Flash Collaboration Process

or how Thrivability: A Collabortive Sketch happened.

People have asked: How did you get that done? So, I’ll tell you.

First and foremost, I lucked out. I worked with amazing, generous, patient, inspired, and brilliant people. 70 of them. I wish I could have included more, and yet, it is too much already.

Two of my advisors suggested the project to me in December of 2009. Mid-January, I had enough of a sense of it to put out a request to my advisors for contributions. As pieces came in, I became more bold. I joke that I am a compulsive recruiter. Really, I think it is an energy high of positive feedback loops. That drove me — even more — to want to honor what people contributed and nail our March 15 launch date at SXSW.

Here are my answers to some of the specific questions I have been asked.

What worked well with your book project?

  • Using social media to create buzz, encourage participation, and share thanks
  • Being a dictator about form, process, topics to cover, and who participates
  • Hand-holding those who get writer’s block

What challenges did you face?

  • Getting 70 people to all be on their precise task in a short time period
  • Getting people to meet their deadlines (even though it was all volunteer)
  • Scope creep – the book doubled in size from original intention for it – which I think made it too big to digest whole

How did you manage so many contributors? Deadlines/workflow/editing?

  • Used a modified personal kanban – each person/topic was a post-it note on a wall indicating (by wall placement) what they had done or needed to do
  • Put deadlines 2 weeks before I really needed them, so the slips would be okay (shhhh, keep that secret!)
  • Put everything into a google doc as it came in.
  • Didn’t let them edit each other’s pieces (although I did share samples of existing contributions to new contributors to give them a feel for what was there)
  • Note: I have been an editor for 15 years or so. I am used to the process of idea->draft->edit->revise->final->design->publish. I edited each as they came in. I brought in help for second/third pair of eyes. Only a few had major re-writes and a few went way over the 500 word limit.

How, if at all, did you incentivise contributions (and also people working to deadlines)?

  • Seeded it for momentum. The first contribution came in 2 hours after I asked the initial group (my ring of a dozen advisors). I tweeted my thanks.
    People were motivated, I think, by:

    • Social relationships (they all know me or someone else involved)
    • Uplifting concept (mission is bigger than me or you and aspirational)
    • Peer influence (who else had or was going to contribute)
    • It is possible people thought that being in the book would help with their visibility, but I think that wasn’t a real motivator (in hindsight).
    • People were asked to speak to something they know super well and feel “alive” about, so I suspect/hope they felt it was an “opportunity” to give voice to something vital in themselves.
  • Made it easy to be involved – just get me your 500 or less words. I will do the rest.
  • Made it clear what needed to happen and by when. There were no “ifs, ands, or buts” about it. No threats. No complaints. And an open door for anyone struggling with it.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of crowdsourcing a book about sustainability?

  • If it is an ebook – keep it SHORT
  • Be firm in your structure and allow people to be creative and alive in the container you provide
  • Ask for small contributions that seem easy to achieve
  • Stick to a short window from request – draft – response – final – design – approval to publication
  • Don’t over-explain the process. What is the least they need to know about what is happening behind the scenes?
  • Consider how you want to manage copyright (we have a copyright on the collection – with each individual holding copyright on their specific piece)
  • Think of it as curation – you are creating a larger work by placing individual works in relation to each other, just as one would with an art exhibit of many artists. There is a grace to making that work well and be cohesive as a whole. (That would be a whole other conversation here)
  • Get multiple opinions on your draft and final draft so that you can find out if that piece that doesn’t strike your fancy is super compelling to someone else (and vice versa). Be careful not to let that feedback overly homogenize things – squeezing the voice and authenticity out of it
It is easy for a collectively written piece to:
    • Get diluted by having too many editors or an unclear vision/purpose
    • Seem like a random hodge podge (be sure to create cohesion through form/argument/story or something!)
    • Have an inconsistent standard or threshold of quality (especially when people volunteer, it is easy to simply be grateful for whatever they offer – but don’t. If they want to be involved, they want it to be good. So handhold folks if you have to – until it meets a high standard.)

How will you solve those challenges?

What questions do you still have? And what answers do you have for collaborations you have worked on?