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Chapter 10 - Turn your work upside down

How we discovered the 'Pyramid of Communication' that helps us work better as a team

Tradition is overrated

When people start working together as a team or a company, they initially have no clue how to coordinate things. They figure out everything as they go, usually by copying other businesses. They have offices? OK, let’s get an office ourselves. They have many meetings with fancy names like “all-hands,” “status,” “wrap-up”? Let’s just do the same. It must work, right? Suddenly, many of these business practices become tradition. And that’s the problem:

People tend to value “tradition” too much. They say because they’ve been doing it this way for a long time, it must be good. But is it really?

Maybe it was good then. But why not revisit each tradition and check again?

When I started hiring people, I was completely clueless about how to run a company, so I was looking to other businesses, too. However, from the very beginning, I wanted to be free from a physical office, and that eventually put me on a path of questioning every other “traditional business practice” there is. I quickly realized most of them need to be turned completely upside down!

Traditional teamwork starts with meetings

As we discussed in chapter 7, traditionally people are used to having lots of meetings in order to get anything done together. And in between the official project meetings and the unofficial impromptu chats, people try to squeeze in time to do their actual work. This often results in late evenings, overtime work and the frustration of not being able to get any meaningful work done during regular office hours. This is not effective. This should be the other way round.

Put the actual work first

As explained in chapter 4, at Nozbe we value focused work most of all. After all, we hire people to our team to actually do the work, not just to be there for meetings and chats. This is why I protect my team members’ time and give them space to do their actual work.

You should spend most of your time doing focused work. This is your level 1 work. At this level, you communicate through the work that you do.

Depending on your role in the company, you should have time to write, to draw, to outline, to mind map, to do research… and then you can write up all of your work in documents, projects or tasks so that others can see it and help you get it done. Because once you’ve done your chunk of focused work, it’s time for level 2.

Give and get feedback

Being at the feedback stage doesn’t mean you’re ready for a meeting. No way. Most of the feedback we give and get is asynchronous. You do your work, you send it to your team and then you wait for their thoughtful feedback.

You don’t just “make a quick call” to show them your work and get their quick first impression by asking a “what do you think?” question. This is not getting feedback. This is an ambush.

As explained in chapter 5 about writing stuff down and 6 about banning email, it’s perfectly fair to get feedback in the form of a written comment or a series of comments at the other person’s convenience within a reasonable time frame.

This creates the perfect cadence of work for everyone – you’re still able to dedicate time to your focused work, and later you can spend time on other people’s work by reviewing it, analyzing it and truly digesting it in order to be able to give them really good feedback. Only this way can they learn and improve their work.

That’s why good feedback takes time. But it’s worth it. When you have people with different points of view and various levels of expertise, their valuable feedback can improve your work immensely.

Use a quick back-and-forth when needed

Usually we spend most of our time at level 1 (focused work) and level 2 (giving feedback). However, sometimes when you’re about to complete your work, you may need to speed up this cycle – that’s where the quick back-and-forth comes in.

This exchange is still done in a written form. We either use a chat app like Slack or iMessage for this, or we simply exchange quick and short comments in our team task manager Nozbe Teams. This quick interaction helps us get to the finish line faster, yet still preserves a “paper trail” of the written messages. This way, everyone from the team can jump in immediately or they can review how we got to “done” in this particular project at a later time. This is level 3.

Talk it out – when describing it would be too much work

Sometimes just talking is faster when you want to explain the nuance of an idea or demo a feature for someone. Instead of writing a long comment full of explanations, simply show off your work and discuss it in real time. This is our level 4 of team communication.

At Nozbe, when we’re working on a new feature for our product, we work in groups of three: one designer and two programmers. We set the specs in tasks and discuss our progress there, but every now and then, to really understand how everything is progressing, the designer jumps on a short video call with the lead programmer, who simply shares their screen and demos the feature in real time. This allows the designer to see how things are progressing and give some real-time feedback before writing up some more detailed feedback after the call.

Because we respect each other’s time, we first jump on a chat and schedule this call. We avoid interrupting each other by just calling them out of the blue. We want to give the other person time to finish what they are working on.

We also make sure to mention in the chat what we want to talk about and how much time we’d need. Like: “Do you have 10-15 minutes to review the progress on this new Nozbe ‘task me’ feature?”

Once the call happens, we try to keep it short. We make sure we discuss the issue at hand and that’s it. After the call, we usually update the comments of the tasks we discussed by confirming what we agreed on in written form. Again, it’s all about writing stuff down so that people who didn’t participate in our one-on-one can follow what just happened. Then we get back to focused work.

Meet with others – when it’s really necessary

As explained in chapter 7, we schedule regular meetings and hold them when they’re really necessary. When the focused work is done (level 1), the feedback has been given (level 2) and the details are ironed-out (level 3 and 4), it’s time for final discussions. This is our level 5, and this is why our meetings are so effective. The meetings happen only after most of the work is done, when all the data is prepared and it’s just a question of agreeing on things together.

Many of the tasks and projects aren’t discussed in our meetings. We manage to iron them out on levels 1-3 and don’t need to talk about them anymore, as we’ve previously agreed on everything in the comments and have gone on to complete the work.

We call this a “Pyramid of Communication”

Here are the levels of team communication described in this chapter:

  • Level 1 – Focused work or the “deep work” level.
  • Level 2 – Feedback or the “WDYT”1 level.
  • Level 3 – Quick chat or the “direct message” level.
  • Level 4 – One-on-one conversation or the “talk to me” level.
  • Level 5 – Meeting or the “face-to-face” level.

Traditionally in business, most people spend the majority of their time on level 5 in lengthy meetings, then level 4 as they interrupt each other to talk, then level 3 as they try to use chat apps to coordinate everything – and then they rarely have time for either level 2, to give someone a thoughtful piece of feedback, or for level 1, to really take the time to do their good work.

This is why we call it a “Pyramid of Communication” – and we achieve our communication hierarchy by turning things completely upside down!

We spend most of our time in focused work (level 1), but we also dedicate lots of time to thoughtful feedback (level 2) and chat when necessary (level 3). Then, when necessary, we havequick calls with others (level 4), and finally we have our regular weekly meetings (level 5), which are completely optional.

Levels 1-2 are asynchronous while level 3-5 are in real time

The key distinction between the first two levels of the pyramid and the remaining three levels is that the first ones are done completely asynchronously. Basically, everyone does their work in their own time. Both the focused work and the thoughtful feedback happen without any interruption from anyone.

And this is ideally how you should spend most of your day.

More than half of everyone’s time should be spent on levels 1 and 2, while significantly less of it should be spent on levels 3-5. This is why it’s a pyramid and why it’s traditional work turned completely upside down.

The one thing: Check your time on each level of the pyramid

Before you can apply the Pyramid of Communication at your work, categorize each hour of your work as it passes over the next week or two. Was it focused work? Feedback? How much time did you spend chatting, talking or meeting?

In an ideal world, you should be spending most of your time on focused work (level 1), a little less on giving feedback (level 2), much less on chatting (level 3) and as little as possible on talking (levels 4) and taking meetings (level 5).

To read more about this concept of the “Pyramid of Communication” and learn about the apps we use at Nozbe to apply it, check out my free eBook, No Office apps2.

  1. WDYT stands for “What Do You Think?” and we ask this question a lot in our team once we’ve shipped our work. 

  2. Get my free eBook No Office apps in PDF

Next: Chapter 11 - Make smarter decisions

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