Hackery, Math & Design

Steven Wittens i

Minimum Viable Bureaucracy

Minimum Viable Bureaucracy

The world of work has changed. Companies have transitioned from highly structured 9-to-5 clockworks, to always-on controlled chaos engines, partially remote or wholly distributed. Workers are affected too, expected to keep up with the 24/7 schedule of their directors and customers. This is only possible with the many communication and collaboration tools we have at our disposal. I work remotely myself, often across an ocean, and after years of this, I'd like to share some observations and advice.

Mainly, that the use of these tools is often severely flawed. I think it stems from a misconception my generation was brought up on: that technology is an admirable end in itself, rather than merely a means to an end. This attitude was pervasive during the 80s and 90s, when a dash of neon green cyberpunk was enough to be too cool for school. It laid the groundwork for the tireless technological optimism that is now associated with Silicon Valley and its colonies, but which is actually just part of the global zeitgeist.

In this contemporary view, when you have a problem, you get some software, and it fixes it. If it's not yet fixed, you add some more. Need to share documents? Just use Dropbox. Need to collaborate? Just use Google Docs. Need to communicate? Get your own Slack, they're a dime a dozen. But there is a huge cost attached: it doesn't just fragment the work across multiple disconnected spaces, it also severely limits our expressive abilities, shoehorning them into each product and platform's particular workflows and interfaces.

Brazil Movie Poter

The Missing Workplace

The first and most prominent casualty of this is the office itself: we have carelessly dismissed its invisible benefits for the dubious luxury of going to work in our pyjamas as remote workers. This is accelerated by the plague of open plan offices, which resemble cafeterias more than workshops or labs. The result in both cases is the same: employees sequester themselves, behind headphones or physical distance, shut off from the everyday cues that provide ambient legibility to the workplace.

It's not just the water cooler that's missing. Did that meeting go well, or are people leaving with their hands in their hair? Is someone usually the last one to turn off the lights, and do they need help? Is now a good time to talk about that thing, or are they busy putting out 4 fires at once? Did they even get a decent night sleep? Good luck reading any of that off a flakey online status indicator that is multiple timezones away.

Slack status

There are tools to fix this, of course. Just set a custom status! With emoji! Now, instead of just going about your work day like a human, you have to constantly self-monitor and provide timely updates on your activities and mental state. But there's an app for that, don't worry. Everyone turns into their own public relations agent, while expected to actively monitor everyone else's feeds. The solution is more of the problem, and the simple medium of body language is replaced by a somewhat trite and trivially spoofable bark. The only way you will get the real information at a distance is by having a serious conversation about it, which takes time and energy.

Even if you do though, you won't be privy to who else is talking to who, unless you explicitly ask. Innocently peeking in through the meeting room glass makes way for a complete lack of transparency. More so, clients don't even visit, lunches are often eaten alone, and occasional beers on Friday are usually off the table. They're not coming back when your workforce is spread across multiple timezones. This is a fundamentally different workplace, which needs a different approach.

The environment is asynchronous by default, yet people often still try to work in a synchronous way. We continue to try and maintain the personal and professional protocols of face to face interaction, even if they're a terrible fit. If you've ever been pinged with a context-less "hey," waiting for your acknowledgement before telling you what's up, you have experienced this. Your conversation partner has failed to realize they have all the time in the world to converse slowly, glacially even, with care and thought put into every message, which is the opposite of rude in that situation. Because it means you can't decide if it's actually necessary to respond if the timing is inconvenient.

A related example is the in-person "hey, I just sent you an email": they know they'll get a response eventually, but they want one now. By first sending the email, they are able to launder their interruption, passing the bulk of the message asynchronously, while keeping their synchronous message a seemingly trivial nothing. This isn't always bad, if you e.g. summarize some urgent notes immediately and let the email fill out the details, but this is rarely the case.

Write-Only Media

The notifications themselves are also a problem. They feature so prominently, they turn every issue into a priority 1 crisis. If left to accumulate for later they just get in the way, like a desk you can't even clear. The expectation is that you'll immediately want to look at it, and this is why they are so enticing for the sender: a response is practically guaranteed. But any medium that caters more to the writer than the reader should be treated with extreme skepticism [Twitter, 2006].

Instant notifications are an example of a mechanism that produces negative work. Whatever task is being interrupted is not just on pause, you've added an additional cost of context switching away and back that wasn't there before. A more destructive version is the careless Reply to All and its close sibling, the lazy Forward to Y'all. Whatever was said, instead of now 1 person reading it, there will be many. Everyone will now spend time digesting it independently, offering a multitude of uncoordinated replies, each of which will then need to be read, and so on. It can even become iterated negative work, and it scales up quickly.

Any time a manager forwards mails wholesale from the level above, or a rep forwards requests from a 3rd party to the entire team, this is what they are doing, and they should really stop that. Instead, you should make sure everyone mainly mass-sends answers, rather than questions. The purpose of a manager and a rep is to shield one side of a process from the details of the other after all. You do not want unfiltered, unvetted assignments to be mixed in with the highly focused, day to day communication of a well-oiled team. Any such attempt at inter-departmental buck passing should be resisted vigorously as the write-only pollution that it is. That said, specialty tools like issue trackers and revision control can be extremely useful even for non-specialist workers. You just need to make sure each group has their own space to work in, and is taught how to use it well.

Each person in a chain, even within a group, should act like an information optimizer, investigating and summarizing the matter at hand so the next ones don’t have to. Conversational style should be minimized, in favor of bullet points, diagrams and analysis. If you don't do this, you will end up with a company where everyone is constantly overloaded by communication, and yet very little gets resolved.

Ping Me Twice, Shame On You

If you do need to get a bunch of people into a synchronous room, virtual or otherwise, there needs to be a clear agenda and goal ahead of time. There should be concrete takeaways at the end, in the form of notes or assigned tasks. Otherwise, you will have nothing to constrain the discussion, and then several people will have to decide for themselves what to do next with the resulting tangle of ideas. Sometimes you will just have the same meeting again a few weeks later, especially if not everyone attends both. Instead you should aim to differentiate between those who need to attend a meeting versus those who just need to hear the conclusion. Particularly naive is the notion that mere recordings or logs are a sufficient substitute for due diligence here, as it takes a special kind of stupid to think that someone would voluntarily subject themselves to an aimless meeting they can't even participate in, after the fact.

This means optimizing for people-space, ensuring that the minimum amount of people are directly involved, as well as people-time, ensuring the least amount of manhours are spent. This also works on the long scale. If a question gets asked multiple times, it signifies a missed opportunity to capture past insight. It is essential to do this in a highly accessible place like a wiki, known and understood by all. It should be structured to match the immediate needs of those who need to read it. Dumping valuable information into chat is therefore an anti-pattern, requiring everyone to filter out the past nuggets of information based on the vague memory of them existing. A permanently updated record is a much better choice, and can serve as the central jumping off point to link to other, more ephemeral tools and resources. It should have every possible convenience for images, markup and app integration.

Unfortunately, few people will take the initiative on a blank canvas. There are two important reasons for this. The first is simply the bystander effect. If someone doesn't fill it out with placeholder outlines, clear instructions and pre-made templates, expect very little to happen organically. Make a place for project bibles, practical operations, one-time event organizing, etc. Also make sure you have a standard tool for diagramming, and some stencils for everything you draw frequently. It's invaluable, a picture says a thousand words. Encourage white board and paper sketching too, and editing them into other notes.

Second and more important is you need to get buy in on the intent and expected benefits. This is hard. The environment in some companies is so dysfunctional, some people have learned that meetings exist to waste time, and ticket queues exist to grow long and stale. They will pattern match sincere requests for participation to a request to waste their time. Or maybe they do appreciate those tools, but they've never been part of a development process where, by the time a ticket reaches a developer, the feature has been fully specced out and validated, and the bug is sufficiently analyzed and reproducible. To achieve this requires the design and QA team to have their own separate queues and tasks, as disciplined as the devs themselves.

Participants need to internalize that they can actually save everyone time, a tide that lifts all boats. It also translates into such luxuries as actually being able to take 2 weeks off without having to check your email. Fear of stepping on toes can prevent contributions from being attempted at all, so you should encourage the notion that the best critique comes in the form of additional proposed edits. Often, bad attempts at collaboration lead to a vicious cycle, where the few initiators burn out while reluctant non-participants feel helpless, until it gets abandoned.

In practice, swarm intelligence is a fickle thing. It can seem magical when things spontaneously come together, but often it's actually the result of some well spotted cow paths being paved, and a few helpful individuals picking up the slack to guide the group. You don't actually want an aimless mob, you want to have one or two captains per group, respected enough to resolve disputes and break ties. When done right, truly collaborative creation can be a wonderful thing, but most group dances require some choreography and practice. If your organization seems to magically run by itself regardless, consider you merely have no idea who's actually running it.

Legibility on Sale

In addition to day-to-day legibility of the workplace, there is a big need for accumulated legibility too. With so much communication now needing to be explicit rather than implicit, you run the risk of becoming incomprehensible to anyone who wasn't there from the start. If this becomes the norm, an unbridgeable divide forms between the old and the new guard, and the former group will only shrink, not grow.

A good antidote for this is to leverage the perspective of the newcomer. Any time someone new joins, they need to be onboarded, which means you are getting a free 3rd party audit of your processes. They will run into the stumbling blocks and pitfalls you step over without thinking. They will extract the information that nobody realizes only exists in everyone's heads. They will ask the obvious questions that haven't actually been written down yet, or even asked.

They should be encouraged to document their own learning process and document answers obtained. This is a good way to make someone feel immediately valued, and the perfect way to teach them early the right habits of your information ecosystem. You get to see what you look like from the outside, so pay attention, and you will learn all your blind spots.

Who are the staff and their roles and competences? How can I reach someone for this thing, and when are they available? What are our current ongoing projects and when are they due? What's our strategic timeline, and what's our budget? What's the process for vacations, or expenses? Remote work takes away a thousand tiny opportunities to learn all this by osmosis, and you need to actively compensate.

The resulting need for transparency may seem daunting, particularly if you need to document financial and legal matters. It can feel like dropping your pants for all to see, opening the floodgates to envy and drama to boot. It's a mistake however to consider it superfluous, because that gate is always open, whether you want it or not. If left unaddressed, it will be found out through gossip regardless, only you won't hear about any accumulated resentment until it's likely too late to resolve amicably.

It's also a red flag if someone doesn't want to document important discussions and negotiations. Like a boss who prefers to talk about performance or a raise entirely verbally and off-the-record, out of anyone else's earshot. Or a worker who can't account for their own hours or tasks, and pretends what they do is simply too complicated to explain. Such tight control of who hears what is never good, and means someone is positioning themselves to control information going up and down an organization entirely for their own benefit. However, as the cost of record keeping has been reduced to practically nothing, employees have a fair amount of power to push back. Everyone should be encouraged to ask for written terms for deals and promises, and keep their own copies of their history, including key negotiations and discussions. They should store this outside of accounts that can be locked out upon dismissal, or tampered with by a malicious inside actor.

I leave you with a trope, the beast that is the Big Vision Meeting. Usually something has gone wrong which casts doubt on the company's future, or which puts management in a bad light, or both. Likely people are being "let go". Before this news can be delivered, the bosses must save face. So they give a 1-3 hour PowerPoint which projects the company into the future for a year or two, and lays out how successful they will be. Crucially absent will be the specifics of how they will get there, and instead you will get abstract playbooks, colorful diagrams and "market research" or "financial analyses" that don't have any real numbers in it.

It's important to consider the perspective of the worker here: the minute the Big Meeting starts, they already know something is up, because it is always called without notice. Everything that is not critically urgent is immediately put on hold. So they have to sit through this possibly hours-long spiel, wondering the entire time how bad it actually is, while the bosses think they are elevating spirits, in a stunning failure of self-awareness. Finally they tell them, and then the meeting ends soon after, and the question they had the entire time was not answered: how are we going to get through the next 2 weeks, what's our plan here?

The worst of the worst will do this by asking the non-fired employees to come in an hour late, so they can fire the unlucky ones by themselves, without having to own up in front of everyone at the same time why they had to let them go. Certain types abhor this lack of image control. You'll learn to spot them quickly enough. My real point though is what this Big Vision Meeting looks like when everyone's remote: they can just break the news individually, selling it as a personal touch, and don't even have to tell the same story to everyone all at once. Sometimes learning to deal with a fully remote environment means taking on the role of an investigator and archivist. Keep that in mind.

The best way to capture the necessary mindset is that of Minimum Viable Bureaucracy: we need to make our tools and processes work for us, with a minimum amount of fuss for the maximum amount of benefit, without any illusions that the technology will simply do it for us. It can even save your bacon when the shit hits the fan.

That means engaging in things many workers are often averse to, like creating meeting agendas, writing concise and comprehensive documentation, taking notes, making archives, and much more. But once people clue in that this actually saves time and effort in the long run, they'll wonder how they ever got things done without it.

Or at least I do.

Edit: Apparently I'm not the first to come up with the term!

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