Moving from oral history to documented history

September 30, 2015 by Cale Johnson

For much of our existence, we’ve been a company of oral history. And I’m guessing that’s how most organizations get started.

We talk things out. We brainstorm. We collaborate. We share ideas. We put stuff on the wall, make decisions, and go execute. And then we do it again and again.

For years we didn’t document much, because we didn’t really need to. Things were moving fast, and because we were small — about ten people — this worked fine. It was easy to stay on the same page because we were all mostly working on the same stuff.

But as we’ve grown over the past couple years, we’ve been investing more and more into documenting our processes, communicating (and over-communicating) decisions and priorities, and finding more reliable ways than just a weekly meeting and hallway conversations to make sure we’re all in sync. We’re working to move from a culture of oral history to one of documented history — one where we document the decision-making process, share it in lots of ways with each other, and archive it for long-term reference. We can always change our minds later, but now we know how we got there.

We’re doing it through wiki tools like Confluence (for documentation and sharing) and Wrike (for collaboration and project management). We’re doing it through conscious over-communication (see Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage and Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive for more on this). And we’re doing it through more detailed planning and prioritizing, especially at our annual staff retreat.

We’re not going to stop collaborating. We’re not going to slow down how fast we work. We’re just going to start using tools that help us share ideas, information, and decisions much faster, with much less effort.

It’s been pretty exciting to see how far we’ve come in just a few months.

Are you an “oral history” organization? What tools are you using to make and document decisions, collaborate, and establish processes?

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