Have you ever heard of “Warnock’s dilemma”?

Has it ever happened to you that you sent an email that included a proposal with a request for comments, and never received any replies?

Or you’ve prepared an article, shared the link to the draft document seeking feedback, and you’ve not gotten any reaction?

You may be asking yourself: “Did anybody actually read what I wrote? Do they agree or disagree with my proposal? Do they actually care?

How can you  tell?

The problem of interpreting a lack of response that you’re experiencing has been coined Warnock’s dilemma, and it’s a well-known phenomenon in distributed asynchronous communication (originally identified on mailing lists, but also applies to any other form of asynchronous communication):

The problem with no response is that there are five possible interpretations:

1. The post is correct, well-written information that needs no follow-up commentary. There’s nothing more to say except “Yeah, what he said.”
2. The post is complete and utter nonsense, and no one wants to waste the energy or bandwidth to even point this out.
3. No one read the post, for whatever reason.
4. No one understood the post, but won’t ask for clarification, for whatever reason.
5. No one cares about the post, for whatever reason.

— Bryan C. Warnock

I recently stumbled over this term after reading Florian Haas’ excellent blog post This Meeting Should Have Been an Email (which I highly encourage you to read if you’re looking for ways on how to collaborate more effectively in a distributed organization).

In his article, Florian makes a strong case for turning distributed organizations into asynchronous ones, by converting as much conversations as possible from phone calls, Slack discussions or video conferences into well-structured documents and then soliciting collaboration over these in written form instead.

While this approach resonates very well with me (and it’s something where I think many organizations could do much better), I believe there are two challenges that need to be overcome in this approach: reaching consensus on a contentious topic that triggers a long discussion thread and how to deal with the opposite: not getting any reactions at all.

I did raise my thoughts about the challenges in this type of communication to Florian. Especially if you’re trying to seek an agreement on something, silence is the weakest form of consensus. Because of this, we’re tempted to summon people in video calls to ensure we’re “on the same page” on a topic, trying to capture the non-verbal cues that indicate if you’re in agreement about something.

This question prompted him to summarize our discussion and his thoughts in a follow-up article: Warnock’s Dilemma, Objections, and Acknowledgements.

I think what he wrote matches my personal observations on this topic quite well and lists a number of useful suggestions on how to overcome this challenge. Thank you, Florian!

So when you’re seeking for feedback on something you’ve wrote, try to encourage reactions by including some very specific asks or provocative thoughts about what kind of input you’re seeking for.

If you have been requested to provide feedback or comments on some content, please do spend a short moment to at least acknowledge that you’ve read the document or email, even if you have nothing to add or comment!

This could be as simple as adding a reaction on a chat message (e.g. a “100%”, thumbs up or plus sign emoji), a “LGTM” comment on a Google doc or something similar. Anything helps! Your co-worker will appreciate it.

At least you’re giving the writer the virtual equivalent of a “nod”, which is tremendously helpful for them, as they no longer have to guess your reaction and draw their own conclusions.