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The Risks of Passive Communication

This morning Nolan shared a video, in which Jason Fried from talks about communication and interruption in the workplace. You can view it here. Some key points he mentions are using “passive” communication tools such as email and IM to replace the constant interruption of direct interaction, what he calls “active” communication. I’ve been thinking a bit about communication in the workplace, and this video reminded me of some issues that concern me.

Many of the methodologies Fried describes are similar to what we’ve incubated at Newfangled. We communicate primarily via email, instant messenger, and  project management software. The goal of providing the largest amount of uninterrupted time, particularly for the development and engineering teams, is something that we take very seriously. In fact, we’ve got a pretty great big-picture resourcing system in place. This is thanks largely to the work of our resourcing team- Chris, Bettina, and Dan.

Beyond this, however, is a level of personal responsibility that no system can replace. When multiple tasks come in demanding immediate attention, how do we respond? I think we’ve all developed ways of dealing with this type of workflow. Nolan’s article on how he deals with email is one great example. Passive communication, as Fried describes, is great for fostering non-intrusive interaction. A critical issue that Nolan alludes to, and that several commenters on Fried’s video point out, is that often “passive” communication has simply become a faster form of “active” communication. Often a response or action is required immediately, and email is just a faster way of initiating that action.

Once this becomes the norm, passive communication can also have a tendency to serve as a crutch. While great for keeping track of a conversation, a ticketing system does not always foster the kind of creative thinking that is necessary to solve a problem. There is really no substitute for discussing things face-to-face, or over the phone. Vague concerns have a way of manifesting and resolving in a way that no ambiguously-worded email could facilitate. Consistently, the benefit of teamwork is lost.

This ties into another point I’ve been thinking about lately. One of the greatest assets that Newfangled has is its employees. The same is true for most agencies. Here, we’re all experts on web development. The greatest service we can provide to our clients is the combined sum of our creativity and knowledge. In his video, Fried called interruption the “enemy of creativity”. This is true. The distinction to make, however, is that without strategic active communication, creativity would be impossible. This is especially true with a team like ours. Furthermore, I have more fun when I feel more personally invested with colleagues on what I’m working on. And that’s the whole point, right?


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