I’m working with a few clients that are big-time Slack users. I tell them Slack (and most other technology) is like an Irish Screwdriver…

Slack, in case you’ve been hiding in a cave for a couple of years, is supposed to replace email and be way better. It’s working well for some but becomes hell on earth for all too many.

This post was triggered by a Medium post by Samuel Hulick (Slack, I’m Breaking Up With You) punched out a great breakup letter where he (cheekily) breaks up with Slack after a torrid affair… I grinned and then thought about where I’m seeing Slack succeed and fail.

I look at Slack like an Irish Screwdriver…

Irish Screwdriver – The Back Story

When I was a teen, my Dad was working on some stuff in the work room and he had stripped a screw (common: his nickname was Mr. FuxIt). He swore a blue streak (I learned from the best) and then asked me for the “other” screwdriver.

Being an extremely attentive teenager, I had no clue what he was talking about so asked him which screwdriver… 

“The Irish Screwdriver” – which didn’t help me a bit. I was lost. I knew flat-heads, Philips, Robertson, Torx, etc. This was a new one for me.

“The What?”

The Irish Screwdriver

Repeating a name that I didn’t understand didn’t help and I let my Dad know. He sighed, and politely took a moment for a teaching lesson.

“The Irish Screwdriver. The f**king hammer. Give me the hammer.

That wood screw never stood a chance. The job was accomplished – that screw was deeply pounded into the 2×4 and we could move on. 

But it was the wrong tool. Totally wrong for the situation. That pine wood was so bashed up that if there was any need for either aesthetic or strength the job had been totally pooched.

Slack – The Irish Screwdriver of Messaging

Slack has often become an Irish Screwdriver with my partners and clients. Except this one is more like a Swiss Army Knife of tools. It’s used for any kind of messaging around.

Some use it pretty well – with #channels and @mentions added for context and they only use it for things that aren’t really time-dependent or that don’t need hard replies and tracking. It’s kind of a casual walk in the hall with a “hey – remind me that we need to…” kind of conversation and things that are overheard. It’s casual conversations and virtual meetings.

Things with Slack go to hell quickly when tasks are “assigned” or people use it as the primary (or only) way to update the team on where things stand.

Here’s part of the problem – we are all selfish. Not in a bad way, but the vast majority of us think about what we need to do and what that means to us – and to our team. So we use Slack to ask questions (expecting answers), update each other out of band (e.g. while I’m meeting with a CEO), and we chit-chat – and fill Slack with video montages, pictures of cats, and links to XKCD and The Oatmeal (guilty!).

What we don’t think about is what things look like on the other end.

Example: 2 times last week I had CEOs that I’m working with make basically the same comment along the lines of “don’t use DMs in Slack to ask me to do something or for something that you need an answer about…” and “ahhh s***. I just found your question in Slack – it got lost in all the discussions, emojis, and videos.”

Those CEOs are just a tad busy. With HUNDREDS or even THOUSANDS of Slack messages hitting them daily – across multiple Slack teams (I’m down to just 4 discrete teams at the moment – refreshingly low!!!). The developer at the other end sends about 2 messages per month to the CEO, and has no idea that CEO is drowning…

Slack though, if used correctly is a powerful tool – as is an Irish Screwdriver (a Hammer). When you use it incorrectly it may (just barely) get the job done.

An Irish Screwdriver can drive a screw into (soft) wood.

But it’s the wrong damned tool.

Here’s the thing – Slack is great and, just like any other tool, has it’s uses. I’ll outline a few problems I see with a semi-casual workaround or steps to avoid…

Interruptions – Slack interrupts me far too much. The information pushed is NOT on MY schedule – it’s on the schedules of whomever sent the message.
  • put on the Do Not Disturb capability
  • Let everyone know that you ignore Slack on a regular basis (then ignore it on a regular basis)
  • Turn off (GASP!!!) Slack for a while
  • Spend the (hours) time to configure the channels that you care about.
Priority – there is no priority of any kind. A “our site is down” message is treated the same way as a “I think I ate too much for lunch.”
  • Create an #URGENT or #CRITICAL and/or #CRISIS channel for things that are truly “wake up and get your ass out of bed” important and urgent.
  • Don’t expect anyone to understand what your level of urgency is. If you’re sending something that you think is urgent (e.g. developer would like to know if 3 or 5 is a better default and is, for some reason, stuck in coding until they get an answer) and what the recipient thinks is urgent (e.g. CEO is busy making sure that payroll will be met for the next quarter and couldn’t care less if the number is 3 or 5 at the moment).
  • Think about EMAIL here…

Follow-up – if you’re expecting someone to take action and respond to a single message in Slack you are in for a lot of trouble. Just like a casual comment in a meeting if you don’t track an action item you’re just waiting for failure.

  • If you’re using a tasking/project system – send links to tasks that need attention.
  • Let everyone know that Slack is NOT a way to get follow-up. It’s a communication mode – just like talking.

Context – some discussions in Slack are great at digging in and getting things cleared up. Other times a Slack channel had multiple threads and chats flying around so figuring out what topic people are talking about becomes really hard..

  • If you can get a short conversation that is laser-focused on clarifying something via Slack do it. Otherwise – bring it to a place that has more control. Something like Basecamp, Asana, Pivotal Tracker, or even email.
  • Don’t assume that people are linking up the individual messages that you have typed and that are interspersed amongst semi-related thoughts. Recognize when a conversation is getting diluted or confused and move it somewhere else.
  • Provide a “here’s my summary” at the end of a conversation, in Slack, to ensure that people aren’t confused (hint: they usually are – so play it safe).


Alright – I’m getting back to some other things.

This is Darrell “I help business owners UNFUK their software and technology teams” O’Donnell signing off…

(and jumping over to a #CRITICAL discussion about #catvideos in Slack)

Irish Screwdriver

Irish Screwdriver

View at Medium.com

Also published on Medium.

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