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Leadership & Effective Communication - Panel Discussion

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Key Takeaways

  • Choose communication channels strategically: match the medium to the message based on context, relationship, complexity, and emotional weight.
  • Streamline decision-making: clarify who is involved and how conclusions are reached. Loop in stakeholders without creating bureaucracy.
  • Implement AI thoughtfully: intelligently augment workflows rather than forcing change overnight.
  • Listen and adapt: regularly gather feedback, embrace new tools, and meet evolving team needs.
  • Balance high-tech with high-touch: technology can enhance but should not replace human communication.

Introduction

Effective communication is more critical than ever in today's increasingly distributed and technology-driven workplaces. For that reason, InfoQ spoke with the following people to learn more about how they adapt their communication strategies for the future of work:

  • Patricia Kong, Product Owner, Enterprise Agility and Learning Enablement, at Scrum.org
  • Adam Schirmacher, Staff Engineer at Gusto
  • Jesse McGinnis, Senior Development Manager at Shopify
  • James Stanier, Director of Engineering at Shopify

InfoQ: What factors do you consider when deciding if communications need to be handled in-person, via videoconferencing, via Slack/Teams, or through some other form?

Patricia Kong: In today’s day and age, where we are so accessible to one another, I want to be considerate in my communication. At my company, we tend to ping each other on Slack first. For me, if there is a vacation icon, I may jump to email. If there is a meeting icon, I wait, because I don’t want to derail or distract someone from their train of thought. I’ve read from a UC Irvine study that it takes around 20 minutes to get back on track after being interrupted from a task.

When conversations need more depth or could be confusing via written text, we use videoconferencing. That being said, I’m not always a fan of having video cameras always on. Some people can’t have their cameras on because of accessibility issues. In addition, it can be fatiguing and distracting to always be on camera. I like to brainstorm and collaborate in-person, but our teams and I know we are able to do this just as well virtually.

Many companies today are requiring staff to go back to offices so that they can be together in-person ... to collaborate ... to support their culture. The real reason is more likely to be for monitoring productivity, but the past few years have told us that we can be just as productive if not more so, at home. I believe that working together in-person should be specific and deliberate. And if it’s for the culture, I would hope the organization can describe what that culture is and why being together supports it.

People have their preferences of how they like to interact, so keep it flexible. Flexibility is described as one of the key elements for future workplaces. Employees will thrive when given a reason and flexibility to achieve their work and professional goals.

Adam Schirmacher: I try to default to asynchronous communication and only call a meeting if it's needed.

Some people are "online" processors who can respond and make decisions in real time. Other are "offline" processors who need time to think about it. I try to get reading material, agenda, goals out ahead of time so offline processors have time to think about it.

James Stanier: Shopify is a fully remote company and we're also fairly unique in that we actively discourage meetings unless they're absolutely essential. That means that most of our day-to-day communication happens asynchronously, typically via Slack, although there is a little bit of email as well. We have staff across many different time zones, so asynchronous communication is fairly natural.

However, synchronous meetings are still in place where alternatives don't suffice, such as one-on-one meetings (between managers and their direct reports), and when there is a topic where high-bandwidth, multi-participant communication is the best choice, such as collaboratively exploring ideas and solving conflicts and blockers.

We also do a lot of synchronous pair programming remotely using Tuple. Teams typically also get together IRL ("in real life") a couple of times a year in one of our "ports" (meeting spaces) for tackling key junctures in their projects or roadmaps and for spending time building trust and rapport.

InfoQ: How do you ensure that people are involved in the decision-making, or know about decisions and what actions need to be taken?

Jesse McGinnis: We have pretty strong internal tooling around what's happening, which includes automated reviews at more senior levels, which also often brings in a wider number of external stakeholders when needed. We have intentionally planned teams and project squads. We have multiple spaces for groups to book meetings with senior leaders for working sessions. Project details are all public internally and easy to observe/consume.

James Stanier: In terms of tracking decisions and progress of projects, we have an internal process hosted inside our intranet ("The Vault") called GSD — which stands for Get Sh** Done. It's a lightweight way to track the progress of projects through phases (proposal, prototype, build, and release) and to get sign off when needed from key exec stakeholders. Approval can go all the way up the chain to Tobi (Editor’s note: Shopify’s CEO, Tobias Lütke) if needed. It's all done asynchronously with a decision log audit trail, and we heavily lean on video to capture demos and progress.

Patricia Kong: How to make a decision, whose input is needed, and who makes the final decision are important considerations that are often overlooked in group or team dynamics and cause confusion. What adds to that frustration is when a decision is unclear. Personally, I've been in discussions where I thought a decision had been made and was confused when others were still debating the topic at hand.

Communicating decision rules is vitally important for agile and Scrum Teams. These teams are constantly deciding things like, How do we improve the way we work together? What technologies do we choose to use? What’s the strategy for this product? In some ways, the accountabilities in Scrum give some guidelines, but being aware of different decision rules certainly helps a team be more efficient, reduce bias, and work together.

In our organization, we use designated Slack channels to communicate decisions and solicit input. The teams’ Scrum Events focus our interactions, and our process requires us to trust whoever is meant to make certain decisions. But we sometimes can get a little lost in that process. So, we use and promote some common decision rules that are inspired by Sam Kaner’s book, The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making.

When choosing a decision rule, be mindful of its strengths and challenges and decide which might work best for you depending on your context. For example, the rule, person-in charge decides without discussion, is useful when something needs to be decided quickly, but because you’re not communicating, getting input or buy-in from others, so it’s better used when it’s a low-impact decision.

If you apply this rule to a higher impact decision, and one person makes a decision for the entire team with no input, they risk others feeling undermined. This reduces a team’s ability to self-manage because it breaks trust, and also kills innovation because there’s no improvement of each other’s ideas.

Adam Schirmacher: I always have a Google doc that captures notes and decisions. I'll share highlights (a couple bullets, usually) on Slack too.

InfoQ: How has your organization’s (or department’s) communications changed (or not changed) with the increase in AI use for getting work done?

Patricia Kong: Our communication has not changed with the increase of AI. But it might. It’s certainly something we’re talking about and exploring.

James Stanier: We have been experimenting with ChatGPT-style chatbots internally that have been trained on our documentation in The Vault. This allows staff to ask questions in natural language and most of the time get succinct answers without having to search (e.g. "Who is responsible for component X?" through to "How does maternity leave work in the UK?").

Jesse McGinnis: Communication hasn't changed too much, though the AI tools make it easier to catch up and get up to speed when you hop into a slack thread or channel. I'm looking forward to automated meeting summaries to help reduce FOMO for folks not being in a meeting (And thus feeling good about opting out of ones they don’t want/need to be in).

InfoQ: What are your top 3 communication tips/essentials that you feel would help engineering teams make the most out of the changes in communications?

Adam Schirmacher: I'm going to keep this to one tip that someone shared with me years ago, and it’s unusually effective: State the goal in plain English and keep it visible the entire time.

For example, if I'm on Zoom, even if we're just discussing something that can be talked about without a visual aid, I will share my screen, with the goal of the meeting in extra-large font. If I'm in a conference room, I'll write the goal on a whiteboard. Simply having it present will naturally steer the conversation toward it.

James Stanier: I'd say that it's important to experiment with new ideas and technology as it comes along, listening to what individuals say they need and trusting them to try it out and report back on how they find it.

Too many companies have a void between what people want (on the ground) and the people with the budget (who have different needs). Additionally, make sure that everyone is regularly surveyed about what works and what doesn't work in the department and react accordingly. Know that given that technology is always changing and improving, so will the needs and asks of people.

Jesse McGinnis: Lean in on async, but also set up tripwires to have a sync chat.

Patricia Kong: There haven’t been changes for us at the moment with the increase of AI. However, 3 essentials to me remain for me:

  1. Be clear and concise. Avoid word salads. No one likes to juggle words around to figure out what someone is trying to say. It’s annoying.
  2. Encourage continuous feedback from those within your organization and with customers and users. This encourages learning. Also, consider that often the best feedback isn’t usually from management.
  3. Be inclusive and purposeful. This allows for different perspectives and better ideas.

InfoQ: If your organization’s culture is less meeting focused, what advice would you give to readers who are interested in moving their culture in that direction?

Patricia Kong: We use Scrum at our organization, so our events are purposeful. That helps us focus. For any meetings we have outside of those we kick off with the desired outcome of the meeting because we’re conscious of everyone’s time. Because of that focus there are a couple of things people might consider in addition, that we have had to balance, and continue to do.

How do we communicate information to everyone? (We use different artifacts that are visible and give brief updates in Slack regularly. We also have quarterly updates and roundtables.) How do we create and maintain camaraderie? (We have periodic short "watercooler" meetings. Sometimes, someone might offer to throw together a virtual trivia happy hour. Formally, we meet virtually quarterly as an organization, and make time to get together in-person, where a top goal is to spend time and get to know one another, as well as work on things together.)  

Adam Schirmacher: Be open and clear that you want fewer meetings and set clear expectations about what it will take from everyone. Namely, that they will need to be seriously engaged in asynchronous communication.

James Stanier: I honestly don't know anyone that truly creates every single day that wants to spend all of their time in meetings. The best engineers want to spend their time writing code. Let them.

For the people that think they should spend all of their time in meetings: why is that? Is it because of a lack of trust? Is it because meetings are seen as a way of looking busy, rather than actually producing tangible work that moves the needle on the organization? (This introspection can cause some pain, and this is good.)

If meetings are the main way that certain individuals receive information, experiment with delivering information in different asynchronous ways (record videos of product demos or produce weekly written updates for progress). With time, you'll wonder why you used to spend so much time faffing about in meetings.

Jesse McGinnis: Be clear about what’s important to you, be clear about the role meetings serve. Set up tripwires and automations to clear meetings from your calendar (they're good! But they tend to stick around longer than they need to). Drive context capture (like written summaries) to help with FOMO.

Conclusion

All leaders emphasized listening to team needs and regularly soliciting feedback on what communication methods work best. Adaptability is key as new technologies continue to emerge. AI shows promise in improving information sharing and reducing meeting overload, but in-person and video connections are still important. Thoughtful communication policies that tap into both human and technological capabilities will allow companies to collaborate seamlessly across distances. 

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