08 From Standalone Interactions to Communication Flows

Generative Communication is meaningful, intentful, and structured. Does that mean it relies on Real-Time Communication, Near-Time Communication, or something entirely different? Can we use email for Generative Communication, or should we restrict ourselves to face-to-face meetings? Can Generative Communication be asynchronous, given that many teams now work in hybrid mode? Is asynchronous communication effective even if everyone works in the same building? Is Generative Communication textual or oral? When defining Generative Communication, we didn’t address these questions, and for good reason.

To communicate effectively, we must not rely on any single tool, platform, or communication mode. No communication tool is the ultimate solution. Each has pros and cons, and some have many cons because of how we use them. Each tool is designed with a different need in mind, and if we don’t want to abuse the tool and push it beyond its designed limits, we can’t expect it to solve every challenge we face. Much of the frustration and ineffectiveness of contemporary communication can be traced back to trying to force a tool into a communication need it was never meant to address. 

Generative Communication is not a standalone activity. It is a value-oriented, structured, and intentful mixture of various communication means, tools, methods, and activities.

When we realize we can mix and match different tools and practices to design an optimized process that serves our needs, we can enjoy the best of all worlds. We will use email when it makes sense; we will use instant messages when there is a real need; we will switch to a face-to-face conversation when that is the right thing to do, and we will try to avoid all the pitfalls of abusing these means of communication. We call this mixture of activities — this process — a communication flow. A communication flow is always intentful, time-bounded, and limited in the number of activities. Most importantly, a communication flow is designed to achieve a concrete goal — 100% of the time.

Realizing that no single means of communication or any magical activity could solve the problem I was facing managing my one-on-one interactions with my team, I started to think about the strengths and weaknesses of each platform. A weekly meeting was a great platform for deep discussion, assuming we had adequate preparation and did not waste most of it on just getting familiar with the issues at stake. A written medium (not necessarily the intrusive email) was effective for laying out data and essential facts necessary to understand the context of the discussion and the scope of the problem. It was, however, a poor choice for a deep back-and-forth discussion. Some issues could not wait for the weekly one-on-one meeting, but there were fewer such issues than the current email flood I was (not) handling. Thus, we needed to divide the process into two parts: sharing information and conducting the actual discussion. We also had to distinguish between two scenarios: an urgent issue and issues that could wait up to five working days until the next face-to-face meeting. Hopefully, most issues will fall into the second category.

The first part of our solution was to create a shared and dynamic list of discussion topics for each team member, where both they and I could add, remove, or edit items and rearrange their order. The order of the items in the list reflected the order in which we wanted to discuss them — a priority, even though, by definition, none of the items called for an immediate discussion. Whenever a team member or I identified an issue we wished to discuss that didn’t require immediate attention, we would add it to the list. We also ensured each item had a description, some reference to background material, and data needed to understand the issue before the meeting. Each item included the call for action: what outcome would make the discussion effective? But the killer feature of this shared list was that it created zero distractions during the week. It was based not on email but on a shared document with no notifications sent whenever someone updated it.

A typical item in our shared list would look something like this one:

We must decide how to address the new request by the Head of R&D to meet our committed milestone.

  • The Head of R&D has requested that we add a new KPI to the dashboard we are building. The description of her request, the rationale, and the urgency are described in this email (link).
  • The KPI initial design is available here (link). To implement it, we need to connect to a new data source.
  • The estimated time for implementing the new requirements is two days.
  • We are currently on schedule for the upcoming milestone. Adding the new requirement introduces risk at the “Medium” level to meet the milestone.
  • Alternative 1: push one of these requirements (link) to the next milestone as they are internal and were not requested by Management.
  • Alternative 2: provide a partial implementation of the new KPI to satisfy the critical need but postpone the full implementation of the KPI to the next milestone. The risk of meeting the targets for the upcoming milestone would be reduced to “Low.”

This brings us to the second part of the communication flow: the one-on-one meeting. Unlike the meetings we had had before designing this flow, the meetings we were now having were well prepared. To start with, we had a clear and prioritized agenda before going into the meeting. We knew what we were about to discuss and in what order. But we had much more than that. With the new communication flow, we knew enough about each topic to start the core of the discussion immediately without wasting time on introductions and trying to get a sense of where we were. We took the time to prepare ourselves for the meeting by processing the information compiled by the person who had asked for the discussion. As a result, we covered more topics during the meeting, and the outcome of each discussion was well thought out. We rarely completed everything on the backlog list, but that was perfectly fine; we discussed the essential things first and left the less important stuff for a future discussion.

The third part of the flow we had designed addressed the issues that could not wait until the weekly one-on-one meeting. The list wouldn’t do for such issues because, by definition, nothing would trigger me to look at the list during the week. The solution was to write a clear email with all the required details and an explicit call for action, similar to how we captured items for discussion in our dynamic list. We went even so far as to add the call for action and the context in the email’s subject so it would stand out from the dozens of emails in my inbox. When it came to these urgent issues, I wanted to be interrupted, but we had set a clear limit to the email exchange on these issues: a single iteration. One email, one response. Nothing more. Of course, some topics required a deeper discussion despite being urgent. If a single response wasn’t about to cut it, we would schedule a dedicated meeting to resolve the issue. Serious discussions benefit from real-time conversation.

If you are like most people reading this description for the first time, you might think, “That is crazy!” A process? A process with different scenarios, multiple tools, and rules? And for what? This should have been a simple, frictionless, almost mindless act of asking a question and getting an answer, allowing us to proceed with our work. It seems like a huge cost to pay in terms of effort and the apparent slower decision-making. Slower than what we are accustomed to. In some sense, it is, but remember that the frictionless and allegedly costless communication got us in trouble in the first place.

As we put this flow into practice, we realized three things. First, the new flow has helped us make better decisions. The discussions were deeper, we analyzed the situation better, and the outcome was beyond compare to the shallow alternative. No less important is the fact that the cost of this flow only seemed high, but it was actually more efficient than the alternative broken communication. Forget that I wasn’t responding to most of the emails from my team members. If I had responded to them, the time and attention penalty would have been much more significant. Lost momentum and frequent distractions bear a cost that quickly grows beyond control. 

But maybe our most profound realization after adopting this flow as our norm was that this was actually what we were paid to do. We were supposed to do more than just shoot spontaneous questions and answers; we were expected to think things through together as a team, and we just couldn’t do that in the previous mode of communication. Communication is not collateral damage — it is the essence of collaborative work.

So, we have designed quite an elaborate combination of emails, meetings, and shared material; it involves both writing and real-time conversation. It defined different paths depending on urgency, and more than anything else, it introduced new activities dedicated to preparation and processing, which had been missing before. No single tool, platform, or mode of communication could have provided all that. It was the mix of different tools with different capabilities, as well as the strict definition of when to use each of them, that made all the difference. And the difference was overwhelming.

With the new communication flow, our discussions were no longer fractured. Whether it was a simple but urgent question (via email), an urgent issue (discussed in a dedicated meeting), or an important but not urgent dilemma (added to the backlog of the weekly meeting), discussions were starting and ending in close proximity. The discussions were deeper: we had time to think, challenge ideas, and develop new ones if needed. Our communication was done in context and was no longer spontaneous. Long threads of questions, answers, follow-ups, and misunderstandings were eliminated. Communication didn’t get in the way of the deep work we had to do, and nothing stood in the way of a good, meaningful conversation. At least when it came to our internal communication within the team, we nailed it. We managed to overcome all the flaws of broken communication.

We have nailed it, but it took some experimentation. What works on paper often entails some surprises in real life, so we had to do a few iterations and tweak the communication flow until it was perfected. It also took quite some time to get used to (and even more time to kill our old habits). Such a change cannot happen overnight, and the more people involved in the flow, the more challenging it is to bring everyone on board and adopt the new method. Not easy, but well worth it. 

The lesson of this story is not that you should take the flow I have used and apply it automatically in your team. Quite the opposite: I urge you not to do so. This communication flow and others we will explore later in the book demonstrate what is possible and how to think about the challenge of effective communication. It worked for me and my team, but eventually, communication (and processes in general) are context-sensitive. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. You and your colleagues must thoughtfully design your own communication flows based on your needs, constraints, culture, and expectations. The building blocks and practices we will explore throughout the book will help you craft robust flows optimized to your goals. 

We must not leave how we communicate to chance or arbitrary decisions.

Reflection and Practice

Think of an interaction you had recently: an email thread, a meeting, or a chat. Consider what parts of this interaction weren’t effective. Think about how the interaction was managed, the overhead it might have created, and its results. 

Now, consider what activities you could have added to turn this interaction into a communication flow and mitigate the less optimal parts of it. 

Try the new approach you have come up with in an upcoming similar interaction.

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