Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.25.21 AM
Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.25.21 AM

Despite the proliferation of convenient, easy, fast, and free communication devices and media, communication chaos often reigns in complex organizations. That’s because there’s a terrible mismatch between the content of the messages we’re sending and the type of messaging media we often use. Messages fall along a continuum of urgency—from “The building’s on fire!” to “There are leftover brownies in the break room.” You can’t afford to miss the first one; the second one, not so much. (Okay, I know some people would say that the leftover brownies are just as urgent, but at least in terms of survival, if not gastronomic satisfaction, the fire really is more urgent.) The differing urgencies point us to different communication media. The fire gets a loud alarm and a PA announcement over the loudspeaker, while the brownies get an email. From a lean perspective, urgent messages get sent via a push system—you get the fire alarm when the sender wants you to. (Of course, Toyota’s famous andon cord is a push system—music plays and lights flash when the worker needs help.) Non-urgent messages get sent via a pull system—you retrieve the message from the server when you’re ready.

At least, that’s how communication should work. In practice, however, we’ve gotten out of the habit of using different mediums for different types of messages. Email has become the default mode of communication in most companies irrespective of the message’s urgency. The result is communication chaos. We send urgent messages via email even though we fear they’ll be lost in the mass of non-urgent messages (both important and trivial) —and then to compensate, we follow up with a phone call two minutes later: “Did you get my email...?” Or we send the email and then go to the recipient’s office immediately after: “I just sent you an email, and….” Intuitively, we know that email is a pull system, so we rely on a push system (phone call, face-to-face conversation) as a backup. That’s crazy, but fortunately it’s only a waste of time. What’s worse is when a truly urgent message gets lost in the inbox and we miss the opportunity to respond quickly enough to avert a serious problem.

You might argue that this problem could be avoided by just reviewing messages as they come in. That, after all, is what the email desktop alert does for you. But that argument doesn’t make sense. First, there are plenty of times when you’re not actually at your computer, or you’re talking with someone, so you’ll miss the alert. Second, the cure is worse than the disease: as numerous studies have shown, dealing with interruptions (aka multitasking) is toxic to productivity and work quality. Finally, it just doesn't make sense to review each incoming email when 99% of them are not urgent.

It’s far better to just match the right communication medium for the type of message you’re sending. Why bother searching for a needle in the email haystack when you can just avoid putting the needle in there in the first place?

Here are four steps to take to avoid the information push/pull mismatch:

  1. Identify the communication tools people are already using widely in the organization. (You’re probably using more than you think.)
  2. Choose one or two “push” media for urgent issues. They could use technology (pagers, cell phones) or not (face-to-face meetings, flashing lights).
  3. Conduct an internal discussion about what constitutes an urgent issue and decide upon the appropriate channel to handle it.
  4. Explore different types of “pull” media to reduce email burden—for example, Yammer, Slack, even old-school project boards.

Undoubtedly, there will be mismatches in some of the messages. But establishing a protocol for choosing more appropriate communication media will reduce the frequency of those mismatches, and lead to smoother, faster, and less chaotic communication and cooperation.