"Communication usually fails, except by accident."
This is fundamental law of communication, otherwise know as Wiio's laws. These are humoristically formulated observations based on how humans communicate with each other.
At Mäd, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate, both with each other and our clients, to ensure that:
- Intent and communication is clear.
- That we prioritize a culture of deep work and introspection.
- That we're using an open information architecture that allows others to search and find things later.
As we've grown from a handful of people working out of a client's office to a significantly larger company, one thing that hasn't scaled well has been our approach to communication, both internally and with clients.
One of our main forms of communications is chat - both in groups and individually - and there are lots of reasons why this isn't working. I wanted to review some of these reasons and why we have decided to kill group chat.
The reasons can be categorized into two main groups:
- Practical Objections, especially compared to alternative methods of communications.
2. The culture it creates and promotes.
Practical Objections to Group Chat.
"Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda." Jason Fried
Real Time is All The Time.
Group chat is what is called synchronous communication, which works best when all the participants are available at the same time. Think of it in the same way as a communication as a group discussion in a room.
This is the opposite of email or a forum, where the communication is asynchronous, which means that an instant reply is not expected or required, but each participant can take the time required to properly digest the information and then form a coherent reply.
Most of the time for most topics, synchronous communication is not required.
Another objection to the practicality of group chat stemming from this synchronicity of communication is working across different time-zones. We've had real instances of lots of group messages at 5am on Sunday morning because the client was on the other side of the world and didn't realize that everyone would be asleep.
A Lack of an Open Information Architecture.
A key problem with group chat is that it is a form of communication that goes across topics, and this means that almost anything and everything can and will be discussed in that one group.
One way to fight this is to then spin up lots of group chats, often with the same participants, each with their own specific topic. Needless to say, while this is a short-term hack, it actually increases the key problems that are faced with group chat.
In addition, the search tools available for most chat applications are not very strong compared to those that you can find in specific teamwork or project management software. This leads to even more messages as people ask where they can find specific information. One of the worst offenders is WhatsApp, because if you add a new person to a group they are not able to see previous conversations, so that information is locked away for only the original group chat participants.
The best tools are the ones that can deliver the right amount of information at the right time, not just some of the information all the time.
A lack of clear context is also a big issue. A discussion in chat in regards to a particular candidate in the recruitment pipeline will not be shown with all the required information such as their curriculum, their initial application, historical comments from past interviews, who else is in the pipeline, summaries of reference checks, and so on.
The ASAP Culture.
“If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.” Carl Newport
In his book, "Deep Work", Carl Newport discusses at length how there are two key skills required by both individuals and organizations to thrive in the new digital economy.
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
These abilities do not come from doing easy things that anyone can do, but by taking long uninterrupted stretches of time to do deep work, where you are solely focused on just the task at hand, without the typical distractions of TV, social media, and - guess what - group chat!
The reasons for having an ASAP culture is two-fold:
- A lack of clarity on long-term objectives.
- A lack of priority between the tasks required to hit those objectives. If there is no priority order, then everything becomes a priority.
Group chat contributes to this type of mindset because of that synchronous nature that we discussed earlier. If you're not always "plugged in" and paying attention - and notice how our language even showcases what attention is, it is something that costs you when you use, and hopefully you get something back for what you paid! - you won't be able to have your say and you'll miss out on potentially important information and decisions.
This implied consensus of "having put it in the chat room" and assuming that everyone has read it is deadly, because it doesn't scale well past a trivial amount of people, and things start to slip through.
This also means that you need to periodically stop what you're doing and check your phone or laptop chat app to ensure that you aren't missing out. That's hardly a good practice if you want to do meaningful work which requires long stretches of uninterrupted time.
During our design sprints, we often have a session of ideation where the group as a whole works alone, together. Each person in that same room, but works alone to try and come up with a large number of ideas. We purposefully tell everyone to worry about the quantity of ideas, not the quality, and that they won't be judged for any obviously stupid ideas. The reason we take this approach is because once you get past the obvious, the first five or ten ideas on a particular topic or problem, it then becomes exponentially harder to think of new solutions, but the chances that these solutions are great ones also increases.
Group chat encourages people to think one line at a time instead of thinking in complete thoughts, and this stops the best ideas from surfacing.
Also, if you can access everyone instantly, it means that things often get done at the last minute. We had a habit of finishing proposals an hour or two before they were supposed to be sent out, and then we would drop them in a group chat to have the rest of the team check before they went out. If we had already been using asynchronous tools, this would have been impossible. We would have had to finish the documents a day or two early, and post them for feedback, which other people could then do in their own time, not 'right this minute'.
All of these objections - real time, all the time; a lack of open information architecture, the ASAP culture - also apply to individual chats with clients. While having direct access to the right people can be useful, it should not be considered as the default medium especially for key discussions.
What To Use Instead?
We've gone out and built our own tool called Bloo to try and improve the way teams across the world work, and also how we work.
However, what's more important than the tool itself is the discipline behind the tool, and the buy-in from the team to work in a more calm and steady manner.