How to Stop Overcommunication
Spolsky’s latest piece is about Brook’s law, and how adding people to projects can make them worse.
For those unfamiliar with it, Brook’s law states that when you add a person to a project, you geometrically increase the amount of communication people have to manage, suggesting it’s a bad idea. While I agree with the law, there are important exceptions I’ve identified – depending who the person in question is (elite or bozo), how good they are at jumping into tough territory (ninja or bozo), and how much they already know about the project (familiar or bozo newbie). Spolsky’s points are generally sound, but I believe there’s a deeper cause for over-communication.
The reason committees are so miserable to work with is authority is distributed across a large number of people. This makes everyone feel like everyone needs to know about everything. And worse, people fight in the backroom to obtain control over the committee, so the visible authority and real authority can be far apart.
Over-communication is a symptom of lack of clarity over power. If you want better communication, clarify the following:
- Who is the single person who has decision making authority for decision X
- Who should have input into that decision
- Who should be informed when the decision has been made
This sets everyone’s expectations for who needs to know what. It reduces endless forwarding of fyi material on the hopes someone might need it.
The person with decision making authority should be collaborating with others, and can delegate their authority, but no one should ever be confused that they have the power to make the call.
45 people can not effectively make a decision together. But 44 people can council one wise, empowered person to make a more effective decision.
Like Spolsky, I agree things would be better if there were 5 people in the room, instead of 45, but the clear distribution of power is the problem I’d solve first.
The other bit I didn’t mention is that over-communication is a habit, and people emulate the habits of their superiors.
If teams habitually create large meetings, over-email and over-forward, odds are good the VP, the CEO, or the group manager has the same habit.
If they change their habit, and simultaneously ask the team to change their habit, things can change.
There’s also something to be said for considering communication quality vs. volume . Watch any great sports team and they communicate continually, so volume is high. But the quality of their messages, and how they impact behavior, is also very high.
On all space and defense programs, or any program with mandated Federal Acquisition Regulations or any project following PMBOK the vehicle to answer your question is the Responsibility Assignment Matrix (RAM).
No RAM confusion reigns.
A trivial fix is to build the RAM during the project charting session, update it when appropriate, follow it, and remove the fog of communications.
Doesn’t matter how many people are in the room 5 or 500 clear and concise channels of communication are needed for success.
I noticed these problems are very prevalent in webdesign firms, non-profit boards and anywhere with more project managers than subject matter experts and the people doing the work.
Those 3 bulleted points are key in eliminating wasteful, distracting and counter-productive communication.
I’m only just experiencing this on a regular basis for the first time in my career and it’s rather surprising to see people do it on such a regular basis (especially without yielding positive results). Everyone I speak with about this agrees that it’s a problem, yet the organization is deeply rooted in community-based decision making and fears cutting anyone out of the communication.
I’m working to change this habit within my team, as well as calling out my manager when he contributes to overcommunication. Any tips on how to influence those beyond one’s organization to either curtail this habit or clearly identify who’s in power?
I totally agree with Spolsky’s and your point of view.
Communication, in fact, has a lot to do with responsibility and feelings. These days companies and institutions have become a weird environment where everything is (incorrectly) mixed: work, feelings, friendship, community…
Trying not to disappoint or “hurt” anyone, too much communication and opinion is asked for in every decision. That’s also a comfortable position to take: decisions are blurred and no-one becomes unpopular. In fact, important decisions are sometimes delegated to the incorrect people, normally hiding the inabilities and lack of expertise or risk of a superior.
Anyway, I’d like to share this quote by Bill Cosby: “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is to trying to please everybody.”
I think it has a lot to do with this topic.
Excellent post. My company has tried to make everything a committee. Just to confirm, there is fighting for decision power and people think they have to be in every meeting. Your over communicating suggestions are excellent. We have been trying to leverage the RACI approach for projects as of late. I hope it helps. Thanks
I’d add that the timing of a project is also a factor. If it’s early on, then I agree that people can learn the ropes. However, at the end of projects when things are way behind schedule, it’s often a case of subtraction by addition.
I for one have found it easier to just bang stuff out, as opposed to showing someone how to do a task. We just didn’t have time for me to show someone the ropes.
I agree with the problems of overcommunication and the reasons why committees suck. Like other commenters, I find that a RACI matrix can help.
I am curious though… Much like the problems with committees there can also be real problems where just one person has the decision making authority. For instance, the problem of real and perceived authority can be true in both cases. You can often have people making their case in backrooms to influence the decision maker. You also open the door to the influence of “special” relationships, etc.
In my experience, it has seemed to be even more difficult to know the true reasons and influences behind a decision when there was just one decision maker.
I would add to this:
* What sources of information are deemed deprecated and thus irrelevant in relation to informing decision X
This is based on my experience that one major overcommunication time sink is the rehashing of information that has already been clearly demonstrated to be useless. While trying to keep bozos out of the decision-making process helps, even non-bozos frequently perseverate–sometimes for years or even decades–on large complex bodies of information that are clearly useless.
A former boss of mine used to say we need more guides on the side and fewer sages on the stage. I try to always keep that in mind.
@Phil Simon makes a good point here – remember this law was created in reference to late projects.
I would also change your statement “empowered person to make a more effective decision” to be “empowered person to make all effective decisions,” since one major slow-down is competing requirements that come from different sources.
Is over-communication less bad than under-communication? I find constantly people find out about something (too late) that they:
* are a subject matter expert in
* have already begun work on
* have newer, relevant information to the topic at hand
Simply because the some-one didn’t know who to include on the email thread, and including a sub-set. This is not necessarily their fault – the need to know list may have changed recently or simply in any big-ish organisation, it’s pretty hard to track who is working on what and where the latest information may reside/need to go.
I do agree about committee meetings / design by committee.