Cultivating great distributed teams

Your best meetings can be remote

A couple years ago, Keith Fahlgren joined me in some ridiculous conference performance art. We wired up real-time speech recognition and some hooks into Google Docs and Github to produce an automated transcription of our live talk, with audience commentary incorporated at the appropriate timestamps via Twitter hashtags. (It sorta worked, eventually.)

We were trying to transform the passive experience of a conference talk into the active participation we saw in our best meetings.

O’Reilly and Safari are distributed organizations, so nearly all of our meetings are virtual. And while we do value our in-person summits, we try to use that time for other purposes, like high-velocity, high collaboration project weeks. So our best meetings, the productive kind where decisions get made and things get done, happen online.

In 2012 we settled on a basic framework for document-driven meetings that we wrote about in Building Distributed Teams: Driving meetings with Google Docs. We’ve refined that process further as we’ve rolled it out to the whole company, but the essential principles are unchanged:

  • All recurring meetings have a single Google Doc with a running head for “pending” items, and dated notes, in reverse chronological order (newest items at the top).
  • Everyone in the meeting is responsible for agenda items, taking notes, and making corrections/clarifications in real time.
  • Pending items and questions can be asked and answered asynchronously. Ideally many items meant for discussion get resolved before the next meeting.

As a result:

  • Optional meetings become truly optional. The document is a rich representation of what actually happened, so there’s no need to show up to just “listen.”
  • Excepting sensitive communication, documents are accessible by the entire company, so minutes are searchable using the rich Google Docs interface. This enables others to stumble upon relevant discussions when performing a general topic search.
  • Conversations become richly multithreaded, extending out from just the space of the meeting itself. This is in contrast to dry traditional minutes (that record only what occurred), and to email discussion threads (that can’t effectively branch out or run in parallel).
John O’Duinn at Cultivate NY 2015
“Don’t ask someone to take notes. Do ask everyone to update shared notes.” — John O’Duinn, Distributed: Evolving how we work and lead teams

I’ve been delighted to see these tactics emerge in other organizations too: at O’Reilly’s Cultivate event on corporate culture and transformation, John O’Duinn presented [PDF] his process, in principle very similar:

✅ Default meeting time 30 minutes

✅ Expect everyone to contribute to the agenda ahead of time

✅ Consider canceling the meeting if there’s nothing on the agenda

✅ Prefer information-dense video meetings to time-wasting conference calls (“Who just joined?”)

And a few new-to-me ideas:

  • New agenda items are added-to-bottom, to ensure that nobody with a big title gets to drop something in at the last minute and take up the whole meeting
  • Even for office workers, use headsets and eye-level cameras rather than room cameras, to maximize body language visibility

John’s team uses Etherpad rather than Google Docs for their distributed note-taking. I asked him what advantages he found with it, and whether they outweighed the user-friendliness of Google’s product:

“I tried both and found that I prefer Etherpad because a) it has line numbers, and b) color highlighting of changes — together these make it faster in the meeting to notice what is being changed and also say, ‘Hey Mary, back on line 27, why did you change the deadline from 9am to 5pm?’ ”

I believe that information sharing in an organization should be a “pull” rather than “push” model. Pull models are egalitarian — less information is locked away in inaccessible email threads. A pull model also enforces personal responsibility: I can’t claim I didn’t know about an important decision or initiative. John’s experience echoes my own:

“Once people saw that they were getting fewer interrupts asking-for-status and they could get more work done, keeping individual tickets updated as the sole source of truth caught on like wildfire. If I as the boss come asking for status, it’s totally fair for you to reply with just the bug number.”

And we also agree that providing a diversity of mechanisms for getting agenda items into meetings benefits a team with differing communication styles:

I had noticed that meetings tended to be dominated by the same vocal types. No-one wants to be the person raising a complex topic in the closing minutes of a meeting, so some people were repeatedly being blocked out. Having everyone append items to the agenda, and having the meeting moderator keep that sequence in the meeting, meant that others who were not as vocal could be assured their item would be covered.

And last but certainly not least, John emphasized my favorite piece of corporate culture advice, succinctly packaged:

Start meetings on time, out of respect for those who were punctual.

Thanks to John O’Duinn for his thoughtful answers and great presentation.

At Safari and O’Reilly, we believe that great work is done by people who are paying attention to new thinking, who are versed in the classics of their discipline, and who share what they learn with those around them. We believe that great workplaces invest in giving their people the opportunity to learn, to improve their skills to do their best work, and to promote a culture of sharing. If you want to drive business outcomes through a culture of continuous learning at your organization, drop us a line and we’ll help you get there.

If you’d like other advice on how to build a better company culture, please find me on Twitter.