The Dangers of Working Out Loud

Is too much information making us over-reliant on each other and destroying autonomous decision-making? As more and more of us rely on online tools to check in with our colleagues, unexpected challenges are starting to emerge.

Communication underpins all teamwork. The exchange of ideas, information and progress between team members helps people understand how their work affects others and where (or whom) to go for help when they need it.

At the same time, informal communication helps us take care of our social needs and understand other people’s values and motivations.

Indeed, Sandy Pentland and his team at MIT concluded a few years ago that around 30% of a team’s variation in performance can be attributed to the patterns of face-face communication within the team and with other teams. The important “bit” here are the patterns, who is talking to whom, not the content.

It’s difficult enough to foster high-quality communication when team members share the same physical space (when they are collocated). I have a friend who wanted to organise a teambuilding day with me because “nobody talks to each other in the office, everyone just stares at their screen”. (Whether a one-off session would be the answer to this is quite another matter, but the point is, the problem was obvious.)

Aaaaah! I Can't See You!

When we begin to work in a virtual or partly remote fashion, one of our fears is that our communication with team members will be sparse, that we won’t know what everyone is working on, that we will loose the human connection.

The solution that myself and other “virtual experts” offer is to narrate your work, to work out loud. And so, we go onto our collaboration platforms every day (be it Yammer, Slack, BaseCamp, Trello, Skype for Business, Redbooth, and any others that might pop up in the next few years) and have visible conversations with team members, so that we don’t fear losing all the bits of information we would overhear in the office. We hyper-communicate for fear of under-communicating and to make sure we don’t loose that sense of “team”.

All the time.

And that includes you, the manager.
Now you can see the conversations people have about a task.
You can read every small request for information or help.
You can watch people struggle through their process – a struggle that is essential to them as they figure out how to innovate.

And all the while, because we’re trying to move away from the dysfunctional hierarchical structures we all love to hate, you’re trying not to interfere. You’re reminding yourself that team members like autonomy, that you don’t have all the answers, that you’re just creating the environment within which they can thrive.

And yet.


Look at all the information you have about their work progress – there, online, for you to look at 24 hours a day.

Is Giving Up Control Becoming Increasingly Difficult?

In what has become one of my favourite books, Team of Teams, (thanks, Lisette, for the recommendation!) General Stanley McChrystal advocates for flatter, networked organisations and more autonomous decision making. What I really enjoyed in the book is the use of historical examples of military commanders who were much less of a control freak than many leaders we might think of today.

As an example between 1860s Navy commander Commodore Perry (who was separated from his fleet by large amounts of water) and an Army official Ulysses S. Grant, who could get his message to his men relatively fast, the author explains:

“The inability to communicate with a far-off fleet demanded that Perry be given levels of autonomy he would never have realised as a commander of land forces.”

Fast forwards to today when organisational leaders and managers (and actually, all of us) have so much access to what others are doing:

“When they can SEE what’s going on, leaders understandably want to CONTROL what’s going on.”


It’s a difficult one.

One of our biggest fears is that managers and others in charge of teams struggle with feeling like they have less control over what people are doing when they’re not in the office with them. So, as we try not to feed that fear by regularly sharing our progress and even our thought process, are we just feeding the control-beast?


How Much Information is Too Much Information?

According to the Work Foundations’s Working Anywhere report, in the UK, we are at a tipping point, and next year, 50% of us will be working mobile. Adoption of collaboration platforms is only going to increase. They’re not quite “mainstream” yet, but some (ok, Slack, mainly Slack, because everyone jumped on board thinking it was the solution to everything) are already being rejected.

We now know we have the tools to stay in touch and keep track of our progress as a team. We’ve identified the processes that can help us to use the tools effectively and we’re adopting some of the new behaviours for working in this way.
Now it’s time to start asking ourselves, “How much information is too much information?”
“What decisions can I take on my own without having to run them by team members?” [In a collocated space, it’s very difficult to ask EVERYONE, but now, it takes as much effort to send a private message as it takes to post it in a team space.]

“Where is the line between offering help and interfering?”

In the spirit of teamwork and establishing open communication channels, are we slowly approaching a dangerous dependency on others to do our work?
Hopefully not, as long as we continue reviewing how we work together, establishing boundaries and turning off those pesky notifications.

This and other blog posts have been collated into our book on leading remote teams: Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook.