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Communication Structures


Every company has, or develops, a hierarchical reporting structure over time. It's normal. A common mistake I see is allowing the communication structure to mirror the reporting structure.

What does that mean?

It can be tempting to think that you are only supposed to talk to people "at the same level" as you, what some may call "your peers". Maybe one level up if it's important, but definitely not higher. This is the mistake.

If you work in a high agency, high trust environment then you should be able to talk to whomever you need to get your job done. If you see something that could be improved, then you should be able to share it with the most relevant person. If these sorts of actions are looked down upon (or discouraged) then your company has decided it values optics over impact [1].

A Story

When I started as a product manager at Square, I was at the "bottom" of the proverbial totem pole [2]. I was on a new team that was not core to the business (it was a bet). No one reported to me and I was responsible for work that needed to be done by other people and other teams.

Luckily I was new, didn't know the reporting structure, and had a job to do. So I pinged anyone I needed in the company — from someone on Core (our executive team) to a staff engineer in the payments organization I had never met. What happened? Everyone responded with excitement and curiosity (e.g. "oh that's great! how can I help?"). That's a healthy communication culture.

Over time, I "moved up" in the reporting structure. I had ~100 people reporting to me across 4 layers. While many knew me as "just Kevin", I discovered that many new hires viewed me as an "exec" that was off limits [3]. There were engineers afraid to ask questions or provide feedback. We had inadvertently allowed the communication structure to match the reporting structure.

I immediately sent a message to everyone to clear things up. My job — but really everyone's jobs — was to help our customers. If someone needed something to get their job done, they should not only feel comfortable but obliged to contact whomever they needed [4]. I also adopted an important new habit for new hires. On top of meeting every new hire, I ended those conversations with a question.

Can I ask a favor of you? Even though we have layers in our reporting structure, I am paranoid about introducing layers in our communication structure. We should strive to keep as much communication as possible within one degree of freedom. So if you ever feel like you have to go through someone else to get your job done, let me know.

I saw an immediate change in our communication (both through observing public Slack channels but also in my own DMs / @mentions). Since joining Mutiny, I have continued that practice. Even though we are a much smaller company (I joined at 30, we are now 100 and growing), I care a lot about this behavior and want to get ahead of any slippage.

Examine the communication structure in your company. Ask yourself if you feel comfortable sending a message to anyone. If you don't, ask why, and figure out whether it's because you don't have a reason or because your communication structure is layered.


[1] You may be thinking it doesn't make sense for an engineer at Square to email Jack Dorsey (CEO) when the company is 10,000 people. And you'd probably be right. But there could be 8+ layers in between. And it's totally within reason for them to email any of those people directly if it makes sense. But too many people would be too scared because they would feel it is "out of place". If it's empty whining, it is out of place. If it is precise, actionable, and relevant, then it makes total sense.

[2] Someone is going to say "That's not true! Product managers have so much power!". To which I would say, you are high. Don't get me wrong, product managers can have a lot of leverage, but it is often restricted to the scope of their pod. If they need something from leadership or another pod, it requires a lot of "influencing". And the larger the company, the harder that becomes. Plus I was a newbie with no track record. My trust battery was at zero.

[3] No one in a company should ever be "off limits". No one is untouchable. Some may not have the capacity to respond to every inquiry over time, and that's fine. But if you ever get a whiff of "you are not worth my time", then you need to make a change or ask yourself some hard questions. 

[4] I want to be clear that this does not mean to randomly DM anyone at any time for any reason. People are busy. Over time certain people will get executive assistants (EAs) who can seem like gatekeepers. Bad ones are, but good ones are not. They make the exec more effective. A good executive will always respond to an important DM no matter who it comes from. No one should have to "go through the EA" to share important news or get help on an important / urgent issue.