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.
5 thoughts on “When Slower Communication Enables Faster Growth”
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!
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.