Hurry Slowly: communication and trust are key to successful organisations

Image CC0 José Martín Ramírez C

I’m re-reading Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina at the moment, which has one of the most famous opening lines in literature:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As a consultant who works with a range of organisations in different sectors, I see the same thing in terms of organisational effectiveness. The two things that make organisations awesome, whether they’re for-profit, non-profit, co-ops, or something else are:

  1. Communication
  2. Trust

Without these two, organisations have to have a lot of something else to get things done. That can be money, it can be time, or it can be talent. But the quickest and easiest route to success is paved with good internal and external communication strategies, and trust between stakeholders.

This brings me to the first episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s podcast Hurry Slowly, featuring Basecamp CEO Jason Fried. I’m a big fan both of Jocelyn’s newsletter and the Basecamp’s Signal v. Noise blog, so I’ve been looking forward to the launch of this new podcast! It didn’t disappoint, and I recommend you listen to it in its entirety.

Fried touches on a number of points, backing up my theory around communication and trust being central to successful organisations. He points to manifestations of this such as the problem of ‘workplace chat’ tools, working beyond 40 hours per week, and having complete control over your own calendar.

To be specific, the kinds of things I see in great organisations are things like:

  • Discrete channels for specific kinds of conversation.
  • A process for making decisions without having to have a meeting (or several!)
  • Employees blocking out hours at a time for ‘deep work’.
  • No (or very few) emails and notifications outside of normal working hours.
  • People volunteering for work and covering each other, rather than having to have it assigned to them.

In contrast, and to return to the Tolstoy quotation above, disorganised, problematic organisations are all different. However, in How F*cked Up Is Your Management?: An uncomfortable conversation about modern leadership, Johnathan Nightingale outlines a test he has to ‘out’ problematic business practices. The book is based on a blog, so the post pertaining to the first chapter can be found here.

Nightingale (who was in charge of Firefox while I was at Mozilla) has a list. It’s more tech company-specific than mine would be, but it illustrates issues similar to those I would highlight. He says you should score one “My management culture is f*cked up” point for each of the following:

  • We have an unlimited vacation policy
  • We don’t do regular 1:1s, but we have open office hours/are super available if anyone wants to chat
  • We don’t have a process for interviewing, we just hire awesome people when we meet them
  • We super care about diversity, but we don’t want to lower the bar so we just hire the best person for the job even if it means diversity suffers
  • We don’t have defined levels and career paths for our employees, we’re a really flat org
  • We don’t have formal managers for every staff member, everyone just gets their work done
  • We don’t have, like, HR HR, but our recruiter/office manager/only female employee is super good if you want someone to talk to
  • We don’t do performance improvement plans for employees that are struggling. We just have a super honest conversation about how they aren’t a good fit and fire them
  • We would have some hard explaining to do if our salary list accidentally became public

Later in the same post/chapter, Nightingale makes a really important point about management and leadership. Everyone wants to innovate around it, he says, but just as you shouldn’t ‘roll your own’ cryptography, so you should go with an existing management approach:

“I don’t need you to be the best in the world at management. But if you’re not planning to be, if you’re not going to be really studious and dedicated to it, then for god’s sake stop messing with it. I promise you can’t build a better management system in your spare time.”

In other words, get your processes right, and good things follow. And the key to getting your processes right? Communication and trust.

Image CC0 José Martín Ramírez C