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How we collaborate

We work with partners and use collaborative, remote-friendly tools to model agile, open, and inclusive teams. Our ambition is to demonstrate the value of technical experts, procurement decision-makers, strategic deciders, and frontline public servants working together toward the same goal.

In many parts of government, hierarchical processes and communication patterns make it unusual for decision-makers (like managers, contracting officers, agency leadership) to work together with “doers” (like designers, customer service staff, software developers, program staff) on a daily basis.

Hierarchy can be a good tool for specialization and focus — but it takes healthy multidisciplinary collaboration to build effective, resilient technology products in a rapidly changing environment. Our hope is that working with 18F will equip our partners to build (and hire) healthy, high-functioning teams for the long term.

Creating inclusive teams and meetings

The foundation and principles of our approach to inclusion are outlined in the TTS Code of Conduct; we also expect project teams to be proactive about creating inclusive environments for collaboration in everything they do.

Be intentional about forging new teams

Each time a new team forms—or anytime someone joins an existing team—is a chance to set an inclusive tone and re-establish team norms.

  • Use introductions to set the tone. Take a moment at the beginning of each meeting to make sure everyone’s met, and (if not) introduce the team and welcome new attendees. In introductions, include your name, pronouns, and role. Location can also be nice, if only to know what time it is for everyone.
  • Get to know each other! If you’re working with someone new, set up a virtual coffee or tea to learn about their life, background, and strengths. A little investment in the relationship often pays off later as you collaborate.
  • Establish team norms for communication, working hours, feedback, and decision-making. A team charter:lock: can help facilitate this conversation.
  • Talk about roles and expectations. Knowing who’s leading the project and what each team member expects to contribute can help everyone feel comfortable owning their work and asking for what they need from others.

Make space for each other’s voices

Pay attention to what voices and perspectives dominate. If you notice imbalance, be proactive about helping new perspectives come through:

  • Concurrent silent writing in a shared document (like Google Docs or Mural), can help gather ideas and make sure everyone is contributing their thoughts without forcing folks to speak.
  • Careful facilitation (for instance, “Let’s go around the room, 30 seconds each”) can balance voices so everyone has space to speak.
  • Explicitly invite input or questions from quieter team members, either in public (“Herbert, what do you think? I know you have expertise in this area”) or privately (by DMing them to note that you’d value their voice on an issue).

Appreciate and harness creative tension

Disagreement is inevitable on projects. Creative tension is a feature of diverse cross-functional teams, not a bug. Here are some ways for teams to build trust as they manage differences of opinion, style, or approach:

  • Use retrospectives (retros) to surface concerns early. When things feel a little off or the team is struggling, raise issues early instead of waiting for them to boil over. This also helps partners see how we work together to improve how the team functions. (Note: retros aren’t the right place to surface tough feedback that would be best delivered directly to individuals.)
  • Be proactive about honest conversation. Remote work can make it tempting to avoid difficult conversations. When there’s real disagreement about the path forward, schedule time to discuss it. (For instance, “it surfaced in the retro that we have different ideas about how to move forward. Let’s schedule 60 minutes to talk about this as a team and come to a decision together.”)
  • Allow space for exploratory conversations. We often work on hard issues without easy or immediate answers. Focusing on solutions too early can lead teams to avoid systemic issues or shortcut necessary collaborative thinking. Scheduling regular, timeboxed space for revisiting wicked problems can help those larger questions fit in with other work productively.

Making the most of remote meetings

Generally, treat remote meetings the same way you would treat in-person meetings: be at your workspace, on time, and focused.

  • Work from a quiet space without much background noise. If you need to discuss sensitive topics, present to partners or stakeholders, or handle personnel issues, make sure you have privacy.
  • Default to using video so colleagues can see your face and gestures. Nonverbal feedback and cues help keep the conversation moving while building empathy and trust. If you do “facemute” (for instance, because you’re eating), turn video back on when you can. For more about our video conferencing tool, see meetings and meeting tools.
  • Mute your microphone when you aren’t speaking in large meetings so your background noise doesn’t override others’ mics. Un-muting also signals that you’d like to speak, much like leaning forward in an in-person meeting.
  • Occasionally you may need to take a meeting from transit or from a non-workspace; that should be rare, and only for meetings that don’t involve screen-sharing, remote collaboration, or presentations.

Project rituals and meetings

We use agile rituals to hold ourselves accountable, build momentum, and get comfortable working iteratively and changing processes. If you’re new to agile, start with the Agile Manifesto or drop by #agile.

Project teams at 18F tend to use a “best of both” hybrid of lightweight Scrum (planning, standups, and retros) and Kanban (project boards and continuous prioritization). Most teams default to two-week sprints, but might try shorter or longer sprints if the team thinks they’d be more effective.

Teams adapt the length, format, and cadence of meetings to fit their needs, but it’s good practice to establish it early in the engagement and maintain them regularly throughout. You can expect most teams to have these meetings:

  • Sprint planning: Identify, document, assign, and prioritize upcoming goals and tasks. Some teams also hold a separate backlog grooming meeting.
  • Standups: Daily or near-daily check-ins to ensure everyone on the team has what they need, is making progress, and knows what to focus on.
  • Demo or review: Review sprint goals and present progress. Some teams treat this as one meeting, some hold two meetings and invite a wider set of stakeholders to demo.
  • Retrospectives (retros): Reflect on processes and identify how the team could work together better.

Including agency partners in sprint rituals is a powerful way to model how we work on a daily basis. Most teams include partners in most (or all) sprint rituals, with the ambition that the partners will lead and consider maintaining the meetings by the end of the engagement.

Further reading

Making remote collaboration successful

Collaboration at 18F depends on navigating the tools and norms of distributed work. We’re an organization of full-time teleworkers because it’s how we attract and hire folks with the skills we need. Having a distributed team also increases our geographic diversity and forces us to maintain healthy, intentional communication.

In many federal agencies, remote work has a reputation for impeding collaboration, so it’s incumbent on us to demonstrate that a distributed team can be an asset, not a liability.

Here are some of the practices that make it work well for us:

  • Overcommunicate — intentionally. Don’t feel like you’re bothering someone by restating or asking questions: it may save the whole team time and headaches in the long run. For example, let people know where you are when you’re traveling or out of office:lock:.
  • Default to open conversations. Have conversations with your team in the widest appropriate channel. For instance, discuss decisions in the partner project channel, rather than in direct messages.
  • Make the work visible. Use tools that make it possible for the team to see each other’s work (like GitHub, Trello, or Mural). This blog post about making a distributed design team work has good examples.
  • Treat everyone as remote. There’s no such thing as a half-remote team; if anyone on the team is not co-located, default to remote practices. Even if this means having people sit separately in the same office plugged into the same remote meeting, it can help streamline participation.
  • Set aside time for meeting prep. Getting the right tools or documents queued up pre-meeting helps meetings move quickly and feel more productive. It also helps if everyone comes ready to contribute, even if they’re uncomfortable speaking off the cuff. (18F blog post: How to run an efficient meeting)
  • Documentation is crucial. Write it down, whatever it is. When the team makes a decision, make sure it’s reflected in GitHub, notes, or email. If people are storing information in their heads or notebooks, it makes handoff and collaboration slower.
  • Meet in person - when possible. While we typically work in a remote fashion, face to face meetings are invaluable. Scheduling kickoff meetings, mid-point check-ins, and other sessions to be co-located with partners will help the engagement. This time can also be used to conduct interviews, collaborative workshops, and other information gathering sessions.

Are there times we shouldn’t collaborate with our partners?

Though we prefer to collaborate with our partners whenever possible, there are some situations where we might limit access to documents and artifacts, or participation in conversations, to our internal 18F project team. For example:

  • Design research is a special case. Study data (data that’s directly collected from researchers about research participants and their context of use) should be shared strictly on a need-to-know basis in accordance with our participant agreements and our privacy impact assessment for design research. Be especially careful when sharing recordings/notes collected during stakeholder interviews.
  • Working drafts, in some cases. For example, if the partner is likely to be overwhelmed by or misunderstand an early/messy draft of a report or recommendation. We default to open, but use your best judgement about whether sharing early drafts of work or products will be more harmful than helpful. It’s recommended that you develop an agreed-upon convention for quickly knowing which files and folders to share with the partner.
  • Notes from and candid conversations about our partner and about our internal team processes. It’s important for 18F project teams to get together and discuss our project-level goals. This can include candid reflections about the partner or our internal project team, which can help the team strategize how to achieve our goals. Overall, remember that it’s okay to have conversations without the partner in order to better serve them.