Communication

This post is part 3 of the “Scale teams at breakneck speed — without breaking necks” blog series.

Internal communication is the glue that holds an organization together and should not be treated as an after-thought. Without it, a company is just a collection of disconnected individuals each working individually at his or her own job. With it, a company is a unit with power far beyond the sum of its parts.
-Conor Neill, Senior Lecturer at IESE Business School

While we know that healthy internal communication is vital for organizations to be effective, discussions around the topic tend to be somewhat superficial. “Poor communication” is a common complaint on websites like Glassdoor (bringing up 465,000 results at last check), but reviews rarely go into any detail.

Sample “poor communication” review

Businesses can only benefit from taking retrospectives more seriously, spending more time thinking about the process of communication rather than tools, encouraging better meeting etiquette, and ensuring good manager-managee feedback.

Retrospection needs to be non-negotiable

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
George Santayana

A reliable indicator for team performance improvement is the execution of retrospectives. These should be iterative and incremental to fix current problems rather than post-mortems at the end of a project which are too late to help.

With the constant stream of new tasks and crises, it can be very tempting to skirt doing these, but this is a big mistake — busy people can’t afford not to review — the improvement in performance is too significant.

In the team I was part of, we took a pretty disciplined SCRUM approach with our retrospectives. This enabled us to incrementally improve the way we worked together sprint by sprint, getting to a stage where we able to completely transform the quality of work we were delivering. Instead of “finger biting” every time there was a new release, regular unexplained downtime, and team members taking time off due to stress we ended up with deployment of new features being on-time and on-spec, high stability, and amongst the best team morale in the company.

We used the following basic process:

  1. Thank top contributors — which helped build morale by demonstrating appreciation for individual contributors
  2. Highlight what went well — which again was good for morale but also helped make sure we preserved the progress we were making sprint to sprint
  3. Highlight what did not go so well — which was a socially accepted way to identify where we were falling down
  4. Determine actions to improve working processes — where we made sure to convert the issues that people raised into constructive change

Process before tools

There are many software companies with great marketing. They will tell you inspirational stories about how using the awesome power of AI/Machine Learning/Natural Language Processing/etc. will transform your organization and make it more competitive than you ever thought possible. The team behind the product all have incredible pedigrees from well-respected universities and market-leading businesses. There will be glowing testimonials and case studies from people who look just like you who work at businesses which seem very similar to yours. The weight of all this makes it seem as though this product will solve all of your issues.

It is important not to get carried away with the hype — while there are certainly some solutions out there which can be very helpful, the most common bottlenecks we face with communication at least are rarely technological.

It is much less important whether you use Slack, Email, IRC, or Yammer than knowing what communication you plan on managing. If you don’t know which groups should know which things & what the most important communication paths are, you don’t have the necessary information to evaluate whether a particular technology is right for you anyway.

However you decide to manage this, it is good practice to make the designated process as explicit as possible so that all employees can understand how communication is supposed to work. The more specific these channels can be the less employees are inundated with correspondence. Also, expectations regarding feedback and response times should be explicit so that people are able to contribute to decisions which affect them.

Meeting etiquette

Meetings are very expensive. If you have 10 developers in a meeting at $100 p/hour, that meeting costs $1000. This could be worth it, but all too often meetings are far from organized.

It is easy to lapse from good meeting etiquette, which ends up wasting a lot of time and energy, so it is important to remind ourselves to be disciplined about how these are run.

Every meeting must have a clear purpose, attendees should be punctual and do the necessary preparation ahead of time, and notes should be taken including follow-up actions. Everyone knows this, but unfortunately, these rules are not always followed due to lack of enforcement. While some of us may balk at openly confronting non-contributing meeting attendees like Elon Musk, requiring attendees to provide the points they want to discuss ahead of time is a good start.

Manager-managee feedback

Employees often leave managers not companies, so getting this communication path right is especially important. One of my managers was great at this. In particular, there were three things from a communication perspective that other managers should emulate:

  • Treat one-to-ones seriously (see meeting etiquette section).
  • Understand the personal goals of the people in your team and align their responsibilities as far as possible.
  • Avoid always acting as the intermediary between your team and other members of the organization.