Joshua Levy

This is an iterative document—please give feedback and comments! First version 2019-03.

If you've ever used Google Docs, wikis, Confluence, Dropbox, Quip, Notion, or other such systems with a team, you know the problem that inevitably hits after a little while. How best can you organize docs or files on a team so they are maintained and all on a team can find and use them?

Typically, we blame the tool, or make a joke—"yeah, I put it in Google Drive, if I can only find it!" While there are tooling problems, I've come to think it's also just lack of good guidance or thinking about how we collaborate. In the 21st century, every knowledge worker needs to remember a few key principles about how to work with shared resources effectively. Here I'll write about one principle.

Bob Woodward famously declared that "democracy dies in darkness." Documents die when they are unmaintained or don't have readers. They become forgotten or lost, they become out of date, or people lose trust in them.

Broadly, there are three ways to counteract document death, loss, and frustration:

The OAC Principle

Okay, so how do we do this? I think the answer is actually pretty simple, but usually not followed. The principle is this:

Divide things into a single doc only when three considerations align, and separate them if any of these are different:

For each doc or folder you create, know the answer to these three things, and your docs will be better organized, better used, and better maintained. Informally or formally, your team should know the answers to these three attributes for all docs.

Every time you create a new doc, ask yourself: "Who is the owner?", "What is the largest possible audience?", and "What is the cadence and workflow of updates?"

Also note that I didn't say documents should be divided by topic or purpose! That's what people usually think about first. That matters, sure, especially when sharing with teams or organizing things into folders. But when it comes to effective collaboration on individual documents, ownership and workflows trump subject matter.

To illustrate, here are some guidelines that flow from that principle: