Communication is not Collaboration

Matt Schellhas
4 min readMay 3, 2022
Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

Every so often, I hear a cry. “These teams aren’t working well together! People don’t know what the others are doing!” and I groan (usually to myself), because I know what is coming. Some well-meaning person states the obvious solution: “we need more communication”. Most heads nod, while me and a few others make token objections or simply resign ourselves to the rest of the process. Someone else suggests building a knowledge base, or maybe having a few more status meetings, or recording all of the meetings so that anyone could watch them, or writing more design documents, or maybe even using a wiki. After a little more debate over the implementation details, a few of these become action items for everyone to follow. Management is happy because now these teams will communicate more and everything will be right in the world.

Except it never works.

At best, you get some more informed teams that still don’t work well together. The common case is that people try it out for a month or so, spending a few hours a week on something that most people hate and nobody really benefits from. Then it slowly dies off as one by one people cease seeing value in it. Don’t worry. It will probably come up again in 3–6 months…

The reason it never works is because people are solving the wrong problem. If your teams aren’t working well together, then you have a collaboration problem, not a communication problem. Sometimes, the collaboration problems are simply the growing pains of a scaling organization. Instead of reducing the cognitive load, the organization responds by trying to scale their information exchange. I’ve already written about why that doesn’t work. But with the explosion in remote work, lots of teams are struggling to collaborate effectively for reasons other than too much organizational coupling. They don’t work well with others, and “more communication” doesn’t fix that.

Status meetings and wikis and design documents are all broadcast communications. Sure, they convey information to more people, but they do it in a one-way manner; they do it in a sterile, impersonal manner. It’s all talking at people rather than talking with people. Even with comments and feedback loops, they rarely have any sort of negotiation or compromise. It’s hard to know who has read them, and harder to know what was…

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