Chat Trumps Meetings

December 12, 2012 holman

I do a lot of public speaking about our asynchronous workflow at GitHub. Our office is filled with chat rooms, email, and pull requests rather than development meetings and in-person code review.

I think people understand why this may be a better way to work, overall. We can avoid distractions, work from anywhere, and recruit globally.

But I think it goes further than most realize: chat is a better way to communicate.

The Explicit

Text is explicit. By forcing communication through a textual medium, you’re forcing people to better formulate their ideas.

Real-time oral communication has drawbacks. In normal, conversational dialog, most of us know the direction we want to take our argument, but it’s difficult to think about what you’re going to say until a few moments before you say it. This leads to filler words (like um and uh), excess rambling, and lack of clarity in speech.

If you’ve ever wanted to scream at someone get to the damn point already, you know this pain.

Text is the opposite. It takes only a moment to go back and rephrase a sentence before hitting return. The bit of freedom from being a purely synchronous, real-time medium means you can editorialize and clean up your words to better clarify your point.

Focused text is skimmable, quicker to mentally process, and leaves less room for ambiguity of thought.

The Record

Text is also on-record. You should be logging everything that’s said through your company chat so that people working remotely don’t miss out on what was happening in the office. This makes communication in your company searchable and accessible.

We drop into our transcripts every day to gain more context about previous decisions. You don’t get that level of granularity even from meeting minutes: what you think is worth writing down after the meeting may not be what was important from that meeting. The discussion is sometimes more important than the decision.

The High-Level

Brainstorming is the one area of work where this falls flat.

During brainstorming, you don’t want that editorializing step during the moment before you tap return. That split-second hesitance can mean the difference between a multi-million dollar idea and a flop, a clean object model and a mess, a new policy or the same broken policy.

At GitHub, we get together a few times a year in the same physical room with everyone in the company and talk high-level brainstorming. We take notes for posterity, but talking is the best way to stimulate geniusly-dumb ideas.

It’s important to not use this excuse for all work, though: most problems would benefit from a paper and pencil and a room to yourself rather than a large disruptive meeting. Big ideas require big brainstorming, and small ideas just take some self-reflection.

Next time, use your words.