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The Obvious Value of Communication is Perhaps Not So Obvious

March 30th, 2017 · 26 comments

A Non-Obvious Question

In a recent podcast interview, the host asked me: “what’s something that seems obvious to you, but not to most other people?”

It was a good question because it spurred me to articulate an idea that has long lurked in the background of my thinking on work and productivity in a digital age. Here is (more or less) how I answered:

“When it comes to the world of work, more connectivity and more communication is not necessarily better. In fact, it often makes things worse.”

People are quick to admit that some of their habits surrounding workplace communication tools could use some improvement, but it’s widely agreed that the tools themselves — email, slack, smartphones — are a positive development. These technologies make communication faster and easier, providing a pleasing patina of industriousness and agility to your daily efforts.

To not use these tools would make communication slower and more difficult: how could that possibly be a good thing?

There seems to be wide agreement about this point, but as my above quote indicates, this consensus does not include me. There’s a good reason for this dissension: the idea that more communication is better goes against everything I’ve learned as a computer scientist.

Reducing Message Complexity

I should probably elaborate my previous statement. There are many types of computer scientists: I’m the type who studies algorithms that help distributed systems run reliably and efficiently.

Here’s the thing about designing these distributed algorithms: communication is something you’re almost always trying to minimize. The fewer messages you need to send or receive to accomplish your task, the better.

There are several reasons for this: communication tends to be slow compared to local processing, networks can be unpredictable, and sitting around waiting for messages to arrive, while your powerful processor sits idle, is frustratingly inelegant.

A well-designed distributed algorithm sends just enough of the right information to allow all parties to efficiently complete the task. And this goal is not always easy…

  • People in my field have written whole doctoral dissertations on how to reduce the number of back and forth messages required for a group of faulty agents to agree on a decision.
  • There’s a whole community of theoreticians who do nothing but try to prove the absolute minimum number of bits required for two agents to work together to solve various problems.
  • I co-authored a paper last fall that proved the surprising speed with which a rumor can spread through a crowd, even if people restrict themselves to talking to only a single neighbor at a time. This wasn’t easy to figure out.

As a distributed algorithm theorist, in other words, when I encounter a typical knowledge economy office, with its hive mind buzz of constant unstructured conversation, I don’t see a super-connected, fast-moving and agile organization — I instead see a poorly designed distributed system.

Implications

In discussing my perspective as a computer scientist, I’m not trying to claim that our approach necessarily applies to the workplace. I’m instead trying to underscore that some of the professional behaviors and trends that might seem so obvious in the moment, might be less obvious than most assume.

(Photo by Derek)

26 thoughts on “The Obvious Value of Communication is Perhaps Not So Obvious

  1. Dave Ardent says:

    Going by personal experience, a busy and chatty (for lack of a better term) working environment, with lots of information and ideas flying back and forth, makes it far easier for important details and info to be lost amidst all the noise. This has probably been one of the bigger frustrations I’ve had about working in an open office environment that’s placing an increasing amount of focus on rapid communication (not just emails but now IRC chats/Skype for business and so on).

  2. Azzam says:

    This is starting to make a lot of sense to me, however, when the culture is gearing towards ‘more messaging’ and rely on it for a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. At that point, what do you do? You become outcast for being reserved or not contributing enough to the noise.

    1. Geoff says:

      I completely agree with what you’re saying. At my company, the more you contribute to the noise, the more praise you receive. I’m the bad guy apparently for eschewing these methods while focusing on getting actual work done.

      1. Alex T says:

        This is a classic So Good moment. Chattiness is not rare and rarely valuable. Focused deep work is rare and rarely unvaluable. Even if it’s socially uncomfortable, focus on the latter and it pays off. I’ve found that the more I have the fruits of deep work in my corner, the more I’m able to win when a hard nosed negotiation is necessary.

  3. CapitolJ says:

    YES! I work in an environment where decisions are distributed among three levels of system, with each level having a different priority goal that impacts the overarching goal. I struggle to find an effective way of communicating where all levels of system are informed and I provide the decision maker with the best information. There is a great deal of “noise” in the system, which I find complicates matters, however, efforts to streamline inevitably crash and burn if someone is left out of the communication. You’ve given me a new perspective from which to view my problem. Thank you!

  4. gerald says:

    like 🙂

  5. Lisa says:

    This is one of the many reasons I love being self-employed and not working in an environment anything like a “hive mind buzz of constant unstructured conversation.” That kind of thing drives me absolutely insane.

  6. Lu-Hai Liang says:

    “As a distributed algorithm theorist…I don’t see a super-connected, fast-moving and agile organization — I instead see a poorly designed distributed system.”

    That’s a great perspective that most people probably don’t encounter and is definitely a good idea to encounter. To me it begs the question of where it leads. If you have a super-connected, fast-moving and agile organization, it suggests you should just have an office of automated AI, perhaps overseen by a few human managers and CEO, and a small team of tech workers to keep the AI running smoothly.

  7. Jeff Blair says:

    Outstanding insight Cal

    This harkens to your discussion of “metric black holes” in Deep Work.

    i.e., “Why is everyone using these communication systems if they are so inefficient?”

    A. Most don’t necessarily understand the knowledge worker’s inefficiency as effective production metrics are rarely utilized.

    If the CEO understood each email cost the company .99, he/she might take corrective action.

  8. We waste so much time in meetings inside of our organization. Most of the issues being “discussed” have been asked and answered over the course of scores of unnecessary emails. How can one help reshape the organizational culture is my question?

  9. Carl says:

    Yes. It’s is easy to see the strain of excess connectivity. Not so easily seen perhaps is using it to fill a personal void that could be filled more meaningfully.

    The potential for a greater expressive life then comes second to a more mechanized one.

  10. Geraldine says:

    I don’t agree. People not only communicate to pass on information necessary to complete the work, people communicate in order to be able to collaborate, to augment trust, and to bond. This might look inefficient at first glance, but the long term effects might outweigh the costs by far.

    To compare humans to a computer network is a very one-dimensional perspective of human collaboration and I really doubt this comparison makes much sense in the real world.

    1. Allen Winter says:

      Broken phone. “El telefono roto.” Ever played that game? It propogates misinformation. That’s what I think about when communication fails to fufill its purpose effectively. There are definitely more skillful and elegant means to communicate effectively than rather having a 100% duty cycle of communication.

  11. Macdara says:

    Great thought-provoking article Cal, it really has me thinking hard.

    I send IM chats to people a lot every day at work, it’s even gotten me in trouble a few times.
    For me IM is an essential mode of communication because email is such a problematic one and email chains can get toxic very quickly.
    Of course talking face to face is better and video calls are ok too.

    The bigger question I believe you’re asking is how to we organise and synchronise our communication effectively within an organisation or group.

    The Design pattern you’ve described in minimising communications for systems is based on optimising for a physical constraint.

    Humans tend to solve problems better in groups than in isolation, so reducing the frequency and volume of communication between people seems counterproductive.

    Improving the quality of that communication and reducing duplication seems like a good overarching principle in both cases.

  12. Bragadeesh says:

    Another great article Cal! I did not know that you were into distributed systems. Expecting a book on the subject

  13. Sean Alexander says:

    After 38 years in project management (32 as a consultant) my experience is that hyper-connectivity is a chimera.

    Until we can develop distributed systems that filter out extraneous information based upon organizational _and_ individual needs and wants, the least amount of connectivity needed for the job will continue to be far superior to the cacophony of always-on-everywhere zombie stubbornness.

  14. Shivani says:

    hello sir,
    I want to congratulate you for your DEEP WORK book which has saved so many lives from working on unproductive tasks .

    I had already quit facebook before 1.5 years. But sometimes I felt bad for losing contact with the people ,with technology. But when I read DEEP WORK, I felt proud on that decision.

    But even after quitting facebook, i could not concentrate on my study due to my phone and I can not get rid of my phone as faculties mostly announce any instruction/workshop on whats app group. I tried pomodoro technique but it was exhausting to study in front of timer. One amazing day, i came across DEEP WORK book through quora and now I can live without phone for hours. Now,I understand that its not urgency to revert back in 3-4 hours only . I can reply after completing my study session.

    I am sure I’ll get better grades in an upcoming exam.

    Thanks for making my life much better.

  15. Sam says:

    What podcast was the initial exchange from?

    1. Brian says:

      My educated guess is that he’ll be on The Ezra Klein Show. The question is similar to one that I’ve heard Klein ask before; Klein also mentioned DEEP WORK on at least two prior episodes of the podcast…

      But just a guess

      1. Study Hacks says:

        I did in fact recently record an episode of the Ezra Klein podcast…

        The question, actually, came from a podcast based out of Bangalore called Pushing Beyond the Obvious…

  16. Anatoli says:

    Theoretically correct, practically not always.

    I work in industrial environment. When I “deliver” a clear cut short message without any extra useless information, the other side (pipe fitter, welder, boilermaker, planner, maintenance personnel, etc) gets “puzzled” not understanding the “high density” information, forcing me to repeat the message full of junk words and extra not essential information. This way the recipient gets the message…

    Perhaps if both communicating sides are at the same high efficiency information processing capabilities, your theory works (especially with computer technology, not human interaction). However, in case of human interaction, if one of the communicating sides lacks the information processing capabilities due to low intellectual level, not listening carefully or something else, communication tends to be complex rather than simplified.

  17. Roneil says:

    Seems very smilar to a question Tim Ferriss asks on hhis podcast. Hope that guess is correct.

  18. Autumn says:

    Cal,
    I liked what you said about how less communication can sometimes be more. I agree that it just depends on how well you communicate, what you are trying to communicate, that makes the difference. I also feel like even though communication is now faster with more advanced technology, there is still a large need for face to face communication to help communicate a message between two people because we share expressions and intonations in our voices that can only really be understood face to face. So body language helps to better communicate a message as well. Just the hard part is learning how to effectively communicate.

  19. Misha says:

    Undoubtedly, one cannot avoid communication within organization – as you cannot avoid it in a distributed system.

    The point here though is to realize that in both human business organization and computer distributed system communication is a means to an end – productivity [performance].

    And since the peak productivity [performance] is achieved in Deep Work state [100% processor load], the system needs to be designed to give priority the state of Deep Work, and not the “online” status.

    IMHO, very similar to the challenge of being maker AND manager

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