Alexander Bird Software • Blog

Learning to build useful, valuable software as part of a team.

Written Narrative Driven Collaborative Discussions

An alternative meeting format for highly abstract or contentious discussions

Most of the important decisions we make at work are made in a group. Usually, folks in the group are not of the same mind, so we need to discuss. We schedule a meeting, and we hash it out. Some of these discussions are extremely rewarding, satisfying, or occasionally exhilirating as we work together to do things that none of us would have thought to do on our own. Other times, these group decision making sessions are painful, and it takes self discipline not to stand up and leave the discussion mid-sentence.

Things I love about collaborative discussions

Things that make me not enjoy discussions

Discussion formats

Classic verbal summary driven discussions

The person with the most context delivers an (often improvised) monologue describing the issue. Folks in the group take turns asking questions or making suggestions. An unstructured debate follows. If it goes well, after some time, one person presents an idea that everyone agrees with (either a combination of many people's ideas, or one person's idea which everyone is now convinced of).

When a topic is very ambiguous or very contentions (or both), I have found that this discussion format leads to the things that make me not enjoy discussions. In my time working at Amazon, I have been exposed to a different format for discussions which is very effective for ambiguous/contentious topics.

Written narrative driven discussions

The person with the most context prepares a written document summarizing the context, the topic, and proposed decisions. It is kept as brief as possible, with supporting information linked or included as an appendix in case someone wants to dig further. There is an emphasis on specific data (quotes, statistics, summaries of official reports, etc.) which allows readers to form their own opinions. Analysis and poetic language is kept to a minimum: this document is not to convince, it's to clarify.

During the meeting, the document author shares the document (a printed copy if in person, or a link to an electronic copy if meeting remotely). Each person in the group reads the document independently. Before everyone starts reading, the other indicates how long the group has to read.

Once everyone has finished reading or the author asks the group to stop reading, then they discuss. The author resists the tempation to give a verbal summary of the document (if a summary was necessary, it should have been written in the document). For large or very contentious documents, the author may ask for feedback one section at a time (e.g. reviewing background and goals before moving on to the problem; discussing problem statement before moving on to possible solutions). For simpler documents the author may accept feedback on the entire document all at once. In cases where every group member's opinion should be heard, the author may ask for input from one group member at a time, rotating through the entire group so everyone has a chance to comment. It is sometimes helpful to use an electronic tool that allows everyone in the group to annotate specific lines of the document with comments. For a small group, it may be expedient to revise the document together, making changes as the group discusses. There are many variations for how to facilitate the discussion, but the essential part is that the author communicates in written form, and the group discusses the content of the written document, possibly revising it in the process.

One important aspect of this process is that the document is the decision. If a group member doesn't like the conclusion of the document, they can give feedback on the conclusion section and ask for it to be changed. This has an incredible effect: the default position of the group is to have one shared view of the problem (the document is the shared view). If someone disagrees, they need to say what specific part of the decision they disagree with. They propose a change so that it's something they could agree with. This naturally drives the group towards a consensus. The uncontroversial parts of the document need not be discussed at all, and the debate focusses on the problematic aspects.

This works well when the group is driving towards concensus, but what if there are several schools of thought in the group? What if opinions are diverging? In this case, it is helpful to write down alternative views with their tradeoffs. The group won't agree to a specific decision, but they could agree that the only reasonable decisions are X, Y, and Z (and if you ask any individual, they'll tell you that decision X is foolish and Y is unrealistic -- or the other way around). Despite the controversy around the issue, the whole group can ratify the document and establish a certain number of specific alternatives. From this position (either in the same discussion or in a follow up discussion), the group can consider any of the alternatives in isolation. Whereas a freeform discussion may have people debating between X or Y or Z (and the pro-Z group is unwilling to even consider Y), this structured discussion helps the entire group to consider an option (even if half the group dislikes it). You're not saying "we're doing Z", you're saying "if we did Z, what would the consequences be?". This lets the whole group explore all the alternatives together before driving to a decision about which should be chosen. By separating the act of exploring alternatives from the act of selecting an alternative, the group can more peaceably collaborate despite contension.

This comic from Jeff Patton illustrates how helpful it can be to be looking at the same document when making collaborative decisions: "I'm glad we all agree" (comic)

Tradeoffs between the two approaches

Writing a document in advance is extra effort, and reading a document quietly in a meeting is unusual. In my experience, for ambiguous or contentious topics, the investment in the document and the adjustment to the new process pays for itself. I've found the written narrative format can make the difference between an awful discussion with all the aspects I dislike, and a delightful and satisfying collaboration session.

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Written 2022-02