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A Review of P2: Automattic's Tool for Organizational Alignment

Leonardo Federico · July 20th, 2020

Automattic, along with a handful of other companies, deserves most of the credit for contributing to the playbook of distributed work.

The shift to remote work, as I explained in context over control, is not merely a change in physical locations, but it will have much broader implications in terms of how future companies operate.

More than any other company, Automattic, helped an entire generation of founders, entrepreneurs and operators lead the transition to decentralized work by sharing internal practices.

Over the last decade, many members of Automattic's leadership team shared a lot about how they operate in terms of tools, workflows, internal best practices and more. Specifically, they talked extensively on how they communicate internally.

A decade-plus of experimentation has led them to its current set of tools:

  1. Slack
  2. Zoom
  3. Wikis (Field Guides)
  4. P2

Three out of four items on this list are widely recognized products. Yet, as Matt Muellenweg, Founder/CEO at Automattic, explained many times it's actually the fourth one that was able to change how Automattic worked.

As Muellenweg himself put in the last interview with Ben Thompson from on the Stratechery Daily Podcast:

Ben: One thing that that really stood out to me about being at Automattic was that internal blogging system. And I think the point here is not necessarily the technology per se, obviously it was built on WordPress, but rather this idea that teams would every day summarize what they were working on and the problems they encountered, the discussions they had and this idea that it became a cultural norm at Automattic where every day you start work by reading the P2’s and seeing what was going on, and I actually felt that despite the fact I was in Taiwan in a different time zone than a lot of people at Automattic, I felt like I knew more about what was happening at Automattic than I did when I was going into an office every day at other jobs.

MM: Yeah, that internal blogging system. I think every company needs an equivalent of it, regardless of what’s powering it. It provides transparency versus an email chain where everything’s private; it’s locked up in someone’s box. If someone leaves, it’s all gone. For example, every post you made or comment you made on an internal system, or that people made to you, is all still available in the search index. And we have a kind of an internal version of Google alerts, so when you’re mentioned or a topic you follow, you can find it, but you can control what you follow, just like a Google Reader where you can say these are things I want to follow, but then all this other stuff, don’t push it in my inbox and mix it up with external communication, all these other things. I would love to productize this, I wish it was already ready to go, but in the meantime it’s all open source so companies can run their own P2 instance wherever they want.

Automattic recently released a new version of P2 specifically built for remote teams. We had a chance to take an early look at it and this article is an extensive review of it.

If you've been hearing or reading of P2 for quite some time and you've been looking to see if this can work for your organization, this is for you.

What is P2 and Where Does It Fit in the Stack?

First things first.

What's P2? P2 is a blog theme that allows users to share updates through a Twitter-esque interface. Users can share well-thought written updates to the entire company through a public newsfeed.

The theme was originally developed by WordPress under the name Prologue. Around 2006, Automattic started to use it internally for centralized asynchronous communication; they then developed a second version of it. From there, the name P(prologue)2.

As Muellenweg explained in an old blog post:

There was a disconnect we couldn’t reconcile: even though our internal blogs didn’t work out most of the company was active on Twitter every day. (WordPress users are some of the most passionate adopters of micro-blogging.) We found a solution in Prologue which added a posting box to the home page and gave it a Twitter-like feel. Now Automattic had a pulse, a place where the incredible amount of activity was chronicled and captured. It was low-friction and hassle-free, we all started using it more.

Let's take a step back, before we get to see the product, and explore how exactly P2 is different from Email or Slack.

Slack vs P2

Slack is a chat tool. It's designed for synchronous communication, hence the go-to product for quick and casual internal conversations. On the other hand, P2 leans toward a well-thought longer type of communication as opposed to instant messages.

To some extent P2 is kind of a slow thinking version of Slack.

Automatticians use P2 to make official something. Whether it's a global announcement around an acquisition, a new internal feature release, a particularly relevant discussion, a new important decision, or a department report.

P2 is essentially a replacement for all internal emails.

Email vs P2

Wait, but we said a few weeks ago email is an asynchronous communication tool. If that's what we're aiming for after all, why do we even need to replace it?

Replacing internal emails with an internal blog system is one of the best things you can possibly do to reduce email overload, busy work, and (most importantly) information silos.

When company and department updates, project specs, design mock-ups, and individual daily or weekly update reports move away from siloed email inbox to a private internal blog, they not only becomes permanently stored and accessible, but over time this ends up creating some form of collective intelligence.

To an extent, this almost ends up being to the company processes and culture, what a GitHub repository is to engineering.

This collective organization brain is critical not just to the current employees but also to the ones who are yet to join the company.

Streamlining communications and cutting down on the back-and-forth emails is only the superficial benefit of pulling communications out of the inbox and replacing it with a P2-like system. The true benefit is your company being able to consistently rely on a single, centralized, and secure source of truth, rather than a few decentralized individual brains.

P2, unlike email or chat, is the kind of tool that can help you in this important transition.


Let's look at P2 and see what this is all about.

Beware, P2 is still in private beta, you need an invite from the Automattic team to get onboard.

Setting Up a New P2

Once you click on the URL from your invite email, you'll be asked to enter a team name and workspace name.

The workspace name is what you will see as a public domain of your URL.

p2-signup

You'll need a WordPress account to get in there. Once you do that, click Connect to get access to the workspace.

p2-connect-account

If everything goes well, you'll land on the home page of your newly created P2 workspace.

p2-homepage

Create Posts on P2

P2 has been designed from the ground for a longer type of communication. The editor deliberately focuses the author on the composition of a long-form message.

new-post-on-wordpress-p2

The P2 editor allows you to go beyond basic text and images, by supporting rich text embeds such for Tweets, Instagram posts, YouTube videos, or even Spotify playlists.

wordpress-p2-post-editor

As far as the reader experience, P2 makes it easy for you to catch up on posts that you might have missed with three sections on the left sidebar.

catchup-wordpress-p2

P2 also offers a wide range of shortcuts to make you faster at navigating through existing posts.

shortcuts-wordpress-p2

Comments on P2

The editor for comments in P2 is just as flexible as the one you use for posts.

comments-on-wordpress-p2

Whether you're in a P2 post or comment, you can directly @mention any of the existing members in your P2 account.

user-mentioned-wordpress-p2

People Management on P2

People management on P2 is not as easy as other more established communication platforms.

To manage people in your workspace, navigate to: Admin > Manage > People > Team.

people-management-on-wordpress-p2

To invite a new user to your P2 team, click Manage Team. You can invite members on P2 in two ways:

  1. By Invitation Link
  2. By Email or Usernames

invite-people-to-wordpress-p2

The five available roles include:

  • Administrator An Administrator has full power over the site and can do everything related to site administration*. They are also the only role that can see WordAds revenue and manage ad settings.
  • Editors An Editor can create, edit, publish, and delete any post or page (not just their own), as well as moderate comments and manage categories, tags, and links.
  • Authors An Author can create, edit, publish, and delete only their own posts, as well as upload files and images. Authors do not have access to create, modify, or delete pages, nor can they modify posts by other users. Authors can edit comments made on their posts.
  • Followers Followers do not have any editing privileges on your site; they are simply people who have signed up to receive updates each time you publish a new post. The only thing they can do on your site is leave comments (if you have them enabled), though they do not have to be a Follower of a specific post to do so.
  • Viewers Viewers are users who can only view private sites. Like Followers, Viewers do not have any editing privileges. All they can do is simply read the private site they were invited to and leave comments on it (again, only if you’ve enabled them).

You can learn more about user's role here.

In the team page you'll also see Followers by emails, but since P2 is a form a private blogging, you shouldn’t expect to see anyone in the category.

Each team or department of every organization gets work done in their own way and with their own set of tools. Developers with GitHub, Asana or AWS. Designers with Figma, Sketch or InVision.

wordpress-p2-quicklinks

For each P2 you create, you'll have a dedicated quicklinks section. To add a new link, go to: Menu > Manage Links > Menus > Primary > Add Items > Custom Links, then click Add to Menu.

wordpress-p2-add-new-quicklink

Use Cases on P2

P2 has become the cornerstone of Automattic culture over the last decade. Its usage pervades every single company department.

Let's take a look at how they use it internally. This will help you better frame your own use cases if you want to adopt it, too.

Let's get started:

Types of P2

As Beau Lebens, Team Lead at Automattic, has recently explained in an interview:

[P2] replaces basically all email for us, and forms the central identity and “home” of most teams, projects, and operations within the company. Anyone can access and post or comment on almost any P2 within the company, even those for completely different teams/projects/businesses.

Essentially, the internal taxonomy of P2 end up reflecting the organizational structure of the company who uses it.

At Automattic, three main types of internal P2 emerged:

  1. Teams P2

Each official team, unit or department at Automattic has their own P2. As Lebens explained, P2 acts as the internal home for these teams. Internal stakeholders leverage P2 to stay current on the progress that a specific team has been doing.

This is also an incredibly effective way to increase knowledge spillovers between departments. As a manager, it's much easier to learn from other leaders in the same company when operations and communication are publicly accessible.

  1. Topic based P2

If a company topic is important enough, it probably deserves its own P2.

Horizontal topic like revenues, fundraising, product releases, or even hiring are topics of general interest that interests everyone at the company.

Contributors or Authors are the ones who will publish updates in these vertical P2s, depending on their area of control. The rest of the company will simply follow the news.

Suppose that the company is looking for fundraising. The CEO will own a fundraising P2 where he will periodically write CEO updates. The rest of the leadership (if not all employees) will follow to stay up-to-date on the progress.

  1. Project based P2

With P2 in place the line between communication will inevitably blur. For every important project at Automattic there must be a P2 in place.

If Slack is where the teams involved in the project communicate and collaborate to get the work done, the P2 becomes the place where the same team announces milestones achieved for the project, important decisions, or even meetings notes.

This strong culture around written communication not only makes its internal alignment super easy, but over time helps the company create a shared context around processes and operations.

As Ben Thomson, former Automattician, put it:

[...] and I actually felt that despite the fact I was in Taiwan in a different time zone than a lot of people at Automattic, I felt like I knew more about what was happening at Automattic than I did when I was going into an office every day at other jobs.

Types of Posts

Atomatticians write a wide variety of posts on P2s. Obviously, the posts’ topics depend on the P2 they’re posted in.

Posts in Team P2s can span from introductions of new team members, to important achievements that the team has accomplished, to meeting notes or announcements of new meetings, to new processes that the team has decided to embrace.

As opposed to posts that are shared in Topic or Project P2s. In these cases, updates lean more toward status updates, formal decisions, or general announcements to keep external stakeholders updated.

Wrapping Up

P2 is still in private beta, but you can request access on their website today. Let's look at some final pros and cons:

Pros of P2

P2 is a great product if you're looking for a pure solution for internal company blogging. Here are the major pros related to P2:

  1. De-cluttered interface

Unlike many chat tools, the newsfeed is designed for clarity.

  1. Powerful editor

As expected, P2 comes with a very powerful editor, the same that you and your people might already use on other WordPress sites.

  1. Keyboard shortcuts

The product is overall well-engineered to make you fast at writing or consuming updates. Shortcuts aren't that explicit, but once you get the hang of it, you can see some benefits from using them.

  1. Advanced customizations

At the end of the day, P2 is a WordPress theme. It means you can expect the same kind of customizations that you find on any other WordPress sites. As a matter of fact, both Zapier and HelpScout both customized their own internal version of P2. You'll need to invest some internal engineering resources on it, though.

Cons of P2

  1. Poor people management

P2 is essentially a blog. Some of the features that you'd expect in a ripe communication product aren't just there yet. This spans from employees onboarding flexibility to user management.

  1. Lack of unified dashboard

As leader or manager, you need to see the impact of your communication and how the teams respond over time to it. The P2 dashboard might work for public blogs, but it seems out of place where organizations are concerned.

It lacks the basic functionalities that would let you know if the product is being used by your team.

  1. Poor notification system

There's very little customization of notifications on the organization side. That means you can't send an automated email for every new post in the P2. Most of the customizations for notifications are on the user side, but you're forced to use your own WordPress notification panel.

  1. Poor P2 cluster management

As your organization grows, you expect more P2s popping up. That's a positive thing, but only as long as you're able to control them in an easy way. P2 isn't really designed to ease the pain for admins.

  1. Not integrated

Today’s modern distributed teams rely on chat tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. P2 is not integrated with any of them; it would be possible to build a custom integration leveraging WordPress webhooks.

Alternatives to P2

There are three alternatives that more or less accomplish what the WordPress P2 theme does.

  1. Pulse
  2. Twist
  3. Email

Pulse vs P2

Pulse is a stripped-back async work tool that can, like P2, help you share long-from updates to keep your company or team informed and on the same page.

pulse-asynchronous-update-editor

The type of communications that Pulse enables range from global announcements, project proposals, and feedback on processes to welcoming new employees and discussions around long-term endeavors.

Updates in Pulse are organized into independent Streams. In P2, you would need to create an entire separate instance.

People in your organization can follow streams they care to stay updated on and read updates about things they're interested.

People can consume updates directly from the Pulse WebApp interface or (once you installed the Browser Extension) every time they open a new tab in their browser.

What are the benefits of using Pulse over P2?

  1. User Management. Pulse is an organizational agility tool designed from the ground up as a B2B product. The upside is that you gain much more flexibility when it comes down to basic functionalities such as: SSO, automated user onboarding, invites, permissions roles, and more.
  2. References. With Pulse, you can reference updates previously published by your team. For instance, you could link all the individual accomplishments that the dev team achieved in the previous week in your next CEO weekly update. People can easily click to expand the individual updates and read them beyond their title in case they missed something meaningful.
  3. Linkbacks. You can always backtrack where a specific update was mentioned. In pulse, we call these linkbacks. At the end of the update, we show a list with all the posts that contains a reference to it. This makes it very easy for leaders and individual contributors to always see the broader scope of every action and keep everything in perspective.
  4. Streams. Pulse organizes your company knowledge in Streams. Everything is still under the same company domain (i.e. companydomain.pulse.so), in the same workspace. In P2, every topic lives under a separate domain (i.e. companydomain-dev.p2.blog, companydomain-mkgt.p2.blog, etc.). On top of that, Pulse offers more advanced features for stream management and permissions.
  5. Browser extension. SaaS fatigue is a real thing in the workplace. Introducing a new tool comes at the risk of not knowing if employees will actually use it. Pulse increases internal adoption through a lightweight browser extension that displays the latest and most important updates across every browser’s new tab.
  6. Slack integration. Pulse integrates with Slack. You can easily connect each Pulse Stream to an internal Slack channel to send notifications for every new pulse.

pulse-weekly-company-update-reference

Conclusions

If you look around to find advice, most of the time you find recommendations of specific tools with lists of benefits and gains of using one or the other promising that they will deliver a certain set of results.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Every tool has been built with certain cultural assumptions and processes in mind. This is a positive concept, but it must be acknowledged. If it’s not clear, there will be huge misconceptions on what a tool can achieve and how.

The shift to a strong written culture has a lot more to do with people than actual tools. Every company has a specific set of processes, culture, habits, formal and informal, that emerges over years and once in place can't be easily changed.

With this in mind, don't overthink it. Put more effort in the testing, adoption, practice, and roll-out of the platforms than in the selection and configuration of the tool.

Don’t try to get it right from Day One. Plan to experiment with it and have multiple incremental steps of adoption.

Companies who carefully and deliberately plan how to work, how to stay on the same page, and how to motivate their employees are the ones who are going to thrive. This is now truer than ever.