The success of any company, large or small, relies on effective communication. Communication is not only a cornerstone of business success, but is also vital to employee effectiveness and happiness.
And yet, effective communication isn’t easy on any level. It takes care and nuance to communicate well – even one-to-one, face-to-face. Add to the mix being able to communicate complex ideas in a business environment, adapting communication styles to accommodate different communication preferences, and being able to adapt your, your team’s, and your company’s communication style as your company evolves. It is no wonder that companies struggle with this most natural-seeming skill.
The carefree early years: informal and verbal
When you are a small startup, communication is relatively easy: engineering, marketing and sales, and operations teams, and the CEO, all share the same desk, let alone the same office space. Alignment on vision, goals, and tasks is easy – you just shout over your laptop and ask questions as they come up. You discuss, agree or disagree, and then commit.
The size and scale of the company and the project means that everyone knows more or less everyone and everything – and can keep that stuff in their head. It’s so much easier to communicate with people you know, right? Communication is powerful and simple: immediate, continuous, informal, and verbal.
The tricky middle years: overly formal, written, and verbal
But as a company starts growing, ad hoc or casual communication becomes harder. Team members no longer fit into a room – or even a building. The amount of information that needs to be assimilated grows too large, and nobody can hope to know everything, or everyone, anymore. To add insult to injury, there is a point when employees start to leave a company, taking knowledge with them, and are replaced by new employees who have little to no context. Communication processes that were previously informal and lightweight become difficult to maintain.
At this point, companies realize that they have to start formalizing communication and creating comms strategies. These strategies are started with the best intention of ‘keeping everyone in the loop’ to improve knowledge retention, sharing, and gathering.
The transition from informal to formal communication models can be painful. Before you know it, something that seemed so natural is now a source of low morale, confusion, or lack of focus.
Death by a thousand meetings
With the best of intentions, informal chats are very quickly replaced by meetings. These are often scheduled in order to disseminate information more deliberately, to make sure there is top-down guidance from leadership, or that the leadership is informed about progress. Before you know it, company-wide meetings, team meetings, 1:1s, chapter meetings, standups, leadership meetings, and goal-setting meetings are added. There are formal meetings for everything. Some people want to go to every meeting and some people hate going to any. People start feeling frustrated that they can’t get any work done because they are spending their days in meetings.
Meetings are expensive and inflexible, so though it might seem like an overhead, encourage intentionality and ruthlessness with your meeting schedule. Some ways in which you can do this include:
- Discouraging regular ‘standing’ meetings. Schedule meetings when you need them, not by default.
- Only scheduling a meeting if it’s the very best way of delivering an outcome, for example, a complex discussion, a team-building exercise, or an idea-sharing session.
- Making your meetings as short as possible; the more people there are in a meeting and the longer they are, the more expensive they are.
- Making sure all meetings have a clear agenda with a set of expected outcomes and a chair. Make this non-negotiable. Share pertinent documents before a meeting.
- Creating a culture where there is no expectation that someone needs to attend a meeting to be ‘seen’, and that people feel empowered to leave meetings if they aren’t getting something out of them.
- Recording your meetings or their outcomes (audio or video, written minutes or summaries) so that people who need to know the outcomes can see them rather than attend.
- Creating a culture where it’s okay to ask why you are invited to a meeting, whether you are required, and what you might add.
- Encouraging employees to feel empowered to decline meetings that aren’t useful to them.
The albatross around all our necks: documentation
Teams start documenting in order to share information in a more sustainable way. The rationale behind decisions, functionality, processes, and policies are all meticulously written down. The ongoing pressure to document everything and then keep that documentation up to date can seem both herculean, and a drain, in a fast-moving business. Once written and read once, documents are rarely read again.
At one company I worked at, there was a bewildering volume of documentation, and it lived in so many places that it was impossible to know where to start looking to find anything. Once you did find it, reading and assimilating the information was a full-time job. Google Docs, Confluence, GitHub, and the Intranet were all used at some point or another for documentation. I rarely, if ever, read anything more than once. There just wasn’t enough time.
Instead, develop a Lean approach to documentation using some of the following ideas:
- Have one place that is the source of truth – make sure it’s easily indexable and searchable.
- Add tags or keywords to documentation.
- Consciously decide what to – and what not to – document.
- Throw away or archive old documentation. Ruthlessly discard what’s out of date (mostly it won’t be needed ‘for posterity’ – that’s just a sentimentality to keep it). The less you have, the easier it is to maintain and to find what you are looking for.
- Use new starters as an opportunity to check and update your documentation.
- Acknowledge that most people will read most documentation once, and then never revisit it.
- Keep documents short and to the point. If someone wants the background on the decision, let them know where they can ask.
Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
The final challenge with formalized methods of communication is the minefield of synchronous and asynchronous, and efficiency means we sometimes fetishize the latter. Async works well where the mode of communication is a straightforward one-way delivery of information – for example, standups and action points from meetings. These don't require multiple, back-and-forth, complex exchanges of ideas and are generally points of information, not discussion. However, async can be tricky when genuine collaboration and discussion are involved. We’ve all seen pull requests with so many comments that they could have been more easily resolved with a simple conversation, and design documents that are handed over for comments in a near-finished state, and end up with long discussions played out in the margins of the document.
Effective async communication is a skill that has to be learned. When trying to implement it in your team, bear the following in mind:
- Consider having a threshold on the number of comments on pull requests or other collaborative documents – after which you encourage jumping on a call to resolve issues.
- Realize the mere action of writing something down conveys an authority that casually mentioning something doesn’t have. Just because you wrote it down, doesn’t mean you’re wedded to it.
- If you are sharing a document and asking for input, indicate what level of input you'd like. For example, if the document is at an early stage, you'd probably like input on the general direction or the outline; if the document is almost finished, you are probably more interested in comments on the finer details like spelling.
- Ask for feedback early, indicate when you’d like it by, and don’t invest too much time upfront. Use the 30% feedback rule.
- If you are commenting on a document, make it explicit whether it’s a suggestion, a comment, a request, or a demand!
- Be aware that nuances like curiosity, kindness, and humor often don’t translate into the written word.
Too many links in the chain
Communication is all about chains of communication: conceiving, sending, passing, and confirming the understanding of messages. A failure at any point in a chain can have disastrous results.
In British military folklore, the story goes that orders were sent by a British unit in World War I to their headquarters as: ‘Send reinforcements, we are going to advance’. This message passed down from radio operator to radio operator, and was finally received by the headquarters as, ‘Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance’. As the apocryphal tale illustrates, the more links there are in the chain of communication, the more confident you can be that your message will be misunderstood. I worked in a large company where efficient chains of communication had broken down badly. Senior leadership made decisions in private and then would post key announcements on the company intranet for everyone in the company to see at the same time, thinking that this was a democratic way of disseminating information. In reality, managers, busy in meetings, would be the last to see key announcements. Instead, they’d learn about key changes in company policy when they looked at Slack and saw messages from their alarmed team members asking them for details of a policy that they also knew nothing about. Managers felt ambushed and excluded, individuals felt isolated from decision-making: nobody won.
Chains of communication can be tricky but powerful. Remember the following:
- Not every message has to come from ‘the top’.
- Trust your managers to own the message and empower them to deliver it. Give them the tools to do so – train them if you need to.
Knowledge is power
Communication is, at its heart, a dialogue. Unless you are careful in the transition from a small to a larger company, you can end up with a two-tier system: a small group of people owning and broadcasting the information, and another much larger group who passively consume it. Getting your communication strategies wrong can derail and demotivate the whole workforce. Getting them right can foster a culture where everyone feels part of the company and feels their input is heard.
As leadership, by necessity, we become more of a broadcaster and disseminator of information and less of a two-way communicator; it’s vital to find ways to replace the old conversations across the desk. Pay attention to how much you are talking compared to how much you are listening. To even out the balance, you can:
- Check that the messages you are sending are understood – encourage feedback and confirmation that your message landed.
- Encourage questions about your company strategy and policies – answer them honestly and share the answers widely.
- Staff surveys, skip-level 1:1s, and office hours are all useful tools for feedback and finding out what your team is thinking.
- Over-communicate and then over-communicate some more. Something that’s been on your mind for months could be a complete surprise to someone else. You can never communicate enough.
- Be open to, and encourage, serendipitous chats when and where they happen.
Listen. Assume best intent. Be kind.