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Managing and documenting that knowledge can be daunting, but it's so important for remembering decisions, creating new ideas without reinventing the wheel, and bringing new teammates up to speed.

Writing digital notes is great! But finding information within those notes can be a challenge…

Writing down meeting minutes, notes from conversations with teammates, or even ideas that you want to propose is essential for remembering what happens throughout your day. Our brains are pretty disorganized, and writing is the solution for that. Plenty of studies have shown that if you want to learn and remember something long term, you need to write it down. If you want to understand ideas, you have to translate them into your own words.

But, on the other side of that coin, searching amongst your own notes and documentation can be a challenge. You can rarely, if ever, remember exactly what you were thinking or the exact words or phrases you were using when you originally wrote down the ideas. We lose that essential context too quickly.

Thinking too much about making notes ‘searchable’ can bog you down when you’re writing them. This isn’t productive – ideas are fleeting and can be very powerful over time if captured well. But, if you’re focusing too much on how you’ll organize them as you’re writing them down every time, you’ll lose what you want to capture, bit by bit.

The solution is to have a predictable system for your notes!

There's a principle from the book How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens: standardization enables creativity. If you don't have a predictable, easy-to-navigate system for your notes, then whenever you want to apply your team's decisions or ideas, you'll end up spending unnecessary energy just trying to find what you need. Common formatting, organization, and a shared understanding of how to document things allows your team to think, discuss, reflect, hypothesize, test, and share more together. This is the creative work that matters.

The way your teams take notes is entirely up to you. As long as your team has shared buy-in and everyone uses the same approach, that's what matters. Try building templates that people can easily pull from, have ‘scratch pad’ spots where you can jot down a quick idea and organize it later, and don't treat notes as if they're permanent, precious pieces of information.

An example system for organizing digital notes: The PARA method

There's a system of organization by the Forte Labs crew that might be useful for you, called the PARA method, which stands for:

  • Projects: a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline
  • Areas: a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time
  • Resources: a topic or theme of ongoing interest
  • Archives: inactive items from the other three categories

By organizing your team’s knowledge with this method, you can more easily discern actionable vs non-actionable notes, and how every task and piece of information relates to your larger goals. It’s not perfect, but it’s a popular system that has worked well for teams and individuals across the tech industry (and beyond).

Though you don't have to follow their rules perfectly, the thing that I think is the most important takeaway from the concept is that the knowledge organization within the system is very dynamic. They can change, move around, and aren’t a static piece of content that never changes. Your notes shouldn’t be etched in stone, but they should be moved and composed together whenever it makes sense.

The bus factor

There's a (pretty morbid) term called the ‘bus factor’ when a team member has too much knowledge to themselves. If they were to be hit by a bus, would the project be in jeopardy? Would the team be able to manage?

I don't particularly like this term, but it's an important thing to consider. The risk of not writing things down in a searchable way means that the knowledge could go away. You don't want your teammates to not be able to take a peaceful vacation, or work on something new, or leave the team in a bad place if they leave entirely.

Establishing a culture of documentation where your team has a shared system of how and where they should write can help this. You don't want to become data hoarders necessarily (regularly auditing notes and documents as being out of date/archivable is a good thing), but having the context available to anyone who might need it will pay dividends over time.

Reflections

Keep in mind that it's easy to either under-document everything because there's simply too much to know and things change too often, or over-document everything and then every single page turns into a deep rabbit hole of connecting information. Finding that healthy balance is important.

If you'd like to read more on the subject, I highly recommend these resources!