In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about how to use documentation to get the right things done in a remote business.
For your startup to run smoothly with no hiccups, it is crucial to document all your processes and have them followed by your team members. The importance of documentation is even more crucial in fully remote companies, as a lot can go wrong when everyone is not physically present.
In this episode, Steli and Hiten share their thoughts on why documentation of your process is super important, best practices and things to avoid when running a remote business and much more.
Time Stamped Show Notes:
00:00 About the topic of today’s episode
00:35 Why this topic was chosen.
01:26 What inspired Steli to come up with this topic.
02:24 Best practices and things to avoid when running a remote business.
03:22 How FYI is solving a huge problem for remote companies
03:36 Why becoming disciplined in your writing efforts is a good idea.
05:50 How companies sometimes make the mistakes of coming up with different versions of the same document.
07:54 The importance of having rules in your organization.
08:36 Why you should make your rules simple to follow.
10:14 The importance of having a philosophy in your business.
3 Key Points:
- It’s very rarely the tool, but the humans and how they use those tools.
- The more complex the rules are, the less likely people are going to follow them
- In a remote company, you need to get really good at documentation.
Steli: Hey everybody. This is Steli Efti.
Hiten: And this is Hiten Shah. Today on The Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about how to manage process and documentation at a remote team inspired by the FYI twitter account ’cause that’s what Steli said this is about.
Hiten: Which is one of my businesses. And the twitter account is @usefyi in case you want to follow along. And what we’ve been doing is we’ve been talking a lot about documents, document tools as well as productivity. And then I think one of people’s favorite topics today which is remote work and how to do it well. So I think Steli and I have a lot of thoughts on this considering our businesses are remote as well as we have faced a lot of these kind of challenges in the past with doing this right, doing this wrong etc. So what’s on your mind? What inspired you? I know what inspired you which was our Twitter account and all the sharing we’ve been doing. We’re committed to sharing more and more now. But what really is on your mind about this that you think people need to hear?
Steli: Yeah, I get asked often, “What tools do I use? What tools does my team use to be productive and aligned as a fully remote company, fully distributed company?” And I often find myself going back to some of the basic principles that we share so often Hiten which are that yes, I have some tools I use, and I have tools that I can recommend, but it’s very rarely the tools, right? It’s always the humans and how they use those tools that really make a difference. And so I oftentimes find myself just sharing with people certain principles on how we communicate as a remote company and how we think about certain things. Now, one of the biggest problems that … So I thought it will be fun for us to go back and forth, ping pong a little bit on this episode and just share some best practices or mistakes to avoid for people that are thinking about organizing and managing their remote company especially from a point of view in terms of how do we organize our different projects? How do we organize our work? How do we share information online? And since I’ve been following the FYI twitter account, you guys post all this kind of super neat insights in document sharing software and what companies and people struggle with. One of the biggest struggle which is what you guys are solving right now with a product that you’re building is that people cannot find all the documents that they have. And that’s one of the problems that we went through is we grew as a company. Engineering team likes to use Dropbox paper when the market team likes to Google docs, when the other team likes to use something else. And you never want to constrain people. But then eventually, you’re drowning in a sea of different document preferences, different document tools that different teams use. And it’s very hard to navigate and find what you’re looking for at any given time. And FYI is making I think a big dent in helping people with finding their stuff. But the big principle that I always share … There’s two. One, when it comes to documentation sharing of ideas within a remote company, is to become very disciplined in your writing efforts. Make sure that you eliminate having impromptu conversations between two or multiple team members that are not captured or written down anywhere, right? That’s something that people are very accustomed to in an office environment. A bunch of people ad hoc meet around the water cooler, brainstorm some wild ideas and come up with that exciting solution to a problem, or make a decision on something that was unclear. And then because it happens physically in a room in a way that’s very strong signal for everybody else, the most relevant people might eardrop or join the conversation and have the information that they need. In a remote company, if three jump in on a Skype call or a Zoom call and come up with some brilliant idea, nobody else in the company knows of this fact. Nobody has heard of this. So it can be quite dangerous because then you have the scenario where people had made decisions and nobody else understands these decisions or knows about them. And so you get this strong misalignments. So in a remote company, you need to get really really good at documenting any ideas, decisions that are being made, usually writing that down somewhere, keeping track of meeting notes, doing write-ups afterwards on what was decided and why, and then sharing that with the company. But the other thing that I’m curious to hear your thoughts on is this concept that I find oftentimes surprising or challenging especially on remote teams, but this is probably a generic issue, is companies and teams they pour way too much time in creating a version 1 of any kind of document. And then that document will be forgotten, never to be used, never to be practically put to use. And a year later, there’s another group of people that will have a meeting about a similar subject creating a new document writing down the new version of this thing. And so after three or four years of the company history, there’s literally nine different documents that try to describe the same thing in different ways and that have never been used by anybody in any practical sense to make a decision or to do anything else. So this is one of my biggest [inaudible], and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this of it’s a good idea to write things down, and document things, and create processes and documentation for things in the company especially a remote company. But then the challenge seems often to be from a human perspective, how useful are these documents? How are they being put to use? Or are they just busywork where people spend a lot of time writing all this down? Everybody looks at it and agrees, and then it’s instantly forgotten, never to be used again. I’m curious to tap into your mind and your learnings over the last year or two that you’ve been really diving deep when it comes to document sharing and see what you’ve learned and how you see that in that space.
Hiten: Yeah. I was on a call yesterday. It was an hour long call. And there’s a document produced right after it within another half hour. It had two sections. It was recap of discussion, and there was literally bullets of the recap. And the next section was takeaways and actions. And it had people’s names on it and what they were going to do. Thankfully, none of those were assigned to me. There were two other people in the call.
Hiten: I’m just joking. I’m just joking. That was the context. I was just sharing that these two people needed to hear, and we had to coordinate. So I had already done my task which was think through something. Anyway, so there’s two sections: recap and takeaway/actions. And it was sent out within a hour or so of the discussion. And the question was like, “Is this good? Did I cover everything? Did I capture everything?” The answer is yes. And it got shared with the rest of the team so everybody knows what’s going on. And then there was a reply from a key person on the team saying, “Oh it’s all good. This sounds good to me. Let’s just keep moving forward,” and all that. And so what was really cool is that you just have to have these simple rules. They’re rules. I’m sorry. They’re rules. And they make the organization work well because if that call didn’t have somebody taking the notes and coming over to takeaways, the whole call wouldn’t be worth everyone’s time, you know?
Steli: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Hiten: And it wasn’t a serious discussion. It was a tactical discussion and getting people aligned sort of discussion of how we move forward with something. And it was relatively casual, but we were just getting aligned. But the notes were super powerful. I’m even looking at them now because I wanted to find them and make sure I describe the sections. And its like, why can’t we as humans just come up with simple things like that? Why do we have to make such a big deal about all this stuff? So my big learning is that the more complex the rules, the less likely people are to continuously follow them. This is simple rule. Recap the discussion. While we’re talking, someone’s writing notes or whatever. And then basically have a takeaway section. And honestly, the coolest thing about the discussion is nobody was sitting there even at the end, even though I usually do this. But at the end, nobody was like, “What are our takeaways?” Or “What are our next steps?” It was just organically determined and a document was created of what people are going to do because somebody was paying attention and knew that this needed to happen, right, and knows the importance of documentation. It’s kind of rooted in the culture at that company. And so I don’t know. This kind of blows my mind because the simple stuff works. The complex stuff is like, “Oh you got to have these five sections. You got to do this all the time.” That doesn’t work most of the time unless it is for things that you’re repeating that are heavy. So I would say for product development and things like that, and some certain types of engineering, there are very deliberate templates or sections you needed to document. But the simplest thing you can do is if people are having a conversation whether it’s two people or more … Ideally when it’s two people or more, it becomes even more important. You write notes, and you make a document of the recap and takeaway/action items. And that just gets everything done. Sometimes, what I see remote teams do that takes it to a different place or is a different way to do it is they’re literally creating the tasks in the tool they’re using. So I’ve seen so many teams use Trello. And they’re discussing what’s going on in Trello in their meetings. And they’re moving things around, and then they’re adding tasks in realtime as they’re discussing it. That can be really valuable too because very little gets lost, and you might not need to take notes at that point because everything ends up getting put into the tool you’re going to manage the process.
Steli: I love that. And I think there is one thing that’s really important to highlight here in terms of philosophy, right? You could have a meeting that is a 30-minute, 45-minute, 60-minute meeting; and somebody writes meeting notes, basically transcribing sort of the entire conversation, right? And it could be seven pages full of text that attempts to write down everything that was said. Or you could do a recap that says, “What were the key takeaways? What were the key decisions we made? And what are the action items? And who has to do them by when?” Right? And this would take maybe just half a page, right? But think about the usefulness of one versus the other. It does sound cool to say we’ve written down word for word, everything that was discussed. But if you have to as yourself, well, what is the likelihood that people will have the time to read through eight pages to remember what was said two months ago of the meeting. Who has the time and desire to relive the entire meeting by spending another 20 minutes reading everything word for word? That’s not really that useful. But it is the most kind of mindless way to say, “As a remote team, we’re documenting every meeting. We have a really meticulous meeting notes.” That it in of itself is not useful, right? It’s not practical.
Steli: But writing up half a page of the key takeaways of this discussion, the key decisions that were made, the key to dos, that’s something that within two minutes I can look at and relive everything that was said and understand kind of its essence of what do I need to do now? Or what have we all agreed needs to happen next? And who’s responsible for that? So I love that simple but practical format by coming up with processes that are simple and practical and valuable versus that seem extensive or impressive or we do … Doing things for the purpose of doing them is mostly a wasted exercise versus asking yourself, after we’ve talked for 20 minutes, we had documented something with the most important thing. What will we really have to go back and look at? What needs to be documented here in a way that is going to be useful. Those are the few questions that if you ask yourself those questions, if you use that level of thoughtfulness and mindfulness. And everything else that you do becomes much, much better, right? Bit it just requires that little bit of thoughtfulness in the beginning versus just mindlessly going, “We’re a remote company. Whenever we have a meeting or discussion, we should document everything. So let’s down everything we’ve ever said. Let’s use a transcription software to have 450-page transcription of every word that was said in the 60-minute meeting, and then never to look at this again or use it in any practical way.
Hiten: Yeah, that happens a lot that people going document crazy, right? Yeah, that’s what I call it. It’s like document crazy. It’s like there’s so many that are created that you don’t go back to. So just a rule, I think the example you gave is really, the one from the fact that you made a document, had a meeting, and a year later you’re working on the same thing for some reason. Other people are working on it. I mean what really needs to happen is you almost need an elephant’s memory as they say. And you need to be able to remember that somebody did something. And then you have to go find that document in order to waste less time. Oftentimes, the document doesn’t even matter. That’s actually what’s really interesting to me. The document doesn’t matter. And the fundamental thing here is that humans tend to just be bad at getting stuff done. I’m just going to put that out there. We’re just bad at getting stuff done. And you could argue with me and say, “No, we do lots of stuff,” but like, “Yeah, yeah, Steli, we do lots of stuff.” See I’m talking to myself through you.
Steli: You’re having an argument with me-
Hiten: So yeah, yeah, there you go. Yeah, it’s great.
Steli: Without my participation. I love it.
Hiten: Yeah, there you go. I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, we get lots of stuff done but are we doing the right things?”
Steli: Yeah, humans are bad at getting the right things done.
Hiten: Fair enough.
Steli: There you go. I think that it’s impossible to argue with that statement, and this is a tweetable moment for sure on this episode.
Hiten: There you go.
Steli: Because it needs to be said into the wider world. I love it, yeah. So the more thoughtfulness we can use to constrain the way that we document things and the way that we decide what the right things to get done are, the more we can accomplish at the end of day. Yeah, I think it’s never really a problem of not enough time, not enough resources. It’s mostly a problem of now working on the right things or not getting the right things done. So anything you can do as a company or as an individual to get better at picking the right things and getting them done, I think that’s really the big difference between how far you can go and how much you can accomplish, and what the average is capable out there in terms of productivity. All right. I think this was a fun episode. I’m glad we did this. For people out there that are drowning in documents, using too many document tools, if you’ve not done this yet, Hiten is not going to pitch you this, but I will. Go to usefyi.com and check out Hiten’s newest product. It’s really really killer. It’s a [inaudible] product. So check it out.
Hiten: Yeah, check it out. Let me know how much you like it or don’t. I’d love your feedback. There’s a lot of work to do, but we’re really looking to solve this problem where your documents become easier to find and more.
Hiten: So thanks for the plug, Steli.
Steli: Well, it’s my honor and pleasure. Usefyi.com everybody. We’ll hear you very very soon.
Hiten: See ya.