Tuesday 6 PM, a developer is working on a task, when all of a sudden an uncritical question comes up. To not forget the issue related to the work item the developer uses command + tab to switch to Slack and posts the question in a public channel with several members. The developer is not expecting to get an answer today but anytime soon. Immediately after posting the question the first person response comes in as it was not implied how urgent the problem is. This answer sparks a discussion as shortly after another 5 minutes the next person replies, having a different opinion on the initial reply. The discussion between the three goes on for a couple of minutes until two other co-workers open up Slack in fear of missing out receiving a lot of push-notifications. They are confronted with an already long thread which continues as they read, just to realize halfway through that they can’t chime in and zone out. The discussion without a real agreed answer to the initial question goes on for a while. Without a definite outcome, the developer again raises the question at the next team meeting.

Situations like this are the reality at most distributed teams and remote companies with asynchronous communication channels.

Lets break down the situation

  1. The problem occurs, and a new question gets formulated in the developers head.
  2. In fear of losing the question, the question gets posted to a public Slack channel.
  3. This implies urgency, where no urgency is.
  4. Push-notifications pull people out of their lives and workflows.
  5. Because no specific person was asked the thread is open for everyone to join the discussion.
  6. Not everyone required to make an informed decision was available when the discussion occurred.
  7. Some people missed out entirely on the discussion & questions get lost.
  8. Answers aren’t tracked and decisions are lost in a long thread.
  9. The discussion goes in circles.
  10. There’s no definite decision/answer as discussion goes on unmoderated for a while.

Pretty unproductive, right?

Issues Weekly

Here’s a solution that helps us. We call it Issues Weekly. It’s a moderated 30-minute meeting to talk through the questions that need an answer anytime soon.

Question posted in the issues weekly channel on Slack
Question posted in the issues weekly channel on Slack
  1. To deal with these “answer any time soon” questions we set up a dedicated Slack channel called #issues-weekly. This channel is our safe space – with notifications turned off – to post these kinds of questions. During the week the channel gets usually populated with 3 - 10 questions around small to big size issues. No one is allowed to answer yet but already asked to form an opinion.
  2. We asked everyone with an opinion to rate the question via emoji reactions with a 1, 2, or 3. One means, a critical question to be discussed and answered in our next meeting. Two means, not as relevant as a number one question, but still worth to discuss next. Three means, pretty irrelevant question to ask the whole group or really easy to find an answer.
  3. Each week we have a dedicated 30 - 60-minute meeting depending on the number of questions to go through from the #issues-weekly channel. Before each meeting the meeting moderator (me) collected each question in a Google Doc sorted by the outcome of the rating – number one questions first, number two second, and number three third.
  4. During these meetings, we share the Google Doc and capture the definite agreed upon answer to each question. We start by discussing number one questions first, then number two, you get the idea. After each meeting, this document gets shared in the #issues-weekly channel. This post opens up the channel for the next round of questions.
Shared Google Doc with collected questions before and after meeting
Shared Google Doc with collected questions before and after meeting
Shared Google Doc with agreed answers during the meeting
Shared Google Doc with agreed answers during the meeting

How does this method help us?

  • We do not lose track of the questions that need to be answered anymore.
  • Implied urgency is reduced by setting up a framework around posting these questions.
  • The decision of how important a question is, is taken out of the hand of the individual and into the hands of all of us.
  • Each of us got a better understanding of which questions are really urgent and which can wait for at least a week.
  • The time it takes to answer all the questions is drastically reduced by setting aside a fixed amount of time each week for these discussions.
  • We make better decision since everyone who needs to be involved is available and aware of the questions and the answers.
  • With the shared Documents, we have a structured knowledge-base to search and browse to find agreed answers.

Things to keep in mind

  • There will still be urgent questions that need to be answered right away. If that’s the case, break the framework.
  • This framework works best if your team is larger than 5 people.

Here’s our Issues Weekly Google Doc template. Might helps you to get started.

Happy to hear all your experiences. How do you deal with these kinds of questions on your team?