The Difficulty of DMs

Published May 10, 2022

I've worked on a few teams where I'd say the majority of our communication happens via direct messages (DMs) in chat. "How can I reduce back channels?" was one of my core motivations when I started thinking about building Cardinal. I want to tell you a little about why I think DMs in most team communication tools are a big problem and how we've set out to improve things with Discussions in Cardinal.

DMs come from a good place. Channels in most communication tools start to get pretty noisy, and DMs help everyone organize what they're talking about. Also, DMs help teams gel. We all need personal connections with our teammates, and DMs give us space to get to know each other without interrupting others. These are good things. But, there are a few downsides we all have to keep in mind.

Locking Knowledge Up

I don't think anyone means for this to happen, but operating primarily in DMs hides team knowledge over time. My experience has been that it's not at all unusual for someone to ask a quick question that transforms into a deeper discussion, and all of the sudden a ton of new ideas and learning are hidden from the rest of the team.

That's one big reason why we built sharing the way we did at Cardinal. It's not impossible to have a private discussion with someone, but that discussion has a focused topic, and you can expand who can see it from there. That means that if a quick private brainstorming discussion turns into something that feels valuable you can gradually expand who it's shared with until it grows to the point of everyone on the team seeing it.

In Cardinal DMs aren't locked down. You can have a one-on-one discussion with someone in public or in private. As the idea expands you can easily add more people to the discussion. And because discussions in Cardinal are focused around a specific topic you can also easily search for, and discover, the discussion after the fact.

More Interruption

There is an informal network of connections between peers in your company. DMs tend to cause a reliance on that informal network in terms of how information moves through the team. When team communications lean heavily on private discussions, that bleeds into almost every situation. I've been to all-hands meetings where I'm receiving dozens and dozens of private messages in real-time as the meeting proceeds, providing running dialog and differing opinions about the meeting as it progresses.

I remember running an experiment in one job I had. I was the 6th person at the company when I joined. Over time I felt more and more stress from being contacted constantly via DMs in Slack. My manager mentioned that I should set my account to away, because if I did, no one would contact me. I was skeptical but thought it was worth a try. I turned it off for one hour. In that time I received 17 DMs asking if I was around and then proceeding to start a conversation. Unsurprisingly there was a lot of overlap in those DMs.

DMs generate a ton of noise for teams as they're built in most tools. Rather than managing a single discussion about a topic it's easy to end up being involved in several at the same time.

In Cardinal we try to reduce the interruption even in one-on-one messages by enforcing asynchronous messaging. We purposefully don't show if someone's typing and we deemphasize real-time communication in Cardinal so that everyone feels comfortable taking a few minutes (or hours) to respond. That delay pushes teams to include more people in discussions and helps everyone manage communication time.

Less Cross-Team Collaboration

The Pixar offices are legendarily designed around the idea that people will bump into each other in central areas, and because of that they'll interact and share ideas that wouldn't typically happen. With remote work becoming more and more prevalent, and virtual interactions being more and more the normal situation, it's important for teams to build up ways to communicate across the organization chart.

DMs are great for virtually bumping into someone, but they're ridiculously locked down. In a physical space a couple of people can start chatting and then call someone else over really easily to get their input. Most chat tools lock down DMs such that as soon as you send a message one-on-one it's probably going to stay that way.

Discussions in Cardinal are focused around a single topic, and that makes it easier to add someone to a discussion while maintaining context. It's the equivalent of calling someone to join your conversation in physical space, and them being able to get caught up without having to repeat everything.

More Top-Down Leadership

The end result of less cross-team collaboration is more top-down leadership. As teams grow I've seen their DM culture be a critical part of creating more and more insular teams that are less able to spread ideas. It's inevitable to some extent that teams become more focused internally as a company grows, but I've also seen that the best opportunities for growth in companies tend to come from the places where multiple teams overlap.

We tend to DM with who we know, and we tend to know people in our same roles or on our same teams, and that leads to less sharing of ideas between teams. If teams aren't collaborating to grow the company, the people who connect those teams higher up the org chart ends up doing that work. That tends to create environments where managers are calling more of the shots and guiding more of what happens day to day, rather than simply helping facilitate how the teams operate.

A Symptom of a Deeper Issue

What I've felt in general is that when people spend most of their time sending DMs is that they're uncomfortable with communicating in public due to a general distrust that they're safe to share ideas on the team. They know who will blast them for sharing an idea, and they also know who will validate them. It feels much better to send a DM and get that validation without the risk.

One of our hopes with Cardinal is that with small tweaks to how communication happens on teams we can help facility huge improvements to communication and knowledge sharing. If you're interesting in giving it a try, sign up for free.

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