I used to have a Jeep Wrangler. I loved it. When you live in Chicago, a car that loves snow is an easy car to love. The Wrangler has a couple of four-wheel-drive modes. High gear, 4H, is for cruising. You can even shift into it on the fly. But when you need to dig in--if you're stuck, if your wheels are spinning, if you need more traction--you stop and shift to 4L: low gear. Now you're moving again, confidently.
Why am I talking about Jeep transmissions? Because they remind me of something else that needs high and low gears: communication.
Team communication is something I've thought about a lot. At its core, Basecamp, our project-management tool, is all about communication. It's about sending out announcements, discussing ideas, having debates, and keeping decisions and client feedback on the record so it's all available whenever you need it.
Over the past few years, all sorts of communication tools have popped up. The latest trend is team chat. In 2006, we launched a product called Campfire, which ushered in the era of modern, simple, persistent team chat. Since then, newer products have hit the market, such as HipChat, Slack, Flowdock, Google Hangouts, and others.
Group chat is all about high gear: a quick, casual conveyor belt of conversation. You say something, and it's current for a moment. Then more people drop in and speak up. The conversation runs like a ticker tape, with old stuff scrolling away and new stuff front and center. The problem is that when everything's on a conveyor belt, everyone feels the need to toss some words in right now so that the conversation won't go on without them. The fear of missing out is a huge deal, so people often speak up just to be represented. This sort of primary communication leads to knee-jerk reactions, not thorough conversations. When people rush to be heard, and decisions are based on snap judgments, you create a manic environment: Everything speeds up when it's often better to slow down, think things through, and give people a chance to digest and comment later.
This is when it's time to shift into low gear. Low gear is how you dig in, get traction, make a compelling argument, and, most important, give people time to consider and respond. But as more companies are exposed to group chat--high gear--they tend to forget the power of low gear. That's when things get slippery. Discussions that used to be calm and measured have become chaotic and scattered.
At our company, we often start a discussion casually in a group chat. If an idea evolves, someone will move the conversation to a low-gear environment, leaving the chat and posting a long-form message or document to Basecamp, sometimes illustrated with pictures. The tool is structured to make information easier to present in large chunks in place of staccato chat lines. How do you know when to downshift? At first, it's a struggle, and it's never totally obvious. Many people discussing something line by line over 20-plus minutes without making big strides often signals that a shift into low is needed. Whenever I feel the temperature rising, I scroll back a bit to see how long the chat has been going on and how many people are chiming in, and if it's been a while and lots of voices are in the mix, I'll suggest we stop and switch gears: Someone go write it up.
Long-form messages are wonderful things. They aren't as fluid as rapid, casual conversations, but they give people an extended moment to absorb a pitch, to hold a whole idea in their heads, to listen to an argument from one person at a time. Then they can respond in kind.
The ideal is using both 4H and 4L, high and low gears, equal partners in helping people make progress together. We're building what we've learned about this practical two-gear approach into the all-new version of Basecamp, due out in a few months. Let us know what you think.