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Tuesday 23 February 2016

Draining the meeting bogs and how not to suffer from email overload (part 3)

This is the third in my series of blog posts about how we unknowingly often let our IT determine how we communicate, and what to do about it.

Teams need to communicate at three different speeds: Tomes, Task Tracking and Information Ping-pong. When we don't have the right IT support to for all three, things go wrong.

In this post, I'll talk about team communication Information Ping-Pong.  Information Ping-Pong is that rapid communication that makes your job efficient. You ask the expert a question and you get an answer back immediately because that's their area, and they know all about it.

It's great: you can stay in the flow and get much, much more done. It's the grail of an efficient organisation; using the assembled team of experts to their full.

Unfortunately, what I see in most organisation is that they try to use email for this.

It doesn't work.

Occasionally the expert might respond to you quite quickly, but there can be long delays for no obvious reason to you. You can't see what they are doing -- are they handling a dozen other queries at the same time? And worse: it is just contributing to everyone's over-full inbox.

The only alternative in most organisations is to prepare a list of questions, and call a meeting with the relevant expert. This works better than email, but it's hard to schedule a 5 minute meeting if that's all you need. Often the bottom half of the list of prepared questions don't make sense in the light of the answers to the first half, and the blocked-out time is simply wasted.

The solution which has worked quite well for many organisations is text-chat, but there are four very important requirements for this to work well.

GROUP FIRST Text chats should be sent to virtual rooms; messages shouldn't be directed to an individual. If you are initiating a text-chat to an individual, you are duplicating all the problems of email overload, but also expecting to have priority to interrupt the recipient.

DISTURBED ROLE There needs to be a standard alias (traditionally called "disturbed") for every room. Typically one person gets assigned the "disturbed" role for the day for each team and they will attempt to respond on behalf of the whole team. This leaves the rest of the team free to get on with their work, but still gives the instant-access-to-an-expert that so deeply helps the rest of the organisation. (Large, important teams might need two or more people acting in the disturbed role at a time. )

HISTORY The history of the room should be accessible. This lets non-team members lurk and save on asking the same question that has already been answered three times that day.

BOT-READY Make sure the robots are talking, and plan for them to be listening. If a job is completed, or some event has occurred, or any other "news" can be automatically sent to a room, get a robot integrated into your text chat tool to send it. This saves wasted time for the person performing the "disturbed" role.

Most text chat tools also have "slash" commands or other ways of directing a question or instruction to a robot. These are evolving into tools that understand natural language and will be one of the most significant and disruptive changes to the way we "do business" over the next ten years.

Skype and Lotus Notes don't do a very good job on any of the requirements listed above. Consumer products (such as WhatsApp) are almost perfectly designed to do the opposite of what's required. WeChat (common in China) stands slightly above in that at least it has an API for bots.

The up-and-coming text chat tool is a program called "Slack", although Atlassian's Hipchat is a little more mature and is better integrated with the Atlassian suite of Confluence and Jira.

Unlike most of the tools I've written about in this series, the choice of text chat tool really has to be done at a company level. It is difficult for a team leader or individual contributor to drive the adoption from the grassroots up; generally it's an IT decision about which tool to use, and then a culture change (from top management) to push its usage. Fortunately, these text chat tools are extraordinarily cheap (the most expensive I've seen is $2 per month per user), and most have some kind of free plan that is quite adequate. Also, there's a good chance that a software development group will already be using Hipchat, which means that adoption can grow organically from a starting base.

Outside of a few startups, text-chat is very rare. And also outside of a few startups, everything takes far longer than you expect it to and inter-team communication is painfully slow. It's not a co-incidence. We think this mess is normal, but it's just driven by the software we use to intermediate our communications.

The next post in the series will hopefully be next Tuesday.

I'm hoping to put this (and many other thoughts) together in a book (current working title: "Bimodal, Trimodal, Devops and Tossing it over the Fence: a better practices guide to supporting software") -- sign up for updates about the book here:

If you like this series -- and care about making organisations run better with better tools -- you'll probably find my automated estimator of effort and duration very interesting.

Greg Baker ( a consultant, author, developer and start-up advisor. His recent projects include a plug-in for Jira Service Desk which lets helpdesk staff tell their users how long a task will take and a wet-weather information system for school sports.

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