(Photo by Johannes Plenio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/spider-web-with-drops-of-water-1477835/)
I’ve always tried to have some basic guidelines around communications to keep myself from straying from the purpose of the conversation. I’ve had a long-standing guideline for how long to wait for someone that is late to a meeting: 3 minutes for non-critical participants; 5 minutes for colleagues who should know better; 10 minutes for people in senior roles that have too many meetings; 15 minutes for executives and customers. After 15 minutes I write it off as a break in an otherwise hectic day and move on to other tasks.
Recently there was a long-running thread of comments in a Jira story between two colleagues that occurred while I was on PTO. Catching up on things, I ran across it and, as someone outside the conversation, identified that the length of the discussion was because there were different core understandings of the story that neither was aware the other had. Because it had gone on so long, it took longer to come to consensus in the meetings that followed that comment thread.
This is not the first time I have run across such diverging threads, and I am sure you have seen as many or more. I once worked with a very good Project Manager who had a rule that if the thread went more the two responses it was time for a phone call or meeting. As a developer-turned-architect, most of my work is with people that would rather go to the dentist than a meeting. As senior director, I know that both are annoying when unnecessary and you always feel better afterwards when useful (though not always immediately).
I’m will probably revise these in the future, but for now, here is the guideline am adopting and recommending around written threads (IMs, DMs, texts, or comment sections):
One message is a question
Two messages is a conversation
Three messages is an asynchronous meeting
Four messages probably needs a meeting to complete
For the sake of this discussion, let’s consider a meeting of any type of verbal exchange over written, i.e., treating phone, video, and in-person equally (because otherwise we are off on a different topic, and I do that easily enough without help).
Like any guideline, these are not absolutes. For a silly-yet-accurate example, consider “can we talk?” as the first message. In general, that should go straight to meeting. But sometimes the recipient is busy (maybe even in another conversation) and some discussion is required to conclude a time an channel. Another example is when assisting someone with a task where the understand the basics and need help with some advanced or nuanced aspects. Such a thread could go on for dozens of exchanges and be the right way to communicate asynchronously as both parties work on other things in between. In the same context but a different circumstance the thread may be inefficient, and meeting should be called after the first question. So, no absolutes, just some guidelines to think about when you find yourself in an extended written exchange online.
What’s your approach? Yes, I’m now encouraging a thread that is longer than four messages and no meeting 🙂
© Scott S. Nelson