Production Facilitation

I had an interesting chat with Dirk Slater from Fabriders yesterday. It was a live online interview/discussion about the work I’ve done since FLOSS Manuals which I started 10 years ago.

Here are a few points I want to distill out from my experience evolving the Book Sprints, the Cabbage Tree Method, Workflow Sprints and others…

  1. Production Oriented Facilitation is not the same as ‘unconf’ Facilitation
    I like to differentiate facilitation of processes that produce products over a fixed timeline (books, software, workflow designs) from the typical kind of facilitation related to unconfs (etc). They are not the same thing, the former employs some of the tools of the later but also has tools of its own. Importantly, if you bring a (dare I call it ‘too respectful’) unconf tone to a production processes, you won’t get anything done. So don’t expect because you can do unconfs, that you have the tools and right approach to facilitate production processes. Mistaking one for the other is a category mistake.
  2. Remote Facilitation doesn’t work
    Facilitation of production events of the type that enjoys radical efficiencies like Book Sprints is not something you want to do remotely. You can’t get the same attention and commitment. Nor can you get the ‘full spectrum’ communication between all members of the group that you need if you are working remotely. At Book Sprints we believe this so much to be the case we don’t like to have even one person working remote.
  3. Not everyone is a facilitator
    Facilitation is one of those skills that people think they can ‘just do’. Doesn’t need any ramp-up time or experience, its just someone telling everyone else what to do in a ‘nice way’ right?… I have seen this time and time again. If you think like this, thinking you can facilitate with no experience, then you are at a bad starting point because it is clear you don’t know what facilitation is. Don’t experiment on your friends, family, or colleagues if this sounds like you.
  4. Good facilitation can only be learned by experience
    Experience is the only way to learn to be a facilitator. You can’t learn it from a book. So how do you learn? By apprenticeship. Find a mentor that can take you through the process in situ. It is the only way. Don’t expect it to be a quick process.
  5. Technology is not the answer
    So many times I have people ask me what tools Book Sprints uses. What is the software? It is not asked from the position of trying to make sense of the ecology of items that are needed as tools, it is asked in the Silicon Valley sense of ‘software solves everything’. Book Sprints is not about the software. Its about the methodology and the facilitation. We could do Book Sprints without the tech we use (and we have in the past). But if you believe you just need to install the software and stand back and watch the magic happen, then you are wasting your time. Sure the software helps us run things smoothly, but it does not automagically ‘provide’ a Book Sprint.
  6. Don’t put people in a room and expect it to work
    In the case of Book Sprints I have seen many orgs try and emulate it by just putting a whole bunch of people in the same room and expecting the magic to happen. If you have tried this, I know you have failed. It doesn’t work and you are missing the point. It’s all about the facilitation.
  7. A method is a compass, not a religion
    Facilitation methodologies are not religious texts that must be followed to the letter. Unfortunately that is how too many book-learning facilitation courses approach facilitation. It’s very sad to see.  Methods are instead merely navigational instruments. However, they are useless in the hands of someone that does not know how to use them. You need to be an experienced facilitator, with experience of that particular method, for everything to work. A facilitator who is experienced with a particular method and knows how to use it will not only be amazingly good, they will also know when the method doesn’t give them what they need, and how to improvise towards true north.

And as a last coda, a note on who makes a good facilitator… I do believe some people, through a combination of nature and nurture, will make excellent facilitators, while others should really not even attempt it. I must say that this is a very hard thing to determine before training someone. I have some clues as to what qualities may contribute to being a great facilitator but it’s still largely a mystery to me. You never really know it until you see it, which is why I prefer to train people with the option of stopping if I can see it won’t work out.

I will say however, that I have found that most unconf facilitators do not make good ‘production’ facilitators. My best attempt to understand this hasn’t got me very far, although I’d say it has something to do with the two processes looking like they overlap a great deal, but in reality they overlap less than you imagine. Consequently the internal rationale and ’emotional position’ you take, as well as the facilitation tools and tricks, don’t actually transfer, and, worse, will probably lead you in entirely the wrong direction. You need to be rewired, and I haven’t seen this work (yet). This my best take on it and is purely anecdotal – garnered from training several people who knew how to facilitate unconfs only to abandon the effort to facilitate production part way through. I can’t entirely explain it, but there you are – take it for what it’s worth.

Workflow Sprints

Some years ago I came up with a methodology called Book Sprints. It is a facilitated process that takes a group of people to collaborate on producing a book in 5 days. Zero to book in 5 days as we say.

There has much I have learned from this methodology which can be re-purposed. After 10 years working with Book Sprints (10th anniversary this year!) I now know a lot more about why it works and what kind of situations would fit this kind of process. For example, facilitated methods like this don’t work when there is just one person that has the knowledge that is needed in a book. For help with this one author approach, you need either a coach or a ghostwriter. Ironically, when I started Book Sprints I was in exactly this situation…I couldn’t Book Sprint about Book Sprints because I was the only one doing them.

But when you get two or more people …it starts to get interesting…. this is because Book Sprints are very good at developing a shared mental model of the problem very fast. The more minds with the right domain knowledge that come at this together, the better the result… with a few caveats… For example, it seems a natural limit for the number of minds to share the process is about 15 max. That’s because too many minds go too far too fast and you might end up with quite a lot of fragmentation. However, if you have the right people, the right methodology, and (most importantly) an experienced facilitator that knows how to wield the methodology – then magic can happen.

Anyway… I am now applying myself to taking these lessons and developing a new methodology, working title ‘Workflow Sprints’….what is it? Well… I have seen similar problems with the speed of production for books in the software world… The problem is – how do you redesign a (much) better workflow, and then design a platform to meet those needs quickly? What I see happening is that organisations will employ someone external, or re-deploy internal staff, to do a workflow audit, interviewing all parties, create a report with flow diagrams, and then use this as a basis for the developers to imagine a better way of doing things. It is a very linear and disconnected process, and it takes a very long time.

I believe that I can facilitate a group to do this in 2 days. In fact, I’ve already done it. Recently I went to EBI (Europe PMC folks) to do a workshop on their workflow. In a day we had redesigned it and had mocks ready to go. I was curious to see how much this remained true over time, and it appears that they are sticking to this design. They will fill it out, to be sure, but they had the starting point in a day.

It’s not the first time I’ve facilitated workflow development in a couple of days; there have been a lot of workshops I facilitated with various publishing entities on the way, but this was the first time I felt confident enough to go in boots and all. Now that I see how the process  can work ,I’m going to try and make this a thing. I have thought about the workflow I want in order for this to happen, and I’ll be trying it as a full-blown method and workflow in the next few months with an org or two. The aim is to produce a summary of the current workflow (this takes a long time if using a legacy ‘interview’ process and much nuance is missed and I’m confident we can get a better result), a summary of the optimised / improved workflow, and wireframes of the new platform. All in 2 days. Which also means I can make this very cost-effective, a whole lot faster than legacy processes, with better results and internal buy-in since it’s the internal staff that design the new workflow and platform for themselves.

It is quite an efficiency. I’m hoping it will be something publishers can consider doing in the early phase of deciding whether they want to migrate to better workflows.

Quite possibly, you think this is a big call. But I’ve done this before. When I started Book Sprints I didn’t come across anyone that thought it was possible… this feels very similar.

I think it is going to work very well. There will always be challenges as you can’t anticipate how all the variables at play will come together on the day. But I have been there before with Book Sprints, and I’m pretty confident in my facilitation skills… So here goes….

Once I’ve proven this out with a few orgs I think this could prove to be extremely beneficial to any publishing org that is pondering how they can improve their workflow – with or without new technology. It could be useful for any org, for that matter. Interesting days.

Some photos below of some of the orgs I worked with to help define this process…

Wormbase

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ArXiv

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Collabra

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Erudit

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UCP

Kate and Cindy (UCP production staff) designing their system (Editoria)
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EBI /EPMC

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