Our Slack & Proposal Experiment

by Jer McKoy

As both a community and volunteer-run non-profit, we rely heavily on tools and processes that promote collaboration and transparency. We recently conducted an experiment using Slack with a proposal tool and are sharing it as an example of how we operate.

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

DEF uses Slack as both a community (to connect people with shared interests and projects) and as a non-profit (to collaborate as a volunteer team).

Last year we decided to figure out whether the paid version (specifically the Standard Plan, for those curious) would create additional value for the community and Leadership Team (LT, aka the volunteers running non-profit operations).

The idea came up because Slack’s free plan has limits on access to only the most recent 10,000 messages (in addition to other factors, like analytics, number of connected applications, ability to share further information in personal profiles, etc.) — these limits impacted our ability, as both a community and a volunteer team, to find helpful context from previous conversations and decisions.

Because the cost of the paid plan at the non-profit rate is ~$1/active user per month, we expected that it would cost somewhere around $800 to do a 3-month trial (based off of the active member rate at the time). We budgeted for that amount in 2019 and began our trial during the first quarter of that calendar year.

As expected, the ability to add additional bots, access old messages, and all the things Slack promised in its shiny advertising messages proved helpful. Those who tended more towards the “super user” (aka “super nerd”) side of the community or LT tended to be more in tune with all those benefits, while many others either didn’t notice or had no idea of the change because they joined during that time period.

As the year went on, we actually never cancelled the plan, both because we failed to plan for the cut-off date (oops, poor experiment design!) and because there were a lot of other things going on (like DEF2019).

So, we got to October, having expended closer to $300 a month for the previous couple iterations of the paid plan, and decided it was time to make a decision about whether to keep it or not.

The problem was, we didn’t actually know what would happen: would our systems break down on the volunteer team? Would community members riot? Would anyone even know the difference?

We didn’t really have any data to determine what would happen, so we did what any good entrepreneur might do and decided to conduct yet another experiment: we decided to turn off paid Slack for a month and see what happened.

The way we came to this conclusion was part of the experiment: instead of hashing it out over a phone call or via email or even (ironically) in Slack, one of the team members (me, in this case) created a structured proposal (a la Amazon’s “No PowerPoint” rule) that was designed as a read-ahead to both better inform and shape the decision.

Because the format was prescriptive (meaning the content was driven by the questions in the document template), we were able to clearly outline key details in an efficient way. We chose to structure that proposal as follows:

  • Bottom Line (quick, one-paragraph overview)
  • Background (details someone new might not know)
  • Discussion (why this matters, what we should do)
  • Alternative Views (a “virtual 10th man” strategy)
  • Recommendations (what should be done)
  • Action Steps & Key Dates (when and how we should do it)
  • Conclusion (the pretty bow to tie it all up)

Once we’d done this, we shared it with the team and then set a date by which everyone was expected to have read it in preparation for a decision. We walked through each Team Lead’s perspective on a weekly call, determined that the proposal recommendation to “turn off paid Slack and see what happens” made sense, along with the proposed action steps and key dates, and moved out.

Per the action steps, we let the community know that we were going to start a 1-month trial of turning off paid Slack beginning in November, after which we would take their input, questions and feedback (we even created a #feedback channel in Slack to help encourage transparency), in addition to the perspective of the volunteers, and go from there.

Slack message in #general notifying members of the upcoming change.

Over the course of the month, a few people chimed in and noted that it would be really nice to keep access to messages beyond the most recent 10,000 (which generally, at our rate of use for the time, was about 2 months worth of messages). We even had an almost immediate offer to help sponsor the cost of the paid version. But, over all, there weren’t very many responses.

When we re-convened to determine how the test went (as scheduled, unlike when we decided to start paying), the feedback from the LT was that while frustrating, the 10,000 message limit and all the lost features didn’t break anything (good news, since we don’t want to be dependent on expensive tools). Since the feedback from the community was pretty sparse, the question became, “Now what do we do?

This is where mission and values come into play: DEF identifies as a community first, which means that we want our actions to support individuals as much as they support the volunteers’ efforts. Since a few individuals expressed frustration (and at least one was willing to put their money where their mouth was), we decided to pursue the follow-on recommendation in the original proposal, which was to turn paid Slack back on and allow people to donate to help cover the cost.

Slack message in #general notifying members of the decision to allow crowd-sourced donations.

That’s where we are now — we’ve come full-circle on an experiment (after having failed to correctly scope it up front), used tools to collaborate efficiently across a distributed community and volunteer team, measured the results, and used our values and mission to inform a decision. We intend to keep approaching things in this manner. This is how DEF works, and this is how we want to see national security work.

This is how DEF works, and this is how we want to see national security work.

We are “just” a bunch of people who care about things like collaboration, sharing, transparency, and adaptive capabilities. We hope our approach to design experiments and test ideas (to take a “build, measure, learn” approach to what we do) is at least consistent with our mission and values — we would love if they continued to inspire others to go out and do likewise.

Thank you for being part of this community — we would love to hear your thoughts and ideas! If this particular story inspired you, feel free to support paid Slack if you like, or volunteer to be part of the Leadership Team. We are constantly experimenting, and your input is both meaningful and impactful.

Jer McKoy is an Air Force officer and volunteer with the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, where he leads the Community Team and attempts to help corral local events around Washington DC . He also volunteers with Service to School, a non-profit that helps veterans seeking admission to college, and Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization. Jer is passionate about solving problems and helping others become better, more impactful, versions of themselves. You can generally find him (in between phone calls with random people) working out, coaching, reading, cooking, or tinkering with some form of technology. He is married to an incredibly talented author, speaker and food blogger, and they have a terrifying, Ewok-looking dog.

The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that inspires, connects and empowers people by convening events, forging partnerships and delivering tangible solutions. Our mission is to promote a culture of innovation in the U.S. national security community.

If you are a military member or veteran, government employee, entrepreneur focused on national security, or just find the idea of helping solve tough problems enticing, we’d love to have you join the DEF Community!

Disruptive Thinkers

We share ideas, questions, successes, failures and experiments in order to promote a culture of innovation in the U.S. national security community. Learn more about us at DEF.org.

Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

Written by

We inspire, connect and empower people in order to promote a culture of innovation in the national security community. More at www.DefenseEntrepreneurs.org

Disruptive Thinkers

We share ideas, questions, successes, failures and experiments in order to promote a culture of innovation in the U.S. national security community. Learn more about us at DEF.org.

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