🌱

How teams remember

Summary of a keynote given at Agile in the City Bristol & Bath on Wednesday 28 June 2023


Severance is one of my favourite TV shows in recent years.

If you’ve not watched it, the premise is this: someone invents a clever chip that you can put in your brain - and it creates complete separation between your work life and your home life.

When you’re at work, you don’t remember anything about your life outside. You don’t remember your house, your family - or even if you have a family.

When you’re at home, you don’t remember anything about work. You don’t know what you do, how you do it, who your colleagues are.

Your memories of work and not-work are completely severed. Hence the name.

The writers and producers of the show have done an amazing job at playing with this idea and seeing what happens. The production design is spectacular, with a work environment that’s all bare white walls, endless long corridors, and computers that look like something from the 1970s.

It’s a really good show.

The story follows a small team, and their new recruit, who has lots of questions.

One day the team go out of their office and walk the endless white corridors to find something called the Perpetuity Wing.

It’s a corporate museum.

It has waxwork figures of previous company leaders. And a room showing some of the “millions of smiles” that the company’s work has created.

And it has a vast indoor garden, and in the middle of the garden, a replica of the founder’s house.

This is quite some museum. It’s clearly had a lot of money spent on it. And someone - presumably one of those waxwork figures - had to decide to spend that money.

I wonder how many people have access to an archive of any sort where they work? I’m not expecting real-world Perpetuity Wings, but anything physical or digital works. I’m curious about the decisions that were made to cause it to exist.

The closest real-world equivalent I’ve seen was on the ground floor of a building in Croydon, south London. It’s the London office of the Land Registry, which used to be based in a grand building in Lincoln’s Inn Field in central London.

The Land Registry acts the “single source of truth” about who owns what. If it vanished in a puff of smoke, anyone could claim to own anything, and that would quickly get problematic. Land registration is actually pretty important.

On the ground floor of that office in Croydon, there’s a replica of the old Chief Registrar’s office. The old furniture, the old artwork on the walls, the old bits of paper that registration used to depend on.

I did some work for the Land Registry a few years ago and I saw that room, and what really struck me about it was the decision that it represents: someone has decided that it should exist. That it should be curated and cared for. Someone believed, and still believes, that there’s value in recording those memories.

Remembering at GDS

I used to work for the Government Digital Service, and remembering was part of my job there. It was one of the first things I was asked to do, and one of the last things I actually got round to doing before I left.

I’d been asked to document the early history of the organisation, and I set about doing that by interviewing various people who had been involved in setting it up.

There were various outputs of this work, including some internal presentations about “How GDS began”.

Interviewees included Martha Lane Fox, who described to me the “wave of inevitability” of events in 2009-2010 that caused GDS to be set up.

And Tom Steinberg, who advised one political party that radical change was necessary: “If you don’t dismantle and rebuild the centre of digital government, there’s no point have any other technology policy.”

And a colleague at GDS called Etienne Pollard, who told me lots of interesting things and at the end, commented on the project I’d embarked on: “If there’s one thing we need to carry on doing, it’s capturing institutional memory, and playing it back to the people.” Yes! Exactly! I’ve been thinking about this comment ever since.

As well as internal presentations, another way I played the memories back to the people was by creating A GDS Story - a mini website hanging off the side of the GDS blog.

It’s just a list of years, and each year is a long page of dates and events, with lots of pictures, links and quotes.

Crucially, the Story was made using the raw material of 100s of GDS blog posts that had been published over the years. Without those blog posts, the Story would have been impossible to write.

There was raw material in other places too - on Github, on the govdesign Tumblr, on YouTube. I went through it all, and curated it into the Story that’s still there today. Other people have updated it since I left.

Remembering at Defra

After leaving GDS I did something sort of similar at Defra - working with a team called “Enabling Digital Transformation”.

We did a lot of agile coaching and helping out, and my role was broadly similar to the one I’d had at GDS. I wrote some terrible stickers, puns, catchphrases and posters.

And I helped teams tell stories about changed ways of working, and transformed services. Old Defra services were being replaced by new, user-centered ones. I wrote about things like Waste Export Control and the Flood Information Service.

One day a delivery manager called David Thomas came and asked me for help. He’d had an idea for something he wanted to write. We went back and forth with a few drafts until we were ready, and shared the idea with the joint CDOs at the time - Harriet Green and Myra Hunt. They were very supportive and said yes, publish it.

David’s post about funding teams, not projects, has been hugely influential ever since. It’s a brilliant bit of thought leadership, because here was someone from Defra leading with some actual thoughts.

It was only thanks to the active support of Harriet and Myra that it got published. They were as keen as I was to see teams remembering things in the public domain.

Remembering at the Welsh Revenue Authority

The Welsh Revenue Authority handles devolved tax matters in Wales. A few years ago they wanted to do some research about land and property data, and set up a small agile team.

That team wrote weeknotes for 10 weeks, which are all still there to look at. I think they’re brilliant.

They do a great job of “showing the thing”, and that was made easier because the team were really good at collecting things to show as they went along.

If you go back and read all their weeknotes, which doesn’t take long because they’re all pretty brief, you can get an excellent understanding of what they were doing and thinking week-by-week.

Remembering at the House of Commons

The House of Commons library has a team who work on ontologies, and that team writes terrific weeknotes - again, published in the public domain.

They write frequently, but not every week. And they write with great humour. Their notes are funny. I really look forward to reading them.

I think this is a deliberate choice, a part of how they remember. They’re writing notes for a tiny audience of interested stakeholders, but they know that those stakeholders are busy people. It’s hard to make busy people pay attention to things - unless you create things that are worth paying attention to in the first place.

That’s where the humour comes in. Making those notes funny makes them something that people will always want to read, every time there’s an update. I think these notes are a work of genius.

Corporate remembering

When iPhone designer Jony Ive left Apple, he set up a new company and was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. That article says:

“One of the first employees Ive hired was a full time writer … and on-staff scribe whose job is, in part, to help conjure into words the ideas that his team come up with.”

Which sort of sounds a bit like me helping David Thomas in Defra. Or writing the GDS Story. Sort of.

Another example: supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has an online archive, full of fascinating artefacts from the company’s history. I got lost in it for hours.

What gets recorded, gets remembered

Sainsbury’s, Jony Ive, the teams at the House of Commons and the Welsh Revenue Authority and Defra, the museum at the Land Registry: what they all have in common is a decision from a senior leader. Someone at each organisation has thought to themselves: “There is value in remembering, and I must allow time / money / opportunities for it to happen.”

Little Perpetuity Wings, all over the place. Smaller and cheaper than the one in Severance, but Perpetuity Wings nonetheless.

Remembering will only happen when someone has made a decision like that.

This isn’t about comms, this is about ops: who will do the remembering? Whose job description will it fall under? Out of which budget will the money be found?

If you’re a leader, or soon to become one, that’s a thing you need to think about. And first you need to ask yourself: “To what extent do we value memory here?”

There are some other small things you can do, too:

  • Grant permission for remembering to happen - tell teams that it’s ok
  • Make it easy to remember things - let teams use simple tools that they use already, like Slack or Teams
  • Radically rethink your intranet - make it an empty box that teams fill with stuff that’s useful for them (and spend the money you might otherwise have spent on ‘content’ for your intranet on an editor/curator instead)
  • Make remembering part of someone’s job
  • Over time, proactively move information from the realm of the tacit to the realm of the explicit
  • So much information is tacit: it sits in our heads. We become the people that colleagues come to when there’s a question about X. “Oh yeah, so-and-so knows about that - ask them.”

    And when we leave, the information is lost. Because there’s so little emphasis on making it explicit. On writing things down.

    Using design histories to remember

    I recently discovered the Department for Education’s Design history pages. They document decisions made on various digital services, over time.

    They’re exactly like blogs, but without the “b-word” attached to them. They’re not marketing; they’re knowledge transfer across time.

    Lots of teams have started using the same idea and I think it’s an excellent one.

    So good, in fact, that it shouldn’t just be the domain of designers.

    Other people have been thinking about this: Sam Villis wrote about using a scrapbook concept for better project comms; and Marianne Brierley from dwx wrote about using project stories to deal with the overload when project folders “explode with content”. We’ve all been there.

    Every team, and every professional discipline, should be able to document its decisions over time.

    But remembering requires a leader who’s going to allow it, fund it, look after it.

    The authors of Docs for Developers wrote:

    Most of us have to learn the importance of documentation the hard way, by finding it missing when we need it the most.

    The same applies to team or institutional memory. It might feel like a luxury, like a nice-to-have that you can ignore for now because there are more pressing problems.

    But I think documentation for teams matters just as much as documentation for software.

    If you’re responsible for teams, I think the best thing you can do is allow them the time and space (and financial consequence) to document their decisions and their actions.

    You might not notice the benefit yourselves, soon. But future colleagues, future versions of you, or perhaps people you haven’t even hired yet - they will thank you for making that choice.


    I’m thinking of writing a book about this. Feedback and comments welcome - send email to giles (at) usethehumanvoice.com.

    Giles T