Startup Best Practices 10 - Building Your Startup's Institutional Memory

In 2013 with 40 employees, Stripe adopted email transparency, a policy that makes most emails public to everyone in the company. They posted an update in late 2014 about the success of email transparency with 164 employees. At first blush, it may seem radical to funnel emails of 164 other people to everyone’s already overflowing inbox. But it works brilliantly because it creates a policy around Institutional Memory, something very few companies do well.

When I was a PM at Google, the company operated thousands of internal email lists, similarly to Stripe, but powered by a technology from Stanford called Mailman. There were all kinds of mailing lists: tactical, political, comical.

When I started, I was told to copy the mailing list on each product team’s weekly meeting notes and other key conversations. It wasn’t until our team added a new member that the value of these email lists became apparent.

During her first few days, she read through the notes stored in email archive. She understood the history of the project including the origin, the timeline, the original ambition. In addition, she internalized the context for the product and design decisions we had made, our key relationships with other teams, and many other nuances that would have taken much longer to appreciate without the email archive.

Email transparency was just as valuable when I transferred a project ownership to another PM. All the context is indexed, searchable and permanent. Empowered and enabled, the new PM took the reins seamlessly in just a few days.

Institutional Memory/Knowledge is one of the greatest competitive advantages a business builds. Many companies have unique expertise. Xero understands how to acquires SMBs through accountancies. WorkDay are masters of selling to large enterprises. New Relic, Twilio and Stripe market to developers better than anyone else. The unique insights for product, marketing and sales are each of these businesses greatest assets - they are the game plans for creating the strategic market advantage that led to their success. So much the better for the company if everyone in the business can operate with this knowledge.

But very few companies invest the time to create and maintain this internal library because it requires time and effort. We all bristle at the idea of keeping wikis and intranets up to date. Email transparency is the most efficient way of building Institutional Memory because it’s mostly passive and integrated into our existing workflows.

In addition to diffusing knowledge, email transparency brings a host of other benefits. It builds trust among team members, invites contributions from others outside the team, coordinates disparate teams better.

It’s never too early to start building and archiving institutional memory. Stripe started at 40.

Thanks to Dustin whose tweet inspired this post.

Published 2015-04-02 in Best-Practices 


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