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Team Uncommunication

The art of silence

Last year, my friends and I spent a few days by a lake on Vancouver Island. The house we were renting came with two canoes and, naturally, one of my friends and I ended up paddling one. Being quite new to canoes, we were at first struggling to keep the thing straight and move swiftly.

structure of a canoe

Canoe, picture by

Why? Because we tried to communicate it wrong. We started off by giving each other infrequent commands and doing what felt right. Net result? We were almost spinning around. Then we decided to go for the “leadership model” where the one on the stern seat ("stroke") orchestrates. That was a little better, but it was still frustrating as hell.

What helped us and ultimately brought joy to the experience was a simple idea of a steering agreement. As opposed to a kayak paddle, a canoe paddle only allows you to paddle on one side at a time. We decided to always paddle on opposites sides (duh!) and whenever either of us was overpaddling, the other person was having a little break. After a few minutes, we were going in a straight line, having a lot of fun and we didn’t need to communicate our paddling at all!

Why do I still remember this little story? One of the reasons is because it is so illustrative to the whole "team communication" debate. Over years, I’ve seen different teams communicate in different ways. The root of the problem seems to be in the wrong choice of word ("communication"). Many of us have simply assumed that this is about talking.

But is that a right way to think about it? There is a lot of artifacts brought to us by this concept. Morning standup meetings with recital of what can be easily extracted from a well organized scrum board. Relying on in-person communications and, as a result, building a no remote people allowed culture that often leads to poor documenting efforts. Leadership struggles. Picking the right tool for chatting.

What if instead of relying on constant talking, we focus on defining easy to follow game rules and using technology to facilitate this? Imagine the joy of being able to stay uninterrupted when you need that most. Imagine the ability to hire outside of a 50 miles radius. Imagine being able to let new hires onboard themselves. Imagine shipping ahead of the schedule (ok, I might have made that one up :).

Establishing this will not be easy and it will require some ongoing maintenance, but the net benefit will be seriously outweighing the expenditures. For the moment, I am deliberately not going to make any practical suggestions on what to do to achieve the zen of team uncommunication. I want this concept to continue roaming free of constraints for a little while so that we can be as creative and critical as possible. I choose to stay inquisitive about enabling teamwork the right way. I choose to stay a newbie.