We’re big believers in working asynchronously at Socialize. WSJ.com reports that on average executives spend about 18 hours in meetings per week. Thats a lot of time spent talking about work instead of doing actual work. We believe that meetings can be an inefficient way to collaborate if you don’t come prepared. We’ve even made it part of our guiding principles (see #11 of our manifesto). This helps us keep mental focus to get things done without constant interruptions of meetings. This too is one of our principles (see #7). Many other companies have already adopted this mentality, including 37Signals and Github. This is because meetings break up the day causing employees to context switch so many times that it doesn’t give you enough time to be fully productive with any one task. They’re also a terrible way to communicate half-baked ideas since it inevitably leads into off-topic debates with unfounded assumptions.
Here is the summery of our process:
- Use BC to discuss topics or ideas
- If that discusion leads to a need for a meeting or is ready to go from idea to project – create a Google Doc
- Put all your ideas in doc, don’t worry about organization and formatting (that can often happen naturally or done as a cleanup item before the meeting)
- From that doc create an agenda to discuss the points within the doc
- If there is still a need for a meeting, create one, use the agenda to run the meeting and the notes in the doc to reference. This converts a open meeting around ideas taking hours and turns it into a focused meeting in minutes around the doc/agenda.
- The meeting should be around remaining uncertainty revealed in the doc and to additional action items. Always leave with action items and named owners.
If a meeting is ultimately required, the result is a more focused meeting, with notes already prepared when you walk in. Also the doc becomes a link you can share with others to provide more transparency about the plan. This ultimately saves time when explaining the idea and plan to others like upper management. Below is a more in-depth review at how we work asynchronously.
How We Work Asynchronously
What enables us to work asynchronously are the availability of tools. Below are some of the tools that allow us to work the way we do.
Google’s online docs allows to create more detailed plans and ideas while allow other people to collaborate. Many times we’ll start by creating an outline using headings and create a table of contents. This allows others to fill in the rest of the outline when they find the time to focus on building the document.
As you’re working through the document, Google Docs shows you other participants that are actively editing the same document in real-time. This is a little odd at first since entire blocks of text can be cut-copied into other parts of the document as you’re typing. But after awhile it becomes second nature and most of the time you stay out of each other’s way. Google Doc also gives each participant is given a different color so you can see who is typing.
If you’re working asynchronously you can notify other participants through e-mail. You can do so by using the twitter like ‘@’ notation to grab their attention. This helps call out areas which either need additional content or clarification.
Basecamp (BC) is our project management tool of choice. BC allows us to have quick, threaded discussions that may not be suitable for Google Docs. Our goal is to keep conversations out of e-mail and into a system that can be referenced by other people should the same questions/thoughts arise. It’s much easier to pass a link than to have to re-answer the same question a few times.
BC enables us to work from anywhere, not just in the office We trust that our employees will place themselves in the environment that makes them most productive. This is because we focus on results and not just hours in the office. Using BC allows us to work remotely because we’ve traded meetings for working asynchronously. Have a question for me? Use Basecamp! Want to assign me a task? Use Basecamp! Have a new idea for a feature? Use Basecamp!
Git is the new repo of choice but what makes git great is Github.com and all it’s developer tools. Git allows me to follow repos of interest and get notified as commits happen. I can review the commit and leave comments around the code. But the biggest feature that Github created that allows us to work asynchronously is the “pull request”.
They’ve turned a time-consuming code-review into an asynchronous process. A pull request allows developers to request that a set of changes on a branch be merged back into the master branch. I’ll be notified of the request and get to review the changes when I have time to focus on reviewing the code. Github shows me all the changes, color coded, so I can quickly see what has been removed or added. I can then leave the developer questions about blocks of code. We’ll go back and forth until we feel the changes are good enough to merge back into master.
If all other means won’t work and we must have a synchronous conversation then we’ll use IM to avoid meetings. It might still be a distraction but not to the degree of an entire meeting. We use Google Talk since it comes free as part of Google Apps. It makes conversations concise because people don’t want to go on long winded, off-topic rants on a keyboard. This tool also enables us to work remotely. When anybody on our team works remotely we ask them to stay on IM to discuss anything that can’t wait such as operational issues. Some of use Adium for Mac and others just use the chat client that is built-in to Gmail.
So you have an urging desire to have a meeting?
We’re not sure why people hate meetings but love to schedule them. But if someone insists on having a meeting we follow these guidelines (manifesto #11):
- Arrive at meetings with clearly communicated objectives and leave with action items
- Always know what you want, and what you don’t want to get out of the meeting. If you don’t know both beforehand there is no reason to meet
- Agree on the length of the meeting before it begins
- Create an agenda, break up the meeting into 15-30 minute blocks and cross off each section as time elapses
- Every idea needs an owner to become an action item.
- Don’t use “we” when taking an action item, it’s a cop-out. We = you or me. Instead of “we need to do that” say “I’ll take care of that by Friday”.
- End the meeting by capturing action items and dates in writing in tools like Google Docs or Basecamp.
By using the tools and processes described in this post. By the time you have a meeting it’s more about finalizing plans and not starting from ambiguous ideas. Let us know what you think in the comments below!
Q: But I love collaboration and free thinking meetings, won’t this kill that?
A: Not at all. I love barnstorms but even they can be defined/scoped before hand with a goal in mind.
Every meeting has an objective whether you realize it or not. Will you discuss how cool blue jays are, or is this about building better apps. List the goals of the brainstorm before you walk in, get it in the doc and ask everyone to prep the doc with ideas they already have. You can always think of new things at the meeting, just add them to the doc and make sure you don’t run over time.
Often times, if we realize an idea has no objective or goals the person with the idea simply srarta a thread on BC. If no one is interested in responding it is either a non-starter, or you have to flesh it out a bit more on your own to get buy in. Every individual is a startup and every employee that wants to get involved in your idea is sort of an investor or partner. If your idea is great (or even kind of good) someone will join you in fleshing it out. As it matures and goals and benefits develop it will naturally bring on more time from others to get it done, and the docs and BC threads help get it there, and keep a record of how you got there, for all to catch up on when the time comes.
Comment: I don’t have time to use a doc or thread and organize everything first. It is quicker to just meet.
It may be quicker for YOU, but that offloading of organization and time is placed upon everyone else at the meeting who ALSO doesn’t have time to do extra work. If your idea, project, or conversation has value then it is worth taking the time to get it organized and focused. If it IS NOT worth writing down and organizing then I hate to break it to you but that means it isn’t worth it to anybody else to sit down in a meeting.
Comment: I don’t need a meeting I will just use IM.
IM is great -don’t get me wrong. But it has a risk. I was just talking to someone now on IM about things to do in the future and “someone just walked in sorry”. In the old way data is lost, and momentum is killed. In the new way above it really doesn’t matter at all – add to the thread or doc when you get the time and we will continue to flesh it out there. Done and done .