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How Basecamp, Netflix and Amazon think about communication

Should I swing by my colleague’s desk, or just send a Slack DM? Does this require a meeting? Should I document the outcome of this meeting? Well, it depends…

Communicating wasn’t always this hard

Most of the time when we communicate in business, we don’t plan how we’re going to make that communication, or what we’re trying to get from it.

It’s really not our fault — human-to-human communication is so deeply ingrained into our being. And for 99.9999% of our existence on this small blue planet, there hasn’t been much change in the way we communicate.

This may be the root of the problem. Here in 2018, we’ve seen an exponential increase in both the frequency of communication with other people and the methods available for doing so. Thinking about the how and why of communication has never been so important.

In a business context, we communicate to:

  • Make a decision
  • Gather input or context
  • Inform others
  • Learn
  • Socialize

(note that I’m only including internal communication here)

The choices we have to make in terms of how we communicate are somewhat overwhelming.

Synchronous channels:

  • In-person
  • Voice call

Asynchronous channels:

  • Slack (or other team chat apps)
  • Email
  • Google Docs
  • SMS (or other mobile messaging apps)
  • Documentation

Some channels are better for one-to-one communication, while others are suited for one-to-many. Synchronous communication can be disruptive for the receiver, but asynchronous can be hard to manage at scale.

Making decisions: the heartbeat of every business

Decision making is how businesses move forward. For startups especially, the speed at which decisions made and acted upon is critical — this should be considered a core competency of your company.

However, there’s more than one approach to the communication around decision making in business. Here are three examples of how things get done in successful businesses today:

1. The meeting culture

(or the anti-meeting culture)

Does this image send shivers down your spine?

In the startup world, hating on meetings is usually a default position. It’s worth noting that when meetings are on the receiving end of people’s hatred, it’s usually because the meetings they’ve been exposed to have been at best inefficient, and at worst pointless — an artifact of middle management bureaucracy in large corporations.

Basecamp is a company that has delcared all-out war on meetings:

“Meetings are one of the worst kinds of workplace interruptions. They’re held too frequently, run too long, and involve more people than necessary. You may have gathered that we really dislike meetings at Basecamp.”

Wailin Wong, Basecamp

To an extent this makes a lot of sense. There are no doubt countless hours wasted in the minutiae around meetings — especially those that are designed to serve as status updates, as Founder Jason Fried suggests in his post Status meetings are the scourge:

“In theory, telling everyone something in person at the same time may feel efficient, but in practice it’s just the opposite. You’re making everyone be present, which means they can’t be doing something else more valuable. You are pulling people away from their work not to work.”

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp

Jason suggests replacing this kind of meeting with writing up status reports (in their Basecamp product, naturally) so that people can absorb the information in their own time.

I largely agree that status meetings should have no place in a company’s culture. But when it comes to critical decision making or problem solving, I also believe there’s still no substitute for a well-structured face-to-face meeting. There are many cases where written communication just misses many of the finer points of discussion, and when operated efficiently, they can bring your team to a resolution or decision in a far shorter elapsed time than email or instant messaging.

Perhaps it’s time to declare war on badly planned, poorly executed meetings — rather than meetings themselves?

Advantages:

  • Face-to-face communication captures nuances, feelings and subtleties that text just can’t
  • We can hold discussion faster in-person than through written forms
  • Can be more motivating, bringing a higher sense of collaboration

Disadvantages:

  • Can be a huge time waste if not run efficiently
  • Can be used as a false signal of productivity
  • Complex and time consuming to document effectively
  • Scheduling can be tough for remote teams

The memo culture

Netflix is well known for having a memo culture — in fact, the company’s public culture document talks about the decision-making process:

“Small decisions may be shared just by email, larger ones will merit a memo with discussion of the various positions, and why the captain made such a decision. The bigger a decision, the more extensive the dissent/assent gathering should be, usually in an open shared document.”

The Netflix company culture memo

In the case of Netflix, the purpose of such a memo culture seems to be aligned around speeding up decision making and avoiding costly meetings. This is even more relevant for companies with a large number of remote employees in multiple timezones.

When successfully deployed, a memo-based company culture can unlock high-speed asynchronous decision making. But it can also overwhelm your team with written artifacts.

Advantages:

  • Each decision is naturally documented and made available to stakeholders
  • Creating a well-written summary requires excellent comprehension and knowledge from the presenter
  • Asynchronous — no need to get people in a room (or on a call) at the same time to make decisions
  • Encourages innovative ideas, reduces barrier to proposing change

Disadvantages:

  • Some nuances of decision making just don’t translate to written communication (i.e. no real substitute for face-to-face)
  • Needs careful structuring to scale (volume of memos can become hard to consume or process)
  • Written memos can be leaked (e.g. most recent PR disasters from inside Facebook have originated from leaked memos)

A hybrid approach

Amazon has one of the most interesting approaches to decision making and meetings. Think of it as a sort of memo-driven meeting culture. CEO Jeff Bezos has publicly discussed how the company has banned the use of slide decks in meetings, and instead asks employees to bring a six-page narrative memo for execs to read at the beginning of the meeting.

“The reason writing a ‘good’ four page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what.”

Jeff Bezos in a 2004 company email

Advantages:

  • Employees are forced to put a great deal of thought into their ideas
  • Ensures that every stakeholder is able to absorb the required information and is on the same page
  • The process is well defined and clear

Disadvantages:

  • A single memo can take weeks and hours of work to produce
  • Rigidity in the process might not allow for true out-of-the-box thinking
  • All of the scheduling and timezone issues that come with in-person meetings

Choosing the right communication method: Questions to ask

Asking some of the following questions can help you decide how you’re going to communicate with others in your business, and what you’re actually trying to achieve.

Do I need to gather input from multiple people?

Are you making a decision that requires the input of different colleagues? This may affect your method of communication.

Are we making a decision that impacts others?

Will other people need to know about the results of this communication and any decisions that are made? How important is it that the right people are made aware of the outcome?

Is this communication generating knowledge that would be useful to others?

Is it likely that this communication would get repeated among other colleagues without the knowledge? Should the information be widely absorbed across the company?

Is this communication time-bound or evergreen?

Are you communicating about an event or an issue such that the communication is no longer relevant after a certain point?

What’s the level of urgency?

Is the clock ticking on some form of negative timeline? What’s the potential impact of not addressing the communication soon enough?

How can I reduce the steps in this interaction?

If you’re presenting a problem, does the recipient have all the context they need? Do you already have some suggested solutions? (hint: it’s much better if you do!)

Any approach beats no approach

So what are the lessons here? I think just having an approach is a huge leap from where most growing businesses are today. Want to stick with good old fashioned meetings? That’s fine, but why not think about enforcing some best practice around scheduling and running meetings?

The way that businesses communicate and make decisions is an integral part of company culture. It’s not something that can be easily changed, but if left unchecked, bad practices can easily spread throughout the organization.

How much time does your company waste with that whole-team fist bump at the end of each meeting? It adds up.

Next up, I’ll be sharing some best practices for communication here at ChartMogul — something we’re working hard to get right, and safeguard the productivity of the whole team.

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