The Power of Decisioning Async
The gushing VC funds, the blessing of unicorns, the pool of enterprising tech talent have left start-ups with no option but to move faster. In a fast-paced company, decisions have to be faster and more decentralized. The large meetings that have to find an intersection across many busy calendars can slow down decisions in the company considerably. Building an organization that is decentralized with a culture that is democratic lies at the core of fast decision-making. Add to this the practice of documentation, we have an organization that can experiment, learn and pivot fast. In order to build such a ‘nimble’ organization, the belief that important decisions (in some companies, even simple ones) need synchronous meetings must be broken. Powerful and strategic decisions can be aligned mostly without decision-makers getting onto a call at the fall of a hat. Not only will these decisions be democratic but they could be more data-driven
The Problem with Sync Meetings
When I started my journey as an individual contributor into analytics, one of the constant feedbacks that was on my teammates and my appraisal is to be ‘more vocal’ and ‘visible’. Those are ‘pre-zoom’ days, so for being vocal, one really needs to find the right spot in a meeting and ‘voice’ their opinion whether it is value-added or not. This was not an area of comfort for me and some of my friends. Ask me a problem one to one, I can go to length about my view whereas, in some 10+ number of people in a ‘con call’, I may not get the chance to speak. Sync meetings are like ‘group-discussion’ in college entrances. The athletes racing to speak when the next pause arises get the maximum stage time and recognition. To reflect on a point and come back with an argument on that takes some time. Sync meetings by their nature shift focus to quick thinkers, not necessarily the deep ones. Add to this the problem of finding the right slot of time across multiple calendars and multiple timezones, it slows down decision making considerably
Power of reflection: Most startups today are solving ‘unprecedented’ problems. They are complex and require more strategic and reflective thinking. In ‘Async’ decision making, there is no force to react to an idea or a proposal immediately. People can come back to a proposal non-synchronous fashion. Because it is non-synchronous, it automatically forces documentation which could also be backed up by data. Hence different team members can collaborate on an idea asynchronously commenting and responding to certain points of the documented idea. This way everyone is heard and the process becomes truly democratic Women generally hesitate to voice their opinions but give them an equal opportunity medium, they can contribute deeply to the decision-making. Diversity is not only about having a policy on hiring more women but enabling the organization’s culture and design to enable the spirit.
Org Design for Async working: Decentralization is an important element before companies can move to the Async model of working. In a fast-growing company, it’s essential to have multiple sub-organizations that are empowered to take decisions on an ongoing basis. The bigger organization operates as a governance council – making sure the sub-organizations have the right goals, guard rails and execution mechanisms in place. In many start-ups, cross-functional pods are supposed to operate independently following guidelines from the central organization. Decentralization brings in few independent owners to take decisions and destroys bureaucracy and red-tapism. Given this context and environment, let’s see how an organization can run successful async engagement models
How does ‘Async’ Decisioning Work?
Async decisioning is a framework that eliminates bureaucracy in decision making. In an ‘Async’ organization, people are not limited by each other’s time. At the same time, there is enough time for people to reflect and respond.No one is under constant pressure to come up with a reply immediately. You can take some time (of course short time say a few hours to a day as compared to fee seconds in a sync conversation) to align, respond or disagree with reason. One thing to keep in mind in async decisions is it can seemingly lead to lag times if Async decisions are not time-boxed. An organization can call out some of these SLAs and expectations as ‘modes of working’.
The workflow of the ‘Async’ decision starts with a new idea or proposed changes to an existing process or solution. The idea starts as a draft document. The key decision-makers comment and align on the document at their pace. This is not a long list of decision-makers but rather decentralized empowered individuals who take it upon them to comment and align on the proposed idea. There may still be points that need to be closed and need a greater understanding and specifically for those points, ‘sync’ meetings are organized. Documentation plays a critical role in enabling async engagement models. Hence tools for documentation should support reviews, comments, and sign-off. It is essentially an organization that invests time in fixing the right documentation tools. Google Docs, Confluence, Slack messengers, Asana are the tools that are popularly used for collaborative working.
The above workflow explains the process in detail:
- Think: Time to reflect on a problem is the most important step. We highlighted this is the biggest advantage of an async model of working. The first step is to think and reflect on the idea itself
- Write: Steps 1 and 2 are not sequential. As you think, you start to document your thoughts and ideas. The idea gets clearer than a fuzzy picture. This is where the ‘async’ mode forces the team to articulate the idea or concept better as opposed to being in a hurry to explain the idea to a set of people over a call in a ‘sync’ setup. For those who are not written communication experts, the document can be in simple language and with a natural flow. They could type things as if they are presenting the idea.
- Collaborate Post which the document can be circulated to key stakeholders or decision-makers for their inputs. The org design should also encourage the culture of reading and commenting on documents or providing reviews in any other suitable format as facilitated by the tool. If its an absolutely new idea and needs more context than what the document describes, it can be a good idea to have a sync meeting and then release the documents for further comments
- Resolve: Each comment in the document should be resolved by the person who initiated the idea. This can be done in a ‘sync’ or ‘async’ meeting or a combination of those.
- Now Sync: The documents with possibly unresolved comments serve as the pre-read for the meeting. One discusses the key points of misalignments in the document and notes down if further clarifications are required
- Align: Post the discussion, any open items are resolved or alternatives proposed to take the idea or solution forward
Any decision small or big can go through this process. Normally a leadership day would consist of 60-70% on decision making. All such decisions can go through this process. Plenty of inefficiencies resulting due to poor communication of ideas rushed out solutions, and most importantly time delays due to ‘busy’ calendars could be avoided. The overall culture could get healthier as there are disagreements on specific viewpoints and not on people
Does it mean People should altogether Stop Talking to Each Other?
Certainly not. Sync meetings have the advantages of knowing the thinking framework and viewpoint of the team members from a deeper perspective. If a lot of day-to-day work and alignment is done async, Sync meetings can be done for bigger ideas, brainstorming, team building, one on one etc. Sync meetings are also useful when the landscape is not fully defined and one wants to get more details to start penning their ideas. For example, defining or making org structure changes could call for multiple sync meetings in order to understand perspectives from different people in the team. However, once the perspectives are obtained, they can go back to the flowchart described in the above diagram. Even complex decisions like company acquisitions (after the initial data gathering) can be driven in Async mode with a minimum number of sync discussions. This will make the sync discussions more objective and efficient
Does Async Work Culture mean ‘Remote’?
Async and remote working are mutually independent. Even in a workplace that mandates complete work from the office, the ‘async’ culture provides tons of efficiency in the decision-making process. It forces co-workers to take to meetings only when ‘async’ decision-making has gaps. The in-person sync meetings can be more effective and focussed since people come to a room knowing the misaligned points and hence the agenda. They are more prepared and hence can have more effective discussions, These discussions can also get more time-bound and hence meetings are far more productive
In conclusion, the organizational design of decision-making will be a big differentiator in the coming years. As companies become more diverse in terms of gender, locations, time zones, ethnicity etc it is important that everyone is heard. Async mode of working will unlock democratic data-driven decision making within an organization and will enable a wider sense of belongingness and participation across the organization. The tail-wind that catapults the ‘hockey-stick’ growth may not last long but a culture that sets the organization in motion surely will
About the Author
Mathangi Sri has 17+ years of proven track record in building world-class data science solutions and products. She has overall 20 patent grants in the area of intuitive customer experience and user profiles. She has recently published a book with Apress, Springer – “Practical Natural Language Processing with Python”. She is currently working as CDO at CredAvenue.
Here is a summary of her prolific career as a Data Science Leader:
- Built data science teams across large organizations like Citibank, HSBC, GE, and tech startups like 247.ai, PhonePe
- An active contributor to the Data Science community – through lectures, talks, blogs, and advisory roles
- Guest faculty in many premium academic institutes across the country like IIIT, IIM, NIT, etc
- Recognized as one of “The Phenomenal SHE” by Indian National Bar Association, Top 50 Influential AI leaders in India by Analytics India magazine, Top AI leaders in India by 3AI association
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