• Written by Alvaro de Salvo
    21 August 2017

Above: The Pallasseum by Jonas.

We at Akvo have been trying to solve a problem for a while now: how can we improve the way we communicate around product development, internally?

Akvo is currently over 90 people, spread across five different regions and time zones ranging all the way from Seattle, United States to Sydney, Australia. With product managers in Amsterdam and Stockholm, and most of the rest of the team elsewhere around the globe, keeping people updated on product development proves difficult. People consume information in different ways, and geographical dispersion, time constraints and people’s varying habits are not easily fixed with technology.

The tendency has been to deal with this by simply communicating more; more emails, more chat groups, more calls and more video meetings. Product managers then share with different groups the same thing, over and over. When we tried to reduce the frequency, people felt left out of the loop. We’ve come to point where we need to change this.

The art of internal communications
Besides working on marketing Akvo, a big chunk of my work involves internal communications, which is understanding how to talk to the right people, in the right order at the right time. I truly believe that despite having an open culture fostering discoverable communications, I truly believe that not everyone has to know everything, but everyone should be able to find what they need quickly. Internal communications is more of a people problem. Something you can aim to improve only if you understand who needs to know what, how, and when.

I joined forces together with product managers Jana (Product manager of Akvo Flow) and Lynn (Product manager of Akvo Sites), who are crazy enough to understand the size of the challenge and willing to try to solve it and experiment with ways to improve internal communications around our products The good thing about experiments is that by default, these can fail. And we are all okay with that. It gives us enough room to try things out, take some risks, and learn and improve along the way.  

Understanding the problem
All great changes start with a clear understanding of the problem you want to solve. We’ve surveyed a handful of people within Akvo to better understand how they experience internal communications and what can be improved. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Time: with our current internal communication setting about products, you need to spend 5-6 hours per month to stay up to date on our five major products. However, most people would rather spend between 1-2 hours monthly.
  • Discoverability and trustworthiness: sometimes it’s not easy to find the information you are looking for. Was it on the GitHub release notes or in an email? Do I need to look at the roadmap, or is it in a recorded video? Rather than hunting, people ask the product managers directly, resulting in them repeating what has already been shared. And because  information is shared in a variety of ways, the reader may not know if it’s up to date.
  • Formatting and frequency: every product manager has their own style of format, tone and frequency. Email templates vary and some use video updates.. People find it difficult to switch from one to another.
  • Push vs Pull: people like to receive notifications, but don’t want to have email or group chats overload. They want to be able to go and look for information they need, but they usually need a reminder on where that exists, or when changes have been made.
  • Channels: surprisingly, email is still the preferred method of learning about changes. You can read it in your own time, glance at it, forward it to partners and digest it in bits and pieces from anywhere. Less preferred are video sessions; often they are held at inconvenient times for some time zones, and watching an hour-long recording after the event is a big ask.

Above: Akvo’s regional hubs in 2017.

Defining some working principles
Finding the balance between all the factors listed above is what we’ll be experimenting with. But to make a start, we’ve defined these key design principles to guide our thinking:

  • It should take less than 1.5 hours a month to digest updates about all our tools.
  • All updates around every product should be in one place, reachable in less than three mouse clicks, in a consistent format, up to date and trustworthy with progress status clearly stated (achieved, in progress, delay, etc).
  • Updates should also be understandable by non-techs, give you a clear overview, and be organised chronologically (doing; far away; roadmap changes, etc)
  • Recyclable. You should be able to use bits of content (text, images, videos) for other purposes, like proposals, presentations, slides, etc.

What’s really changing?
Bearing in mind these principles and aims, we decided to kick off our experiment today with the following:

1) A new central product update page for all products

All information on product development now lives in Peak, our intranet. Each product has it’s own tab and follows the same content outline to make it more digestible. Information is up to date. It goes from the high level product overview, through near future planning and status changes to the most recent release updates.

This is the end of product update emails in your inbox. Emails have a tendency to create a feeling of information overload, get lost in the pile and arrive in random formats.

2) Monthly product Q&A sessions

Instead of having two product meetings per month, there will be one monthly session for all products. After reading the available content, people can share their questions with the product managers in advance, who will answer them in the meeting and share outcomes afterwards, available for everyone.

This should provide three benefits: less time spent attending (or watching recordings), the audience decides what is discussed, and you get to learn about all products together, giving you a clearer picture of priorities within our interoperable set of tools.

What comes next?
We’ve put quite a lot of effort into getting to the heart of the problem right from the start, rather than jumping quickly into a solution or a tech fix. Will this improve the way we communicate around product developments? We shall see. Today is Day One of our experiment. We’ll evaluate internally within six months.

For the moment, we’ll keep on our white lab coats and reconnect soon with all of you to see how it’s going. If this first experiment fails – and we hope it doesn’t – that will give us more information to pivot the next approach.

Alvaro, Jana and Lynn.

Alvaro de Salvo is Head of Marketing and Communications at Akvo.  He is based in Amsterdam and you can follow him on Twitter @aj_desalvo.

Jana Gombitova is Akvo Flow product manager, based in Amsterdam. You can follow her on Twitter @janagombitova.

Lynn Greenwood is Akvo Sites product and internal IT manager, based in Stockholm. You can follow her on Twitter @lynngre

Alvaro de Salvo was Comms executive, Marketing Manager, Head of Marketing and Communications, and a member of the Management team at Akvo. You can connect with him via LinkedIn or Twitter.