Slowing Down to Speed Up – Effective Asynchronous Communication

- Communication

by Andy Cleff

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

After a several decades of collocation, I’ve started working with distributed teams. And I’ve observed first hand how incredibly liberating a remote structure is for myself, our teams and our organization.

We are able to hire the best people. (See The Collaboration Superpowers Podcast #61 – By Lisette Sutherland) All of us are able to balance, nay, integrate work and life –  contributing when and where we are our most productive.

To remain effective, high-performing teams rely on a number of important factors such as trust, ownership, a focus on results, and effective communication to getting stuff done.

In this post I’m going to focus on the communication element. Specifically, what we can do to make the most of the vast array of asynchronous channels we have at our disposal. And these ideas apply beyond a virtual team environment.

The Illusionist

Far too often I’ve observed an async conversation – be it in a github issue, a slack channel, a JIRA card, or an email (does anyone use voice mail anymore besides telemarketers?) – where to me it appears that contributors are attempting to save time by being brief. (Oooh, is that a legacy of the good ol’ days of telex? Who else remembers paying by the character…?)
The illusion that communication is actually happening is dispelled by an endless game of comment ping-pong. Misunderstandings are soon followed by frustrations. The outcome: Threads that one must read from top to bottom (multiple times) to have a chance of grokking “the outcome.”  And perhaps a few tweaked noses. So much collective time and energy wasted that could be better spent enjoying a virtual coffee or beer…

There’s Got to Be an Easier Way

I offer the following tips, each requiring only a few extra moments up front and yielding hours saved downstream…

#1 Be really explicit (and by that I mean “state clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt” – not that other kind of explicit, get your mind out of the gutter) 

  • Detail the expected “Next action towards Done” 
  • Avoid pronouns – somebody, it, that, him – use proper names 
  • Keep the flowery prose to a minimum, just the useful facts please 
  • Tag a single assignee for the next action, avoiding the bystander effect where all watchers assume the other gal’s got it 
  • Give timing needs/expectations for response (aka deadlines or relative priority) 
  • Provide context by using the word “because” (I need your input by Thursday because code freeze is Friday…)

#2 If you feel frustrated or see that tempers are flaring, do your best to focus everyone on attacking the problem, not each other. Oh, and maybe while you’re at it, take a moment make sure that everybody agrees on what the problem is you’re trying to solve…

#3 Limit the number of unfruitful volleys and then find an alternative way to communicate. It’s amazing how much information can be shared in a 7-minute Zoom or Google hangout (yes, that’s a meeting and not all of ‘em are bad) as opposed to a 50-minute Slack flame war.

#4 Maintain a single canonical source of truth 

  • Keep what “Done” means in one common spot that everyone agrees upon – in the JIRA description field, or in the initial git issue comment (yeah, stinks there’s no change history…). Update the Google doc and resolve the comments. It should not be necessary to read every single thing every time top to bottom to know what’s current. 
  • Minimize 1-1 threads or DM’s. Emails only end up in addressee’s inboxes…no one else knows what’s in that DM…  
  • And I bet you can comment below on many other techniques that you find valuable (Hey, add some now, I’ll wait…)

Be a Model Citizen

I’m no angel, but I am doing my best model these behaviors with the teams I am part of. And when I see problems surface (that illusion of communication) I take the opportunity to provide direct, timely and specific feedback… without, I hope, being too much of a pain in the you-know-what. “@Jane, please assign the card @Tarzan next time… that way he’ll have less of a chance of missing the fact that he’s got to take @cheeta to the vet on Saturday…”

I think if we all just slow down a bit, we might actually speed things up.

Photo: Markus Spiske (Unsplash)


3 thoughts on "Slowing Down to Speed Up – Effective Asynchronous Communication"

  • Arnaud L'Hôte says:

    Good point, too often JIRA tickets or the like replace real interaction. These appear to me just as ineffective as Email discussions.
    I tend to encourage teams to follow the pattern for communication :
    1. Walk to the person an discuss the matter
    2. Pick up the phone when 1. is unpracticable
    3. Use IM
    4. Schedule another try thru 1-3. in your calendar
    4. If all fails only then use Email
    Last but not least document the results of you discussion in a public place (e.g. JIRA Ticket, Confluence, Wiki, …) to make it available to everybody.

  • Vanessa says:

    Andy I like the quotes and tweets you included, they definitely resonate. It also reminds me of the work I’ve done with cross-cultural teams. The issue that US Americans can cause is that by nature we tend to be very direct and explicit. This can come across as agressive and rude and too results oriented versus relationship focused.
    The slowing down, to speed up can help. If we are direct and straightforward, we might also want to slow down and pay attention to quieter clues from more indirect people. The act of NOT responding or reaching out is also a message that should be considered.
    And yes – no angel here either! But always learning 🙂
    Thanks for the honest post.

  • Andy Cleff says:

    Documenting the results so important. Not only to make it available to everyone else async but to confirm understanding by those involved in the 1-1 originally, as well as a place to remember that discussion. Thanks Arnaud!

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