Basecamp Communication Principles, Revisited

1. Communication is unavoidable, and good communication is essential to success…so learn to do it well.

2. Default to asynchronous. Escalate when it’s more efficient, more effective, or less risky.

  1. Asynchronous: text-based, often longer-form, with an expectation of slow response times (hours to days, depending on the message and organization). Email and docs are the canonical examples.
  2. Semi-synchronous: usually text-based, often shorter-form, with an expectation of fast response (seconds to minutes). Slack and other messaging tools are the canonical example.
  3. Synchronous: real time face-to-face, video, or audio.

3. Make decisions deliberately and clearly.

4. Urgency is contagious, toxic, and usually unnecessary.

5. Leave time for questions. Embrace uncomfortable silences.

  • After you say, “Any questions?” at the end of your presentation, count to ten in your head. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but gives your audience long enough to get comfortable asking questions. Consider taking it even a step further and teasing them a bit, e.g., “C’mon, somebody must have a question.”
  • In meetings, create opportunities for quieter people to have their say. Explicitly ask remote participants for their input. Look for folks who are ready to talk but reluctant to interrupt, and call on them.
  • Favor open questions over closed ones. Closed questions let people discharge their answering duties with a yes or no, e.g., “Does this make sense?” Open questions often begin with “what”, e.g., “What do you think of this idea?” Sure, people can still say, “It’s fine I guess,” but they’ll be tempted to say more.
  • Ensure it feels safe to ask a question. When you disagree, approach your response from a place of curiosity rather than judgment — don’t jump down the questioner’s throat. Call others out when they don’t do so.

6. There are good times and bad times to communicate. Find the right time for yourself and your audience.

  1. Don’t send messages outside of work hours — not merely because you’ll pull people back into work, but because of the precedent you’re setting. When you send weekend messages, you’re suggesting to co-workers that maybe they should be working, too. It’s not enough to say, “Don’t worry about this until Monday;” your actions speak louder than your words. Even setting aside questions of work/life balance, your chances of successful communication go down when you’ve just obligated someone to do something they don’t want to do.
  2. Be smart about in-person interruptions. Look at your potential interruptee. What are they doing? What expression is on their face? Does it seem like a good time to interrupt?
  3. Don’t start significant conversations with people who are actively trying to be someplace else. Same idea as #1.

7. Understand your audience to increase your impact.

  1. Seek to understand, then to be understood. (While I believe that’s a quote from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, if you’d like to learn more about what I mean here I highly recommend Difficult Conversations.) You can avoid a lot of argument and misunderstanding if you take the time to comprehend others’ perspectives before pushing forward with your own. You may discover the conversation needs to happen on an entirely different level than you expected.
  2. Be concise.
  3. Don’t be concise at the expense of clarity. A strange thing happens to all of us when we try to our ideas into slide-ready bullet points — perfectly clear, straightforward ideas become jargony and vague. You start with, “Let’s start having a weekly happy hour for the team on Thursdays,” and somehow end up with, “Operationalize regular-cadence social initiative.” (One great way to avoid this is to avoid slide decks when a doc will do the trick.)
  4. Favor numbers over bullet points, so repliers can reference them.

Omitted from My List

  • Writing solidifies, chat dissolves. Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it’s important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don’t chat it down. I don’t disagree with the overall principle here…but after significant time spent in both email- and Slack-heavy organizations, I can tell you that plenty of “writing” happens in Slack, and plenty of one-line-at-a-time jousts happen over email. And, when they’re truly jousts, any writing is the wrong answer: go talk to someone. I identify with Basecamp’s distaste for chat when it’s overused, but it has its place.
  • If you have to repeat yourself, you weren’t clear enough the first time. However, if you’re talking about something brand new, you may have to repeat yourself for years before you’re heard. Pick your repeats wisely. This doesn’t feel specific enough to provide great guidance. To the leaders out there, though, I will note that however much you’re repeating the things you want others to absorb, you can probably repeat them more.
  • Companies don’t have communication problems, they have miscommunication problems. The smaller the company, group, or team, the fewer opportunities for miscommunication. I don’t disagree but it doesn’t feel like a thing that can guide day-to-day behavior.
  • Five people in a room for an hour isn’t a one hour meeting, it’s a five hour meeting. Be mindful of the tradeoffs. It’s pretty common to talk about how expensive a meeting is, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s an oversimplification.
  • Be proactive about “wait, what?” questions by providing factual context and spacial context. Factual are the things people also need to know. Spacial is where the communication happens (for example, if it’s about a specific to-do, discuss it right under the to-do, not somewhere else). I agree! But I wanted to make my list concise and this feels too tactical alongside the others.
  • Communication shouldn’t require schedule synchronization. Calendars have nothing to do with communication. Writing, rather than speaking or meeting, is independent of schedule and far more direct. I disagree on this one. Calendars are absolutely communication tools. And, given how much information is lost in writing vs. a face-to-face conversation, writing is not necessarily more direct.

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Dave Feldman

Dave Feldman

CEO & Founder at Miter—run better meetings at miter.co. Alum of Google, Heap, Facebook, Emu. Product designer, behavioral science enthusiast.