Devs: position checks can save lives!

Author: Miguel Axcar

squiggle, postit notes

Well, not really. The powerful headline is to capture your attention, because I really think you need to know how helpful position checks can be. 

Position checks help avoid project struggles, and I strongly believe that using them can be a step forward for project teams’ communication.

Position checks can save dev time in a sprint. They can also make a team’s efforts more efficient and increase community spirit and collaboration, as well as reduce friction/costs related to communication, which is paramount for remote teams.

What are position checks?

The idea behind a position check is to drop a quick note in the project’s communication channel a few times a day (maybe when you start/stop working, or find a fork in the road), informing your team of your position. 

What to include in a position check

  • Something you are going to research or an answer you’re looking for
  • Your approach to a particular task
  • Your rationale for a decision
  • An unforeseen task
  • ETAs
  • Any assumptions you make
  • A path that you plan to follow

Quick examples

  • I’ve finished setting up the local env container. Trying to figure out why I get redirected to https://www.example.com when I try to access local environment from URL https://example.altis.dev
  • I finished #308 and opened a draft PR (link). Now I’m going to revise headlines CSS code on the production website to push some typography adjustments (#765).
  • I had a personal matter to handle yesterday, so I’m still working on #989, writing up a helper function to format the dates. ETA 2 hours.
  • I noticed that we don’t have a place to edit social links on admin, so I’m going to build a custom setup page for it.

Are position checks really necessary?

You may be thinking: that’s useless, my team already has a daily standup as part of the Agile Status Report.

I know. But actually, position checks complement what you say during standups. On stand up calls, people don’t usually chime in with ideas about what you just said or about what you are going to do unless specifically asked.

Position checks can also bring visibility to unforeseen tasks/chores during your day, and can improve transparency.

We tested using position checks in the last HM project I was allocated to, and the results were impressive; they proved to be a real step forward in improving communication, which definitely contributed to the project’s success.

One of the biggest challenges for engineers is figuring out how to communicate well, communicate enough, and communicate the right things. We try all kinds of processes to help with this – standups, end of day notes, weekly updates – but each of these is heavy enough of a process that people fall out of the habit, and they are often not detailed or immediate enough to prevent problems.

Checking in when starting a task, or when reaching a fork in the road, is a great way to make sure that important decisions are communicated clearly. It’s simple enough that it’s easy to keep up the habit, and it’s early enough to change course before getting invested in a solution if you find mistaken assumptions or better alternatives to your initial ideas.

On our first pilot project using it, we found that 100% of position checks received at least one reaction from colleagues. 95% of them were transformed into useful threads.

What else are position checks good for?

  • Quick updates – You’ll spend two minutes writing it down, and it’ll take your colleagues less than a minute to read it.
  • Invite support – The threads started by a position check are always objective and useful.
  • Visibility – No surprises during the standup calls.
  • Transparency – Team members are more aware of what colleagues are doing.
  • Collaboration – People moving in the same direction together can make magic.

A virtuous circle of collaboration

One of my most important beliefs is that when we realise that collaborating is much more efficient than competing, humanity will experience a significant evolutionary leap. That’s why open source software has fascinated me ever since my first flirt with it as a teenager.

In our HM position checks pilot project, we found that people aren’t shy about chiming in on colleagues’ position checks. We also verified that it’s a tiny change which ends up creating a virtuous collaboration circle that can’t be stopped. 

It starts with you sharing a position check on the project channel. Then a colleague kindly chimes in. You are grateful for the help received. When this person then shares their position check, you’re more attentive and willing to help, so you chime in. Your colleague is grateful and even more willing to help you next time.

This creates a strong sense of community and a virtuous circle of collaboration, which quickly spreads to the whole team.

Football is a great example of this virtuous circle since it is 100% a teamwork sport. A well-positioned ball received from a teammate makes a player willing to return the favour. Imagine that happening ten times, with skilled players. Magic!

Communicate in the open

At Human Made, we all have different habits, cultural frameworks, backgrounds, and perspectives. Even considering the huge continuous effort for spreading the idea, we may not share our principles and perspectives as deeply as we would like, particularly given that few of us have the opportunity to spend time together regularly. 

However, transparency makes us more human. We are imperfect. We cannot handle everything. Sometimes we cannot even handle things that people expect us to handle. And that’s OK.

There are several possible reasons a person might stop being transparent in their work:

A mistake – Anyone can fail. An action plan for fixing mistakes as soon as possible is usually the best course of action. Stay calm, understand what happened, accept it, shake the dust off and move to get things back on track.

Help is needed – Everybody learns differently and at a different pace. We are all still learning, particularly when technology moves at such a rapid pace. Each of us has a bunch of I-should-have-already-read-this books to read. It’s ok not to know something, but it’s not ok to stay stuck. Asking for or offering support is an awesome unblocker. 

Something unexpected happened – A person hasn’t been able to concentrate for the last two days because of personal circumstances. A position check could help to refocus, reprioritise or communicate a need for additional short-term support.

As humans, we can all find ourselves tempted to hide our work and can struggle when we feel underwater. Or when we fail. Or when we get afraid of having our gaps exposed. Or when things get off-track. It’s a hardwired self-preservation instinct that our animal brains can find hard to shake off, but putting in the effort to go against this most human of traits is absolutely worthwhile.

Ultimately, transparency is key, and position checks are an effective way of shining a light into dark corners. Increasing transparency helps a team to thrive. It doesn’t matter what has happened: being committed to the team’s success means finding solutions together. 


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