Last night I had a crazy realization: I could probably replace the majority of what my team hopes to accomplish with standup meetings, design documents, project management apps, and social code sharing features with a single tool.

Before I reveal what this tool is, let’s consider why most team collaboration is suboptimal. Everyone who has been in standup meetings or read groupwide status reports has probably seen the following status-update antipatterns; in fact, unless you’re a better teammate than I, you’ve probably been guilty of each of these yourself:

  • “This week I read 253 emails in my inbox, 1478 emails from mailing list folders, and sampled 75 messages from my spam folder to make sure none of them were spuriously filed. I also wrote a net 498 lines of code, brewed eight pots of coffee and five shots of espresso, spent 246 minutes in meetings, and urinated twenty-one times.”
  • “I’m still working on the same thing I was working on last week. None of you are close enough to this problem to know why it is so tough and I’m too defeated to explain it to you, so feel free to assume that I am either heroically deep in the weeds or have gotten totally ratholed on something irrelevant.”
  • “I discovered that this graph search problem could be better modeled as a language-recognition query, and spent some time investigating efficient representations before coming up with a really clever approach involving boolean satisfiability — there was a paper in the SIGYAWN ‘75 proceedings that used a similar technique; maybe you read it too — … [fifteen minutes pass] … and improved performance by 0.57%.”

It doesn’t seem like it should be, but getting the level of detail right in status updates is hard, and it’s hard for stupid reasons. Your big accomplishments for the week are easy to explain and you don’t want to make it seem like you did nothing, so you start accounting for every second since last Monday. It’s too depressing to consider that the bug that’s been keeping you awake for the last few weeks still isn’t solved and you don’t want to spend time talking about all of the dim trails you investigated, so you’ll Eeyore it up to get out of the meeting and back to work. You’re so deep in a problem that you think everyone else needs to know about a bunch of tiny details and can’t tell that they’ve all fallen asleep.

To some extent, all of these seemingly-different problems stem from too much status and not enough context. But even if we recast status reports as context updates, we’ve traded the problem of finding an appropriate level of status detail for finding an appropriate amount of context. How do we decide what an appropriate amount of context is?

Think of the best and worst talks you’ve ever seen. A good talk doesn’t exhaustively describe the work the author did, but it places it in enough context so that the audience has some way to evaluate the claims, get interested, and decide if the work is worth investigating further. A bad talk is vague, disorganized, gets bogged down in irrelevant details, or only makes sense to people who already know everything about its subject.

Now think about the best talks you’ve ever given. Giving a good talk — even more so than writing a good article or essay — hones and clarifies your argument. You have to step out of your bubble and see your work from the perspective of your audience, because you have just a few minutes to catch their attention before they tune out and start checking their email while waiting for the next speaker. Now, I’ve given a lot of lectures, academic talks, and conference presentations, but I’ve found that giving informal, internal tech talks on some interesting aspect of something I’ve been working on has paid off disproportionately.

So I don’t want my team to give each other status updates. Instead, I want us to give regular short talks. And the medium that I want us to use as we develop these talks is a shared slide deck, updated throughout the week.1 In spite of the amazingly persistent ubiquity of speakers reading through their wall-of-text decks like apparatchiks in dystopian fiction, slides aren’t a substitute for talks. However, a good slide deck supports a good talk, and designing a slide deck helps to make sure that you have the right amount of context in your talk, because the wrong amount of context in a talk leaves some obvious odors in the deck:

  • Oh, you need to drop down to 18 point type to cover everything you wanted here? That’s probably a clue that you’re covering something that would be better addressed in further discussion or a subsequent deep dive.
  • Does this slide feel totally bare? Maybe you need more background here.
  • Could you draw a picture and replace this paragraph? Could you write a sentence and replace this code excerpt?
  • If you had to explain this to a customer or an executive — really, to anyone who’s sharp and engaged but not a domain expert — right now, where would you start? How would you keep them interested?

My team is doing data science, so a lot of what we wind up delivering turns out to be presentations and visual explanations. As a result, this practice could be even more beneficial for us than it might be for other groups. Rigorously working out explanations among ourselves is certain to pay off in the future, when we have to present results internally or externally. By using a shared deck, we can annotate with questions, link to more detail elsewhere, and rapidly iterate on our presentations as we have improved results or come up with clearer explanations.

(Thanks to RJ Nowling, who suggested the idea of a regular “analytics review,” like a code review, and got me thinking along these lines.)

  1. I take talks and slides very seriously and was initially resistant to using web-based slideware: most slideware is optimized for making ugly, bullet-laden decks and even the best web-based office suites — although they are amazing technical achievements — are still sort of clunky to use compared to desktop applications. But the flexibility of having a collaboratively-edited deck is huge.

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