Daniel D. Beck

The 30-minute information rescue

Imagine this scenario: a teammate has given their notice and they’re the keeper of the secret knowledge for a tool or process that’s valuable for your customers, users, or audience. You know that you should’ve taken steps to reduce the lottery factor—the risk of one person holding key information—but you just never got around to it. Now the clock’s ticking and there are lots of demands on your teammate’s time. You know you’re not going to get the benefit of a back-and-forth with an expert while you develop the knowledge that you need.

It might feel like you’re about to permanently lose something or as if you’re being set up to fail, with too little time and too few resources. People sometimes use words like crisis or disaster in such situations, if they even talk about it. After all, it can seem like a failure for stepping into an avoidable problem.

Recently, a client got in touch with me about a last-minute documentation job. This was the project brief, more or less:

A member of the team knows a lot about a tool. Write a tutorial and a blog post about this tool; interview the team member for information. By the way, it’s his last day, so you only get thirty minutes to interview him and no follow ups. Can you take care of this?

It’s possible to look at a project like this one and see a nightmare. But instead of looking for the catastrophe, I want you to see this as a chance to be a hero. It’s time to launch a rescue mission.

"A go-for-broke rescue mission" title card from _Fantastic Mr Fox_

Inspired by that client project, I wrote down my method for completing a successful information rescue mission. At its core, it’s about having one decent interview with a subject matter expert (SME). If you’re lucky you’ll get more time and opportunities to learn, but if all you’ve got is a half hour meeting, then you’d better make the most of it.

My approach isn’t radical or complicated. It’s just a few steps:

  1. Set expectations. You probably can’t become an expert, but you can build a solid foundation for learning on your own.
  2. Plan your SME interview, with a focus on effective recording or note taking.
  3. Ask questions that will help you learn how to learn, or to understand the context of the tool or process in your work, and ignore everything else.
  4. Do the smallest possible thing to commit to memory what you learned.

I put together my recommendations as a free and short guide called The 30-Minute Information Rescue. It started out as a blog post, but with a substantial list of suggested questions, I figured it was just the sort of reference you’d want offline or on paper, ready to carry into that rescue operation conference room.

To get the The 30-Minute Information Rescue, sign up for my mailing list below 👇. You’ll get the guide and any future updates (also, I promise that emails will be infrequent).