Collaboration

Contents

Why is collaboration and process important?

Why is collaboration in a company, project, or organization important? There are many reasons:

  1. As systems increase in complexity, no one person knows everything about all the technology in a product, or has time to implement it all. Collaboration with experts is the only way to build complex systems.
  2. Just as in product development where no one person has all the knowledge needed, how much more in the complex operations of a company composed of humans. A company's success depends on its ability to leverage good ideas of all involved, and there needs to be a process for these ideas to surface.
  3. If design specifications are collaborative, vs authoritative, then they become a way for a team to think about the design. As Leslie Lamport advocates, thinking above the code is important.
  4. Although it is important to think about a design up front, complex systems cannot be completely specified up front. They evolve based on what we learn during implementation, feedback from users, and changing requirements. Development is an iterative process. If specifications and documentation are not an integral part of the working development process, they quickly become out of date an irrelevant. If specifications are maintained by one person on the team, they are likewise destined to become outdated and irrelevant. Everyone on the team needs a low friction way to edit and update documentation. The best case is if documentation becomes a useful tool during development -- a way to think, communicate, and collaborate.
  5. A company is a collection of people. If people have a voice, they will be much more motivated than those who are simply told what to do. The command and control model of yesteryear does not work today.

The long term vs short term mindset

Team work and collaboration is all about doing things in a slightly less convenient way personally to make our work more transparent and helpful for the team long term. Discussions in a Kanban board or Git pull request are less convenient then sending a quick email. Creating a Markdown document in Git is less convenient than firing up Word and emailing an attachment. Creating granular Kanban cards for every task you do on a project is less convenient that just diving in and doing the work. Using open source tools that are available to anyone on the team may be less convenient than using a commercial tool we are used to, but others do not have access to. Storing files in Git is less convenient that a file server. Doing working on Git branches and opening pull requests is less convenient than just pushing to master. Short term, this all seems like overhead and more work. However, long term there are huge dividends. Discussion happen in the context of work being done and are easy to find later. The drudgery of status reports are eliminated because workflow is transparent and meetings transition to creative discussions, brainstorming, and solving hard problems. Conversations are centered around documentation rather than documentation being created as an afterthought and often forgotten. Individuals are no longer a bottleneck to work getting done. Changes are grouped in logical pull requests that are easy to review when merged and referenced in the future. Reviews allow us all to learn. Everyone has the access to tools to review and fix anything any time any where. Long term maintenance is greatly simplified. We understand what we are building. We see who is doing what. We understand why things are done they way they are. The history of what we have done can be leveraged for future decisions. We can visualize the flow of work. Above all, we have clarity into what we are doing and why. Working with clarity brings many intangible benefits that are not easily measured. Optimizing for the long term always requires some personal sacrifice short term, but good tools and methodologies minimize this personal sacrifice and often accrue personal benefits many times over any investment we may have made. As an example, once people learn Git (and there is a learning curve), they use it for all projects -- even when a team is not involved as it is a better way to work. Good workflow and tools takes the drudgery out of many repetitive tasks, reduce errors, increase transparency, and free us to do creative work that adds value.

The Role of Email

Email is an amazing communication tool. It is one of the marvels of the Internet age and along with HTTP, perhaps one of the few truly distributed information tools available that no one company controls. The distributed nature of email (compared to silos like Linked-in, Twitter, Slack, etc) is vastly undervalued in this age of large companies centralizing and monopolizing communication. However, the negative aspect of email is that anyone can send you email and most legitimate users tend to use it too much. Thus many people don't get much done other than process email. We also tend to put too much information in emails. Email is a very poor knowledge repository for the following reasons:

  • it is not an accessible shared resource, especially for new people. Have you ever tried to search someone else's inbox?
  • it is difficult to organize. You can have folders and tags, but you can't easily link from one email to another, which is a fundamental requirement of a good information system and the superpower of the Web.
  • content cannot be updated or improved over time -- it can only be replied to.

As one person put it:

email is where knowledge goes to die

There is a better way, and that is to communicate about work with documentation and issues in a tool like Github, Gitlab, or Gitea. If you want to propose a new feature, or change how something is done, create a branch, modify some documentation, and then open a pull request to discuss with others. This way any outstanding discussions are captured in open pull requests rather than being lost in the black hole of someone's inbox. Do we want to know what is outstanding -- simple, look at outstanding issues and pull requests.

Old style maillists perhaps work around some of these issues with public list archives, and have been successful in various OSS projects, but these style lists are almost never used/accepted in company/business settings and are most suitable for highly technical people working on very large OSS projects like the Linux kernel. Smaller teams are better suited by a modern Git based workflow.

Email is very useful for discussions or to receive notifications from tools like Github or Gitea (these emails can be deleted with no thought as we know the information is captured elsewhere) and for communication that does not fit anywhere else (ex: communication with people outside your organization). But if there is a bit of information in an email that you want to save or make available to others long term, it should be transferred somewhere else -- to a shared documentation/collaboration system, or your own Notes system.

Some companies go as far as deleting all email older than 3 months old. This is probably done to limit liability, but it is an excellent policy to help push people in the right direction -- don't depend on email to store long lived information.

Reference:

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging tools (like Signal, Google Hangouts, Slack, etc) can be useful in collaboration in that they enable team members to strengthen relationships. Signal is a good choice because it is simple to use, is end-to-end encrypted (so they respect privacy), and there are both mobile and desktop clients. Slack may be better for larger teams.

Meetings

Meetings are an interesting dynamic and perhaps one of the hardest things to get right. At their worst, meetings are boring and a waste of time. At their best, they can be invigorating and very enjoyable. The COVID experience has really caused us to appreciate the value of the face to face experience. However, many meetings (could be a formal business meeting or spending time with friends/family) we still don’t really maximize the value of being in-person with someone. In a meeting, everyone should be engaged during the entire meeting. This means things need to keep moving. The focus needs to be on interpersonal interaction, solving hard problems, brainstorming, making decisions, etc – things that engage people. If one person does most of the taking, it is not a meeting, it is a presentation.

The trend in meetings today is that most are looking at their computer or phones most of the time vs being fully engaged with each other. This could mean several things:

  1. we are doing work during the meeting
  2. people are bored and are not engaged
  3. we have not prepared for the meeting

Perhaps this is a natural result of spending a lot of time on virtual meetings, where we soon get used to working through meetings because we can get away with it. However, this is a suboptimal use of time because we are trying to do two things at once and it is likely we are not doing either one very well. If we are not fully engaged in a meeting, do we really need to be there?

If we can remove the mundane from the meetings, then this opens up opportunity for more engaging/creative discussions. Gitlab’s approach is rather profound:

We actually place a very high burden on meetings, and we do it intentionally, so that meetings are not the default. And if you create a culture where meetings are hard to have and it’s not the default, then sure enough, the next path of least resistance will become the thing that people go to, which in our case is documentation.

...

And then after the meeting you have to look at the takeaways in the Google Doc, which is just a temporal home, and you have to say “Alright, if anything in this meeting matters to more than just me, I have to go find the right place(s) in the handbook and make a merge request to actually add this to the handbook”, because the handbook is the ultimate single source of truth, where all of the company would go to to find the latest and greatest information on whatever the topic is. So what I’m saying is that’s a lot of work in a meeting…

Documentation should be the center of real work. If decisions and thinking are not captured for easy access by others, it is of limited use and will likely soon be lost. It is also important that thoughts be captured in a format that can be easily modified and expanded on in the future. This is the power of content stored in Git with pull requests – the thinking does not stop at the end of the meeting, but rather the meeting can be the start of something that continues on in one continuous flow of creative thought as people collaborate, open pull requests, discuss them with comments, meet again to brainstorm and solve hard problems, etc. A meeting is then not a disruptive speed bump in your schedule, but rather a well synchronized input into the flow of creative work, which all revolves around fluid documentation and never stops. Meetings are not for status reports, boring monologues, power posturing, etc, but rather to maximize the creative output of a group of people working together in real time.

For more ideas on the topic of meetings, see:

Kanban Boards

are useful tools for managing work and creating flexible and ad-hoc work-flows. These boards can be implemented using post-it notes on a wall, or with digital tools such as Trello. Typically a Kanboard board will have backlog, doing, and done lists to clearly the status of work. Items may be sorted in the backlog according to priority.

Some points that make Kanban boards work well:

  1. You can at a glance see what is going on.
  2. All discussion happens in the card, so it is easy to find and refer to later.
  3. Discussions have context (documents, photos, links, previous comments, etc). Everything is together rather than being in disconnected email threads, instant messaging comments, file server files, etc.
  4. Workflow and processes can be managed by dragging cards from one list to another. Example sales -> orders -> part procurement -> production -> shipping -> done. These lists could be split into separate boards as needed.

Suggestions for making Kanban boards work well (the following applies to Trello, but other tools may be similar):

  1. Try to keep the number of lists to a number that they fit horizontally on a computer screen. If you need more lists than this, then create more boards. It is easy to move cards from one board to another.
  2. If you have too many lists to fit on a screen, keep the most important ones, such as doing, to the left, so they show up when you load the page.
  3. Use screenshots extensively. A picture is often worth a thousand words -- paste screenshots into cards to convey status, results, problems, etc. This makes cards more interesting to read. It is often quicker to screenshot some code in an editor than try to do a text copy and get the result to look right.
  4. Create a trello board that is your "library". This can contain lists of reference information, documentation, cards with datasheets, etc. The ability to add comments allows you to add meta information and makes the library more useful than just dumping a bunch of PDFs on a file server.

Deep Work

Collaboration is essential, but you should consider allocating blocks of your day where notifications are silenced so that you can focus on deep work. Even if you only allocate 3 hours a day to deep work, it amazing what you can get done in this focused time if it is uninterrupted.