I am writing a book with what some would say is an unrealistic goal: fixing workplace communication. With such a goal in mind, I believe ongoing feedback must be an essential part of the writing process, so I decided to share my work as it evolves.
This issue of Generative Communication is Chapter 03 of the book. I am excited to receive your feedback, ideas, questions, and insights. Please share them here.
03: Generative Communication
“Communication works for those who work at it.” — John Powell
If there is one word I would pick to describe typical workplace communication, this would be it. I can’t say that communication before email and instant messaging was super effective. But as Near-Time Communication started dominating our personal and professional lives, how we interact has become significantly more shallow. And soon, the contagious nature of superficial communication caught up with how we interact face-to-face. None of that was intentional, but when your mainstream methods of communication are continuous, spontaneous, fractured, and unfocused, there is practically no other possible outcome.
We communicate to exchange information, share ideas, and develop new ones. When communication is shallow, achieving these goals becomes increasingly more challenging. Shallow communication defies the reason for which we communicate. Moreover, when our communication is superficial, it gets in the way of doing so many other things — the core of our work. Instead of harnessing communication to work more effectively and achieve better results, we have created a constant stream of interruptions that prevents us from doing so. We find it increasingly harder to engage in deep, meaningful work.
If there is one word I would choose to describe the kind of communication we should aspire to, it would be Deep. Generative Communication does not compete with deep work — it is an essential part of it.
We are looking for a new way to communicate — a way that allows the effective processing of information, the generation of new insights and ideas, and the making of thoughtful decisions. It will cost. Nothing meaningful comes for free, and communication is no different. But instead of paying the price of poor communication — a price we often don’t measure even though we experience it daily — we would be better off investing in Generative Communication. We will enjoy the fruits of this investment in no time.
We are looking for a much less intrusive way to communicate so it will not break the flow of doing other tasks. It should play harmoniously and naturally with the core of our work. And it should also be scalable, not in volume but in the context of new and innovative working modes. We want communication to work for distributed teams as it works for local groups. If we could break the barriers of place and time, we would be able to communicate effectively regardless of where and when people work. We want to fix the problems that email and instant messaging promised to resolve but made worse. We want to be able to communicate more profoundly — in a way that helps us achieve more extraordinary things.
Let’s start with understanding what Generative Communication is.
The Pillars of Generative Communication
When you experience Generative Communication, you know it. You feel that you are engaged in an activity that helps you and your colleagues achieve something that would otherwise be impossible. If, like most people, you experience the flaws of Near-Time Communication and broken Real-Time Communication, engaging in Generative Communication is striking. The difference between shallow and deep interactions does not require any explanation once you have experienced it.
But we are not there just yet. Before you can practice Generative Communication for yourself and acknowledge its benefits, you have to thoughtfully create the setup, the flows, and the skills to enable it. While much of what enables profound interactions is intuitive, adopting the practices of Generative Communication is not trivial, mainly due to the poor habits that dominate our communication today. But it is worth every bit of energy you will invest in it.
Generative Communication is meaningful, intentful, and structured. These three attributes reinforce each other and create a positive feedback loop. The more you practice Generative Communication, the more natural and effective it gets.
Generative Communication is Meaningful
Generative Communication is driven by value. In the workplace, we don’t communicate merely to share our thoughts. We communicate because it should help us achieve our goals. No single interaction will take us to our destination, but every interaction should take us at least one step closer. As such, Generative Communication is an inherent part of doing meaningful work. It is inseparable from meaningful work; therefore, it becomes a key to achieving our personal and organizational goals. We naturally prefer to focus on activities that help us promote our mission. Generative Communication is, by definition, such an enabling activity. This yields a vital practice we will repeatedly use in implementing Generative Communication: If you don’t see the value in a specific interaction, disengage or change it to have a clear return on investment.
Focusing on being meaningful helps us filter interactions that do not provide us with value. But being meaningful also applies at the micro-level: every bit of information and every idea we share should also have value. Even when we are convinced the discussion is required, we must verify that the things we share, ask, or respond to can potentially promote a predefined goal. When we share a piece of information that is not relevant — information that is meaningless in the context of what we aim to achieve — we defocus the conversation, potentially making it unnecessarily longer and less effective.
Engaging in meaningful communication means whatever we include in the interaction is there for a reason — it must be meaningful in the context of the goal. As we will later see, thinking about the content of the interaction, and in some cases even modeling it, is one of the most effective practices of Generative Communication. It is a way to ensure that every word, every sentence, and every piece of data counts. Based on how we primarily interact today, the idea of thinking before communicating may seem radical. But when you consider that spontaneity is one of the flaws that severely affects our discourse, slowing down and taking time to arrange our thoughts turns out to be a game-changer.
Much of the frustration we feel today in workplace communication originates from the feeling that we invest so much in an activity that brings little value. We want what we do to be meaningful. No matter how important the goal is, we know that how we communicate today has little return on investment, so we invest less in it. This often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and many of our interactions become even less valuable.
Generative Communication overturns this feedback loop by mandating that we are value-oriented. As soon as we change how we communicate in a way that has meaning and value, we acknowledge the benefit of investing more in it. And the more we invest in it, the more valuable this communication becomes. It is a powerful feedback loop that helps us avoid treating workplace interactions as an overhead. Instead, they become an essential part of meaningful work. As we practice Generative Communication, the frustration we find so familiar today quickly dissolves. We no longer feel workplace communication holds us back — we realize it drives us forward.
Generative Communication is Intentful
If we want to be consistently (and increasingly) effective, we need to be intentful about it. No activity can be effective for long if done as an afterthought.
Being meaningful and ensuring what we share and respond to has value is essential, but it is not enough. Generative Communication is anything but spontaneous and hectic — it is planned, deliberate, and well-thought-out. Instead of automatically sending messages or triggering endless threads on a whim, we process things before sharing them. To make the most of any interaction, we invest in doing it right, just like we treat any other part of our work. It is, after all, an integral part of deep, meaningful work, so it has to be as intentful.
Reducing spontaneity and slowing down the discourse will automatically improve our communication. But we aim for much more than that.
The first level of communicating intentfully is focused on the flow of communication: when we communicate, how we communicate, on what terms, and with whom. Being intentful means we consider these questions in advance, define a flow to maximize the effectiveness of the interaction, and use that flow to govern how we communicate. None of that will just happen. We probably won’t get it right the first time and need to refine and adjust these flows. But without using some predefined processes, we will get exactly what we got with Near-Time Communication: a lot of noise and clutter, distraction, and shallow discussions.
Being intentful in defining the flows of communication starts with asking ourselves a few questions and considering some typical use cases. We need to understand what problems we are trying to solve before we can intentfully design a solution.
The first question we must ask is When do we initiate communication?Should I automatically send a question to ten people I think would know the answer? Should I immediately share with my team or with my manager any new idea I have? When something bothers me, do I automatically send a rant to anybody that might be relevant? While the answer to some of these questions might seem obvious, looking back at how we communicate today, it is easy to see just how much we abuse different communication channels. That is the importance of intentfully asking such questions and defining more optimized flows around them.
The next question is When should we respond?Am I expected to respond to an email as soon as it arrives? Even when I limit the times I attend to emails, should I respond the minute I read an email? Is it okay not to respond at all in some cases? Once again, failing to answer these questions intentfully will lead to ineffective workflows simply because they are not well-thought-out and not aligned across the team.
The third question that allows us to define intentful flows is How do we process the inputs we receive?How much time do I invest in processing information and ideas shared with me? Should this process be done alone, or will it be more effective to process the data as a team? How can we effectively process new ideas as a team in a distributed working mode?
Other questions are no less important. Which platforms do we use for different types of communication, and how can we make the essential parts of the discussion accessible for future reference? These are merely two examples. The list of questions is open, and the list of use cases is even more so, and that is why being intentful and designing the different flows is one of the pillars of Generative Communication. Remember, though, that none of these questions have definitive answers. We will discuss some of these use cases and the way to manage them in later chapters, but eventually, the flows you define should be optimized for your needs, the setup in your organization, and what you wish to improve and focus on. Each organization can have slightly or radically different methods to fix workplace communication, but you must not avoid asking these questions intentfully and considering the various options to address them. Whatever your concrete processes are, discuss them with your team and understand their positive and negative implications. No solution fits all scenarios and everyone. Any answer you come up with should be based on balance and compromise.
If defining intentful communication flows sounds too restrictive and unnatural, remember where we are coming from. Contemporary workplace communication is primarily self-regulated by any individual participating in the conversation. When you are engaged in dozens of Near-Time and Real-Time discussions daily, each with a different subset of people, there is no chance such self-regulation can result in effective communication. Even if a few people have a good sense of effective communication, they might not be aligned on the same flow. Even more importantly, they are practically at the mercy of everyone else. When communication is “free,” it costs a great deal.
Being intentful also has a second meaning. Defining a well-thought-out communication flow will not do much good if we are not intentful regarding the information and ideas we share. This will be our remedy to the default of being reactive and replying automatically. Deciding intentfully what to write or say, and just as crucially, what to omit, is essential for effective communication. Intentfully phrasing our ideas so they are clearer, well-understood, and impactful is no less important. Remember: when you wish to create an impact, how you articulate your ideas is as essential as the ideas themselves.
There is a tight coupling between communicating intentfully and interacting meaningfully. Being intentful in managing our interactions and the content of these interactions allows us to focus on value. In contrast, when our conversations are spontaneous, continuous, and arbitrary, the value often dissolves despite our good intentions. The good news is that being intentful strengthens the sense of doing something worth doing. When the communication flow is well-designed, and the content we share is well-thought-out, we can rightfully feel we are promoting our goals. Instead of being a frustrating overhead imposed upon us, workplace communication becomes something we own and feel connected to. It becomes ours.
Generative Communication is Structured
The fractured and unfocused communication we are used to is not a good starting point for intentful flows and value-oriented interactions. No matter how well-intentioned we are, when bits of information, questions, and ideas are arbitrarily scattered all over the place, it becomes increasingly challenging to deliver value and keep the conversation effective. The third pillar of Generative Communication is designed to overcome these flaws by adding structure to workplace communication.
Structure is often confused with bureaucracy. This is not what we are aiming for. Structure in Generative Communication is anything that helps us find what we are looking for and navigate through the information and ideas we exchange. An effective structure reduces the overhead of communication and makes it more effective. A good structure reduces frustration and makes the ideas we share more engaging, even if their essence remains the same. Structure can never replace well-thought-out ideas, but without structure, plenty of good ideas will either get lost or will not be accessible to the people we interact with.
The first level of structured communication is focused on the content we share and how we organize ideas and pieces of data within it. Many people confuse that with predefined templates, and while some templates can be effective in some cases, this is not the essence of structure. The way this book is organized, for example, is the structure of the book. I didn’t use any predefined template to organize it, but the order of chapters and ideas within each chapter are not accidental or arbitrary. Hopefully, the structure I’ve created helps you understand and engage with the concepts we are discussing. The model I had developed before writing the text helped me build an argument instead of just sharing bits of ideas. If I have done a good job of modeling my ideas before writing them, you will likely gain more value when reading this text.
The structure of what we write and say — the logical model of an argument, a thesis, or even how we frame a question — affects how others understand it. The same set of statements arranged differently can create misunderstandings or confusion, just like placing jigsaw puzzle pieces in the wrong location. Unfortunately (or fortunately), unlike jigsaw puzzles, there is no one right way to structure the content you create. There could be many effective ways to organize bits of data, insights, and ideas, but, as you can probably guess, there are even more ineffective ways to do so. Being aware of the importance of structure in effective communication is the first and essential step. We should never forget that our goal is not just to deliver value but also to do so effectively. We must find the best way to provide this value. While the intentful flow of communication deals with the mechanics of our interactions, the internal structure of the content we create will help us reduce the overhead of making sense of it. Like a well-built skeleton, it holds our ideas together to make them more communicable.
Structured communication has another aspect external to the content you share: its context.
The place where the exchange of ideas happens impacts the effectiveness of the conversation. Near-Time Communication platforms, for example, are hubs of multiple discussions taking place in parallel. To begin with, they have no strong sense of order apart from the time in which a message was received. Even if you use threaded conversations, folders, or channels, you have little control over how the information is arranged and consumed. This is the complete opposite of utilizing structure. Even if every message is well-designed and written, it appears in a semi-arbitrary context. Navigating the conversation and referencing what you need when you need it becomes exponentially more difficult as the number of messages increases.
When you consider the need to retrieve information in the future, the lack of context becomes even more acute. Some discussions don’t have a long-lasting impact, so the need to return to them later is not critical. But other conversations result in significant decisions or include essential information, and their value could and should last much longer. Retrieving these discussions later is almost impossible without a structure that helps us place information, insights, and ideas in context. No matter how effective our communication is, it becomes meaningless if we cannot go back and retrieve what we have discussed.
With Generative Communication, we replace the fractured and arbitrary nature of the typical message exchange with a well-defined method for organizing information. Our goal is to make it easy to find, navigate through, reference, and retrieve in the future, even by someone not part of the original conversation. As a side effect, we have a chance to make workplace communication less intrusive as you have to navigate to where the interaction is taking place actively. New information doesn’t just spontaneously appear on the top of your inbox — you must consciously decide to participate in the discourse. This doesn’t mean that every word and statement you make is automatically saved on record and accessible to all. But it does require us to consider which parts of our interactions are worth saving for future reference and treat them accordingly.
Applying structure might seem restricting to someone used to the typical chaos of workplace communication. Instead of just sending a message or going into a meeting, we must think about the context and how we model information and ideas. At first, it feels like yet another overhead. Once again, we must recall what we are trying to fix. When you communicate with dozens of people in parallel conversations, the lack of structure has a severe cost in time and energy. It affects the quality of the conversation and the quality of the decisions you and your team make. But above all, it is intrusive and frustrating. We don’t value workplace communication because it’s all over the place, making it unmanageable. Instead of value and meaning, we get noise and clutter.
As we become conscious of external and internal structure, we reinforce the other two pillars of Generative Communication. Structure enables us to be more meaningful by effectively designing our shared content. We spend less time resolving misunderstandings or discussing things we have already resolved just because we can’t keep track of them. Our conversations are focused on moving forward toward our goals and targets. Similarly, structure helps us be more intentful. In contrast to the reactive way we mostly communicate today, keeping each conversation in context allows us more freedom to communicate on our terms.
The more we practice Generative Communication, the more effective it gets. The reinforcing feedback loop between being meaningful, intentful, and structured makes this combination of traits extremely powerful. When we utilize this strength, Generative Communication becomes the most effective way to communicate in the workplace. Neglecting one or more of these three pillars will break the feedback loop and regress us back to flawed Near-Time Communication or its derivative, ineffective implementation of Real-Time Communication.
We have analyzed how we communicate today and sketched the vision of how communication should work for us and be part of our essential work. Let’s be honest; it sounds more like a fantasy than a vision at this point, and the rest of this book will hopefully help us bring it down to earth. Before we go into the bits and bytes of Generative Communication, let’s recap where we are.
Workplace communication is broken. We know it first and foremost because we feel it. We experience frustration, stress, and waste in many of our meetings and most of our email and instant messaging discussions. The frequency of attending to unplanned, spontaneous, or aimless communication and the accumulated time we spend on such interactions prevents us from doing deep work and achieving our goals effectively. When we treat communication as an “always-on” activity that can jump to the foreground without warning, we don’t just break it; we break everything else important to us: our time at work and our personal time beyond work. It becomes one continuous but fractured blob of work, interruptions, context-switching, and random bits of information and insights. Workplace communication today is primarily shallow, and apart from being unable to deliver the promise of effective communication, it ruins significant parts of our work experience.
To fix workplace communication, we need to practice something radically different. If our interactions today are shallow, we need to make them deeper. Much deeper. Once we understand the flaws of Near-Time and Real-Time Communication as we practice them today, we can fix them to create a new mode of communication. Generative Communication is meaningful: the content of our interactions is value-driven and designed to help us achieve our goals. Generative Communication is intentful: we don’t leave the way it flows to chance or arbitrary decisions — we create effective communication flows to make the most of every interaction. The same applies to the bits of information, insights, and ideas we share in our interactions — we intentfully include them to serve a purpose. Generative Communication is also structured: it has context, and we ensure it is done within that context. We also model the content we share to maximize its effectiveness. Structure helps us convey more with less.
I already promised you that writing will be an essential component of improving how we communicate. Writing (or, more specifically, Generative Writing) allows us to be more intentful and structured. It enables us to process data and our thoughts before sharing them and allows others to challenge our ideas. Writing slows down communication, which is far from being a bad thing. But, even more important, this slower pace is essential if we seek greater depth. As we dive into the essentials of Generative Communication, we will explore together how writing is used to make communication more effective and how to write better to communicate better.
In the next part of this book, we will start with the three things we must define before any interaction. We will phrase and use the iAIM statement to make our communication meaningful. This initial step will be a significant leap forward that will radically change your daily interactions.
In parts 3 and 4, we will explore the building blocks that create communication flows and define the flows for some typical use cases. More than offering an optimal solution for each use case, these parts should help you set the ground to design your own flows and optimize them for your team and your organization.
In part 5, we will dive into what makes the content of your interaction effective. We will learn how to model your content and write (yes, write) it better to enable a more effective discussion and, eventually, co-creating with your colleagues.
Each stage can trigger a significant change in how you communicate. Together, and when practiced as a team or even in the scope of the entire organization, they are life-changing.