Gmail’s 2018 redesign is a large project that, for the most part, has been a resounding success. Positive press and happy users have welcomed the new UI with open arms. Security and task management features make it more appealing to enterprise customers, ensuring steady revenue growth.
Finding ways to make meaningful changes to a product with a billion users and a sprawling product team aren’t easy; without institutional knowledge, it would be impossible.
The new Gmail is great because it has the entire product, team, and company history behind it. If you want your team to plan and execute great projects, you too need to funnel collective wisdom into individual success.
The new world of institutional knowledge
Institutional knowledge is the accumulated wisdom of a company, which helps it improve over time. In the recent past, senior employees held the keys to institutional knowledge, which came from years of experience. Today, employees move on quickly. Wisdom must be distributed in new ways.
Institutional knowledge in a team includes:
- knowledge of the core product
- knowledge of work processes and systems
- knowledge of people and relationships
The Gmail team is vast, including hundreds of engineers alone. Most of them were not around when Gmail 1.0 launched in 2004. Yet, the new product incorporates the 14+ years of institutional knowledge, as well as learnings from other Google teams and products, like its other mail product, Inbox.
So how does a modern team go about recording and sharing vast stores of experiential learnings? It starts with a culture of learning and trickles down to individual projects.
Let’s look at how each stage of the funnel contributes to better projects.
Embed habitual learning in company culture
When your whole team values learning, you can take more risks, help others (and ask for help), and try things outside of your job description. You can innovate.
Executives may say they support employee learning, but until it’s codified as a core value, learning won’t be a priority.
Google has a philosophy of learning broken down into four tenets:
- Learning is a process, not an event, that requires motivation, opportunities to practice, and continuous feedback.
- Learning happens in real life, especially during transitions or challenging moments.
- Learning is personal. Everyone has different learning styles and different levels of challenge within which they can work.
- Learning is social. Google supports an environment for Googlers to connect with peers for advice and support.
Once you’ve established your own learning values, you can set up opportunities for learning in your team. Some features of a learning-driven culture are:
- Constant feedback: regular 1:1s and group reviews
- Cross-functional collaboration: working with other teams on internal and external projects
- Peer-to-peer education: tutorials, webinars, or presentation sessions where employees can learn from leaders and peers who have expertise
- Casual knowledge-sharing: social opportunities for co-workers to meet and share ideas in an exploratory and pressure-free setting
Building these processes into the life of your company is easy as long as you have buy-in from everyone. Individuals need to be responsible for their own learning, so it helps to seek out new hires with a desire to learn. Executives need to support learning initiatives, even if there’s no direct effect on revenue, and espouse learning values in company-wide meetings and memos. And experienced team members need to be generous with their time and open to connecting with colleagues. A learning culture creates a company environment where institutional knowledge is refreshed and compounded through innovation.
Centralize and scale knowledge with a library
While a culture of learning enables innovation, a central record of learning helps managers and employees move forward on a day-by-day basis. A knowledge library reduces redundancy and prevents repetition of past mistakes, while allowing you to scale learning as you add new members to your team or take on a bigger workload.
A library of learning resources can include:
- Video tutorials: step-by-step instructions for tools and processes, including screen-sharing where necessary
- Shared documents:project documentation, notes and memos, reports and analyses
- Team wiki:general company information, onboarding materials, client information, style guides, how-to documents
Video tutorials can be a low-effort way of adding to institutional knowledge. Employees with specific skills or knowledge can use a screen-recording presentation tool such as Soapbox to record a quick video explaining a process or tool to others.
Shared project documents such as notes, feedback, and data analysis help make sure the team is on the same page while collaborating. Project managers should use a central project management tool and create a folder of post-mortem analysis. Collecting these insights in one place will make them instantly accessible now and in the future.
Lastly, a team wiki creates a quick reference for everyone about processes that are more or less stable and standardized. Your People Ops team can create and embed a searchable wiki such as Tettra directly in your team’s Slack channel. The wiki can then be conveniently accessed any time someone has a question. This frees up managers and gives junior team members more autonomy.
A library is a team effort, but not everyone will contribute at all times. Managers are more likely to create and update shared documents at first. As newer or junior team members gain experience, they will start to add resources of their own.
Build projects with history in mind
Projects are the building blocks of product, people, and company history. Every project, no matter the outcome, depends on and contributes to institutional knowledge.
In “Pre-mortems and Post-mortems: The 2 Most Important Parts of Any Project,” we addressed the importance of planning for failure in project management. We outlined questions the project manager should ask the team before and after a project. Answering these questions can help the team predict and prevent failure before it happens and learn from failure when it inevitably occurs.
Pre- and post-mortems also help teams get into the practice of sharing and recording learnings. For an individual contributor, talking over an embarrassing mistake with the team might seem painful. When it becomes a practice for everyone, it turns into a shared benefit.
Once the project is complete, the project manager can then add the project’s post-mortem document to the knowledge library, so that future team members and employees from other departments can learn from the failures and successes of colleagues. Weeks, months, or even years after a project is complete, it can still teach employees valuable lessons.
Pre-mortem and post-mortem analysis is the best way to gain immediate insights into a project. But other factors can also contribute to learning on the project level, including:
- Client or stakeholder feedback: praise and criticism of particular work products
- Performance analysis over time: tracking revenue, usage, or satisfaction post-release
When considering overall project success, these factors are just as important as the immediate post-mortem analysis. Executives will want to consider this holistic view when making decisions about future projects.
No project is perfect; even the most successful projects have road bumps. When you create a process for transforming failure into learning, project teams will bounce back quickly and grow from all experiences.
Growing institutional knowledge
Brilliant projects like the new Gmail don’t happen overnight. Instead, success comes from carefully maintained institutional knowledge. Managers and employees who learn from project history can shape the company’s future.
Setting up a funnel for institutional knowledge ensures that learning will survive and outlast a flux of individual contributors, projects, and stakeholders. By documenting and sharing your successes and failures today, you’ll fuel the learning of everyone around you, and set your team up for bigger successes in the future.