Tana

How Jens-Christian Fischer uses Tana with his team

JC: As we spent more and more time with Tana, we started to build more tags, and extended or changed existing ones. The key learning here: One doesn't have to have the perfect structure from the start. Start with the absolute minimum of what is needed, when you notice something missing, just add it and update existing records (if that's even necessary)

Jens-Christian Fischer works at the Swiss National and Research Network (NREN) where he currently builds a new service with a new team. He has a background in software development and large scale server infrastructure among way too many other things that are interesting. He holds a MSc. in in information technology. You can reach him via our Slack community or LinkedIn.

The Road to Tana

I have ADHD and learnt to live with it. Over the years I have tried almost all productivity tools and hacks (from Bullet Journals, to Atomic Habits, to Getting Things Done and surely a dozen other methods of keeping track of my work). None of them lasted more than a few weeks - either the friction of keeping track of everything was too high, or things were to trivial (I really don't need a to-do item that I need to brush my teeth or find an envelope to write a letter). I somehow learned to cope with ADHD and managed to meet most of the expectations that were put forward to me.

About 2.5 years ago I happened upon Notion and was fascinated. So many possibilities. So much love in the UX design. So much to play with. I think my love affair lasted 2 months and then it was just a burden to keep on maintaining all the fancy month/week/day templates I had setup. And I stopped using it.

The came Roam. A friend of mine showed it to me. The thing that absolutely blew my mind, was the fact that it would collect TODO items from all over the graph. I started using it, watched way too many YouTube tutorials and gradually stripped away all the complexity until I was left with a daily note page and a running journal of what I did during the day. I also participated in Roam Book Club 4 by Beau Haan - and my mind was seriously blown (but that is another story). Long story short: Roam was the one tool I used on a daily basis for over 18 months - and I can claim that I have never been as organized in my whole life as during that time. The ease of just noting things down, the emergence of structure - heaven. I was able to reconstruct what I was doing, whom I was talking to about what, when - lovely.

But even though I was in multiple multiplayer graphs, Roam started to fall short when multiple people had to collaborate. There was a lot of social contracts that needed to be enforced in order for to make a multiplayer graph work truly well.

In July 2022 I was approached by Stian Håklev about some new product that promised to solve a lot of these team problems. Because I was starting up a new team, due to deliver a new service in our company. I saw the chance to give it a try. In addition there was almost no legacy to worry about.

The company tool landscape

The part of the company I work in has been using Confluence to structure work and customer facing collaboration work. The rest of the company were or are using a wild mix of cobbled together solutions that make no one really happy. There is a general plan of going towards M365 and Teams, but except for a few teams, no one is using it. Confluence already is so much better than what the rest of company was using, but coming from Roam, so many things were missing. Automatic backlinks, anyone?

Goal of building an asynch team

My goal for the new team was that it would be able to work asynchronously from the start. Covid has shown that we will be working at different locations, at different times. The tooling we use should be able to support this. When my new team started to come into the company, I exposed them to presentations by Florian Haas , like this one https://xahteiwi.eu/blog/2021/10/27/this-meeting-should-have-been-an-email/#this-meeting-should-have-been-an-email or https://xahteiwi.eu/resources/presentations/no-we-wont-have-a-video-call-for-that/

Another inspiring blog post talked about various modes of communication: https://intenseminimalism.com/2015/the-three-speeds-of-collaboration-tool-selection-and-culture-fit/- what we were missing was a tool that allowed for the middle ground between ephemeral quick discussions and long form documents for (almost) eternity.

And then I got the Alpha Invite to Tana...

Working with Tana - early days

The first days with Tana were weird. It didn't quite have the fluidness of entering information that I was used to from Roam. And there was this weird concept of Supertags that allowed for more structured items to live in the graph. I didn't quite get it. I made a #ToDo tag, filled out a few things but it just didn't click.

And then somehow the fact that I could continue to write free form things but start to create more structured entities while plowing along started to make so much sense.

I started to use supertags for more varied tasks - I was planning a three day retreat with my team and started to create an #activity tag where I collected ideas for what to do at what point during the days, which topics to work on etc.

The tag started out simple enough, just enough information on the topic, from when to when and what general topic this activity was about

This allowed me to create an Agenda and shuffle things around

For one of the evenings I had the crazy idea to run a One-Shot Dungeons & Dragons session (tying various team building exercises we did during the three days together). Of course I also started to plan this in Tana:

The next day we had a planning session for the work we were going to do - my boss was present and I decided to risk it and start building a structure of projects and prioritize them on the fly in Tana. I created a #project tag that had fields for estimated effort, priority, who was interested in working on it and not much more. A simple search collected all entries and we were able to prioritze and see missing pieces.

At that point we - as a team - decided to give Tana a try to see if we could use it to organize our work.

Emergent structure

As we spent more and more time with Tana, we started to build more tags, and extended or changed existing ones. The key learning here: One doesn't have to have the perfect structure from the start. Start with the absolute minimum of what is needed, when you notice something missing, just add it and update existing records (if that's even necessary)

Over the last few weeks we have evolved Tana to do a number of different things. The beauty is the simplicity and how everything just evolves and grows as we go along. There is no master plan, but we still have quite a good grasp on what we are doing and what each of us is working on.

Let me take you trough the evolution of our tags and what we are currently doing with them

Keep track of projects, tasks

I guess almost everybody starts out with a #Task tag to keep track of who does what. Of course so did we. I think we started with a Status (To Do, Doing, Done), an Assignee (who is doing it) and a Due Date field. We added an Urgency field (Now, Soon, Later, Someday). Later we extracted the Checkbox, Status and Assignee field into a #Todo tag and had #Task inherit from it and get a Depenencies (a field that holds instances of #todo) and a project field (that holds instances of the projects we defined earlier)

Now we were able to add todos and tasks and the tasks would be linked to their respective project. We use a search node in the project template to collect all the tasks related to this project:

Keep track of People we are in contact with

We also started to keep track of whom we were in contact with: General people, co-workers, customers, vendors, random people from the internet. Currently we have hierarchy of people with a #person tag, a #team-member and #co-worker tag:

In addition, we created a simple #organisation tag to assign people to organisations

That allows us to have an overview over whom we are talking to, what kind of interaction we have with whom and see who is in what organisation. When we have a meeting (which we'll cover a bit later) or talk to a person, we make a regular entry on our daily note page and just @ reference that person. By clicking on the persons page, we now see all interactions we had with them.

Keep track of Customers

Some of the organisation we deal with are special - they are our customers. The supertag #customer extends #organisation and has some more relevant information:

We keep track of a bit more about our customers: Who their CISO is and what of our service modules they are interested in. And there's also a budget search.

Keep track of possible income from customers

That leads us to keeping track of the budgeting of income: We created a #budget-in tag that allows us to track what customer is interested in what module we offer, how much value is assigned to this item and if we have verified it with the customer.

Now, when we open the customer, we can see what our expected income from that customer is:

A simple search over all #budget-in entries gives us the grand total (which I will not show here, but you can imagine how a simple table of those items looks like)

Keep track of meetings

We then turned to meetings and are keeping track of whom we are talking to about when. This again is a really simple tag that keeps track of Todo/tasks and any projects this is associated with:

Work with Tensions

Our organisation has been adopting several principles from Sociocracy 3.0, namely working with Tensions. For more information, read up on navigating via tensions and consent decision-making.

Our internal meetings are split up into two parts:

A sync part where we update each other on facts, KPIs, etc. No discussions allowed, if things need more clarification they will be noted as a tension and handled in the

Governance meeting - where we develop our structures and processes. (A tension can come from everywhere and is seen as a positive thing: There is a tension between the state of something now and a desired state. This can be anything from ideas to proposals to things that need clarification). We note tensions as they appear with the #tension tag:

A tension inherits from the generic ToDo tag, so it gets a Due Date and an Assignee. It can have a project and the four fields Tension/Driver/Proposal/Decision can be empty (so they are hidden, if not filled out).

When we have a team meeting, we create one with the #team-meeting tag. It inherits from the #meeting tag and adds the structure of the meeting (Check-In, Sync, Break, Governance, Check Out).

The Sync Search collects all Tasks/ that are being worked on currently.

The Governance search collects all not yet processed tensions we have floating around

Finally Decided Tensions collects all tensions that we tagged with this governance meeting, so we have a record of what we talked about during this meeting

When we work on a tension, we make notes and updates in the Tension node and it can happen, that new Tasks or new tensions are created right inside that tension. Our system makes sure that they will show up in our next team meeting.

Keep track of questions

The Tana Tour with Maggie Appleton inspired us to add a #question tag to collect questions that we come up with. They might lead us to new discoveries about our services or our customers. Again, it inherits from the #todo tag and has a number of hidden when empty fields that can be filled out as we work on the question

Make a library of media / resources

We have started a library of resources / media / articles / blog posts that are of interest to us

Know what team members are doing

This is something we are still experimenting with and are not quite satifsied with yet:

We have a #work-log tag that has the Date, a person and a task (instance of the #todo tag) to fill out and a search on the daily page that collects all work-logs from that day,

Collect Work logs per day

Unfortunately we have to edit the date each day and the search doesn't quite do what we expect it to do. More experimentation needed...

Final Thoughts

The thing where Tana shines (really shines) is its ability to generate structure on the fly. Be it Tasks, books, projects, service descriptions, tensions or basically anything else (who is interested to test drive service XY and signed the agreement, ...) just tagging a piece of data and starting to define the fields needed is so liberating. It can be done just while typing away and the search nodes will make sure that everything is picked up is so liberating for a mind that is constantly wandering, like mine. I don't need to go anywhere specific to do work and by setting up defined places in the hierarchy with the right searches pulls in all the information I need.

This is game changing in many ways.

Shout out to all the people providing inspiration, specifically

  • Stian Håklev

  • Brage Bang Bjørkmo

  • Maggie Appleton

  • and the rest of the Tana community