To Async or Sync?

I’m really hopeful about the potential of asynchronous collaboration (Ie. for enabling deeper thinking or flexibility across timezones). I’m also very curious about the conditions necessary for it to be productive.

I created the following model to support leaders and facilitators in choosing between these 2 modes of collaboration based on the scenario characteristics. I’m still refining it and would love to hear others’ experiences.

Remote Collaboration Mode Decision Framework

Group Characteristics

  • How capable of self organisation is the group?
    • Self organising groups typically exhibit high degrees of individual responsibility. Async collaboration falls apart without individuals taking responsibility both for navigating the process and engaging throughout.
    • If the group has an established way of working and familiarity that they can lean on, async working holds lots of potential. In the absence of this trust and experience, the async collaboration container requires a lot more structure and involvement from a leader or facilitator.

Process Characteristics

  • How complex is the level of interaction required?
    • One way transmissions of information are examples of really simple processes. Using synchronous time to “download information into people’s brains” feels unnecessary and often results in people multi tasking or checking out. Additionally, processing information is often done best in one’s own time, when one can go through it at their pace and in the right mindset.
    • Dialogue about heated topics with unknown outcomes is complex. There is nuance, subtly and a need for high bandwidth communication to harness the potential of the space. This is difficult to achieve asynchronously when everyone is coming to the conversation at different times, possibly only returning to it once or twice.

Some Examples

Where there is low self organisation and a simple problem space, it’s really about choosing between the trade offs of sync and async. For example:

A division wide update with teams sharing quick presentations could be done async or sync:

  • Sync will offer the opportunity for a little connection at the risk of people getting a little bored and disengaging (because it’s simple process)
  • Async will offer people the chance to really process the information in their own time at the risk of people not actually watching/reading it (because of low self organisation and responsibility at the division level)

Alternatively, when there is high self organisation in a group and a complex problem/topic, we have a wonderful opportunity for experimentation and innovation with both approaches. For example:

A relationship building exercise in a high performing team:

  • The team has deep trust and experience working together which they can use to set up and navigate the async or sync container
  • The problem/topic space is sufficiently challenging to call for some degree of innovation or experimentation – making it an interesting challenge

Adding Time Availability:

I suspect there is a third variable to do with time: both the urgency of the problem/topic as well as the time which the group has available for it. However, I’m still thinking about how clear the relationship between time and async and sync is.

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