Year Without Pants: What’s Your Conversation Prompt?
Must Hierarchy Always Trump Collaboration?
In the excellent Year Without Pants (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), Scott Berkun detailed his efforts to direct a team of programmers working for Automattic/Wordpress. This team was distributed around the world and gathered only occasionally. Most of their collaboration was mediated through computer screens and telephone lines. Curiously, email was not a major player. Instead, in-house blogs contained most of the collaborative communication (~75%), along with IRC (Internet Relay Chat), Skype and then e-mail (~1%). Blogs had the advantage of being entirely public (to the other players) and displaying the entire conversation. So potential collaborators could get up to speed as needed by simply reading/re-reading what had been said. And others could ignore the whole thing (which is the way of blogs).
Berkun found the prompt at the top of the collaborative blog was largely ignored—so common it was invisible (much like Twitter’s “What’s happening?”). It started with,
What’s on your mind?
How can Team Social help you?
migrating eventually to:
Hi Scott: Do you know where your pants are?
That changing prompt became a way to wake up the conversation. It also demonstrated the playful nature of the team—a key factor in all Automattic/Wordpress collaborations. The prompt also turned into a good book title.
Berkun’s conversation prompt gives me hope that hierarchy need not trump collaboration. In my most collaborative projects, there was always a sense of fun/playful/silly/ridiculous that settled like a bubble over team meetings. In contrast, my more onerous jobs and projects carried a sense of duty and chain-gang attention to a boss hammering out a beat.
Creating that collaborative environment requires a light touch, a willingness to explore liminal spaces, record results and allow others access to the longer conversation. Creating collaboration also involves attention to conversation that results in replies, rather than monologue that begets numb pseudo-attention.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston