The Benefits of Collaborative Writing, Interviewing, and Improvisation

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Two question from a 2003 interview with Andrew Hargadon “The Trouble With Out-Of-The-Box Thinking

UBIQUITY: Speaking of industries, are there important, or maybe obvious, differences between different industries and professions? For instance, you are a mechanical engineer. Do you notice different styles of creativity between, say, engineers and computer scientists and management people?

HARGADON: Yes. It’s tough to tease out the reasons why. Part of it has to do with the maturity of the industry. There was an enormous amount of innovation in programming and software, for example, because there were no entrenched models. That’s starting to diminish as more and more people look back on what their organizations have done or what code they’ve written before and use it again. They’re more efficient but less innovative because they are searching less broadly to find solutions. Another part of it comes down to the structure of work. For example, teachers or doctors tend to work alone. They work with patients or students most of the day. As a result, they don’t innovate in the practices of teaching or patient care because they get few chances to see what others are doing. We teachers rarely sit in on other teacher’s classes. After their training, doctors rarely sit in on other doctor’s patient care.

UBIQUITY: They’d be overcome by the horror.

HARGADON: Exactly. And it’d be difficult to bill their time. How do you justify having a doctor spend a quarter of the day watching other doctors? It seems redundant. In many ways that’s where the ideas move across boundaries. Somebody might come up with a wonderful way to teach a particular subject, and chances are good that nobody else will know about it. It’s the same with doctors. It’s only in those settings where they are brought together that the real answers come out. In programming it only happens when other people go in and read your code, for example. Mechanical engineering is wonderful in that way because you can see easily what other people have done. But in a lot of industries it’s very difficult to see what other people have done.

Re-reading this made me realize the different ways that we put “two-in-a-box” or act transparently with clients on projects:

  • Shared note taking
    • In a teleconference we will keep a running log of notes, URLs, key comments in either a skype text chat or a PrimaryPad and then transfer them to a wiki page that everyone has access to for further refinement.
    • We put two on an interview and take notes concurrently in a text chat window or  PrimaryPad. Two people are less likely to overlook a remark, can more effectively de-brief, and can ask different questions to explore an issue.
    • In a face to face meeting a whiteboard and some blank graph paper always comes in handy to collaborate on a sketch of the situation. We will also often take live notes in a wiki page or PrimaryPad.
  • Shared Presentation Delivery
    • Our workshops always involve multiple presenters trading off every 15-20 minutes or so, alternating with individual writing by attendees, attendee de-briefing paired off, and group discussion. By working with other experts we refine our approach and have more productive debrief sessions.
  • Shared document drafting
    • If we are working on a document for a client–a press release, a data sheet, a negotiating position, an important e-mail, etc..–we will normally dedicate a wiki page to it so that multiple can comment and revise. You don’t need to worry who has the latest copy and you can always see the older revisions.
  • Shared Rehearsal and Recap
    • Where practical we will always rehearse a presentation to allow for feedback and critique in advance of a workshop, demo, or negotiation session.
    • With the client’s permission and subject to an NDA we will often record a working session so that anyone who participated and replay it to hear things they may have overlooked. We also listen to improve our methods.

I welcome suggestions or insights on areas where two or more members of your team have found ways to collaborate effectively, especially in improvisation and creating content. Here are some areas that remain a challenge for us:

  • Presentations / Powerpoint. No easy way to do shared edit or revision control.
  • Whiteboard or paper sketches JPEGs via a cellphone camera and are hard to manage/edit
  • Recordings are hard to index and manage (although we have some hope that Recordbox may help with this.
  • Multiple voice speech to text transcription. Still expensive.
  • Easy to use shared whiteboard / sketchpad for teleconferences
  • Most of these are essentially collaborative editing of text, very interested in tools that enable collaborative approaches to audio and video editing.

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