Cut Communication Overhead

By: Bryan Ochalla

Are you spending more time talking about work than working? These tips may help.

"As an organization grows, every individual in it must spend a greater percentage of their available time communicating enough with others just to stay on the same page, leaving less time for actual productive work."

So wrote author Josh Kaufman at his Personal MBA blog, calling this issue "communication overhead."

You won't hear consultant D. Mark Schumann, ABC, chair of the San Francisco-based International Association of Business Communicators, arguing against that suggestion.

"There was a time when you simply picked up the phone and called someone" to deal with an issue or solve a problem, "because you were so limited in the ways you could reach people," Schumann says. "Today, there are so many ways to reach people that I think we spend more time arranging how we communicate than we do actually communicating. Instead of picking up the phone, we send an email to arrange when to have the call."

According to Schumann, a former client was so concerned about communication overhead that he got rid of the BlackBerry devices at his small company. "He told his employees, ‘I don't need to hear from you at midnight and you don't need to hear from me at midnight, either, but as long as we have these we'll feel we have to.'"

Schumann, who sees email as the main culprit behind communication overhead, has his own way of dealing with the situation, which he calls his "three-email rule":

  • You should only exchange three emails with anybody on a single topic, and if you haven't resolved it after three emails you should have an actual conversation.
  • You should only copy three people on any email, and if you need to copy more you should have a meeting.
  • If someone is less than three feet, or three floors, away from you (if you're in the same office), or three hours away from you (if you're not in the same office), you should talk with them in person or call them.

"It's all about asking yourself: Is this the most effective way to get something done, make my point, or put something on record? It certainly may be the most expedient, but it may not be the most effective," Schumann says.

"When you receive an email," he adds, "if there's any opportunity to respond using a different medium, do it."

Bryan Ochalla is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Email: [email protected]