The Personal MBA

Master the Art of Business

A world-class business education in a single volume. Learn the universal principles behind every successful business, then use these ideas to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your life and work.

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What Is 'Communication Overhead'?

Communication Overhead is the proportion of time you spend communicating with your team instead of getting productive work done.

Communication is absolutely necessary, but as the size of your team increases, so does Communication Overhead.

The solution is simple but not easy: make your team as small as possible. This will save everyone's time and increase productivity.

Josh Kaufman Explains 'Communication Overhead'

There's a reason high-performing surgical teams, military units, and sports teams tend to be small and focused: too much time spent in communication and coordination can kill a team's effectiveness.

Communication Overhead is the proportion of time you spend communicating with members of your team instead of getting productive work done.

In order to keep everyone on the same page, communication is absolutely necessary. The more team members you have to work with, the more you have to communicate with them to coordinate action.

As the number of people you work with increases, Communication Overhead increases geometrically until the total percentage of time each individual must devote to group communication approaches 100%. After a certain threshold, each additional team member diminishes the capacity of the group to do anything other than communicate.

Large companies are slow because they suffer from Communication Overhead. If you're responsible for working with a group of more than 5-8 people, at least 80% of your job will inevitably be communicating effectively with the people you work with. Objectives, plans, and ideas are worthless unless everyone involved understands them well enough to take action.

I experienced this daily while working at P&G-one of my primary projects consisted of creating a company-wide strategy on how to measure certain marketing tactics. Because it was a global project, my recommendation required input and/or approval from dozens of individuals across the company before anything could be implemented.

Naturally, everyone involved had different ideas, argued endlessly over various approaches, and wanted a share of the credit without having to commit to too much work or expense.

I spent three months of full-time effort simply putting together a workable proposal. In the meantime, no actual work was being accomplished-99% percent of my time was spent doing little more than communicating with other members of the group.

That's Communication Overhead.

Dr. Michael Sutcliffe of the University of Cambridge has proposed "8 Symptoms of Bureaucratic Breakdown" which appear in teams suffering from Communication Overhead:

  1. The Invisible Decision-No-one knows how or where decisions are made, and there is no transparency in the decision-making process.
  2. Unfinished Business-Too many tasks are started but very few carried through to the end.
  3. Co-ordination Paralysis-Nothing can be done without checking with a host of interconnected units.
  4. Nothing New-There are no radical ideas, inventions or lateral thinking-a general lack of initiative.
  5. Pseudo-Problems-Minor issues become magnified out of all proportion.
  6. Embattled Center-The center battles for consistency and control against local/regional units.
  7. Negative Deadlines-The deadlines for work become more important than the quality of the work being done.
  8. Input Domination-Individuals react to inputs-i.e. whatever gets put in their in-tray-as opposed to using their own initiative.

If any of these qualities describe your daily work experience, your team is probably suffering from a case of Communication Overhead.

The solution to Communication Overhead is simple, but not easy: make your team as small as possible. You'll be leaving people out, but that's the point-including them is causing more work than it's creating in benefits. Removing unnecessary people from the team will save everyone's time and produce better results.

Studies of effective teamwork usually recommend working in groups of three to eight people. In Peopleware, project managers Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister recommend keeping teams "elite and surgical." Small groups tend to be more effective than large groups because Communication Overhead is reduced-each team member adds more networking capacity to the team than they require in communication to be effective. Once group size expands above eight, each additional team member requires more investment in communication than they add in productive capacity.

If you want your team to perform at its best, make your teams as small and autonomous as possible.

Questions About 'Communication Overhead'


"If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: 'meetings.'"

Dave Barry, comedian and newspaper columnist


From Chapter 8:

Working With Others


https://personalmba.com/communication-overhead/



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The Personal MBA

Master the Art of Business

A world-class business education in a single volume. Learn the universal principles behind every successful business, then use these ideas to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your life and work.

Buy the book:


About Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is an acclaimed business, learning, and skill acquisition expert. He is the author of two international bestsellers: The Personal MBA and The First 20 Hours. Josh's research and writing have helped millions of people worldwide learn the fundamentals of modern business.

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