This is a mental model that I’ve been mulling for a number of years. I realized while writing this article that I probably cribbed it from Eisenhower’s Principle early on, but it’s different now.
Every communication sits somewhere on a two-axis system. The axes are:
I’m going to call these IU for “Importance and Urgency”.
Every communication medium has a Natural IU, based on the way the system fundamentally works and the user interaction paradigms that it encourages. Some examples of Natural IU:
This value doesn’t tell the whole story, though.
Most communication tools have different features that can be used to nudge the Natural IU up or down. For example,
@channel in Slack adjusts the importance and urgency of a message up substantially, and putting “ACTION REQUIRED” in the subject line of an email adjusts the importance up substantially (and perhaps the urgency somewhat).
We’ll call this Adjusted IU, but it still doesn’t tell the whole story.
When a Sender wants to send a message to one or more Receivers, they have some idea in their heads of how Important and Urgent that message is. They choose a medium with a Natural IU and possibly a set of adjustments for an Adjusted IU that will cause the receiver to interpret the message with the same Importance and Urgency values.
Importance and Urgency are not really properties of the tools we use; they’re entirely in our heads, and no one will ever completely agree on values. These senses of Natural IU and Adjusted IU are almost entirely cultural, apart from some specific limitations (phone calls require synchronous voice communication, making them inherently urgent).
This leaves us with each message being interpreted with a Sender IU and a Receiver IU.
Communications work best when:
But let’s dig into that a little more—what does it mean for Sender IU and Receiver IU to disagree?
If Sender IU is high Importance, high Urgency, the Sender will often choose methods of communication that, within the culture, have high Natural IU and Adjusted IU. The Receiver decodes the medium and adjustments on their end into a mental model of the Sender IU. I guess if we want to introduce yet another term, we could call this Inferred Sender IU.
If the Inferred Sender IU and the Receiver IU mismatch often enough, the Receiver’s internal modelling of the Natural IU and Adjusted IU will start to diverge from the cultural design for these values.
When an agent’s modelling of Natural IU and Adjusted IU diverge from the cultural design, they may apply their own adjustments to bring the entire medium more into line with their expectations (e.g. muting a channel, turning off notifications).
These attenuation effects for Importance and Urgency don’t only affect one agent in the system though. Typically, the entire cultural consensus of Natural IU and Adjusted IU shifts over time.
It’s common for Senders to over-estimate the importance of their messages, especially when they’re broadcasting to a wide audience. It’s also common for Senders to not consider the level of Urgency implied by their choice of medium. This seems to lead to an effect where the cultural assessment of Natural IU is slowly calibrated downward over time. This is really easy to see in Email. How many emails do you get that seem really important to the person who wrote them, but have no real bearing on your job or life? I know I’ve attenuated my Natural IU for the entire medium of email quite a bit.
I feel like there are more thoughts to flesh out on this train of thought but I’m tired of writing for now.
I don’t have any particular message here, but I think this is a really useful mental model, and if everyone in a culture understood it, that culture would probably trend towards healthier communication systems. In short:
@here, etc.) to encode their assessments.