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Mar 12, 2019

Slow Written Language In A Fast-Moving Startup

Years ago, when a company needed to align its staff on a goal or mission, each employee had to type up notes and circulate them amongst each other. Employees would carefully study their co-workers' notes before meeting together to discuss them. Ray Dalio - the legendary founder of the world's largest investment company, Bridgewater - reported in 2018 that they begin each meeting with everyone reading through the memo for what the meeting is about before starting the discussion.

However, in the fast-paced world of startups the written memo is replaced by meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. The Muse reports that 25 million meetings are currently being held in the U.S. per day, resulting in employees spending anywhere from 35-50% of their work week in meetings. Sadly, surveyed company executives consider 67% of them to be total failures. Also, quite often, people came unprepared to these meetings and attempt to make good decisions on the fly. People feel like they're doing a lot but end up accomplishing little. I have certainly been guilty of this in earlier start-ups.

Employees' time is the most valuable resource in most organizations. We believe the written Word can give back time to everyone. And, writing instead of speaking is a key building block for a successful company where employees are dispersed globally.

At Crisp, we are returning to the power of the written word and have developed a specific process to communicate and share important information. Here's how we do it:

We use Dropbox Paper for 80% of our communication. This is the lifeblood of the company, and it allows us to communicate organically over a low threshold. The same can be achieved with another group document tool like Google Docs, Microsoft Sharepoint. We selected Dropbox Paper due to its really nice integration of Tasks and its offline functionality. However, what tool is not the most important. The company wide commitment to NOT use email is what matters.

We have five main types of ‘documents' in Dropbox Paper:

  1. SCRATCHPAD: Every team has what we refer to as a scratchpad. This serves as a dynamic agenda and discussion forum for all topics for that group of people. Prior to meeting, topics for discussion must be spelled out in the living meeting agenda in the team‘s scratchpad. If the agenda is empty, the meeting is cancelled. In the document there are two sections: Asynchronous topics where we keep topics we want to resolve in writing before the meeting. Topics for next meeting are themes we want to discuss in the next meeting. It's actually shocking how many topics will move into the asynchronous section before the actual meeting because it's actually been resolved without a meeting.
  2. NOTES: This is simply open meeting notes from all internal and external meetings. One great aspect of Dropbox Paper's homepage is that it's integrated with our calendars, so for all meetings scheduled, we are prompted to easily create an agenda and add notes in a template - complete with action points and a meeting summary section ready for us to write in. We write directly into Dropbox Paper when we hold meetings, with multiple people taking notes. This allows us to create, store, and keep tabs on notes from all meetings, both internal and external. Since we are a remote first company, most meetings are via video, and we have an automatic transcription and a video recording of the entire meeting, open for everyone to see 99% of the time.
  3. TASKS: This is a collection of action points. They are open so everyone can see everyone's tasks, giving the ability for all to weigh in if there's something that can be assisted with. I can assign tasks to others and they can assign to me. When a task is completed, we tick the box (so there will be no more communication back and forth asking about status of a task)
  4. DIGEST: This is our ‘local newspaper'. We can all be journalists and write about lighter topics, big technical breakthroughs and customer wins.
  5. IDEAS, OPPORTUNITIES, PRODUCTS. We want the entire company to generate product and go to market ideas. The bar to create an idea in paper is very low and accessible for anyone in the company. We together prioritize ideas.
In addition we use Slack if we need immediate feedback from someone. If the discussion in slack gets longer we lift the discussion into Paper. Note that we do not use emails nor do we use PowerPoint for internal communication.

Here's what we've learned so far from communicating in this way and how we've benefitted
We've discovered that there are several benefits to prioritizing the written word:

- No fear of missing out: In earlier companies I noticed a big driver of the many meetings (and the many people in every meeting…) was a fear of missing out. Often it was considered a ‘reward' to be invited to a meeting or even a ‘punishment; not to be invited. Now we have largely eliminated this. Meeting notes and action points are available cross the entire company. By working this way, it's possible for two people to discuss a topic in writing and for everyone else to catch up on the discussion after it has reached its conclusion.

- Clearer, more thoughtful arguments: It's easier to understand another person's arguments when they are written out. When we're speaking, we're generally thinking about what we're going to say next instead of actively listening to what other people are saying. When writing, we've found our discussions don't deteriorate into shallow arguments.

- More weight to arguments, less to presentation technique: It reduces the importance of presentation techniques, whether it's convincing arguments, discussions, or otherwise. Some people are good at saying a lot, even if there isn't much content to what they're saying. It's harder to get away with a lack of substance in writing. It's harder to ramble, or add “fluff”, in writing. It also reduces repetition of arguments. It's harder to be ‘political' in your communication when it's in writing. It encourages more of a 'straight to the point' type of culture.

- Broad participation, traceability and transparency: It allows us to work with many people at the same time while still maintaining a full record of what's happening within each topic, what the facts are, what everyone is thinking, and what action steps are being taken. It enables us to retrace our steps and understand how we came to a right or wrong conclusion. This creates a feedback learning loop for the organization that allows us to continually improve.

- Increased meeting discipline: When everything is in writing, people are forced to come prepared for meetings.

- Enabler for remote work: This way of working allows for asynchronous work on a topic without having to be in the same physical location.

- Faster issue resolution: We've found that 80% of topics we would have discussed in a meeting are resolved before we even get to the meeting...

Here are some of the downsides of communicating this way:
So far, we haven't discovered many downsides to prioritizing the written word over a more traditional meeting structure. But there are a few difficulties that could be considered potential issues:

- Less social interaction: You can miss out on the social aspect of meetings. This can help you build your company culture and develop a better understanding of each team member. You can also gain clarity about topics on which people agree or disagree.

- Harder to build a team culture in bits and bytes: Meetings can be used as a team building tool. In an increasingly electronic world, it can be easy to forget that we are interacting with human beings and not machines. There's a lot that can be picked up through tone of voice and body language that you might not notice through digital communication.

- Harder to build team cohesion: If used correctly, meetings can boost motivation levels and serve as a reminder that everyone is working together as a team to achieve goals. They can encourage more teamwork.

We have however found that most of these issues will be resolved when we have the meeting in video or in person -- with the advantage that everyone knows and everyone's prepared and that fosters bigger thinking when we do meet.

Meetings can waste a lot of time. Rediscovering the old ways of communicating & finding new ways to streamline the process by moving discussions and decisions to writing in the cloud, has helped us establish a fully transparent and highly efficient culture for communication in the organization. What's important when you adopt these principles is to be open to identifying efficiency opportunities, and always be proactively receptive to improvements along the way.

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