If you've ever used Google Docs, wikis, Confluence, Dropbox, Quip, Notion, Coda or other such systems with a team, you know the problem that inevitably hits after a little while. How best can you organize docs or files on a team so they are maintained and all on a team can find and use them?
Typically, we blame the tool, or make a joke—"yeah, I put it in Google Drive, if I can only find it!" While there are problems with all of these tools, I've come to think the challenge is often lack of good guidance about how we collaborate best. In the 21st century, every knowledge worker needs to remember a few key principles about how to work with shared resources effectively. Here I'll write about one principle I’ve found useful.
The journalist Bob Woodward famously declared that "democracy dies in darkness." Documents die when they are unmaintained or don't have readers. They become forgotten or lost, they become out of date, or people lose trust in them.
Broadly, there are three ways to counteract document death, loss, and frustration:
Have clear ownership: Even if docs are collaborative, someone must "own" a document. This means being responsible for its quality and (if it is long-lived) keeping it maintained. (Only in rare situations does "wisdom of the crowd" mean "no ownership.")
Maximize audience: In general, write for and share with the largest audience possible. That means restrict only if there are good reasons not to (privacy, security, confidentiality, sensitivity, immaturity, etc.). Keeping things organized where they can be found helps, too.
Minimize the number of documents: Other things being equal, fewer docs are easier to manage and have a bigger audience. How many docs should you create, exactly? As few as possible, but not too few!
Using the OAC Principle
Okay, so how do we do this? I think the answer is actually pretty simple, but usually not followed. The principle is this:
Divide things into a single doc when
owner, audience, and cadence align.
Separate them if any of these are different.
What does this mean?
Owner: The one person ultimately responsible for the doc. Documents should never be owned by "everyone" or "no one in particular". For large documents, there can be a hierarchy (like with open source projects—e.g. a lead who reviews proposed changes made by others).
Audience: Is it company internal, project or group internal, for external customers, or for the whole web?
Public: If content can be shared publicly, there’s a good chance it should be in a doc that’s public.
Sensitive: If content is sensitive, it should be a in a doc that has clear access control for only those who need to see it.
Team: Most other docs in a company are in between, and accessible to a single group.
Cadence: What is the cadence of updates? This means, what is the workflow for updating and what is the lifespan? Some options:
Write once: Write over a short period of time. Use later. Maybe archive. The writing process could be collaborative or by a single person.
Long lived: Maintained and updated by the owner or others. This could be ad hoc or on a schedule. There are also variations on workflow here, e.g. suggestions by anyone but review and acceptance by the owner.
For each doc or folder you create, know the answer to these three things, and your docs will be better organized, better used, and better maintained. Informally or formally, your team should know the answers to these three attributes for all docs.
Every time you create a new doc, ask yourself:
"Who is the owner?"
"What is the largest possible audience? Is it sensitive?"
"What is the cadence and workflow of updates?"
Also note that I didn't say documents should be divided by topic or purpose! That's what people usually think about first. That matters, yes, especially when sharing with teams or organizing things into folders. But when it comes to effective collaboration on individual documents, ownership and workflows trump subject matter.
To illustrate, here are some guidelines that flow from that principle:
If a doc is sensitive, segregate it in a more limited-access team area, and mark its sensitivity. You don't want anyone to share it accidentally.
If a doc is potentially external or public, separate it from internal documents and make this clear.
If it's not clear who owns a document, reassign it to one person, or divide the doc so each part is owned by one person.
If a doc is only going to be used for a short period, make it a separate doc, ideally placed in context with other docs (like meeting notes, owned by the meeting owner).
If a doc will be maintained over time, potentially with multiple contributors, the owner is the overall maintainer. Put it somewhere everyone can find it, the more people the better. If it's useful across teams, make it broader access.
This doc itself is an example, too. It has an owner, I'm sharing it with you and the whole web, since it's potentially of interest to a wide audience, and I'd like for it to be long-lived.