How to Communicate Effectively While Spread Out

The Dirt World is very fragmented. One company may operate in 10 states, with 20 projects. One of the biggest problems with spread-out teams is that it's hard to effectively communicate with everybody.

As a leader, you can't physically get to every project. And there's limited technology to help you communicate—so things often get lost in translation. For example, let's say you're sending emails, but half your crew members don't even have emails and the others don't check their messages.

How are you supposed to communicate with everyone? 

Leadership expert Jocko Willink breaks down how you can communicate consistently and effectively in an organization that's spread out.

Apply the laws of combat

To begin, Jocko says, "We have to be careful that the communication we're giving is simple, clear, and concise."

Keep it simple is a crucial law of combat because "the simplest way of communicating the plan is always the most effective and efficient way."

Whether you want to communicate with the whole company or just the people on a certain project, your goal is to find the shortest, clearest way to share the info they need.

Another law of combat you'll need to follow is decentralized command—which is when everyone leads. "The more spread out we are, the more important decentralized command is," Jocko notes.

Decentralized command lifts the sole burden of communication off your shoulders.

Instead of you running around trying to keep track of 20 projects, your project managers and foremen communicate with you. They ask for guidance when they need it, but most of the time, they're just updating you about decisions they already made.

They can do that because you've given them the freedom to lead within the project parameters.

Make sure people understand the commander's intent

You're the commander in your company. You're calling the shots and casting the vision for where you want things to go. But do your people know what that vision is or what that next shot's going to be? Or have you just left them guessing?

Effective communication means making sure every member of your team understands your intentions. Your intentions include five things:

  1. The mission
  2. The goal
  3. The end state you're looking for
  4. Why they're doing what they're doing
  5. The parameters they're allowed to work within

"Wrap all that together, and in the military it's called the commander's intent," Jocko says. You must communicate the commander's intent with your team.

If the team knows the commander's intent, they know what they're working toward and why they're working toward it. And they know what parameters they have to work within. "If they know those things, I barely have to communicate with them. I basically communicate with them as a courtesy to say 'hi,'" Jocko notes. 

And they barely need to communicate with you either. As long as they know the commander's intent, then they know what's important and what the "rules" are for the project—so they can find appropriate solutions to problems without having to stop and ask you 50 questions. 

That said, you do still need to check in every now and then to make sure they haven't veered off. You want to confirm that they're heading the right direction and that they truly understand your intentions. Which brings up the next point . . .

Communicate in the right ways

The content of your message is important. But the way you send messages—and how often you send them—are also essential to effective communication. 

Using the right channels

If someone has no email, Jocko "would probably put together some kind of a group text or a group message board where I could say, 'Hey, this is what we're doing.' Or maybe it's a conference call every morning and jumping on there for five minutes with each project."

Another option is training or learning management software, as some of these tools come with messaging features that let you communicate quickly and easily with small groups or the whole company. 

The point is, you want to find the communication channel that's going to work for you and your team. 

Communicating the right amount

 In some companies, the barrier to effective communication is actually overcommunication. 

Jocko adds that, in most cases, daily communication might be unnecessary: "I wouldn't really need to do that. If I've got a good project manager out there running the project, they know what the mission is. Why do I need to communicate with them every day? I don't."

You may find that it makes more sense to limit communication with those project leaders to once or twice a week. That also frees you up to focus on the projects that do need more attention. 

"If I've got a problem project, yeah, I might communicate with them every day. Maybe twice a day. I might fly out there. I might move in," Jocko says.

It's wise to remember that projects can be kind of like people: some of them might need more help than others at times. You'll find that you have projects on both ends of the spectrum—or anywhere in between.

So if you want to communicate effectively as a whole, you can think about limiting communication with the projects that are cruising along on their own and increasing communication with people whose projects need more attention. 


Effective communication is crucial for spread-out teams. But that doesn't mean you have to communicate every second of the day or try to force your team to use an email system that's just not practical in the field.

To communicate effectively, Jocko recommends following three basic rules:

  1. Apply the laws of combat.
  2. Make sure people understand the commander's intent (that's your intent).
  3. Communicate through the right channels, in the right amount.

When you apply these principles, you'll find that your communication becomes much more effective—even when your team is spread out. 

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