Tools / Contributed

Hey Startups: Turning Off Slack Won’t Solve Your Management Problems

2 May 2016 5:22am, by

It has become de rigueur to complain about Slack these days.

Dave Teare, founder of Agile Bits (developers of 1Password), recently wrote that his company’s “Slack Addiction” led to “using it over all the other tools at our disposal,” which meant that employees posted support issues and development issues into Slack instead of ticketing systems and knowledge bases. Samuel Hulick, a UX designer, complained that Slack turns workdays into “one long Franken-meeting.”

But no one criticizing Slack stops to ask: “Is it Slack, or is it my organization?”

Answer: it’s your organization.

What is amazing and wonderful and awful about Slack is that it can take so much of the communication that happens in an organization and put it into one place that anyone can access, no matter when and where they are.

This is amazing because we’ve never had a tool that could do this before. It is wonderful because it means that it becomes so much easier to get everyone in an organization into alignment — if you have hundreds of people who report up to you through an organization, it is normally impossible to touch them directly. But with Slack, it’s really easy to help people understand what matters and what doesn’t.

If your employees don’t understand why you have certain policies in place, making it harder for them to communicate with others in the company is not the right answer.

And it’s awful, because if your organization is dysfunctional, Slack can make that so painfully apparent that you’ll want to turn it off to make it stop.

The Silicon Valley Startup Way has produced many, many great things, but is also willfully ignorant about management and how important it is. If a company is going to accomplish great things, it needs to have focus and coordination. You can’t just tell a bunch of people generally what the company is trying to do when you hire them, and then make sure that they have specific tasks to complete on a daily basis and expect the company to be successful.

Everyone, as they go about their daily work, is making many decisions about how to get their work done, and unless everyone understands why they are doing things — how they fit into the larger mission in detail — people will be optimizing for the wrong thing. This happens in software development more often than not — software developers, by default, over-engineer the shit out of what they’re building, make it take way too long, and when it’s delivered, it always needs substantial changes because you can’t get to product-market fit without lots of iterations against customers.

And now that you have this huge over-engineered back-end that isn’t exactly what’s needed, you have sunk-cost problems and engineer attitude problems.

As Camille Fournier, former CTO of Rent the Runway, says: “Management is work…Great managers know that their value comes from the ways in which they create functioning teams, focused on the right work.” If I told you that my company wasn’t building the right software or was building software in a way that didn’t meet the business’s needs, I would hope you would come to the conclusion that more effective management is the most likely way in which the problem can be fixed. And if I told you that I had employees using a new database management tool to make production changes to the database contra to policy, I would hope that you would tell me that more effective management (e.g., warning and then firing employees who can’t follow necessary policies) would help. So why would it be any different if I tell you, “Hey, we installed a new tool that helps people communicate more effectively, and while it’s done some great things, our people use it to violate important company policies constantly”? Why is the answer “Oh, well — we need to stop using that communication tool immediately”?

If your employees don’t understand why you have certain policies in place, making it harder for them to communicate with others in the company is not the right answer. The right answer is to help them understand why you have certain policies. Of all the management tasks a company needs to do, helping people to understand why support tickets go in system A, product development tickets go in system B, and advice goes in system C is pretty simple. (Also, I’m pretty sure there are slack bots for all those things anyhow if you really wanted to bend over backward to usage in Slack). If you’re not getting that right, what else is going wrong with management in your organization?

Finally, this is not to say that we can’t have innovation in management. I’m dubious about Holacracy and getting rid of middle-management, but if you read about companies that think they have successfully gotten rid of middle-managers, they are still doing management.

For example, Ryan Carson, founder of Treehouse, in an interview about getting rid of middle management, talks about the most critical part of running the company: having a firm-wide communication tool (written in-house) that allows top-level management to manage and align what employees ultimately do. I suspect that if Slack had existed in 2013, Treehouse would have used/customized it instead of having to build their own. The title of the interview is wrong — obviously, Treehouse did not get rid of all managers and management — they just found what they think is a more effective way of managing their staff.

So if you’re finding that a particular tool is identifying a weakness in your organization, think twice about banning it, and think instead about what it’s telling you.

Feature Image: Unsplash.

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