“Did you get my email?” is one of the most annoying questions of offices spaces across the land.
Artist Tom Sachs pinpoints what happens at work that gives rise to these vexing time-wasters:
‘[S]ent does not mean received’ is a profound thing. Half of your job in this studio is doing your work, the other half of your job is communicating that it’s been done. Because if you do it, and I don’t hear about it, how do I know what’s going on?
Despite the great advantage of asynchronous, turn-based communication like email, allowing people to both engage in conversations at their own pace and focus on their work — there are real drawbacks. Not feeling like your message was received or that you’re being left hanging leads to anxiety, stress, and blocks on making progress.
The challenge with team communication is that what’s efficient for the individual isn’t necessarily efficient nor effective for the group as a whole. So how do you extend information-sharing and banish unnecessary work about work for larger-scale productivity?
Make It Easy For Everyone to Find Out
Without a crystal ball into what anyone’s up to, trying to sync up and track down information you need is frustrating and time-consuming — which in turn can be disruptive and suffocating to your coworkers. (Hello, managers!) Constant back-and-forth about status, updates, and emails burns up the time, energy, and attention of everyone involved. What’s more, that lag time creates opportunities for miscommunication, inefficiencies, and major tensions to arise.
One solution is to go transparent and create common knowledge. Let me explain what common knowledge is — when everyone knows X piece of information, X is mutual knowledge, whereas common knowledge is a meta kind of knowledge where everyone knows that everyone knows X. So you can only have common knowledge when there’s already mutual knowledge.
A good illustration of these concepts is an episode of the beloved hit ’90s sitcom Friends, aptly titled, “The One Where Everyone Finds Out.” For those of you unfamiliar with the episode, this video hits all the relevant highlights:
What happens in this episode is all a result of Monica and Chandler’s attempts to keep their relationship a secret from the rest of the group over months of covert hooking up. When Joey finds out about them, the couple makes him swear not to tell anyone. So the three of them have common knowledge.
Then Phoebe and Rachel find out about the secret but in ways that Monica and Chandler don’t know about their discovery. So here, while the five friends share mutual knowledge, they don’t all share common knowledge.
Working in the same room together, for example, makes it easier for information to turn into common knowledge. Or take standup meetings, where everyone goes around and shares a status update on their work, or online collaboration tools like Hackpad or Trello. They create common knowledge because everyone is either physically present at the same time or the information reflects real-time changes and is accessible in a common space.
The key isn’t just that everyone is up-to-date but that everyone knows that everyone knows.
The Cultural Pitfalls of Lacking Common Knowledge
The benefit of common knowledge is that it takes some of the pressure off of individuals having to remember to proactively close communication loops and update everyone. What’s more, it prevents information from being hoarded and hidden away.
One of the main problems with communication at work is how much we assume what people know and don’t know. Not having a good foundation of common knowledge opens the door for unhealthy power imbalances. Then it becomes possible for whoever who has the information to use it for their own gain — because people don’t know what they don’t know.
Let’s go back to the Friends example:
When Phoebe finds out Monica and Chandler’s secret, she decides to play mind games with this new knowledge by flirting with Chandler. As it dawns on Monica that Phoebe and Rachel know about their secret, she and Chandler try to beat them at their own game — creating an escalating game of seduction chicken.
It’s the fact that Monica and Chandler’s secret about their relationship isn’t common knowledge among the friends that creates a window for people to tamper with each other.
In a Friends episode, that makes for some good laughs, but in the workplace, that can foster an environment of power plays, nasty politics, and bullying that can rot through the core of a whole organizational culture.
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Twitter engineering director Rich Paret told us that the particular perils of growing a team include the emergence of islands of information, which is what iDoneThis helps to avoid. What bridges those islands is some foundation of common knowledge — “a good base layer, sort of substrate for … communication that might not otherwise happen.”
When everybody knows what’s going on at work — and everyone knows that everyone knows — people can focus on their work in peace without having to worry that they’re missing out on any crucial news. Common knowledge helps to empower people equally, because it means everyone has access to the same information, equipping people to do their best work and to create a productive company culture of both autonomy and collaboration.