I'm not persuing this idea as a product right now. You can see what I'm working on on the homepage. I'll bring these ideas into any company I start by putting something together.
Workplace communication both prevents deep work and encourages slow responses. Much more detail below.
Tiered workplace communication. Interruptive/2 hours/36 hours. Todo lists you can assign into and give responses back (replacing email). Could maybe start as a Gmail/Slack extension.
The scorecards below are explained here.
|Mandatory||Averse||✔️Nice to have||Important||Law changed|
|Metric||Won't have||Can have||Have|
|Founders||1 in 10||✔️|
Companies wasting time on shitty communication. (I know they need it but I'm not sure they want it).
I'm the target user (when I'm working at a company).
I see three variations of workplace communication that I’m interested in. The first is things like updates, but that’s covered in Workplace Education. The next is tiered communication and task assignment, which I’ll talk about here.
Somehow, most companies end up with a system where everyone’s attention is dominated by their communication tools (which is terrible on its own), but they’re not even getting great responses. Tools like Slack create a culture where everyone is always on, which is decreases productivity. (This is heavily inspired by Deep Work).
A solution to this could be a tiered communication system. One method for when you need a response immediately and are willing to interrupt the person, one for when you need a response within 2 hours and one when you need a response within 36 hours (essentially end of day tomorrow).
If I was going to set this up at a company, I’d use phone calls, Slack and email as the three tiers and set it up as shared expectations. But why have three separate tools? And why do different speeds of communication require different mediums of communication?
This is where we run into the third variation of the problem, task assignment. This is the same idea as #2 on Paul Graham’s list of Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas: replace email.
“Email was not designed to be used the way we use it now. Email is not a messaging protocol. It's a todo list. Or rather, my inbox is a todo list, and email is the way things get onto it. But it is a disastrously bad todo list.”
That was written seven years ago. These days things have progressed. Now the average tech worker has two todo lists, email and Slack.
I think the problem is the coupling of the medium and the notification. This was unavoidable in world of paper letters and telephones without answering machines. You knew you got a letter when it was handed to you. I also think it was essential because if you wanted to tell someone something today, and they didn’t have a secretary, that meant telling them now. People didn’t have devices they checked a hundred times a day that you could put a message on remotely.
This caused the medium and notifications to evolve together. The highest throughput, lowest latency communications set off the loudest alarms. Send me a long email and I maybe get a push notification. Send a Slack message and I’ll get an alert on my screen that I can reply to quickly. Call me, and a vibrating alarm goes off which then opens up a voice chat.
But, sometimes the medium you want doesn’t match the notification level you need. You send someone a Slack message asking “did you see my email?”. You call someone on the phone because production is down, but then hang up and work together over Slack where you can copy/paste text. You send an email to set up a video call.
On top of this, a huge portion of these messages are just assigning tasks to someone, not two-way communication. Do this thing. Answer this question. When you send someone an email, you’re creating a task of “read this email and find out what task is in it, then do that.” Why not just assign the task? That’s the core of Paul Graham’s proposal.
I’m surprised that it hasn’t happened yet, which probably means that I don’t understand something about the problem. The normal hurdle to interpersonal software like this is bootstrapping the network effects. You won’t use a chat app if none of your friends do. In this case, I think there’s a way around that.
A new app could make itself useful right away by integrating with the existing services. Just email and Slack cover most Silicon Valley employees. Translating all the messages into tasks is just making a better inbox, but it’s a start. Once a team or company adopts it, they could start getting a lot of value out of assigning tasks to each other. Eventually there could be a critical mass where people in different companies are assigning tasks to each other.
As an aside, I think there could be a need for an instant messaging service that isn’t a never ending conversation. Text has benefits over voice or video, but it doesn’t usually have an obvious start and end to the conversation. Personally, I’d love an instant message service that I could hang up.