Basecamp Communication Principles, Revisited
Earlier this month, Basecamp published their Guide to Internal Communication, laying out principles for team communication. It’s a great read, especially coming as it does from a company that’s been thinking about collaboration for more than two decades.
They’re not the only ones. Throughout my career, how people communicate has been endlessly fascinating to me. I’ve been drawn to it in product work, from early solo attempts to reinvent email through leadership roles on Yahoo! Messenger, Gmail, Inbox, and Facebook Messenger. And, I think about it constantly as a leader and manager: how to foster the right communication and collaboration to support an effective, healthy, durable team?
Organizational effectiveness rests on the ability of a group of people to do things together. So to build strong organizations, we must build strong, functional relationships — and our communication norms and tools are the substrate of those relationships.
I like a lot of Basecamp’s principles. But I disagree with a few, would love to see others go farther, and wish the list were shorter. So, I revised and evolved them, paring thirty principles down to six and adding my own perspective. In doing so I mean no disrespect for their hard work: I’m standing on their shoulders, and my list is both derived from and inspired by theirs. Think of it as dialogue as much as anything.
1. Communication is unavoidable, and good communication is essential to success…so learn to do it well.
Basecamp’s original: You can not not communicate. Not discussing the elephant in the room is communicating. Few things are as important to study, practice, and perfect as clear communication.
Any organization is all about doing something greater than what we can accomplish individually, so getting communication right is the most important thing we can do to succeed.
When we communicate, content is warped by our biases, emotions, and opinions. That’s unavoidable — there is no attainable state in which we learn to communicate pure content — but they’re not unknowable, and by knowing them we can learn to work with them better. Given how important, nuanced, and difficult good communication can be, it behooves us to invest heavily in learning to do it well.
2. Default to asynchronous. Escalate when it’s more efficient, more effective, or less risky.
Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.
Internal communication based on long-form writing, rather than a verbal tradition of meetings, speaking, and chatting, leads to a welcomed reduction in meetings, video conferences, calls, or other real-time opportunities to interrupt and be interrupted.
Meetings are a last resort, not the first option.
If your words can be perceived in different ways, they’ll be understood in the way which does the most harm.
Speaking only helps who’s in the room, writing helps everyone. This includes people who couldn’t make it, or future employees who join years from now.
Each type of conversation has a time and a place. And by treating “meetings, speaking, and chatting” as a single medium, Basecamp loses sight of some important distinctions. It’s worth considering three modes:
- 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.
- 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.
- Synchronous: real time face-to-face, video, or audio.
Each of these is significantly more interruptive than the last. That’s why async makes a good default: don’t interrupt if it’s not worthwhile.
But not all interruptions are bad. We want to facilitate interruptions when their team benefit outweighs their individual detriment. Further, some interruptions can actually be positive for both interruptor and interruptee.
Async and semi-sync are also often bad for sensitive or difficult topics. When we communicate face-to-face, we do so on multiple levels: tone, emotional state, attitude — all of which are lost in text. (Sorry, emojis aren’t a full replacement.) That makes it easier to misunderstand one another and fall into spirals of argument and anger.
Last but not least, async can be incredibly inefficient when what’s needed is give-and-take. Multiple rounds of time-consuming emails can be short-circuited via 15 minutes in a conference room.
So, make async your default. Consider whether the topic is sensitive enough to warrant a meeting, if it will be faster in person, and whether a more interruptive medium justifies the interruption. Then, make a call. Over the years I’ve developed a gut sense, when I set out to write an email, for when I should stop writing and get up from my desk.
I was tempted to keep Basecamp’s “Meetings are the last resort” as its own thing because it’s so important. Meetings beget meetings beget meetings and before you know it, everyone is having planning meetings to prep for the pre-status meeting to create the agenda for the status meeting so we can ensure we do a great job presenting the status at the team meeting. Even so, the same principles apply: meetings have their place but shouldn’t be the default.
3. Make decisions deliberately and clearly.
Give meaningful discussions a meaningful amount of time to develop and unfold. Rushing to judgement, or demanding immediate responses, only serves to increase the odds of poor decision making.
Poor communication creates more work.
You’re probably familiar with the saying, “Measure twice, cut once.” It’s especially important in a team environment, where the effectiveness of decisions relies not only on their robustness, but also on the extent to which everyone understands them. Rushing a decision, or making it unilaterally, not only risks it being poor quality — it also increases the chances people will reject or misunderstand it, resulting in damage control that’s far more time-consuming than a more inclusive process up front.
But there’s an equivalent pathology at the other end of the spectrum whose saying might be, “Measure twice, not twenty times.” Analysis paralysis is easy to slip into, and it’s toxic. If you are the decision-maker, at some point you have to make and communicate the decision. It’s important to ensure others understand it, and have had their say, but not always feasible for everyone to be in agreement. The damage you’ll do by generating uncertainty can be worse than that done by disagreement. The key is clarity: ensuring everyone knows that the decision has been made, what the decision is, who’s responsible, and what the rationale is.
4. Urgency is contagious, toxic, and usually unnecessary.
Never expect or require someone to get back to you immediately unless it’s a true emergency. The expectation of immediate response is toxic.
“Now” is often the wrong time to say what just popped into your head. It’s better to let it filter it through the sieve of time. What’s left is the part worth saying.
Ask yourself if others will feel compelled to rush their response if you rush your approach.
The end of the day has a way of convincing you what you’ve done is good, but the next morning has a way of telling you the truth. If you aren’t sure, sleep on it before saying it.
Urgency is overrated, ASAP is poison.
Time is on your side, rushing makes conversations worse.
Urgency works against innovation and creativity — these require time, space, and a relaxed mind. All of which can create an unfortunate dynamic when there’s pressure to innovate.
Urgency is contagious: urgency begets urgency and suddenly everyone is trying to do everything yesterday, even when there’s no need.
Urgency can be especially toxic in its interactions with leadership dynamics because the very fact of being a leader imbues everything you say with urgency. Let’s say I report to someone who reports to someone who reports to you, and you stop by my desk with a cool idea. From your perspective we’re having a fun hypothetical conversation; from my perspective, my boss’s boss just asked me to do something that wasn’t on my to-do list and presumably it had better happen fast.
Three of the Basecamp rules drive home another critical point: a little time often makes things better — back to “measure twice, cut once.” Giving conversations the necessary room to breathe ensures they end productively and don’t need to be reopened a week later.
5. Leave time for questions. Embrace uncomfortable silences.
If you want an answer, you have to ask a question. People typically have a lot to say, but they’ll volunteer little. Automatic questions on a regular schedule help people practice sharing, writing, and communicating.
If something’s going to be difficult to hear or share, invite questions at the end. Ending without the invitation will lead to public silence but private conjecture. This is where rumors breed.
Ask if things are clear. Ask what you left out. Ask if there was anything someone was expecting that you didn’t cover. Address the gaps before they widen with time.
Don’t be fooled by that one guy who always speaks up. Everyone else is eerily silent…but that doesn’t mean they don’t have questions. They just need a little push. A few tricks:
- 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.
Write at the right time. Sharing something at 5pm may keep someone at work longer. You may have some spare time on a Sunday afternoon to write something, but putting it out there on Sunday may pull people back into work on the weekends. Early Monday morning communication may be buried by other things. There may not be a perfect time, but there’s certainly a wrong time. Keep that in mind when you hit send.
Great news delivered on the heels of bad news makes both bits worse. The bad news feels like it’s being buried, the good news feels like it’s being injected to change the mood. Be honest with each by giving them adequate space.
Communication often interrupts, so good communication is often about saying the right thing at the right time in the right way with the fewest side effects.
I like all of Basecamp’s points here. A few additions:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
Occasionally pick random words, sentences, or paragraphs and hit delete. Did it matter?
Where you put something, and what you call it, matters. When titling something, lead with the most important information. Keep in mind that many technical systems truncate long text or titles.
Consider where you put things. The right communication in the wrong place might as well not exist at all. When someone relies on search to find something it’s often because it wasn’t where they expected something to be.
Everyone is busy and often stressed. When you communicate, you’re trying to get colleagues’ attention and maybe convince them of something. You can increase your chances of success by understanding and empathizing with your audience.
- 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.
- Be concise.
- 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.)
- Favor numbers over bullet points, so repliers can reference them.
Omitted from My List
A few Basecamp principles that I left out entirely:
- 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.