Fixing Workplace Communication, Chapter 04

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 04 of the book. I am excited to receive your feedback, ideas, questions, and insights. Please share them here.

04: The Mix

“You make different colors by combining those colors that already exist” — Herbie Hancock

Working in a hi-tech company is a gift for anyone wishing to learn about effective communication. Not the kind of gift that imparts a warm fuzzy feeling, but more like the gift of endless experiences that teach you things the hard way. And If this sounds like a rant, rest assured that I am its first target. I’ve made numerous mistakes and hopefully corrected some of them before it was too late. One such misstep was how I managed communication with my team members. The short version: I was ignoring their emails. 

The longer version is a bit more complicated (as longer versions tend to be). Professionally, 2020 marked the dawn of a new era for me, my small team, and most office workers. Until then, we had all worked from our offices, a couple of steps away from one another, five days a week. Before 2020, I wouldn’t have needed to say that. That was how most of us worked. Sure, I had many colleagues and interfaces on other sites around the globe, but my team members — the people I worked most closely with — were literally within shouting distance. Not that we ever shouted, but we could if we really wanted to. But with COVID and the move to work from home, calling across the hall was no longer an option. Nor was an unsolicited knock on the door. Without giving it much thought, the fallback seemed to be emails. And so it happened that every issue we needed to discuss, be it a question, a dilemma, or a new idea, was shooting across the ether into someone’s inbox. Soon, however, my team realized that emails sent over this virtual hall were a dead-end, at least when I was the recipient. 

I had the best intentions, really. With dozens of interfaces and remote work, I typically opened the morning with dozens of new emails in my inbox, and from there, it just got worse during the day. It wasn’t my team flooding me with emails, but amid this endless stream of pings, I felt something had to give, and the choice was clear: Whatever someone from my team had sent could probably wait, if only because we have a weekly one-on-one meeting. At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision. Still, when I was asked why I hadn’t been responsive, I had to rationalize it, so I asked my team not to give up and keep sending me these emails; if I didn’t respond, we would surely discuss them in our weekly meeting. 

More than anything, this was an act of self-preservation. What seemed (and to many still seems) like a free and frictionless way to communicate has a grave cost. Think of a team of five people and a relatively quiet day where each of them sends you just one email, only that each of these emails can quickly evolve into a “conversation” — a back-and-forth exchange of questions, responses, and clarifications. Let’s say, on average, each such email evolves into a thread with five iterations. Five emails become five threads, which means 25 emails a day, just from your small team. This means an email every 20 minutes on average throughout the day. And that has a massive penalty. No matter how short your response is, it is a distraction. Unless you are blankly staring at your inbox, waiting for the next email (which you obviously are not), you have to make time to attend to it. If you wish to be genuinely responsive, you must stop whatever you are doing and switch tasks. Resuming the work you were immersed in before the email grabbed your attention takes time; gaining momentum is not trivial, especially if the next distraction is just around the corner. Attention is lost, productivity declines, creativity breaks, and (as a bonus) stress and frustration grow. 

If this sounds like a rant again, it is essential to mention that the effect of constant distractions is backed up by research. Going back into a state of deep work following a distraction takes more than 20 minutes on average, and the side effects of stress and reduced motivation, productivity, and creativity follow soon after. I couldn’t ignore the emails from my manager or colleagues who expected me to respond ASAP. I had to give up on something, and I decided my team would bear the cost of me trying to keep my sanity. What’s the worst that could happen? The next one-on-one meeting is, at most, one week away. 

Unfortunately, our one-on-one meetings didn’t go as well as I had assumed. When the time came for the meeting with each of my team members, there had been so many unanswered emails in my inbox that we barely knew where to start. Some of the dilemmas pending my overdue response were already beyond urgent (unless someone took the initiative, called me, and kindly asked that I look at that email from a couple of days ago). We barely had time to squeeze in important, though non-urgent, topics, so we had to push them (optimistically) to the next meeting or agree to try to discuss them over email. Good luck with that! Most issues we did manage to discuss caught me unprepared as I was hearing about them for the first time in real-time during the meeting. Finding all the orphan emails before the meeting and guessing which were urgent didn’t even cross my mind as an option. And if, by any chance, I had something important to add to the agenda, the chances for talking about the things that my team members were concerned with became even smaller. Looking for an example of an effective meeting? This was not it. 

That is probably how I became allergic to statements like “We have too many meetings” and “We have way too many emails.” Both were true and untrue. Neither of these camps proposed a real solution; they just kept throwing the problem over the fence and relying blindly on a different means of communication. The “too many meetings” people wanted to replace meetings with emails and text messages. I didn’t want to attend to emails so frequently and with such urgency that I couldn’t do anything else. The “too many emails” people pushed for more meetings, but if meetings were to run the way my one-on-ones had, that wouldn’t have solved anything either. The problem was not in email as a platform or meetings as an idea; we simply failed to use these tools and methods correctly. We assumed one solution could be applied to all our problems, but this is rarely possible. After months of frustration, I realized I shouldn’t try to perfect one means of communication; I needed to think of a process combining the best parts of all available solutions. 

From Standalone Interactions to a Flow

Generative Communication is meaningful, intentful, and structured. Does that mean it relies on Real-Time Communication, Near-Time Communication, or something entirely different? Can we use email for Generative Communication, or should we restrict ourselves to face-to-face meetings? Can Generative Communication be asynchronous, given that many teams now work in hybrid mode? Is asynchronous communication effective even if everyone works in the same building? Is it textual or oral? When defining Generative Communication, we didn’t address these questions, and for good reason. 

To communicate effectively, we must not rely on any single tool, platform, or communication mode. No communication tool is the ultimate solution. Each has pros and cons, and some have plenty of cons because of the way we use them. Each tool is designed with a different need in mind, and if we don’t want to abuse the tool and push it beyond its designed limits, we can’t expect it to solve every challenge. Much of the frustration and ineffectiveness of contemporary workplace communication can be traced back to trying to force a tool into a communication need it was never meant to address. Generative Communication is, therefore, not a standalone activity. It is a value-oriented, structured, and intentful mixture of various communication means, tools, methods, and activities. 

When we realize we can mix and match different tools and practices to design an optimized process to serve our needs, we can enjoy the best of all worlds. We will use email when it makes sense; we will use instant messages when there is a real need; we will switch to a real-time meeting when that is the right thing to do, and we will try to avoid all the pitfalls of abusing these tools. We call this mixture of activities — this process — a communication flow. A communication flow is always pre-designed, time-bound, and limited in the number of activities. It is designed for a specific type of challenge or need. Most importantly, a communication flow is designed to achieve a concrete goal with others — 100% of the time. 

Realizing that no single means of communication or any magical activity could solve the problem I was facing, I started to think about the strengths and weaknesses of each platform. A weekly meeting was a great platform for deep discussion, assuming we had adequate preparation and did not waste most of it on just getting familiar with the issues at stake. A written medium (not necessarily the intrusive email) was effective for laying out data and essential facts necessary to understand the context of the discussion and the scope of the problem. It was, however, a poor choice for a deep back-and-forth discussion. Some issues could not wait for the weekly one-on-one meeting, but there were fewer such issues than the current email flood I was (not) handling. Thus, we needed to divide the process into two parts: sharing information and conducting the actual discussion. We also had to distinguish between two scenarios: an urgent issue and issues that could wait up to five working days until the next face-to-face meeting. Hopefully, most issues will fall into the second category. 

The first part of our solution was to create a shared and dynamic list of discussion topics for each team member, where both they and I could add, remove, or edit items and rearrange their order. The order of the items in the list reflected the order in which we wanted to discuss them — a priority, even though, by definition, none of the items called for an immediate discussion. Whenever a team member or I identified an issue we wished to discuss that didn’t require immediate attention, we would add it to the list. We also ensured each item had a description, some reference to background material, and data needed to understand the issue before the meeting. Each item also included the call for action: what outcome would make the discussion effective? But the killer feature of this shared list was that it created zero distractions during the week. It was based not on email but on a shared document with no notifications sent whenever someone updated it. 

A typical item in our shared list would look something like this one: 

We need to decide how to address the new request by the Head of R&D to be able to meet our committed milestone.

  • The Head of R&D has requested that we add a new KPI to the dashboard we are building. The description of her request, the rationale, and the urgency are described in this email (link). 
  • The KPI initial design is available here (link). To implement it, we need to connect to a new data source. 
  • The estimated time for implementing the new requirements is two days. 
  • We are currently on schedule for the upcoming milestone. Adding the new requirement introduces risk at the “Medium” level to meet the milestone. 
  • Alternative 1: push one of these requirements (link) to the next milestone as they are internal and were not requested by Management. 
  • Alternative 2: provide a partial implementation of the new KPI to satisfy the critical need but postpone the full implementation of the KPI to the next milestone. The risk of meeting the targets for the upcoming milestone would be reduced to “Low.” 

This brings us to the second part of the communication flow: the one-on-one meeting. Unlike the meetings we had had before designing this flow, the meetings we were now having were well prepared. To start with, we had a clear and prioritized agenda before going into the meeting. We knew what we were about to discuss and in what order. But we had much more than that. With the new communication flow, we knew enough about each topic to start the core of the discussion immediately without wasting time on introductions and trying to get a sense of where we were. We took the time to prepare ourselves for the meeting by processing the information compiled by the person who had asked for the discussion. As a result, we covered more topics during the meeting, and the outcome of each discussion was well thought out. We rarely completed everything on the backlog list, but that was perfectly fine; we discussed the essential things first and left the less important stuff for a future discussion. 

The third part of the flow we had designed addressed the issues that could not wait until the weekly one-on-one meeting. The list wouldn’t do for such issues because, by definition, nothing would trigger me to look at the list during the week. The solution was to write a clear email with all the required details and an explicit call for action, similar to how we captured items for discussion in our dynamic list. We went even so far as to add the call for action and the context in the email’s subject so it would stand out from the dozens of emails in my inbox. When it came to these urgent issues, I wanted to be interrupted, but we had set a clear limit to the email exchange on these issues: a single iteration. One email, one response. Nothing more. Of course, some topics required a deeper discussion despite being urgent. If a single response wasn’t about to cut it, we would schedule a dedicated meeting to resolve the issue. Serious discussions benefit from real-time conversation. 

If you are like most people reading this description for the first time, you might think, “That is crazy!” A process? A process with different scenarios, multiple tools, and rules? And for what? This should have been a simple, frictionless, almost mindless act of asking a question and getting an answer, allowing us to proceed with our work. It seems like a huge cost to pay, and, an even greater concern in ten out of ten organizations, a much slower process. Slower than what we are accustomed to. In some sense, it is, but remember that it is this frictionless and allegedly costless communication that got us in trouble to begin with. 

As we put this flow into practice, we realized three things. First, the new flow we tried helped us make better decisions. The discussions were deeper, we analyzed the situation better, and the outcome was beyond compare to the shallow alternative. No less important is the fact that the cost of this flow only seemed high, but it was actually more efficient than the alternative broken communication. Forget that I wasn’t responding to most of the emails from my team members. If I had responded to them, the time and attention penalty would have been much more significant. Lost momentum and frequent distractions bear a cost that quickly grows beyond control. But maybe our most profound realization after adopting this flow as our norm was that this was actually what we were paid to do. We were supposed to do more than just shoot spontaneous questions and answers; we were expected to think things through together as a team, and we just couldn’t do that in the previous mode of communication. Communication is not collateral damage — it is the essence of our collaborative work. 

So, we have designed quite an elaborate combination of emails, meetings, and shared material; it involves both writing and real-time conversation. It defined different paths depending on urgency, and more than anything else, it introduced new activities dedicated to preparation and processing, which had been missing before. No single tool, platform, or mode of communication could have provided all that. It was the mix of different tools with different capabilities, as well as the strict definition of when to use each of them, that made all the difference. And the difference was overwhelming. 

With the new communication flow, our discussions were no longer fractured. Whether it was a simple question (via email), an urgent issue (discussed in a dedicated meeting), or an important but not urgent dilemma (added to the backlog of the weekly meeting), discussions were starting and ending in close proximity. The discussions were deeper: we had time to think, challenge ideas, and develop new ones if needed. Our communication was done in context and was no longer spontaneous. Long threads of questions, answers, follow-ups, and misunderstandings were eliminated. Communication didn’t get in the way of the deep work we had to do, and nothing stood in the way of a good, meaningful conversation. At least when it came to our internal communication within the team, we nailed it. We managed to overcome all the flaws of broken communication. 

We have nailed it, but it took some experimentation. What works on paper often entails some surprises in real life, so we had to do a few iterations and tweak the communication flow until it was perfected. It also took quite some time to get used to (and even more time to kill our old habits). Such a change cannot happen overnight, and the more people involved in the flow, the more challenging it is to bring everyone on board and adopt the new method. Not easy, but well worth it. 

The lesson of this story is not that you should take the flow I have used and apply it automatically with your team. Quite the opposite: I urge you not to do so. This communication flow and others we will explore later in the book are meant to demonstrate what is possible and how to think about the challenge of effective communication. It worked for me and my team, but eventually, communication (and processes in general) are context-sensitive. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. You and your colleagues must thoughtfully design your own communication flows based on your needs, constraints, culture, and expectations. Whether you end up using the flows I sketch in this book or completely different ones, it must be the result of a mindful and well-thought-out design. You must not leave how you manage communication to chance or arbitrary decisions. 

Thinking of communication as a mixture of tools, methods, and activities rather than a standalone interaction is a powerful idea. Sticking to a single activity, you cannot escape its weaknesses, making it much harder to break bad habits. Thinking in flows introduces multiple degrees of flexibility in managing our communication. We are no longer limited by the arbitrary design decisions of a specific tool. We pick the best of all worlds and ensure we never have to fall into the traps some means of communication lure us into. 

From now on, when we need to achieve something collaboratively, we will always use a well-designed communication flow. Even if some flows consist of only one interaction, they will invariably encompass more elements. We will never send an email with our brain dump or go into a meeting without knowing what we will discuss. Processing and thinking will always dominate our communication flows as this is the only way to bring meaningful value to a collaborative creation. 

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