The 5-15 is an easy technique to improve communication at your company

Give as good as you get.
Give as good as you get.
Image: AP Photo/Noah Berger
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It’s self-evident that good communication between managers and the people who report to them makes for a better culture at work. But “good communication” is a goal, not a strategy. That’s why you’ll find many companies using a simple, 30-year-old technique that takes a few minutes each week and can, if used correctly, keep managers in the loop right to the top of an organization, and ensure everyone has a chance to be heard.

The tool is called a “5-15” and works like this: Each week, everyone on a team spends 15 minutes writing feedback in a templated report sent to the team’s manager. The manager takes five minutes to read and respond to each report, and 15 minutes to collate their own feedback for their manager. This continues up the chain. Done right, it provides those at the very top of even the most complex company a weekly snapshot of what’s going well and badly from the point of view of all their employees.

Sarah Marshall is head of audience growth for Vogue International, based in London. She joined Condé Nast International, Vogue’s parent company, when it was in a process of rapid growth, and says the 5-15 process, which was already being used at the company, has helped her manage her team of 10 effectively.

The team sends its 5-15s to her on a Thursday morning. Marshall says she reads the reports quickly and tries to acknowledge them swiftly, before taking 15 minutes to summarize the achievements and concerns noted by her staff. “As a manager I find it absolutely invaluable, because it highlights things I might have missed,” Marshall said. 

The 5-15s follow a set format and are often divided into bullet points below a set of headings: highlights of the week; people met with; challenges; plans for next week; and plans for the next four weeks. Other possible categories include “lessons learned” or “areas for improvement” (Marshall notes that organizations can customize the process as they see fit).

The beauty of the process is its simplicity and swiftness, but also the format, which allows those who might find it hard to bring up an issue even in a one-on-one meeting to air it in a “safe space.” Marshall says she enjoys reading the achievements of her team and will try to solve challenges then and there, if she can. If not she includes them in her own “challenge” section.

The 5-15 was first thought up by Yvon Chouinard, the now 80-year-old pioneering founder of Patagonia, a company famed for its environmental ethics and its engagement with employees’ and managers’ well-being (notably, it has retained new mothers through its on-site childcare, for example.) Since the tool’s genesis in the mid-1980s, its proponents have made clear that it is designed to free up those at the heads of teams and companies, not load them with extra work. Chouinard famously spent months away from the office rock climbing and surfing, and used the 5-15s as a way of keeping a finger on the company’s pulse. Other executives have since taken it on, adapted it, and even invented their own versions.

As with all tools, the specifics of implementation are key. Writing the feedback shouldn’t take too long, and needs to be received with encouragement and good grace, Marshall says.

“In the past I have had slightly frustrating responses from people I’ve sent messages up the chain to,” she says of using it at other companies. “As a manager, it’s important to think about how you respond to 5-15s. In my personal view it’s good to use it as a team-building tool for encouragement and positive feedback.”