Spar from afar

My team sparring a content model

“Hey, I’m working on something and I’m not quite sure of the direction. Have you got a few minutes to take a look?”

It’s hard to ask that when your team is over 7,000 miles away. Mine is a distributed information experience (IX) team (4 in Sydney, 1 in Austin, and myself in San Francisco). As IX writers we use both design and technical writing processes to improve how a customer experiences information at every stage of their journey. We’re trying out new ideas all the time and one of the ways we keep everyone around the world in tune is sparring.


“To engage in argument, typically of a kind that is prolonged or repeated but not violent.” — Google definitions

Well, we’ve never had violence in our sparring sessions thank goodness. And the arguments are actually meant to be short and pointed rather than prolonged. An argument in this context is an uncomfortable but necessary process to challenge ideas and make improvements. When we engage in an argument with passionate and creative people, challenge our ideas, and see the team sharing and coming up with new ideas on the spot, that gets all our synapses firing.

Sparring is:

  • Great for testing out an idea you’re not quite sure about or finding direction when you’re stuck.
  • Short and focused on a few specific aspects of the content.
  • Often more about information design, information architecture, content strategy, and conceptual fidelity.
  • Less about grammar, syntax, and technical correctness.
  • Communal: intended to draw out ideas, generate participation and occasionally free up people to spike a “crazy idea” in a safe environment.

Sparring takes time, thought, and collaboration to be successful. We initially struggled with how much time to dedicate to each presenter. Too much time and we, almost by instinct, start evaluating at a sentence level. This distracts from the broad strokes we’re looking for from sparring. It’s worth looking at how our design teams spar in person.

When our teams spar in person (which is preferable when it’s possible) we generally do the following:

  • Pick and post the topic list before the sparring session
  • Schedule about 1 hour with three presenters. Three is a general rule, not a requirement, and allows for 20 minutes per presenter
  • Gather everyone together and pass out sticky notes, pens, and remind everyone to let the presenter lead the discussion
  • Present the content and asks for specific feedback
  • Take notes during the presentation then go around the room and give feedback
  • Share one big thing that stood out to each person
  • Use remaining time to ask for more detail or focus in on a couple details

This short, time-sensitive format allows us to focus our feedback and avoid going off track. Sparring is not a review, spike, user journey, or planning session, though aspects of each are frequently part of the sparring session.

Checking off ideas

From afar

We quickly realized there were some pitfalls to sparring over video. Using sticky notes to post insights doesn’t work very well for team members who are not in the same room. In addition, when you watch your teammates excitedly chatting over their notes you feel very isolated. So, we needed to try something a little different.

We left most of the process untouched, keeping the time and presentation guidelines, while fine tuning some of the following details:

  • Each presenter adds their name and the content they are going to spar to an internal Confluence page for that week’s sparring session.
  • We schedule meetings every two weeks if we have content to spar.
  • Each presenter talks through a few key points:
    * What they want feedback on
    * How far along (idea, draft, completed content) the content is 
    * What problem or opportunity the content is addressing
    * How this content fits into the larger content strategy
  • Each person takes about 5 minutes to review the content and prepare feedback for the presenter.
  • We go around the group alternating comments from the different locations. This can feel awkward, but it helps normalize communication because one location doesn’t dominate the conversation.
  • We use any remaining time to answer specific questions or focus on a few key points.

Those few small changes make the session more personal and engaged and help reduce the differences between remote members and members in the room. Switching from location to location keeps everyone focused and ensures no contribution is less valuable than any other, which is a critical aspect of sparring. One of the things I love most about my team, and Atlassian, is that a good idea truly can come from anywhere, anyone, at almost any time. Sparring provides the place and time for those ideas, you just bring your team.

Keeping it up

One of the biggest challenges we face is keeping all this up and running. Time is not your friend here. When everyone gets busy it becomes more challenging to stop and take the time to spar.

I know this because my team just went through a lull in sparring. We’re getting back to it now but watch out because all it takes is a couple weeks of “Anyone got something to spar? No, okay” and suddenly it’s been two months or more!

I believe you should never have a meeting just to have a meeting, so I keep recurring meetings to a minimum. That usually works well, but for sparring it’s easy to think what you have to spar isn’t “worth everyone’s time.” So we keep the recurring meeting and remind everyone that any content, or idea is worth our time.

One last thing

Why do all this extra work?

Building a team is hard, and those challenges are multiplied when you’re building a distributed creative team. Creative people are often driven by empathy, community, collaboration, and creativity. Sparring fosters all those things while also driving our products and our customer’s experiences forward.

Some of my team love a touch of pizzazz, some love to cut the cruft, some love to focus on visual presentation, some on interconnection, some like a good story, and so on and so forth. In a distributed team we might never really know all these things about each others’ skills, focus areas, and passions. Sparring brings all these things to light in a safe arena.

So bring your content, your pens, your sticky notes, your ideas, and your passions. Jump into the ring and:

ding ding, spar on!

Never sparred before? More info about sparring awaits you on the Atlassian Team Playbook — our free, no-BS guide to teamwork.

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