to do with people misunderstanding what was planned or the order of operations.
For an example of how to structure a document, I have a planning milestones Notion template based on what Akram and Dana put together for Netlify.
5. Know your audience and read the room
Every situation requires subtly shaping the comms to suit it. Diving into the tactical details of a project with the CEO probably doesn't make sense. Stepping back and examining the entire company strategy when a direct report asks for clarity on a single task is likely to leave them stressed out and still lacking answers.
Knowing who you're talking to and what kind of information they need is a critical skill to develop.
Company-wide comms should focus on the broad strokes with links to find more context. Team comms should narrow in on the things that specifically affect their work, with a breadcrumb trail that can be followed to get a broader understanding of the why behind decisions.
Internal comms are the company's nervous system
Sending signals clearly throughout the team is how effective work gets done. Unfortunately, when companies – especially startups – are in periods of rapid growth, internal comms are one of the first areas to get pushed off as a ‘deal with that later’ item.
If you're in a leadership position, don't lose sight of the importance of telling your team what's going on. Providing clear, well-thought-out comms will help you navigate chaotic periods far more effectively than going quiet to ’weather the storm’.
You've worked hard to build a great team. Tell them what's going on and watch them succeed.