When Slower Communication Enables Faster Growth

The Rule of Five

This morning I listened to Srini Rao interview Sarah Peck. Though most of the interview focuses on Peck’s personal life, toward the end they discuss her work as a business consultant.

During this segment, Peck mentioned an interesting heuristic I hadn’t heard before (I’m paraphrasing here): relying only on unstructured communication — e.g., just give everyone an email address or shared Slack channel and then rock and roll — works fine in organizations with five or less employees, but once you grow larger there is too much communication for people to comfortably keep track of everything just in their heads.

At this size, Peck notes, organizations need to introduce systems to document communication and to support structured decisions. It’s no longer enough to simply let emails and chats fly, and hope everything works out. You need more detailed and careful approaches to how people work.

This transition toward structure, of course, can be painful. Here’s Peck:

“It’s super frustrating for start-ups, because what they’re used to, their history, their knowledge of what it means to be their business is that they can move fast and break things and they can just reach out to anybody, and all of the sudden you add constraints, and it can piss people off.”

But adding constraints to how people communicate and make decisions is absolutely necessary. As Peck summarizes: “You have to move a little slower before you can move fast.”

I was intrigued by this discussion because it underscores something I’ve noticed in my research on effectiveness in an age of digital connectivity. A major (unspoken) defense of a hyperactive hivemind workflow based on constant disruptive messaging is that any other alternative would be inconvenient, and “frustrating,” and probably “piss people off.”

I like Peck’s (implicit) response to this concern: too bad. Valuable work is not always easy to produce.


Speaking of valuable work, my friend Ryan Holiday, who is also, in many ways, my hero (he lives on a quiet ranch with a library-sized collection of books), has a great new book coming out next week titled: Perennial Seller. It’s an inside look at the hard but rewarding task of producing work that stands the test of time. I read a galley copy: I’m 100% on board with Ryan’s thinking on this topic. Check it out.

18 thoughts on “When Slower Communication Enables Faster Growth”

  1. I’m having this problem now. While I appreciate and acknowledge Slack’s purpose (and the purpose of email, too), I find it incredibly overwhelming to keep track of the conversations and tasks that are given to me on the channels. Too many people talking, too many distractions, too many tasks, and as you mentioned, too many constraints.

    I’m nervous that I’ll piss people off if I don’t respond to people or clients right away. But I have to work on projects and get paid for what they hired me to do, right?

    So thanks for the post!

    • My thoughts exactly. I want to excel at customer service and communicate effectively…but now since clients can (and do) get a hold of me constantly throughout the day (sometimes with inquiries not in any way related to future work) it actually becomes distracting to the point that it disrupts the actual tasks that I am being paid for…as well as representing a loss of income instead of a gain, since I spend extra time with unpaid consulting than actually creating work I am paid for. I now set up windows of correspondence. For new clients I respond once a week and try to take 5 minutes or less gauging whether they represent future income, or time wasted.

  2. Even a collaboration of two can require careful documentation. Or even a collaboration of one. If you are carrying out a long series of connected calculations on a complicated data set, you have to think about how to clearly communicate your intentions and methods to your future self.

  3. During my last project with a deadline, email proved an ineffective way to communicate with the people who had the information and decision-making power. I will use a solution Cal recommended in the cited HBR article. I’m going to call them.

  4. Very interesting. So what does this structured/documented organizational communication look like in actionable terms? E.g. How does one set this up? What are the examples of companies/groups doing this well –their system and results? I would love to hear about this if anyone can share.

  5. The solution in getting real LONGTERM VALUE out of work for me – after having processed Cal´s Book “Deep Work” could work like this: CONNECT with people to get INNOVATION, Work FOCUSED alone to get the DEPTH. This is what a Survey by Yahoo found out, that people are finding innovation in Teams at the Company Location, but can work more focused at Homeoffice (or any other great Hermitage).

  6. Talk about heroes… I am working diligently to incorporate your two books by making “little bets” that further my mission and are at the same time increasing my marketability (So Good They Can’t Ignore You) and developing a daily practice (Deep Work) to design and execute these bets. I just received and read Ryan Holiday’s new book as well, and I am using it as a guide for my creative work. Both you and Tim Ferriss inspire me to focus on the important and remove all else. I presently work as an executive is a small bank with 80 employees. To develop a laser focus of accomplishing what is most important, I use Pareto’s Law (80/20), Parkinson’s Law (give myself unreasonably short deadlines) and fear-setting (to make sure my moves are not too bold as to harm my overall mission). I’m heartened that you and Ryan are friends. How I would love (and how I will work to accomplish) becoming a peer of yours, so that I can have conversations with you, Ryan, and Tim!

  7. Communication skill is one of the most important factors for becoming successful in a life. A completely talented person without having any communication skill is of no use, but a person having a good communication skill with less talent will have more chance to gain success in life. Freshers should focus completely on their communication skill to get success in their field.

  8. This is so refreshing to read.

    I work in an industry where it’s customary and expected to respond to emails immediately. I gave this up several years ago, in favor of your deep work approach. What I have found is that

    (a) once people understand why I don’t check email incessantly, they typically get it and
    (b) in cases where problems arise and people have emailed about it, but I haven’t yet responded, often those problems get resolved before I respond. It cuts down on my need to take on the energy of the drama and forces those who think they need my input to find their own solutions, fostering their growth, skills and confidence.

    In my opinion, if it’s truly urgent and truly requires input, then the best approach is a synchronous conversation – i.e, phone or in person – rather than email or other messaging service. By setting that expectation for those around me, I clear space for myself to do my deep work.


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