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In team communication, success has no secrets

March 19th, 2015 4:25 pm


Is email dead? At The Glue, our email is a lot quieter than it used to be. For example, yesterday I received five (5!) non-marketing work emails. Two months ago, pre-Slack and pre-Trello, I see 22, not counting the ones I deleted.

That’s a lot of  emails to not read and not answer. Slack’s recent astronomical success and the subsequent scrambling of competitors signals a paradigm shift away from email. The collective sigh of relief from organizations of all sizes is almost audible.

Remote teams are at the forefront of this movement. With no casual desk-side chats or meeting rooms, distributed teams have to be creative and intentional in how they deliver information. Our team at The Glue is primarily distributed, and over the course of the past few months I’ve noticed certain approaches to team communication that have made project life cycles less painful.


No uncertainty

Before we implemented Slack, there was uncertainty and disorganization in our internal communication. Some conversations were handled through email, many were taking place through random IM clients (AIM, Google Chat, iMessage, etc.), and none were centrally accessible, archived or searchable. Even with the simplest of items, say, feedback on a deliverable, there was always room for debate. On the one hand, no one wants to send feedback with the whole world CCed. But on the other, if feedback is sent to just one person, it’s inevitable that contrary (or later, irrelevant) opinions will surface from someone who never knew the original feedback.

After we implemented Slack, there was no question about it: this was where the team would communicate. We stopped wondering, “Should this be in an email or an instant message?” and “Who should be included?” Communication of all levels started going into the proper channels. Once Slack was the go-to medium, the only question was: what’s the most effective way to use it?


No back-channeling

Secrets don’t make friends and they certainly don’t make successful projects. Especially in a distributed team where everyone is collaborating on the same deliverables, there should be no piece of data or information that isn’t made immediately available to everyone with a stake in the outcome.

In the context of Slack (or any other platform with a similar, channel-driven structure), this means that little to no project-related communication should be taking place within Direct Messages. Not only is this the exact opposite of collaboration, but another team member might be making an improper decision because key information is being delivered behind closed doors.

As a rule of thumb: if the information has the potential to affect the outcome of the project, everyone should know it.


Bring outsiders in

There are going to be cases where utilizing a centralized internal communication platform like Slack simply isn’t feasible, especially in a client-agency dynamic. In these situations it’s important to have a system that keeps all invested parties in the loop. When I joined The Glue in January, the only way to pass information and requests between clients and the rest of our team was to forward email chains or copy and paste message contents into unarchived instant messages. Obviously, this process was not scalable.

We’ve since implemented Trello for task tracking and general project management–now, no piece of information is an island. Since most outside communication (i.e. email from clients) is related to a specific item or deliverable, received messages are pasted as comments on the item’s corresponding Trello Card. This has two advantages: 1) the Card can serve as a thorough timeline of how and when decisions were made, and 2) the contents are infinitely more accessible than emails that live solely in someone’s inbox.

Taking it a step further, we integrate our Trello Boards with its corresponding Slack channel to ensure that no messages, even once-ephemeral emails, are at risk of being lost. If a new team member joins a project and needs a quick rundown of a deliverable, all they need to do is review the comments on the Trello card to see the full line of communication on that item. In a past life, on-boarding that team member would’ve required digging through inboxes and forwarding fragmented email chains.


Walk the talk

In one way or another, all of these communication strategies are an effort to build and scale a more transparent organization. Complete transparency is a popular idea that’s implemented in some of the world’s fastest growing companies, but calling your company transparent means nothing without enacting (and emphasizing full adoption of) processes that actually increase transparency.

If done properly, centralized team communication should minimize tedious exercises like daily status check-ins or weekly scrums because team members are already up to speed on the latest project developments. Similarly, the risk of project failure due to a lack of communication should be negligible.

So, take a look at your team’s communication processes and see if there’s room for improvement. Your customer or client satisfaction and success may depend on it.

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