Chat and Dense Communication

If you haven’t noticed, communication among teams (distributed or local) is a thing that people care a lot about. For my team, we specifically care about density of quality communication across mediums. We’re an ops team, and being able to broadcast status and information is critically important. As we work, we don’t want to have to re-communicate across mediums, but we still want to make sure the right people hear us and provide feedback.

As our team was searching for ways to accomplish this, we started using the ubiquitous and humble webhook to push information between systems. At first, we simply started pushing Pull Request comments into our Slack channel. This immediately increased our velocity, as we found ourselves seamlessly moving discussions from traditionally asynchronous mediums (Github Pull Requests) to more real time mediums (Slack, In Person).

Eventually, we started adding more sources to chat via Slack integrations. Our project tracking tool was a clear next step, as most of the information we were pouring into it was helpful to others. Team members reacting to status updates with pointers and questions was yet another boost to velocity of information. Including brief comments of intent and even full blown plans gave us a hook for correcting mistakes before they even happened.

Dense Communication - Extremely high signal to noise ratio textual
information that's automatically compiled from different sources and intended to
cross mediums.

The flip side of this was that looking through our chat was like drinking from a firehose. There was an immense amount of fragmented, context-less information flowing at any given time, so much so that it was easy to drown. The uninitiated considered our channel noisy, which is a fair assessment. Those who didn’t have access to the cornucopia of links ubiquitous to our channel had an even harder time trying to make sense of things. Some even believed the noise was distracting.

However, for those of us deep in the shit, we found that we were on the same page more frequently. In person communication became high trust, where one speaker could say the wrong thing and the listener could hear the right thing, thanks largely to shared context. We found ourselves responding to status updates made via integrations with helpful suggestions, requests to clarify, corrections, etc. Proposed plans were reviewed earlier, and noted blocks were busted more quickly. In general, we reacted more, contributed more, and as a result, had better outcomes.

To critics of these practices, we say that team productivity is more important than individual productivity. As humans walk down the streets of New York, there are a million stimuli, some gross, and some deadly. To say that people can’t read and filter a few lines of text is a cop out.

Aug 30th, 2015