Category Archives: Communication

Basecamp Is Off-Base On Internal Communications

One of the more interesting things to land in my feed this week was Basecamp‘s new Guide To Internal Communications. As early proponents of agile project management, I have a lot of respect for the company, but I’m was not a happy camper when I read this. In short, the 30 principles of internal communication listed seem somewhat antagonistic toward interpersonal communication. Take principle 3:

“Internal communication based on long-form writing, rather than a verbal tradition of meetings, speaking, and chatting, leads to a welcomed reduction in meetings, video conferences, calls, or other real-time opportunities to interrupt and be interrupted.”

and principle 5:

” Meetings are the last resort, not the first option.”

and principle 6:

” Writing solidifies, chat dissolves. Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it’s important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don’t chat it down.”

All in all, the guide is highly dismissive of discussing things face to face, or, particularly, in group settings.

Now, I’m no fan of endless meetings, and I’ve worked at enough “management by consensus” nonprofits to know what’s what. But I have major issues with the advice above:

  1. Written communication is written communication, and it only communicates words, not tone, not excitement, not how invested the person is in what they are discussing. You can’t easily bring people on board to your initiatives, or get excited about theirs, without the body language and vocal inflection that sells ideas as they’re discussed. We’re human, and we respond to emotion. Business writing is generally geared towards stripping emotion out of things.
  2. The best business ideas are not ones that are written up by individuals, they’re the ones that are brainstormed up and refined by teams. This manifesto completely ignores the value of collaborative planning and strategizing.
  3. Have you ever attended a scrum? The simple, face-to-face, focused meeting where everyone coordinates on what they will do that day? It’s much more efficient than doing the same by email, believe me.

This one killed me:

” If your words can be perceived in different ways, they’ll be understood in the way which does the most harm.”

Well, yeah! But if the words are spoken, then they are less prone to misinterpretation than if they’re written. Who hasn’t been advised to be careful with email, because tone can be mistaken? And, if I’m in a room explaining something to you, and I see on your face that you’re confused or offended, I can immediately pivot to address that.

But the mis-hits keep on coming:

“Poor communication creates more work.”

“Companies don’t have communication problems, they have miscommunication problems. The smaller the company, group, or team, the fewer opportunities for miscommunication.”

So suck it, big companies! Here’s my number one principle, which all of this “communication is dangerous, don’t do it unless you have to, and then only in small groups” advice:

“We make more drastic mistakes by under-communicating than we do by over-communicating”

I learned that from the best mentor I ever had, the Executive Director of a law firm that I worked at in the 90’s. In organizations, keeping information close to the vest is toxic. Lack of information fuels distrust. In my current work, as a consultant, I see more organizations that dislike and distrust their IT departments than those who get along with them. In each case, IT is terrible at communicating. They upgrade systems and software without warning anyone. They don’t respond to help desk requests until they’re ready to address the issue, leaving the user wondering if they even read it.

In the late 90’s I ran into a sticky situation. I was working as an IT Director in San Francisco at the height of the dot.com boom. Tech wages were rising quickly. And HR made a mistake and, on a routed email announcing the hire of my new Database Analyst, attached his offer letter. Every one of my ten employees saw it. My Database Administrator, who was making $10k less than that offer, was irate, and he stormed in my office with a salary guide that he found online that said he should be making $10k more. I asked him to do something for me and come back: “Find the next nine, similar articles and tell me what they average to.” He came back with a ten match average of about what he was making. Then I discussed the goals we could set to get him the extra $10k. I had similar compensation talks with each of my staff, and my relationships with each of them improved.

So my business style is to talk too much, and maybe reveal too much sometimes, but in the interest of all of my staff and peers being on the same page and feeling like a fully-briefed part of the team.

We now live in a world where our closest co-workers aren’t always in the same building, city, or country. That means that face to face communication is more important, not less, because the danger of alienation is higher, and you can’t build trust with people that you don’t see often. In the 2000’s, I had a job where my System Administrator was in Seattle, my Trainer was in Chicago, and I was in SF. After a couple of years of poor communication and teamwork, we went all in on videoconferencing, and it solved the problems.

The Basecamp manifesto goes on, and it has some good points mixed in with the bad, but the overall “communication is messy so do it very cautiously if you must” theme strikes me as the opposite of a good business practice. Businesses certainly need to be disciplined, manage meetings in ways that are efficient, and support the right mix of long form communication, social or instant messaging, and face to face. But many of the companies I work with suffer from issues caused by pervasive organizational distrust. Upper management doesn’t explain things well. There are no internal newsletters reporting on what’s happening. Strategic plans, if developed, aren’t shared in a manner that incorporates staff feedback, and staff aren’t asked for input at the start. When something bad happens – key staff depart or the White House drops funding – they don’t call all-staff meetings to discuss how they’re responding.

The organizational impact is simple. Staff aren’t engaged; turnover is high; the best people – the ones who want to make a difference – are discouraged, while the unambitious ones stay. Because you can’t manage people without interacting with them; you can’t gain their trust without sharing with them, and you can’t develop the best mission-focused strategy without collaborating on that strategy.