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Why You Should Care About Communication Architecture

In its essence, a company is a group of people making a set of decisions. What product or services should we offer? Who should we market to? Should we hire more people? Communication is the lifeblood that enables these decisions.
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What do the games telephone, charades, and balderdash have to do with company communication? Hopefully nothing! But for many employees, figuring out what's happening in a company, and how they can help, is like playing one of these games, or even worse, being part of an Abbott & Costello skit. Who's on first anyways?

In its essence, a company is a group of people making a set of decisions. What product or services should we offer? Who should we market to? Should we hire more people? Communication is the lifeblood that enables these decisions.

But many organizations stumble when trying to balance two aspects of decision-making: speed vs. quality. The most effective organizations make decisions quickly. But it can't be all about speed; you also have to make the right decisions. And arriving at the very best decision often requires thoughtfulness, discussion, and collaboration - which can slow things down.

So, how do you find the right balance? I believe that it starts with your communication architecture.

What is a communication architecture?

Communication architecture defines the frequency and fidelity of information flow between individuals in your organization. It helps structure how and when you communicate, both within a team and cross-functionally. Having a well-understood communication architecture can help you diagnose trouble spots, so you're always iterating and improving.

For example, does your engineering team understand your customers' problems so they can build the right solution? If not, perhaps there's a breakdown in communication between your sales and engineering teams. Perhaps a monthly meeting between the teams, an email, or some other medium will help. Three months in, does a new hire understand the company's mission and where it's going? If not, perhaps your onboarding process could use some work. The specific tactics are unique to each organization, but it requires proactive thought and investment.

Getting started

Creating a communication architecture starts with understanding your company's current goals and people. Are you an early-stage startup in a rapidly changing environment with competitors breathing down your neck? Or do you already have a solid foundation, product, and team, and are now focusing on adding structure and scaling?

Answering these question will help you determine the ideal position for your company when it comes to balancing speed of decision-making and tolerance for mistakes. No doubt, this ideal position will shift over time. The early-stage startup that biases to make speedy decisions (and is fairly forgiving of mistakes) may mature into a more careful company that doesn't feel the same sense of urgency.

Finding what works

With the disclaimer that it really is different for every organization, I'll share some of the investments that we've made in our current communication architecture. As a scaling company that strives to maintain the urgency of an early stage startup, I believe that it's critical to keep every employee "in the know" as much as possible, without being overwhelming. This empowers them to make the best decisions for the company in their day-to-day work.

That means being as transparent and open as possible, having regular all-hands meetings where we share presentations from board meetings (sans confidential information like employee compensation). Every new hire has a 20-minute "get-to-know" meeting with every other employee in the company in their first month, to help build new relationships and establish communication channels. It's more natural to talk to someone in the hallway when you've already met - and we've seen these organic conversations spark critical changes for the business.

We also recognize that each person is unique and has their own communication style. Some folks love speaking up at a company all- hands meeting, while others prefer to submit feedback anonymously. Ensure that you've set up infrastructure to support a variety of communication styles, and be mindful of when you're imposing your own preferences.

It's all about balance

However, we also have to be mindful of information overload and understand the ideal scope for information sharing. So, how do we avoid falling into the abyss of over-communication, which can end in stagnation? By keeping a close eye on our immediate goals, so we can accelerate or decelerate decision making accordingly.

For example, when we're moving fast toward a small, well-defined goal, company communication is primarily unidirectional, minimizing the need for organization-wide feedback and debate. Conversely, when working on a big longer-term initiative, open up feedback and debate to the entire organization.

Don't get me wrong; regardless of our company goals, I still ask for feedback. It's just that we don't necessarily act on it in the moment. It's kind of like agile software development; we keep a backlog of feedback that we may use to update our decision in the future.

Conclusion

We've learned a lot about what works for our particular company and culture, and we've evolved our communication architecture accordingly - and it will continue to evolve. While a communication architecture provides a valuable foundation, it needs to be continually updated and refined to suit your organization's current needs. After all, perfection is a myth - but we all want to get as close as possible.