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Charles Landau
Charles Landau

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Distilling Steven Wittens’ Minimum Viable Bureaucracy (MVB)

Steven’s whole article (and a lot of his blog) is worth a read. Check it out here. Wittens presents a complete set of norms for async-first organizations, a MVB to “make our tools and processes work for us with a minimum amount of fuss…” In this article I’m not going to try to persuade you or engage with the hard problem of getting people to actually adopt this approach. Instead I'm going to try to be what he calls an “information optimizer” by simply pulling out the action items, so without further ado here they are:

“The environment is asynchronous by default”

  • DON’T Try to work in a synchronous way
  • DON’T Ping a colleague without context (“hey”)
  • DO "Converse slowly... with care and thought put into every message"
  • ONLY Use synchronous communication for high-touch or urgent matters
  • DO Ensure that the output of all synchronous interactions is a clear, concise, and asynchronous communication.

... differentiate between those who need to attend a meeting versus those who just need to hear the conclusion... 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.

Media that cater to the reader

  • DON’T Mass-send questions
  • DO Mass-send answers
  • DON'T Create negative work

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...

  • DO Empower teams to use tools like Trello and Jira effectively
  • DON’T Give teams those tools and then let “...unfiltered, unvetted assignments to be mixed in...”
  • DO Minimize conversational style in favor of bullets, graphs and analysis

...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.

Optimizing for people-space

  • DON’T Dump valuable information into chat
  • DO Minimize the amount of people and people-hours that are directly engaged by a task
  • DON’T Let a question go by without recording insights
  • DO Answer questions in a “highly accessible place like a wiki, known and understood by all.”
  • DO Treat onboarding as an audit of the business processes, and mine the new teammate for insights
  • DON’T Expect people to adopt these patterns without nudges
  • DO Populate your knowledge repositories with tools, templates, and guidance

Participants need to internalize that they can actually save everyone time, a tide that lifts all boats.

Final thoughts

I hope that even if you already read Wittens’ excellent blog on this topic, that this post is helpful to you. I think that one mark of a good persuasive article is that it practically cries out for you to write a prescriptive article distilling what to do after you drink the kool-aid. Despite the name it’s a tough, complicated task to inculcate even a brand new organization with these patterns... but at least now they’re written down for you, should you find Wittens’ argument as persuasive as I did.

*Cover Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Top comments (1)

erikpischel profile image
Erik Pischel

This approach requires a good knowledge management which is not easy to get right.

I like he's still valuing synchronous communication. I also like "Ensure that the output of all synchronous interactions is a clear, concise, and asynchronous communication."