At 18F and its parent office Technology Transformation Services (TTS), we are committed to working in the open. One way we do that with agency partners is through our “weekly ship” – a weekly memo that captures what we did that week, what’s upcoming, and how much we’ve spent on the project so far. We send weekly ships throughout the duration of a project. The weekly ship is a way we engage with our partners, but it’s also an internal ritual that promotes transparency by giving our co-workers project insight. At a glance, both our partners and anyone in TTS can understand the status of a project, the state of its funding, and where the project is heading.
In this post, we will cover what a weekly ship entails, how to write a weekly ship that partners and stakeholders actually want to read, and what makes them valuable internal artifacts.
18F started weekly ships in order to standardize a simple report for partners to understand our work. They were geared towards leaders and executives, which meant it had to be concise and in plain language – the sort of thing a person could read in three minutes while they wait for their coffee. Generally, they go out on Fridays (I write mine over tea on Friday mornings) and consist of what has been completed that week, what is upcoming the following week, and any imminent blockers. While standups provide this check-in for the day-to-day work, weekly ships are the stand-ups for leadership who aren’t in every meeting with the team. They provide a reference for partners who want to look back over the work completed in an engagement. They also provide our co-workers on other project teams with quick context on the state of the project.
18F project teams, product managers from TTS, and even our leadership, all send weekly ships as a way to communicate their priorities. All weekly ships can be read in an internal channel called #the-shipping-news.
Everyone has their own spin on ships, but here is the outline for a project I recently worked on:
Subject: 18F Weekly Ship - d/mm/yy
Group_address e.g. Team, Hello everyone, Hey folks, etc.,
Completed (or, what we’ve been up to, what we’ve done, or another prompt)
- [Verb - item]
- [Verb - item]
Upcoming (or, what’s next, or another prompt)
- [short description]
- [short description]
- [short description]
Blockers [List if any exist; indicate none exist if they do not]
Budget For the week ending XX/XX/XX, we spent $XX. Based on our projected burn rate, this project is slated to end XX/X/XX.
Weekend reading (Very optional!)
18F Team [Members sorted randomly]
Tips for ships
Weekly ships serve several audiences: the partner and TTS internally. To understand what makes for a good ship, you have to understand what makes them valuable to those audiences.
Value for the partner
The hardest part of writing the weekly ships is finding the appropriate length. Project partners often don’t have a lot of time, and they are probably skimming the memo. Good strategies for writing clear and concise weekly ships include being brief and using formatting to highlight the most important takeaways. Finding a balance between being succinct and being clear is challenging, and part of what makes writing quality ships time-consuming.
The tone of ships should be positive and upbeat (sometimes they are even emotional!). Projects we work on are tough, and sometimes we enter our partners’ lives at a time where progress is stagnant and folks are burned out. Our engagement, and the weekly ship as a manifestation of it, are an opportunity to inject positive energy into a project.
Weekly ships provide value when they are inclusive. Figuring out early the right recipients for the ship will serve you well over the course of the project. It is a great way to keep stakeholders on the periphery engaged and clued in to the work.
One of my favorite parts of writing the weekly ship is the “weekend reading.” Some call this section “learning” or “related links,” in true tongue-in-cheek fashion. I put a lot of care and attention into the weekend reading. It is an opportunity to engage with the partner beyond the project and give them resources to build their skills. It is also an opportunity to show the partner you are paying attention to their needs by responding to topics that came up in the past week with suggestions for further reading. I also try to include one article or resource that is specific to their agency, domain, or location. It is usually something fun and light that we can joke or chat about at our end-of-week meeting, though on other teams they can be supporting best practices or ideas from the field.
We’ve also found weekly ships are a form of contagion for 18F culture. Executives have told me they read resources recommended in the weekend reading. Partner teams we’ve worked with have started their own ships.
Value for TTS
Generally, weekly ships create transparency around projects within 18F. The outline above doesn’t include a summary of the project. This omission can make the ship confusing for internal staff outside 18F, so we might include a general summary of the project to attach to every weekly ship internally. A simple, two-sentence overview that broadly summarizes the project goals can be very useful for readers who aren’t working directly on the project.
We work on projects in phases and often rearrange teams between phases. Weekly ships give a detailed yet high-level understanding to team members not currently on the project but potentially staffed in future iterations. They therefore act as a good onboarding tool.
Finally, 18F has Portfolios of work that provide extra support towards engagements within the Portfolio’s domain. Weekly ships that are clear and easy for the team to read give folks interested in Portfolio work insight into how those projects are going.
In summary, when done right, weekly ships can strengthen the relationship between us and our partners, keep our co-workers up to speed, and create a more transparent way of working.
But there are also some selfish reasons you might want to volunteer to write your team’s ship too! Reflection is an essential part of learning. Practicing reflection can strengthen our retrieval processes and the cognitive process involved in retrieval has been shown to strengthen our memory and ability to learn. Treating the weekly ship as an opportunity for reflection, and not just another sprint chore, may help you cement learnings from the project faster. Documentation is also helpful for new team members who may join later.
Hopefully this post has inspired you to start writing weekly ships people actually want to read – for your partners, your organization, and for yourself!
Thank you to Allison Norman for introducing me to the format shown above for ships. Thanks also to Michael Cata for documenting the history of Weekly Ships in his time at 18F. Finally, thank you to reviewers Anne Petersen, Allison Norman, Christa Hartsock, Heather Battaglia, Sarah Rudder, and Michelle Rago.