You can hire the best people in the world, but if your organizational communication is poor or dysfunctional, you’re unlikely to succeed. Soft skills are often overlooked, despite there being so much to learn about them. How you communicate is a critical part of leadership, so I jumped at the opportunity for a guest blog on the subject.
My friend, Eric Jorgenson, has started a newsletter called Evergreen to collect some of the best advice from experts on a topic available online and then consolidate them in awesome posts. When he told me the next post was on organizational communication, I knew the readers of the Lighthouse blog would love to hear it, so below is a summary of great learning on communicating in your company as learned from over a dozen blog posts, books, and videos from amazing experts.
This is your team on Bad Communication
Important things are accomplished by teams, not individuals. Bond has Q, Sherlock has Watson, and Larry has Sergei. Or, as as Andy Grove puts it (far better) in his classic management book, High Output Management:
The work of a business, or a government bureaucracy, or most forms of human activity, is something pursued not by individuals but by teams.
If the members of the team cannot communicate, isolation limits their potential. Great communication turns additive dynamics into multiplicative. Bad communication turns things subtractive. You may as well have bought Twinkies and set them on company computers, rather than carefully hired the perfect employees.
Shane Parrish at Farnam Street took a look at the 10 most fatal flaws of leadership in an organization, and four out of the 10 are failures in different aspects of communication. Understanding how pivotal communication is for leadership and management, let’s see what can make it great.
Golden Rules of Internal Communication
Regardless of the medium of communication, the occasion, the content, or the participants there are some principles that always, always, always apply.
Overcommunicate, Overcommunicate, Overcomm…
Jonathan Rosenberg is former SVP of Products at Google. To do this job well, he turns himself into what he calls a ‘human router’. This man knows how to communicate, and shares his best 42 lessons for success in this fantastic talk at his Alma Mater.
Relevant stuff starts at 6:50. Great stuff starts at 0:00
Every second of it is worth watching, and it’s instructive that the first 9 of his lessons are about communication. His first lesson is on Overcommunication:
Overcommunicate in all ways, all the time. There is no such thing as too much communication. When you think you’ve communicated something too much, you’re probably just beginning to get through.
The effort we put into communicating something—the multiple trips a piece of information takes through our minds as we process, remember, prepare, and eventually communicate something creates a strong impression on us. In our natural state of self-centeredness, we forget that other’s experience of information isn’t as impactful as our own.
We have to have empathy for other’s experiences. How many times has information actually made it to them? Were they distracted? What is their signal-to-noise ratio? Was it a channel they pay attention to and retain?
You’re the only person that always hears what you’re saying, and the only person who always pays attention to what you’re saying. Don’t forget to correct for that.
If your job is to communicate, your job isn’t just to say something. It’s to make sure it’s heard.
Why? Well, because…
There’s more to communication than the passing on of basic information. It’s about presenting information in a medium, context, and format that encourages action. As I learned from Todd Lutwak of Andreesen Horowitz:
Awareness ≠ Understanding
Understanding ≠ Acceptance
Acceptance ≠ Implementation
This is an important process to understand, and it’s a great illustration of Rosenberg’s point in his lecture above about ‘just beginning to get through’.
So what moves us from Awareness to Implementation?
One core factor is the inclusion of a ‘why’. Why is the why so important? Because of our human tendency to respect reasons. This is a natural bias of our psychology, brilliantly proven in experiments by Robert Cialdini. In his incredibly important book called “Influence”, he recounts an experiment where a small favor (cutting in the line for the Copier) was requested in different ways. When the word ‘because’ was used, compliance was over 90%, even when paired with completely asinine reasons such as “May I cut in this line because I have to make some copies?”
Humans are more likely to comply when reasons are given, even if they are extremely weak reasons.
This is a lesson Ben Horowitz learned the hard way. His story about one executive ignoring his orders is a vivid example of the importance of communication on two different levels. You’ll want to read it.
The more that I thought about it, the more I realized that while I had told the team “what” to do, I had not been clear about “why” I wanted them to do it. Clearly, my authority alone was not enough to get them to do what I wanted. Given the large number of things that we were trying to accomplish, managers couldn’t get to everything and came up with their own priorities.
Charlie Munger often cites Carl Braun as the man who has mastered the inclusion of ‘Why’ in his company. Mr. Braun’s company designed and built oil refineries, an area where miscommunication led to death and disaster. So, in his company he had a simple rule about communication that was taken very seriously: You must say Who was to do What, Where, When, and Why. If you left out the Why, you would be fired.
He understood and acted on the importance of Why.
Do you Feel Pressure or Apply Pressure?
Ben Horowitz points out that the pendulum of communication pressure is on one side or another, but not both: “You either apply pressure or you feel pressure.” If you are feeling pressured and overwhelmed, he recommends applying more pressure and moving the pendulum back the other way.
There are certainly corollaries to this all over the business world—his short post on feeling overwhelmed and fixing it by applying pressure on his executives is worth a read so this idea will pop into mind in the future when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Thanks to Nathan Bashaw for suggesting this post. It’s an underappreciated and rarely talked about concept that can really change your life.
Communication optimizes Learning & Performance
In this curious and interesting lecture at Stanford by John Seely Brown, he talks about the dynamics of groups with the fastest rates of learning. No surprise, the difference turns out to be in their methods of communication.
In two examples: Extreme Surfing and World of Warcraft, he pulls out pieces that make great learning environments. Many you’d expect: meritocratic organization, detailed metrics, study of adjacent fields. However, the most important aspect that he mentions is the implicit code of communication they all share: Deep Listening, with Reciprocity.
Openness to hearing all ideas, respectfully considering them, and thoughtfully sharing one’s own ideas create the highest rates of learning.
Brown’s lecture (video, also available in podcast) is well worth the 55 mins. We should all be seeking or creating these kinds of environments for ourselves.
This finding is supported in this 3-min read from Keith Ferrazzi’s HBR article about the importance of candor to workplace performance.
We found that the teams that scored the lowest on candor saw the poorest financial returns among those banks during the recent global economic crisis. In contrast, groups that communicated candidly about risky securities, lending practices, and other potential problems were able to preserve shareholder value.
We identified “observable candor” as the behavior that best predicts high-performing teams.
The power of a Broad Perspective
Horowitz has already been cited a number of times in this post, and that’s because he deserves it, so he’s about to get another one. For the impressive Series How to Start a Startup, he did a full lecture regarding one immensely important mental model: Having a broad perspective.
When making a critical decision, you must understand how it will be interpreted from each person’s point of view and its impact on the union of the individual views.
Or, put more colloquially:
You have to be able, when making critical decisions, to be able to see the decision through the eyes of the company, and the company as a whole. Which means you’ve gotta add up every employees view then incorporate that into your own view, otherwise your management decisions are going to have very weird side effects and potentially very dangerous consequences.
Decision-makers (which we all are), definitely get into trouble when they consider only one point of view (our own). However, considering just one additional stakeholder in the situation does NOT guarantee good results. They must learn to consider third and fourth parties, second-order effects, and implications for the future.
I’ve listened to this lecture 3–4 times in the past month, because I keep wanting to make sure it’s drilled deeply enough into my brain to never forget it. “How to Manage” is 50 mins available in video or podcast.
Types of Communication
Hurray for modernity and it’s overwhelming array of communication methods. Let’s start with one large distinction, and take it from there. Communication is either Digital or IRL, face to face. Or face to faces.
Commonly known as meetings. Meetings get a bad reputation in some circles, yet there is no better method of communication than face-to-face. This is something Bo Fishback hit hard in the Communication Section of the Zaarly Handbook, which outlines the guiding principles of our team atZaarly.
Both kinds of basic managerial tasks can only occur during face-to-face encounter, and therefore only during meetings. Thus I will assert again that a meeting is nothing less than the medium through which managerial work is performed.
He goes on to classify different kinds of meetings and their individual goals and dynamics. Staff meetings bring a team together for interaction between opposing view points and group decision making. Operational reviews are usually made up of people that may not interact otherwise, but benefit from hearing about each other’s areas of expertise.
A Primer on One-on-One Meetings
A wealth of guidance exists about doing one-on-one meetings well, and the importance of them. If you haven’t read Ben Horowitz’s post I linked to above called “A Good Place to Work”, read it now. These 3 minutes alone will be sufficient explanation of the role they play in your company.
As a follow-up to that piece, Horowitz also wrote this post called One on One about the subtleties of executing these meetings well. If you’re already practicing One-on-one meetings with your team (or planning to), Jason Evanish has done impressive work to pull together 101 questions for One-on-one meetings that will bring out some great conversations.
If you’re concerned about the time requirements of having one-hour meetings with each of your employees or team members, check out this passage from Andy Grove about the leverage of one-on-ones:
Let’s say you have a one-on-one with your subordinate every two weeks, and it lasts one and a half hours. Ninety minuts of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinates’s work for two weeks, or for some eighty-plus hours, and also upgrade your understanding of what he’s doing.
Many thanks to Jason Evanish for sharing his post with us, as well as suggesting Horowitz’ post in this section.
The debate wearily carries on about the effectiveness of digital communication. Each team, each mission, and each context will do it’s best work in different environments, so the best we can do is talk about some practices, tools, and contexts where digital communication can certainly create improvements.
Contexts where Digital Dominates: Opt-in
Digital is unmatched for opt-in information, when there’s no intrusion and no obligation with the upside of being connected whenever one desires. Ryan Carson at Treehouse runs a distributed team and nailed that with his internal Reddit clone, Convoy. It was a response to this challenge that creeps up as companies grow.
We recently crossed the invisible it’s-impossible-to-communicate-effectively line. The strange place where it feels like you’re small enough as a company not to have ‘communication procedures’ but large enough that somehow everyone is no longer on the same page (and misinformation spreads like wildfire).
Here’s the 2-minute read about how they solved this, which also has this little gem of their communication rules buried in it:
Phone or Google Hangout: Need an answer immediately
IM: Need an answer in the next hour
Email: Need an answer in next day or two
Convoy: No answer required
Another example of well-constructed opt-in communication comes from Stripe. They’ve created an open-email system where 90%+ of emails sent within the company are public record, and end up accessible for any employees. It’s a clever system of filters, aliases, and folders that doesn’t overload the Inbox, but opens up information to all.
The goal isn’t to share things that would otherwise be secret: it’s to unlock the wealth of information that would otherwise be accidentally locked up in a few people’s inboxes.
Stripe released two very thorough posts about how and why they use this system, the original Email Transparency in February 2013, and an update onhow they scaled the original program in December 2014.
Both of these practices are well-designed for handling the rising tide of information, by creating a default mode of ‘non-intrusive’ yet allowing easy access whenever it’s sought.
This kind of opt-in system is increasingly important, as the easier it gets to communicate, the more information we create.
Tools for Digital Communication
Among the plethora of possibilities out there, we’ll mention a few that seem to be popular at the moment.
Snippets is an old-school Silicon Valley (so like 10 years old), super simple technique for transparency and communication. It’s just a simple email from each person, a condensed version of what they did and what they’ll do.
Slack is the increasingly dominant tool amongst tech companies for internal communication fit for chat. This interview on TWIST with the founder, Steward Butterfield, gives you an idea of why.
Github has always been respected as a powerful tool for managing a codebase, the home of communication for the product team. The team at Wiredcraft stretched Github farther and found that it was a powerful tool for managing almost all of their internal processes. This 2-min post is a good look at how they organize this. Curious to see how well this scales.
This isn’t something I’ve heard directly addressed as a category, though there seem to be a few different important ideas that could only fit under a classification like this. These communications are things that go unspoken. They’re messages conveyed by the culture, the design of the organization, and a million other increasingly minuscule details.
Horowitz hits on this in his piece on One-on-ones (linked earlier). This paragraph is a fantastic description of implied values that come from a thoughtfully constructed communication architecture:
Perhaps the CEO’s most important operational responsibility is designing and implementing the communication architecture for her company. The architecture might include the organizational design, meetings, processes, email, yammer and even one-on-one meetings with managers and employees. Absent a well-designed communication architecture, information and ideas will stagnate and your company will degenerate into a bad place to work.
When organizations are transparent, that implies a number of things to it’s members. Implied in transparency are trust, openness, and honesty. Some companies are choosing to push transparency farther than previous generations.
For example, at Square, any meeting involving more than two people has notes typed up and emailed out to the entire company. Meetings are public record. Also a pioneer of transparency as exemplified earlier, was Stripe that broke open email.
At Zingerman’s, a famous Deli that became an empire built on delicious foodstuffs in Michigan, they have an open finance policy. Every employee is educated about the full financial operations of the company, and kept up to date. They know profit margins, tax implications, and the value of returning customers.
Designing for Less Communication
Often internal communication is a less-effective proxy for external communication. One person doing research and reporting back will never be as impactful as the whole team being exposed to and learning a lesson for themselves. If your team is exposed directly to your customers, you eliminate two distinct inefficiencies. Lessons are more vivid, and you reduce the need for internal communication.
This is something that Wufoo does well, as founder Kevin explains at 16:00 in this lecture. Rather than create a process for Support to communicate bugs to the engineers, he has engineers do customers support. This removes the danger of mistranslation in internal communication, and increases communication quality and speed to the end recipients.
Consequences of Awful Communication Architecture
When you fail to create the correct context for communication, it will allow for a degradation of your culture. This has pernicious consequences.
Take 4 minutes to read this short story from Shane Parrish at Farnam Street. It is a harrowing look at what goes on inside poorly-run organizations, and gives us an idea of how difficult it is to produce good work from inside them, even with great people. It should give you goosebumps.
Parrish articulates the cruciality of good structure and communication practices in his 30-second follow-up to the above story: Vagueness Undermines Accountability. These are three powerful words worth remembering forever.
Final words of Wisdom
One of my very favorite books is Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to his Son. It’s a compilation of letters from a Father who built his business in the meatpacking industry in the late 1800s. He’s writing to his son as he goes through college, begins working, and building his life. It’s simple and direct advice on many parts of life, and he’s got some great words on communication in business. It seemed fitting to end with some of his Excerpts:
Beginning before you know what you want to say and keeping on after you have said it lands a merchant in a lawsuit or the poorhouse, and the first is a shortcut to the second.
Remember, too, that it’s easier to look wise than to talk wisdom. Say less than the other fellow and listen more than you talk; for when a man’s listening he isn’t telling on himself and he’s flattering the fellow who is.
Criticism can properly come only from above, and whenever you discover that your boss is no good you may rest easy that the man who pays his salary shares your secret.
Remember that when you’re in the right you can afford to keep your temper, and that when you’re in the wrong you can’t afford to lose it.
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