I spent a big part of last weekend with my Whisky Syndicate in our annual meeting. Its really not as much of a whisky syndicate as it is a group of business people keeping in touch and sharing views, interests, a healthy sense of humor, and the latest challenges in their respective fields.
One topic of discussion on Saturday was about communication in big organizations and what's it like in many companies currently. People complain that there isn't enough communication and not enough openness. It is as if they would want managers to report to them daily on what they have been spending their time on. And in those organizations that have gone a bit into this the reaction has been that "why there is little to tell? Are you hiding something?" which is interesting. People seem to assume that if they are being told 3 things then there must be at least 8 things that they are not being told about. There seems to be plenty of demands for pretty one-sided transparency and full rapport, which doesn't really work that well, as the big organizations have noticed.
Startups in many ways are blessed for being able to run a much more direct and simple communications. The lower number of people and the often entirely shared physical space makes it a lot more effective and straightforward. Check my previous entry on Agile Management for some ideas:
In startups you can get rid of most of the communication problems by things like:
1. Share stuff on various places; Google Docs, Basecamp, Shared network disk etc. Keep it up to date.
2. Have a wiki for something that's being edited often and edited by many.
3. Have everybody on Google Calendar or similar, and get them to share their cals as a mandatory thing. Makes it easy to check which customers are our sales guys meeting next week for example.
4. Have the dev team's calendars in there too, to check when things like sprint planning and retros etc take place.
5. Use the whiteboards and post-its. They really convey information more effectively than any online system would. As long as you all share the same space and use them as tools daily.
6. Keep meetings open: everybody is welcomed to attend, team members are the ones conducting the meeting and doing the talking, but everyone can observe silently.
7. Remind people not to divert from reaching after their goals and objectives. They can listen on to other stuff as much as they like, just as long as it doesn't hurt reaching the objectives they should be going for.
When ever anybody "whines" about communications ask them to be very specific: name 5 things or topics, how would they like to hear about those? From whom? etc. It usually turns out that an agile management process would take care of pretty much all communication needs.
Processes like Scrum are more of a communication processes than actual development/engineering processes. They can be quite successfully applied in generic communications as well.
What should the big corps do then? Many of the problems seem to come from the attitudes of people and their old fashioned fixed ways, resistance to change etc. I'm sure there's a ton of stuff to "educate" to any big corp. employees before they can communicate effectively. However making it a part of their score cards makes it a priority rather quick and directs people towards communicating better - and who knows, maybe even to adapting Agile processes for it.
What has worked for you? Why? Do you have any disaster examples on how not to do it? I would be interested to get a few comments on this, and perhaps later go deeper into examining good startup communication processes.