Documenting Decisions in a Remote Team

One of the questions I hear most about our globally distributed team at Buffer is “how do you document decisions”? In a remote team, a more intentional method of making and documenting decisions is needed to help everyone stay in the loop. I believe being intentional about sharing decisions increases the quality of decision making and builds stronger alignment for all types of teams, too.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

1. Clarify the decision

If you have a nebulous problem statement, it’ll be really hard to pin point what, if anything, was decided. It’s then much harder to communicate that. To communicate decisions effectively, you need a clear statement of what that decision is. This is important for all good decision making — shared context is hard to build and being vague about what a decision is really hurts this.

2. Decide & Share the Decision Makers

For a simple decision, it’s key to identify who the decision maker is: the person who will make the decision (and be accountable). For a more complex decision, doing a RACI responsibility assignment matrix works really well. The “responsible” person, or decision maker, is who should be communicating the decision. Without knowing who this is, you end up with a bystander effect where everyone participates in the decision, but no-one takes ownership of a) ensuring a decision is reached and b) communicating the decision.

Having a document like a Google Doc or Dropbox Paper to record what the decision is, and who the decision makers are, is really helpful, especially to reference later on too.

3. Share That the Decision will Happen

For bigger decisions, it’s really helpful to share ahead what decision is being made, and by whom. This can be lightweight — a point on a meeting agenda (make sure to share your meeting notes!) or a quick email. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy process, but knowing ahead of time that a certain decision will be made helps people start to process it. This type of repetition happens naturally in co-located teams when people chat. In remote teams, sharing a quick heads up helps everyone be on the same page.

4. Document the Decision

Once your decision is made, in whatever format you’re using (via a meeting or as a conclusion from some research), you need to ensure two things. 1) Your decision is communicated and 2) There’s a record of that decision that can be accessed later.

To share word of the decision, at Buffer we use email for smaller updates, or a Discourse announcement for larger decisions. This is shared to the widest group of people who it may effect — so for example, a decision that directly affects product engineers, but could be of interest to someone outside product (e.g. a devops team), might be shared to all engineers. By this stage, it’s not out of the blue: people have heard that the decision is being made, and they know by whom. They might have even seen that decision be made in a meeting or followed along on your document. So, by the time the decision is shared in a follow-up, it’s much easier to retain.

Lastly, recording your decision — do any docs or workflows need to change? If so, update them promptly. Will this affect how teams work for the future? Then you’ll need to update your team handbook/wiki. Do you just need a record that is more find-able than Email? It’s handy to share your Dropbox Paper/Google Drive doc, put it in an appropriate folder, and link to that in a team “what happened this week” roundup. If you’re not doing those and your team could be more on the same page, this might be what’s missing.

It’s really important not to share decisions via Slack only. It’s so easy for Slack messages to get lost in a sea of other chatter, and people coming online later can easily miss it. It also creates a lot of stress if people need to “read Slack” every day before they start work, just in case they miss an important decision. So, if you’re posting a decision to Slack, make sure you follow up in a more asynchronous medium, too.

But this all takes So. Damn. Long.

Yes. But it’s tremendously less time and effort than having your team not know what’s going on. Constantly putting out fires, re-doing work, and repairing relationships because people weren’t on the same page is far more time consuming than communicating intentionally.