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Asynchronous Written Communication: How to Make It Work

Remote
Internal Communication

30 June, 2020

Jose Pettoruti
Jose Pettoruti

Director of Engineering at Currency Cloud

Jose Pettoruti, Director of Engineering at CurrencyCloud, describes how to handle multiple inputs from a number of people in an asynchronous mode.

Problem

As the organization grows and teams are scaling up, the input is required from an increasing number of people.

Needless to say, many of them are exceedingly busy, often distributed across different geographies and even time zones and scheduling the real-time meetup to collaboratively work on those inputs may seem like an insurmountable challenge. In addition, the abrupt shift to the remote work caused by the Covid-19 furthermore emphasized the need for asynchronous writing processes. Long and prolonged conversations on technical and other topics, a myriad of opposing views and intricate decision-making process takes place online these days and handling writing inputs in an asynchronous mode is no easy task.

Actions taken

Start with the most self-evident action -- go ahead with writing! There are two options to choose from: someone takes the lead and creates a first draft that everyone could comment on or you ask everyone to contribute by creating their own view that you could later compare and compile into a common draft.

While topics may vary to a great extent, the structure should remain consistent:

  • Context/background: Explanation of the problem(s), including your involvement in the problem (what got you together to discuss that) and potential history on how you got here.
  • Key challenges or issues: Identification of key challenges or issues that you are trying to solve.
  • Principles: Listing guiding principles that guide your decision.
  • Proposal: Clearly stated proposal -- or more than one -- that must include the reasoning behind the proposal and comparison of the main advantages and disadvantages.
  • Other alternative options (if there are any): Key characteristics of alternative options and arguments for rejecting them.
  • Summary of objectives (the problems you’re trying to solve) and how each option fulfills (or not) those objectives. Usually, this can be a table with objectives on the rows and proposals on the columns.
  • If more than one proposal: your selected option and why it is your preferred option.
  • References: Online content with links included, other supporting documents, etc.

Once the initial draft is completed it, distribute it widely to include all participants, and encourage the discussion. Inline comments in apps like Google Docs are a great tool for this and can keep the discussion streamlined and focused. As a leader, you should ensure that everyone has shared their input and the discussion is respectful but also relevant, well-articulated and to the point. That includes preventing ad hominem attacks and making issues, not people focal points of a discussion. With all the writing done, and some discussion already underway, you should ensure that everyone understands all the available options and different, often disagreeing, points of view.

Finally, you can now book a call to debate and decide. There is no need to go over all the context again -- you should just summarize the key points, highlight potential conflicting perspectives, allow for the final comments, and make a decision. It’s on a leader to decide if s/he wants to reach a consensus or will opt for a unilateral, but informed, a decision that acknowledges everyone’s input. For the sake of clarity, you may want to consolidate the final version of the text into the new doc that you could share across the organization.

Lessons learned

  • Remote working and busy schedules are here to stay and asynchronous discussions using written communication should allow for a complex and intricate debate with multiple stakeholders to take place.
  • This approach results in a comprehensive paper trail that could be also shared with a wider team if needed or can be referred to in cases you need to corroborate your decisions. Also, all of it should be easily accessible to everyone, providing context whenever is needed.
  • In addition, it allows everyone to express their opinion, without involving the dynamics of in-person meetings that often prevent shy or less talkative people to have their say. From my experience, people tend to be more open and outspoken when expressing themselves through writing.
  • Writing also sharpens an overall focus and more clear arguments since as people write they also reflect upon and assess if their views make sense. In comparison to talking that can end up in rambling and ranting, inputs in writing are more to the point.
  • As things are laid down in black and white in a document, they often undergo revisions and edits that cut much of the noise and amplify the signal.

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