A playbook for distributed teams

Originally posted on the Truss blog

There are a lot of articles coming out these days about how to be an effective distributed employee. But there is much less around on how to be a good distributed team. Truss hired our first distributed employees back in January of 2018, and we’re now at 55% outside our “home state” of California (and many of us are spread across CA). We’re now 75 folk, and there are usually 5 of us in “the office.” As Isaac recently said, “it’s like a coworking space that only Trussels have access to.”

We’ve had to learn a few things in order to keep the organization functioning and aligned with our values. We’ve now codified the steadiest of these lessons in a distributed playbook on GitHub.

A quick note on language, and why we chose “distributed” over “remote.”

“Remote” suggests that there is a central place to which a node is remote. Because we wanted to emphasize that we are all on equal footing, we instead chose “distributed” – there is no “center.” We have collections of Trussels in NYC, Atlanta, Chicago, Sacramento, LA, and SF; as well as individual Trussels in many other locations.

What the playbook holds

We think healthy distributed team interaction falls into four buckets: facilitating interaction, properly resourcing people, bonding with each other, and seeing each other in person on occasion. This includes other things like taking stack, having a place for banter, having offsites, and having ways to connect about not-work. Things we’ve talked about in previous blog posts and will continue to post about (and now will collect into this playbook as we do).

A quick note on internal references in the playbook

We talk in the playbook about TDRs – Truss Decision Records. We pulled these from ADRs (Architectural Decision Records) which we use in our code repos to document why we made certain choices. We do the same for our organization now, and anyone can propose a new decision. We should probably do another blog post on that at some point.

We want your help!

We’re still learning about distributed team interactions—we all are—and we’d love your feedback and contributions to the playbook so we can all learn with each other.

Unified in our plurality of voices – Global Voices Exchange

originally posted on the Aspiration blog

Global Voices is “a border-less, largely volunteer community of more than 1400 writers, analysts, online media experts and translators.” They’ve been around since 2005, weaving together locally-produced stories from all over the globe. They also have a translation community called Linguafight against censorship and for freedom through Advox, and their Rising Voices section works to empower civic journalists with microgrants, training and network-building. They deliver a huge amount of news in a startling number of languages, and they do so with humor and humility. Because they’re invested in the everyday experience of people, the community is also wide enough that when major news (like the beginnings of the protests in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey) breaks, a community of trust and support is already established around local reporters. This post initially appeared on the GVeX site on March 2nd.

Global Voices Exchange

One of the projects recently launched by Rising Voices is Global Voices Exchange (GVeX). It aims to develop, document, and disseminate methodologies for digital advocacy campaigns in the Global South. In its inaugural phase, GVeX brought together women leaders working in digital advocacy and activism from the Global South to share, document, and refine their practices into a shared methodology—and to explore points of difference that might require a more country- or context-specific approach. The several-month-long project was accented by a workshop held in Marseille, France from February 15th to 20th, and I had the honor of facilitating.

Our event goals were to strengthen the network of advocates in the Global South, to scope and design preliminary content and structure for a strategic campaigning and advocacy guide for leaders moving into online advocacy in the Global South, and to form an action plan to test and review the guide after the workshop. The participants represented eleven countries each with a unique political and economic climate, specific concerns around equality, and a rich history. Each of them has an active hand in some form of training and advocacy within their own countries, either locally or remotely.   

A (nonuniversal) guide

Every attendee had at least some experience with many of the amazing guides and manuals out there for building campaigns, for security, and for digital tools. Each of them was able to give at least one example of ways in these—supposedly universal—guides had either not fit their situation or offered information and advice that could put them at genuine risk. Would it be possible, then, to create a simple frame or scaffolding that someone in the Global South could use as a basis for exploring their own circumstances and designing a campaign tailored to their specific needs? The many guides that already exist provide a solid set of modules from which we could select. We explored this (and many other) questions while together.

Global Voices is ideally positioned for projects such as this—while much of design thinking, protocols and standards, and other aspects of technology aim towards one agreed-upon way of interacting, Global Voices takes the alternative view that sometimes the one thing that unites us is that we are all speaking our own unique and specific truths. And this isn’t simply a nice theoretical framing—it’s practice the community has lived for over eleven years, and counting.

Unifying a plurality of voices

Even though Global Voices successfully walks this talk, devising a guide based on that framing is a new and somewhat daunting task. Thankfully, with twelve women leaders and members of the Global Voices network putting our heads together over five days, the beginning skeleton of the guide now exists, as well as pockets of detail and a huge repository of documented knowledge waiting to be deployed wherever it’s needed. We learned, for example, about the ease and relative accountability of fundraising in Pakistan versus the illegality of obtaining resources for nonprofits and civil society in Venezuela. We now understand why people decide to remain anonymous in LGBTQI campaigns in Zimbabwe and walk together in Cambodia. And from our Palestinian participant I learned how to draw a tank, something I’d thankfully not yet needed to know.

Where we are at

We still have a lot of work to do, but you can look forward to seeing a draft of the guide at some point in the future. It includes things like measuring and communicating value. Many activists and advocates have difficulty expressing exactly what changes will happen in the world if they “win.” This section helps users explore their own hopes, what is culturally relevant, and what is possible to measure in order to demonstrate the effects of their campaigns and actions. Risk analysis (and response)—those operating in the Global South face a very, very different set of risks from people in other parts of the world, be it repressive regimes, violence against women, or a lack of connectivity. To design and implement culturally relevant campaigns we need to embrace these specificities. We also developed a module around building trust in worn-out communities. As a result of the same issues mentioned in risk analysis, trust in many of these communities is worn down. People working in these environments have experienced the actions of infiltrators, complete loss of institutional legitimacy through changes in political leadership or legal structures, and violent shutdowns of campaigns and organizations. To rebuild trust under those circumstances demands integrity and persistence—and the exercise we did on this topic produced some of the most charming drawings I’ve seen in a while, from our own Marianne Diaz.

Pathway to ‘trust building’ vs ‘trust destruction’, an outcome from our discussion at #gvexhttps://t.co/Pc2PT4Fmho pic.twitter.com/WNSLwJSFd8— Sopheap Chak (@sopheapfocus) February 18, 2016

What would you want to see out of such a guide?

Whether you’re from the Global South or not, tell us in the comments what would you want to see from such a guide. We have a huge amount of experience and intelligence in this beginning set of contributors, but as future users of such a guide, we want to be able to factor in your needs and ideas.

Thanks to the participants and organizers

Major thanks to the Global Voices crew of Eddie, Georgia, and Ivan for conceiving, driving, and most of all trusting this project. Mad props to Abir, to whom I already wrote a bit of a love note over on my blog, and who opened up her city and her heart for us to feel safe and stimulated during our time. Thank you to Tamara for her directness, to Arzu and Tanya for their facilitation, to Marianne and Sarita for being open and honest, to 88.8 for their venue and recording skills. Thanks to Sopheap and Zarah for jumping in with such enthusiasm and joy, to Nighat and Natasha for your leadership, to Mashiat for your hugs and insights, to Indira for your warmth, and to Dalia for always keeping things real and approachable. Thanks to Eric, Paul, and Liat for all your adaptiveness and translation skills, and to Gillo for his deep understandings of security teaching methods. I’m looking forward to seeing what we create together.

Dialling Up Resilience

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

At the end of April I was in Nairobi doing several things related to digital humanitarian response. One of these was a program called Dialling Up Resilience (yes, with two Ls in “Dialling,” because it was a British-centred team), which looks at local indicators of resilience. This blog entry explores why subjectivity is important in measurement, and how technology can help us parse through subjective information and combine it with objective datasets.

Scarcity

It’s possible to exacerbate or alleviate existing inequalities when designing and implementing response programs. As climate change alters the world around us, the people who have been historically marginalized often become even more so as those in power see scarcity encroaching on their livelihoods. When programs distribute resources without taking care with those previously in power, we also see backlashes and resource grabs. But the ability to hold people accountable in new ways through things like social media and community mapping are coupled with an awareness and effort towards the long bend towards justice means there are groups of people seeking new ways to better allocate resources to those most affected by those inequalities. Often, the groups working in this space are also in a post-scarcity mentality — that, when we work together wisely, we can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less. These are folk who think we can reach zero poverty and zero emissions (within a generation). These are the folk who see joy in the world, and possibility in these difficult situations we’ve backed ourselves into.

Resource Allocation

The resource allocation and accountability necessary for transitory steps towards a world that can survive and even thrive won’t happen in a vacuum. The formal and informal organizations of this space alike have entire supply chains, ways of listening (and to whom), and self-reflexive mechanisms to consider. In these are embedded corruption, paternalism, and colonialism. But also in these are embedded individuals who have been Fighting The Good Fight for decades, and have added useful checks, amplifiers, and questions into infrastructure. It’s into this environment we step when we do response work. It is, at its core, like any other environment — it has History.

It’s in this context that Dialling Up Resilience is such a good program. This project supports the need to adapt to climate issues while putting frontline communities at its core, and does so in a way which can be useful in historically convoluted contexts. 

Metrics

When various organizations — be they international or local, government mandated or radical, formal or informal — wish to change a circumstance, having metrics can help show if success is being approximated. Hopefully, those metrics can also hint at where and how we’re failing. To adapt to climate change and other issues, we need to be able to see how initiatives are doing over time. We can then better allocate resources or attention. The way this is done now is primarily through “objective” measurements such as education level and income. These don’t work for everyone, whether because they are pastoralists or anti-capitalists (or both). In the same way that some schools shift away from standardized testing into more subjective ways to measure learning, Dialling Up Resilience re-focuses the evaluation of success more locally. This is how the frontline community is at the core — they’re determining what makes them resilient, as well as how they feel they’re doing in relationship to those self-defined indicators.

These metrics are then visible to the community (often we’re our own calvary, afterall), and the aggregate is visible to organizations acting in the area. What are needs they may have missed? Is a program having the desired impact? Because of the flow we set up, the information is even fast enough to potentially be for rapid response, with people in a region indicating a flood-related need then triggering alerts for response organizations to deploy those materials in time.

Working with Existing Communities and Initiatives

We worked with a few different groups directly working in Kenya, including the National Drought Management Authority (and their Ending Drought Emergencies program) and UNDP on their existing surveying initiatives and Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, as well as extending those survey abilities with international groups like GeoPoll (SMS), Taweza (call center), and Kobo (household) to assess how communities establish and track their own resilience. While we didn’t get the second round of funding, we hope in future to also work more directly with communities using tools like Promise Tracker and Landscape (a digitized version of Dividers & Connectors) to better expose a community’s data back to themselves, and to subsequently be able to have more agency over their own improvement as well as accountability.

What’s also exciting is that our means and our ends matched. I was again in Nairobi for a stakeholder workshop with not only the project partners, but also with the organizations which would eventually make use of the data. We conducted community workshops to test our basic assumptions and methods against reality, as well as to be sure community voice was at the core of each component we consider. We threw a lot out… and added some amazing new things in. We hoped to break down the gatekeeper dynamic of accessing communities in the Horn of Africa, and we wanted to be coextensive with existing programs (rather than supplanting them). It’s feminist and it’s development and I’m kind of super thrilled that we got to try this idea out, even if we don’t get to do it in earnest (yet). We’ll keep looking for opportunities to carry the idea forward, and the design principles will remain at the core of what we do. You can read more about the proposal and stakeholder workshop here, including that side comment about feminism around page 7.