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A Founder's Guide to Over-Communication

July 12th, 2021

Ask someone the top 10 tips for better remote work and chances are that she will mention overcommunication among the top choices.

Despite the term gaining wide popularity in the distributed work lingo, it's one of the most misjudged and misinterpreted words. Overcommunicating doesn’t mean you’ll be sending more chat messages or tripling down the number of your meetings. It simply means that you will have to double down on what’s important for your team to know.

I generally find overcommunication as a term, too big and not very precise, so I thought I'd answer some of the top questions in this write-up that we at Pulse hear all the time:

  1. What does overcommunication actually mean?
  2. What exactly should one be overcommunicating? And why?
  3. How does one know when they're overcommunicating?
  4. Who should overcommunicate?

Why overcommunication matters – A premise

In any work environment the Performance (P) of an individual is a function of:

  • Skills: How good the person is at the job she was hired for
  • Context: How much data they have to make decisions and correct judgement calls on
  • Time: How long does it take to make the right calls

invidividual-performance

In any physical office, it's easier for individuals to get informational context because peripheral communication happens accidentally. We usually know what our coworkers are doing because we overhear snippets of conversations, we celebrate triumphs, or we see them struggling. Simply by virtue of being in the same place at the same time we increase the chances of spontaneous knowledge transfer.

By contrast, in any remote working environment peripheral communication needs to be intentional and carefully planned.

Without physical proximity there are fewer signals about what's actually going on, and that's exactly when overcommunicating becomes fundamental to how the company operates.

What overcommunication means

Overcommunication means two simple things:

  1. Saying what you've never said, and
  2. repeating what you've already said.

overcommunication-chart

The term implies that you improve your communication along both dimensions.

From one side, increasing the breadth of information that you share with your team; from the other, reinforcing some essential key messages to ensure alignment and increase operational pace.

This process doesn't happen overnight and requires a deliberate and intentional effort, but once initiated it's one of the key leverages to accelerate the transition to high-performing distributed work.

overcommunication-map

What exactly should one be overcommunicating – A distinction

Broadly speaking, we see two types of communications. Borrowing some financials terms, we'll call them:

  1. Capex communications, and
  2. Opex communications

Capex communication

Capex communications are nice-to-know. The value generated by this type of communication grows linearly with how many people consume it. The wider the readership, the higher the extracted value for the organization.

capex-communication

Let's make an example to clarify things a bit.

Pick a common communication topic like internal product releases. Any time there's an upcoming product release, someone on the product team writes an internal release note detailing to the internal teams what's about to go live online for the customers and when the roll-out date is.

The more people from the same company are in the loop, the better they're able to perform, regardless of their job role.

Sales will be better prepared to react to customer objections during demos, Engineers will be better informed about what other teams are shipping to ask better questions, Customer Success will be better equipped to broach new features with existing accounts and respond to customers' inquires, and so on and forth.

The value generated by each internal product release memo is directly proportional to the numbers of readers.

For this reason, high-performing organizations tend to make capex communications extremely transparent and accessible to everyone in the company.

In time, Capex communications create a sort of institutional knowledge, vital both to your present employees and your future one.

Other examples of Capex communication include things like:

  • Customer interviews notes
  • Team-based weekly updates
  • Revenue Updates
  • Key results from growth experiments
  • Daily individual stand-ups
  • Team-based internal reports
  • Etc.

2. Opex Communication

At the opposite side of the spectrum, you have Opex communications. Opex communications are must-known messages.

It's the stuff that people should know, no matter how. The value these communications can generate is limited to the number of recipients to whom the communication is directed.

opex-communications

Let's illustrate this with another example.

Imagine you're the product manager of one of the many product teams in your organization. Any time a team intends to work on areas that might impact others, they have to submit a formal proposal. The proposal has to be reviewed and signed-off by every product owner.

If one product owner fails to sign-off on time, the proposal is stuck. If the proposal is stuck, the team who originally proposed it, gets delayed and operates at a slower rhythm.

Not having all the responses delivered in a timely manner has a direct impact on your own team's operations.

Opex communications can include:

  • New company-wide policies
  • Team-wide internal protocols
  • Cross-functional processes
  • Decision-making requests
  • Budget approval requests
  • General acknowledge requests
  • Etc.

How does one overcommunicate practically?

Most of the time, it depends on the content and the context.

For instance, back to our Capex example, a good approach is to identify first the knowledge gaps by asking the right questions:

  1. Do your people know what the top global priorities for the company are?
  2. How well do you think your people understand who the customer is and what their needs and desires are? Do they ever read customer interviews or research?
  3. How well do you think people throughout the company could describe its business model?
  4. Do your people know what your organization values are?
  5. Is everyone aware of the difficult challenges your company faces right now?
  6. Does everyone understand the narrative behind the latest product that you've built?
  7. How updated are the sales people on the product development lifecycles?
  8. How up to date are your product people on the customer's objections that your sales people hear?
  9. Do you share the same information presented in the earnings call with your people?
  10. Is everyone aware of what's at the top of your mind as the Founder/CEO?
  11. Etc.

In other words, understanding what matters to you and the business, and on what scale people are aware of it.

Focus both on the missing gaps and the reinforcement of what people already know.

Once you’ve identified the lacking spots and developed the storylines, you need to build internal channels to distribute information. Your goal is to keep them highly streamlined by pointing out specific responsible individuals.

You will notice that as your business grows and becomes more complex, Capex communication channels will over-proliferate. That can be an intentionally positive thing as long as individuals are able to keep their signal/noise ratio very high.

To illustrate this, let's go back to our internal product release example. As you can image, being more informed about product release cycles is infinitely more valuable to someone who works in sales or customer success, than it is for for someone who works in the accounting department. For this reason, you need to give everyone a clear way out if they feel they aren't getting too much value from the things they're absorbing.

At Pulse we've solved this for our customers by letting users "Follow" independent Streams. By Following only what they're interested in, they have full control over their own feed and can modify how they absorb information.

pulse-streams

Based on how relevant the information is to them, they can enable additional notifications and even fine-tune how often they receive them.

Pulse isn't the only way to re-create this information firehose for your company. Other companies, like Stripe solved this problem merely through emails distribution lists and a custom-built subscription system layer on top of that.

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For Opex-like communications you want to insist on repetition to minimize your liabilities and maximize internal alignment.

In other words, you can't communicate something that is important once and expect the team to get it.

As David Gergen (an adviser to four different Presidents of both parties, including Reagan and Clinton) wrote:

"History teaches that almost nothing a leader says is heard if spoken only once."

Overcommunication means taking all the necessary extra steps to ensure everyone is on the same page.

People are now more than ever overwhelmed by emails, group chats, video calls, and more. Noise in the workplace has peaked, and as a consequence, the attention threshold is at the minimum.

When you post an important update in your team's group chat, chances are that half of them will miss it the first time. Some were on video calls, others were focused on their work, and – if you're truly distributed – some were just sleeping in the other half of the world.

Even for the people who actually read the message, there's a good portion who might have skimmed it and didn't actually give it the required attention.

What to do? Repeat, repeat, repeat. There's no shortcut to this.

  1. Share it in your asynchronous communication tool (Pulse, email, P2, etc.)
  2. Share a link in your real-time chat tool (Slack, Teams, etc)
  3. Have 1:1 conversations about it to make sure they know about it
  4. Mention it in 1:1 or all-hands meetings, if possible
  5. Follow-up and nudge those who are still missing

At Pulse we've solved this with Requests. Check it out

Pulse Requests are similar to GitHub Pull Requests.

Anytime you need some key stakeholders to review and acknowledge an internal update, you create a new request.

How does one actually know when he's overcommunicating?

Jeff Weiner, former LinkedIn CEO, wrote a simple heuristic to answer the question.

"In order to effectively communicate to an audience, you need to repeat yourself so often that you grow sick of hearing yourself say it, and only then will people begin to internalize the message."

While I love Weiner's definition, I've found that repetition really requires a total change in perspective. As humans, our mind isn't wired for that. Somehow, we fail to realize that when we say things for the 10th time, some of our audience is only hearing it for the first time.

Repetition makes us feel dumb. We're really good at fooling ourselves into thinking that we're repeating things just enough to avoid the discomfort.

So, how do you know you're actually overcommunicating?

You need a systematic way to measure what’s happening. That’s how you close the feedback loop. While it may sound obvious in retrospect, not many companies are measuring how they’re communicating and how well their approach is working.

To understand what’s working and what’s not working, you need to get both:

Qualitative feedback

Collect employee memos to precisely understand how things could be improved. Ask continuous feedback in your 1:1 meetings, and be on the constant look out for knowledge gaps. That's where your opportunities are.

As I wrote in Ops for Effective CEOs, the job is never done:

Whether it’s a new hire that just joined the team, a new team that you just formed, the acquisition of new customers, or a status update on the progress of an internal project, you should always be communicating. Never mistakenly assume that work is getting done. Take the time to ask questions about where the disconnect is, re-align efforts, and ensure everyone is on the same page.

Quantitative feedback

Measure data on how people interact with your messages; how many of them actually read it, how relevant is the information, how often do they check it and why, etc.

Who should exactly overcommunicate?

Overcommunication in a remote environment doesn't happen accidentally. It's the by-product of a serious and intentional effort.

It's something that starts right at the top, from the CEO and the leadership team and, if done well, can percolate to the bottom of the company.

Everyone has an obligation to overcommunicate, regardless of roles or position, but it's the founding team that's ultimately responsible.

Start by consistently informing your people of the top and most important initiatives that are happening across the company. Then create whitespace for others to replicate what you do.

Inform people in the context that matters. Ask them what they think and always request their feedback.

No response? Tell them again, and don't be afraid of repeating yourself.

On the flip side, you should consider asking your team what they are working on and take the opportunity to brag about their accomplishments, too. Point out things you like. Mention folks, and share your opinions and feedback.

It's incredibly hard to have an impact on how a company communicates and operates even when everyone is in the same room. The effort required to make this work in a remote set up goes up considerably.

As the founder, you have to be the person that puts in the effort.

Conclusions

Overcommunication isn't just a tip for improved remote work.

Overcommunication is an actual skill for asynchronous work in distributed companies.

A skill that can you can leverage to make your company more aligned, more productive and, in the end, better performing.

Work hard to learn it. Make it part of the daily routine for yourself, the leaders, and the operators in your company. Ultimately, it only works if it's a team effort. But, I promise, the rewards can be immense.