Toward Distributed Operations

Context

SourceCred opened 2021 with emerging consensus around the need for improvement in an area we're calling **Strategic Operations**: a group of functions including project planning, project stewardship, internal communication, and other tasks and activities that help keep a large group of humans (and robots!) able to work effectively toward a complex shared vision.


Breaking operations goals down into functions allows us to take a more emergent approach to operations than traditional project management allows. The aim of the Operations Working Group in the efforts described below is to meet branches and contributors where they’re at, to provide desired and useful support across the organization, and to help SourceCred as a whole understand how it is working, in order to further values-oriented aims such as accountability, transparency, and intentional use of resources.


This topic lays out the background for current Operations work, outlines the process employed and initial results, and offers some high-level goals this work aspires to achieve.

Need

2021 Priorities & PM Jam

The Priorities for 2021 thread included a number of contributors’ recognition of internal communication, planning, and prioritization as points of significant struggle for the project, and identified these areas as focal points for improvement in 2021, for example:

Other contributors noted issues with team members’ ability to effectively gauge their bandwidth and the simultaneous attrition of potentially high-value new contributors due to the murkiness of the onboarding process and lack of clarity around where they could “jump in,” among other issues.

This and other conversations led to a Project Management Jam in mid-January, which was focused on defining and clarifying community understanding of project management (as opposed to, in particular, product management). In addition to this work to align around a definition of project management, outcomes of the Jam included:

  1. A number of contributors surfaced concerns about capitalist paradigms and hierarchical models of working.
  2. Several individuals expressed an interest in contributing this type of work.


However, there was no clear mandate to either create/recruit for a full time Project Manager role, nor any clear alternative solution to the issues of internal communication, project organization and prioritization, and other issues raised in the 2021 Priorities thread.

Goals

The initial aims of this Strategic Operations approach correspond to a variety of priorities outlined for 2021, including:

  • Increased visibility of work across the project, both planned and in-process
  • Increased clarity around dependencies to aid in distributed decision making and reduce bottlenecks around internal communication
  • Support for improved valuation of cross-functional work through an enhanced understanding of qualitative and quantitative factors
  • Reduced cognitive load for contributors, and especially for branch or initiative leads
  • Improved prioritization and estimation capabilities to support project throughput
  • Enhanced capacity for effective delegation to reduce work load on core contributors
  • Increased visibility of contribution opportunities for newcomers and casual contributors, including increased confidence of task priority and status, and reduced overhead prior to actionability.

Approaches

*This section indexes a number of related efforts to approach Operations questions at SourceCred recently. It is neither exhaustive (please tell us what we've missed!) nor solely representative of the efforts of the Operations Working Group. Our goal here is to gather a brief account of the variety of approaches to related problems.*
Feature Team Scrums

One outcome of the PM Jam that was clear was that different branches have different needs, and that a decentralized organization should embrace multiple approaches and experiments in pursuit of a goal, especially one as important-but-also-vague as “Improved internal communication.”


At least one team - the Development branch’s Feature Team, led by @blueridger - began experimenting with a particular style of project management well-suited to software development. Scrum is a way of organizing a team of independent workers around shared goals in “sprint” rhythms of typically one to two weeks. It utilizes task cards and a Kanban board, attempts to limit time spent on prioritization and planning (preferring an iterative approach to exhaustive up-front planning), and specifically limits the amount of work-in-process on the team’s plate in order to reduce cognitive load. I’m a really big fan of this methodology and from what I’ve seen of the Feature Team’s weekly sprint planning meetings, they’re making great use of it.

Time Tracking & Metrics Initiatives

@Jolie_Ze has been moving forward a number of great operations initiatives including a contributor Time Tracking project in cooperation with @blueridger.

Governance Experiments / Sociocracy Working Group

The primary outcome of recent Governance discussions has been the formation of a working group focused on understanding the Sociocracy model and working out how to apply its principles to our work at SourceCred. Sociocracy aims to empower independent teams within an organization to work with the tools and processes that are most effective for them, while still maintaining effective communication and accountability across the organization. Strategic operations work conducted at the branch, and later circle level, and is intended to work in conjunction with Sociocracy to help circles discover and codify internal process that aids them.

Branch Requests for PM Support

Meanwhile, the lead for the Design Team, who had initially approached me last fall about contributing to the project, once again expressed dragon’s pressing need for some externalized support with workflow documentation, prioritization, and accountability. This mostly-one-person team felt like a great place to start because our personal history meant that we had well-established trust. We agreed to proceed by scheduling a jam, in order to make it easy for other Design contributors to participate, and also to allow the community to observe our process and hopefully start peeling away some of the hesitation around how to approach project management (see next section).

In the course of planning and promoting our Design Ops Jam, the Ecosystems branch lead also reached out to request support mapping Ecosystems tasks and goals. This branch has distinct needs from that of Design, because it includes both contributors to the SourceCred core project and Instance Managers responsible for maintaining a SourceCred instance in other communities; this means there are both shared goals/needs and also highly individualized workflows; see a more detailed description of the EcoOps process & outcomes here.

Process

The process by which we've been going about developing out SourceCred Operations is pretty basic, and aimed primarily at supporting branches in externalizing their tasks and priorities with structured data that can eventually be ported into a variety of tools as individuals and teams prefer:
  1. We start with a 1:1 with a branch/initiative lead to discuss their project management needs and get some context on the unique needs, goals, and constraints of their core team;
  2. Together with the lead we plan a Branch Ops Jam, to give the team space to describe their existing workflow and share goals, needs, and pain points; we knead this into a rough backlog and do some quick initial prioritization to get a sense of timing and resources;
  3. The Project Planner then iterates on this document, integrating other data sources where appropriate to develop a Branch Roadmap MVP document that captures:
    • Projects
    • Tasks
    • Ownership
    • Known dependencies
    • Anticipated time or resource constraints
  4. As an outcome of the meeting, the Project Planner supports the team in choosing a method and rhythm for ongoing Project Stewardship activities like status updates, prioritization, and surfacing of bandwidth issues, resource needs, contributor availability, and other operational concerns.

Outcomes

Initial outcomes from our Branch Ops jams/roadmap creation have been very positive:
  • Leads have expressed relief to have their to-do lists externalized & organized.
  • Despite their differences, documenting branch goals & priorities leveraged similar categories, which is a great sign for the possibility of a future org-level roadmap (see Vision, below).
  • It’s too early to say with confidence that this process will improve branch throughput or communication, but we are laying the groundwork for these improvements.
  • Work with the Design team helped to clarify bandwidth issues and a need to shift that contributor’s focus to Design work.
  • Work with the Ecosystems team helped to surface shared pain points across Instances, which should inform development prioritization.

Vision

360 Project Visibility

Our highest hope is to help SourceCred achieve full visibility of work planned and in process across branches and initiatives, including timing, dependencies, and champions of each project or task. Surfacing this information in a consistent manner could help reduce cross-project communications bottlenecks, enable consistent valuation of different types of contributions, and support decentralized governance by allowing teams and contributors to track their own progress and keep the whole project informed.

Flexible, Robust Tools

We've kept this work as simple as possible to stay focused on functionality, so our initial roadmaps are built in Google Sheets. As we continue to audit the workflows of teams across SourceCred, we hope to find areas of overlap that can support a more robust shared tool, and ways of structuring data that allow each team to work in the tool that best meets their needs - while retaining cross-organizational visibility. The first step in this process is our [SourceCred Tools Survey](https://forms.gle/xdwQt3R2QVknaTPaA) - please fill it out if you haven't already.

Lightweight, Modular Process

We think effective project management alleviates bottlenecks, prevents communication breakdowns, and supports team morale and effectiveness by improving prioritization, enabling decision-making, and preventing wasted effort on unfinished or abandoned projects.


We think that counterproductive project management creates more work than it alleviates, makes contributors feel micromanaged and mistrusted, and fosters resentment by prescribing universal solutions to idiosyncratic projects and teams. Process should exist to aid contributors.

Project Management Cultivation

There are contributors throughout SourceCred who have unknown and untapped potential to help meet Strategic Operations needs and support their teammates as Project Planners and Stewards. One of the ambitions of the Operations Working Group is to develop repeatable process and training materials to support the growth of everyone who wants to contribute in this capacity.

Next Steps

*These are some of the concrete actions our team has planned in the near term.*
  • Tools Audit - please complete!
  • Cultivation Ops Jam & (WIP) Cultivation Trunk Roadmap
  • Operations handoff from Faruk to Ops Working Group (EJ, Kevin, LB)
  • Contribution Opportunities audit for new & occasional contributors
  • Developing naming conventions & process guidelines for saving documents/assets
  • Supporting more branches with project organization and stewardship, as needed (please reach out!)
  • Sharing high-level “tips and tricks” from our workflow audits in a Discourse topic and/or Jam
3 Likes

Thank you for making this EJ! Very exciting to have this new operations artifact.

Real quick curiosity; what are the roles of “Project Planners” and “Stewards” in your understanding? Asking for a side-quest I’m working on. :slight_smile: