Nicolas Cava

The handbook-first approach

Nicolas Cava
Nicolas Cava

Nicolas Cava

2 minutes read
The handbook-first approach
Picture by Brando Makes Branding

Distributed teams must consolidate tribal knowledge into documentation.

Tribal knowledge is any information about a process that lives only in the minds of employees. It may vary between employees, but it remains undocumented.

To solve this, let me introduce you to the handbook-first approach.

It is counterintuitive to communicate changes to documentation. When they wish to do it, by default, people send a Slack message, an email, give a presentation, or tell people in a meeting—anything but edit documentation.

But Slack is an instant messaging tool masquerading as async. It is not suited to host business-critical knowledge.

The benefits of having a handbook are real:

  • Consolidated knowledge will compound over time and save you time in the long run.
  • While it is slower than any other option, you are building a solid business foundation for your following projects.
  • Ensures that whatever is merged into the handbook has a proper trail, full of context and is universally accessible.
  • If an expert leaves the company, you don't sweat the consequences of losing precious knowledge.

With the proper system and tooling, we can solve documentation at scale.

Here are 10 tips to get started.

1. Host your handbook in a single platform

You don't want people to switch platforms to find what they want.

Centralize to maximize discoverability.

2. Require at least comments, drafts, and version control

You can build a website and use Git to edit it.

Again, check out Almanac for a full-stack solution.

3. Have an excellent search engine

This is the fastest way to access knowledge. I strongly recommend Algolia.

4. Single source of truth

Be sure the handbook is the single place for your content with no duplication. Not two. Only one.

Link every content together.

5. Allocate time to edit it

Find capacity for your teams to invest in your handbook. Leadership MUST be on board.

Build a system for it. Some companies implement strict message retention to encourage teams to consolidate knowledge.

6. Link pages

Link a page when replying to someone.

If the knowledge is not there, add it.

7. Make it public

Build accountability by making it public. Have an internal one for private matters, but ensure it is the last resort.

Do you know another benefit of having your handbook public? You can search it on Google too.

8. Write notes elsewhere

Use another tool like Notion to take notes, but refine and consolidate them afterward into the handbook.

9. Make ownership clear

Organize it to ensure every item has a location and owner to keep it up to date.

10. Bring expertise

Consider hiring scribes to help edit the handbook and support your teams.

Don't wait to act

Building a handbook when scaling is challenging, as you change processes and culture while operating the business.

As a team grows, the need for documentation increases with the cost of not doing it.

The best moment to start is now.

Additional resources

I wrote about it on LinkedIn and Twitter on July 20, 2022.

This strategy is part of the undocumented knowledge issue for remote companies I solve in my book Uncompromising Companies.

Let's discuss building better companies.

You have better chances of finding me active on Twitter. I tweet about leadership, remote work, software engineering, personal growth, and systems. I also build my company publicly.

I'm also active on LinkedIn, where I post longer thoughts.

You can also contact me by email.

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