We founded x.ai in April 2014 and since then have grown to 93 people. Once in a while I miss those early days, when the whole company fit into a single room of our co-working space. Back then, information flowed naturally, and everyone knew what everyone else was working on. In startup time, that was eons ago for us. Now, with such a large team, it’s easy to feel overloaded with information even as you feel that you’re not getting the full picture.
No single communications channel rules them all
We’re a heavy user of Slack. As a team, we sent over 30,000 messages on Slack last week. But as COO and a startup founder two times over, I’ve lately felt that our team has become lazy and over-reliant on Slack, which comes at a steep organizational cost. I believe no single communication channel fulfills all of our team’s needs. Instead, we should be much more mindful of using the channel that’s best suited to whatever we’re trying to communicate.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We should be much more mindful of using the channel that’s best suited to whatever we’re trying to communicate.[/pullquote]
That statement, when I read it over, seems obvious, basic and uncontroversial. Yet, over and over, I watch as team members heedlessly post a sensitive comment in Slack, which would be better delivered face to face, or set up a meeting with more than a handful of colleagues when a quick Slack chat would do. Both actions misalign communication and channel, and both end up wasting hours, days even, and causing confusion through our growing team.
When choosing the mode of communication, it often comes down to tradeoffs. And this is true for startups and larger organizations alike. Meeting someone face to face allows both people to understand context; you hear the words and the tone, you can see posture and facial expressions. That gives you a much more nuanced understanding of the points being made. You can usually get at real motivations, since what sparks a conversation is often not the core issue.
The trade off is that the meeting has to happen in the same space and time, which can be hard to arrange (though Amy and Andrew can help, here).
Talking on the phone is less signal rich than meeting in person, but it does allow you to hear tone and to ask follow-on and clarifying questions. Both people still have to find a time that works, but this is less expensive than having to be in the same place at the same time.
Slack’s key advantage is that it’s asynchronous. Message timing is optimized for both the sender and receiver’s schedule. The challenge is that as your team grows from 5 to 50, the noise level increases commensurately. This can cause FOMO. You feel compelled to follow most of the conversations, only to find that you’ve got no time left in the day to do work that requires deep thought and focus.
Below is my mini guide on choosing the right communications channels and optimizing each one.
The best use of meetings
Although we don’t have too many company-wide, standing meetings at x.ai, each team has found the need to discuss topics, update each other and brainstorm in their own way. Some choose to meet in person. While this is a big time investment, it can easily be optimized. The biggest time savers will come from being selective in who you invite and which meeting to attend.
Who to Invite
My rule of thumb (based on science!): any meeting with more than 7 people is a waste of time if you’re trying to make a decision. Five is generally the maximum number of people who can have a meaningful, productive conversation. Don’t invite someone just because they worked on the project two months ago or because you feel like they should be in the loop. Remember, you’re taking away an hour of their life. Ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”
To help participants decide whether they should attend a meeting, the host must establish an agenda ahead of time. The owner can set the agenda or ask the team for input; it doesn’t matter as long as an agenda gets set.
Which Meeting to Attend
Dedicate someone to take meeting notes. When done consistently, people start to feel that they don’t have to attend meetings just to get updates or have a sense of what’s going on. As a meeting participant, don’t feel obliged to go to all of the meetings you’re invited to or attend just to be nice. Go to a meeting because you’ll contribute or gain real value. Feel free to say “no thank you” to invites. Feel free to walk out of a meeting when the value exchange is over.
Documents and email are still your friend
There’s still a surprising amount of value in writing things down. I love Jeff Bezos’ 6-pager model and want to get the x.ai team to adopt it more widely. Writing is an opportunity to thoroughly think through the content, analysis and underlying logic of the topic at hand. (It’s not an excuse for mindless fluff or prettying up weak arguments.) At x.ai, we write Product Docs to describe major features and leverage a Request for Comments framework for facilitating and documenting big decisions.
How to optimize Slack for teams large and small
Now, to Slack. We’re power users for a team of our size: x.ai has 149 Slack channels and 29 user groups. The platform is great for asynchronous, short chats. It doesn’t work well for drawn out discussions that need to accommodate diverse viewpoints. Here’s what you can do to optimize your use of Slack:
- Don’t expect an immediate reply. If you use this medium for its strength, asynchronicity, you’ll get the most out of it. Give the other person at least 2 hours to reply. If a message can’t wait that long, Slack wasn’t the right choice in the first place.
- Turn off desktop notifications (yeah, I just said that).
- Default to chatting in a topic-specific but open channel. You can tag individual team members as needed and still allow others who are interested to follow along.
- A corollary is to keep private messages to a minimum.
- If there are more than 10 back and forth exchanges on the same topic, go grab your colleague and talk to them f2f.
- Be very selective in using @here and @channel. Make sure whatever you’re saying is really necessary for everyone to see. Ask yourself, who really needs to know?
- Limit the number of times you check Slack. I know it is hard. Remember, it’s just FOMO.
We don’t have everything figured out but we do seek to iterate and learn. The trick I’ve found is not to favor one communication channel over another. It’s about picking the right channel for the right type of communication. If you’re more thoughtful about how you talk to your teammates, you can easily gain hours or days back every week.
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