Reduce friction

two wooden figures holding jigsaw pieces, aiming to join them together

A tremendous amount of what we do when we work in teams is affected by team culture. An important part of that culture relates to communication. The tone and nature of communication can be supportive, open, informal etc, allowing everyone to make suggestions, say what they think, and joke around … within reason!

But one of the most important aspects of communication in the workplace (especially for remote teams) is the transactional communication that’s needed to identify what needs to be done, who’s going to do it, who ultimately owns the task, what stages does the task need to go through before completion, what is the final deliverable, what does good look like and, critically, when do the stages need to be completed and when is the final deadline.

Often, much of this information exists in people’s heads. And that isn’t a good thing.

Firstly, the more we retain in our heads, the more pressure on our brain. This will lead to stress and also memory failure.

What was that thing so-and-so said about X in the meeting?”

“Oh man! I can’t remember. I wish I’d written it down.”

We’re all guilty of this because, well, work happens; it happens quickly and we don’t always take time to do the slow bits – reflecting on what has just happened, taking time to write out notes to help us understand and remember, actually taking minutes in meetings, and making the time to share these things.

Also, it’s common to go quickly from meeting to meeting, without much time in-between so the brain has little time to process one conversation before starting a new one.

Something often missing is the shared record of all of these details which is why collaboration tools, like Trello, Asana and Airtable, are so important. Can everyone on the project look at a single screen at any given time and see all the tasks that need to be done, by whom and by when? If not, there’s something missing.

Having this record means that the information is not in people’s heads or in their own note-taking systems. Everything is completely transparent. The tool can also be used in meetings, to discuss who, what and when, while looking at the status of everything. Someone sharing a screen during a meeting showing the main view of the project board or table means that everyone is focused and supported by the information they see.

If a member of the team is not around, this information is available whenever they need to catch up. If someone takes ill, their tasks can easily be reassigned and the related information and content related to those tasks is linked (or should be) from the task record – the Trello card, or whatever.

This also means that a lot of the transactional communication I mentioned earlier is asynchronous, meaning that communication between team members is not happening directly, person to person. One person passes on a task by reassigning a card, or a ticket, and at some point the other person will pick up that information. And everyone can see that it has happened. When people work at different times, and especially hen people are in different time zones, this is critical.

This week I listened to a book in Blinkist called ‘Smart Teams‘  by Dermot Crowley. This contained some excellent advice and as a bit of a teamwork and process nerd, I’m tempted to get the proper book. In the Blinkist version, the author is paraphrased, so the quotes used here are from that source.

Crowley notes that “No matter how well we work on our own, our environment and our interactions with other people can either drag us down or help our productivity soar.” This is very true. We often spend time waiting for other people, asking them questions, seeking out reminders of what was said or what happened and also procrastinating over contacting someone because you feel you can’t or shouldn’t ask them, because you might be seen as stupid or incompetent.

Without the reference point of the project management tool, we have little support in understanding what’s going on. The book focuses mainly on issues that cause friction, which Crowley identifies as “the loss of productivity that happens between people, like when your plans for the day are disrupted by having to pick up the pieces of someone else’s unmet deadline”.

He provides a method for overcoming productivity issues that I thought was really helpful, which is to agree on a set of “productivity principles”. Doing this involves the team paying closer attention to how each individual’s actions could “inadvertently be making other’s lives more difficult”, and being mindful of your decisions and actions at all times.

“It’s a question of taking a look at our working lives and pointing to behaviours that create the friction.”

A set of principles can be written by a team by brainstorming the issues that arise that cause friction and loss of productivity and using this data to agree on actions to mitigate those issues. By combining a desirable quality that you want to encourage with a situation where it applies, you can oil the gears to reduce the friction.

For example, team members often share versions of a file via email, rather than a single shared document that is situated in a shared folder. This can lead to issues with version control. So the desired behaviour is to work in a single document that’s in a shared folder. Team members share the link to that document without creating a different version just to share it.

Another frequent situation is that someone has meetings that the majority of the team are not required to attend, but need to know about. This is fine, but the team needs to be updated on the key information. A method I like is to type a few bullets of keys points into a document, or on a slide, and then record a screen video using Loom, in which I talk through the bullets briefly and identify the key information and the issues and actions that were raised in the meeting. Then I share the Loom with the team.

This can be done ‘hot’, directly after the meeting, so that the information is fresh and there’s no need to spend time creating a document and writing everything out. The bullets can be typed during the meeting itself and, all in all, it’s an extremely quick and efficient way of updating the team without letting time and memory loss get in the way, and everyone is updated rapidly.

The author concludes by reinforcing the fact that productivity is not just about how much you can accomplish on your own, but has a lot to do with the culture in which you work and how you interact with others. I think this is important to remember, because productivity is often thought of as a thing we need to focus on individually, like our own time and task management and our ability to cope with everything given to us effectively and efficiently. But in a team, we must be mindful of everyone else and try not to get in anyone else’s way.

Something I was introduced to recently relates a bit to what I’ve written about above. It’s a tool called Grain that can be used to record, transcribe, and share Zoom calls. There’s a video here with an introduction to the tool and it looks really useful.

Grain could help deal with the situation above in which I propose using Loom. But also, if you’re working in learning design and interviewing SMEs, then I think this could be a real game-changer in capturing the SME in action and identifying the key areas of the discussion that need to be added to learning content or explored further. The tool is only for Zoom, however, if you tend to use a different conferencing tool then there might be an alternative similar solution I don’t know about.

If you know of something similar for Teams or Google Meet, let me know!

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