The Unexpected Pleasures of Open, Transparent Processes

Every project has a team. How those teams form is an interesting question. For the most part, the “leader” of a project decides who is on or off a team, and then they go off on their merry way.    (N2B)

If that work is done openly and transparently, then that opens up the possibility of attracting other contributors. This is the essential goal of movement-building, where the desire is to get other people to act. It’s also what makes Open Source software projects and Wikis work.    (N2C)

The question is, how open and transparent should the process be? Being fully open invites distraction. When the Chandler Project was first announced, list activity went through the roof, and the signal-to-noise ratio was very low. People were galvanized by Mitch Kapor‘s involvement and, of course, everyone had an opinion. It was a dangerous time for the project, because the goals were not concrete, and the process for how to reach concreteness had not yet been established.    (N2D)

How do you balance the desire to be open (and attract outside contributors) with the need to get things done? The key is clarity of vision and process, as well as a realistic assessment of the risks and rewards.    (N2E)

When Doug Engelbart asked me to lead the HyperScope project in 2006, I knew that it was imperative that we deliver. (Visionaries have a sometimes deserved reputation for never actually delivering a product.) At the same time, we really wanted to spread the core ideas widely and galvanize the community.    (N2F)

We had already decided that the project would be Open Source, which meant that some of the processes would inherently be open — open source code repository, open mailing list, open Wiki, and so forth. We also instituted good practices — regularly posting summaries to the community, carrying on much of our activity online (a key principle of the Apache community), and so forth.    (N2G)

I also decided that our weekly face-to-face meetings would be open as well. This was the biggest risk for a few reasons. Doug was going to attend the meetings, and there was a possibility that people would come just to meet Doug. This, in my opinion, was actually a good thing, as long as we weren’t overwhelmed with people and as long as guests did not prevent us from getting things done. I reasoned that we wouldn’t be for two reasons. First, Doug isn’t as much of a household name as he should be, certainly not as much as Mitch Kapor for example. (This is sad and the topic of a future post.) Second, neither was I. I have a large social network, but it’s not enormous, and it’s fairly intimate with lots of trust. I didn’t think a huge number of people would see my announcement, and I trusted those who did to do the right thing.    (N2H)

I was confident in my ability to tightly facilitate the meetings, and I also felt strongly that the rewards of openness, in our case, far outweighed the risks. I was also prepared for the possibility that no one would show up, despite the openness.    (N2I)

I was blown away by who did show up. We had a lot of folks from the old Augmentation Research Center, which was an absolute delight. Many people told me afterwards what a delight it was for them to have us pepper them with questions about their 50-year old work. We had many friends and friends-of-friends visit, all of whom greatly added to the conversation.    (N2J)

Before each meeting, I welcomed our guests, but I also explained that it was a working meeting, and I asked that they respect our need to get things done and participate accordingly. For the most part, that’s all the facilitation I needed to do. I occasionally had to reign people in, but I usually found myself actually encouraging our guests to participate.    (N2K)

At our launch party, I gave special T-shirts to each team member. Two of the people on the team and on the T-shirt were people from the community who found out about our work on their and dropped in. One was John Deneen, a long-time fan of Doug’s, who videotaped and photographed all of our meetings. The second was Craig Latta, a Smalltalk guru who had worked on a variety of old-school hypertext projects in the past and who ended up helping us tremendously on a variety of technical challenges.    (N2L)  T    (N2M)

When I work with groups, I often encourage them to challenge their own assumptions about openness and transparency. Extra effort is required, and sometimes, the hoped-for benefits do not occur. However, more often than not, folks are pleasantly surprised — sometimes even amazed — by what emerges.    (N2N)

High-Performance Knowledge Work: Practice, Practice, Practice

I talk a lot about the goal of being a “high-performance” knowledge worker, of achieving “high-performance” collaboration. I’m certainly not the only one. But what does it truly mean to be “high-performance”?    (N24)

One way to answer that question is to think about fields where the answer is more clear, such as sports, music, and medicine. Last year, I wrote:    (N25)

Medicine is a great model for what’s in store for other types of KnowledgeWorkers in this rapidly changing world. I know very few KnowledgeWorkers who spend as much time learning and honing their skills as doctors do. Can you imagine what we could accomplish in this world if we did?  T    (N26)

My friend, Lisa Chu, founded a violin school for kids, and she often blogs about the discipline required to achieve greatness. Recently, she quoted Brian Johnson, who wrote, “The higher the greats climb, the GREATER the need for practice.”    (N27)

Think about the work that world-class athletes, musicians, and doctors put in to stay on top of their game: the discipline, the training, the emphasis on fundamentals. Do any of us Knowledge Workers really apply the same standards to our crafts?    (N28)

ACM: The Curse of Professional Societies

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) is the professional society for computer scientists, and it is one of my favorite examples of how organizational networks often impede their own missions. I was reminded of this just now, as I attempted to download a paper from its Digital Library.    (N1Y)

Although you can search its archives for free, you usually have to pay to download individual articles. No problem. I was more than willing to shell out $5 to $10 for an article I knew I wanted, thus saving me the convenience of driving down to Palo Alto to copy the article from the Stanford library. But when I tried to download this particular article, I discovered that not only would I have to pay for the article, I would also have to pay an annual subscription fee for the ACM Digital Library — a cool $99 a year.    (N1Z)

What’s wrong with this? Here’s ACM’s self-description (emphasis added):    (N20)

ACM is widely recognized as the premier membership organization for computing professionals, delivering resources that advance computing as a science and a profession; enable professional development; and promote policies and research that benefit society.    (N21)

If your goal is to advance computing as a profession, why would you put 50 years worth of knowledge behind a firewall? The reasoning, of course, is revenue. But if your revenue model is conflicting with your mission, isn’t it time to reexamine the model?    (N22)

Computer science is special because of its living history. However, as sciences go, today’s programmers and computer scientists are more ignorant of their history than pretty much any other science. If the ACM wanted to advance the profession, it would do its part to make that history more accessible, not less.    (N23)

Surrounded by Positive People

Today was a very Bay Area day, from work meetings to dinner with an old friend. I was surrounded by positive people, even when the subject matter wasn’t particularly positive. Even the street and sidewalk art was positive. And you know something. It makes a difference. A big difference.    (N1U)

I haven’t been blogging much recently, although I’ve tried to sneak in an occasional tidbit on Twitter and I’ve been doing a lot of reflection and synthesis using IBIS and Compendium, and I’ve had a bunch of great conversations. There’s been a lot of work, but it’s been very gratifying. Looking forward to sharing more here soon.    (N1V)

Nigeria, Day 2: Trust and Travel

My last post stirred up concern and sympathy among friends and family, which felt reassuring on the one hand and a bit embarrassing on the other. If you’re in a position where you can have a bad experience, then immediately find sympathetic ears from worried friends and colleagues both on the ground and over the Internet, then you’re really not in a bad place. I pulled out my camera last night at dinner, and Fatima, who works with Judith Walker at dRPC and who’s been taking care of us, teased, “You can take as many pictures as you want here, and we won’t take your camera away!”    (N09)

The truth of the matter is, my travel experiences — both now and in Ethiopia and India — have been mightily skewed by the fact that (a) I’ve had trusted locals in each place who have embraced and taken care of me; and (b) I’ve stayed in the equivalent of luxury hotels everywhere I’ve gone. When I returned from India and Ethiopia, I told people that if I had to go back a second time, I’d be completely useless because my hosts took such great care of me, I didn’t have to do anything. Even when I’ve spent time with villagers in extremely rural conditions, I’ve always returned to a hotel with running water and, in several cases, Internet. High-bandwidth Internet is a huge, huge luxury in many of the countries I’ve been working in, particularly Nigeria, and I’ve had good enough access here to Twitter regularly. Roughing it I am not.    (N0A)

There are two levels of challenges when visiting a developing country. The first has to do with base-level needs. If you’re intimidated by poor plumbing and strange foods, you’re not going to have a good time. I’m staying at the Tahir Hotel here in Kano, which is where Madeline Albright stayed when she visited. (Magdalena Lopez is staying in the room Albright stayed in, her prize for having arrived first.) While the service and security here has been first class, the quality of the lodgings has been about equivalent to a decent, but not great hotel in a developed country. The water pressure is very low, the hot water doesn’t work, the toilets don’t take toilet paper, and the power goes out often. These are all functions of the infrastructural challenges of the location and don’t reflect on the hotel itself. We still have it a million times better than most people here in Kano.    (N0B)

If you can deal with the rougher living conditions, then the main challenge in developing countries is finding people you can trust. You can see this right when you exit the airport, when you are bombarded with people offering to help you, the vast majority of whom are looking to scam you. How are you supposed to filter through all of these offers and find someone trustworthy? There are plenty of scam artists in most large cities, but in the States, you can be fairly certain that cabbies aren’t going to rip you off (too badly) or that security isn’t going to solicit a bribe by stealing your camera.    (N0C)

In Nigeria, people in the know don’t exchange their currency at banks. Thieves hang out there, looking to rob newly weighed down patrons, not to mention the thieves inside the bank who rip you off with poor exchange rates. People in the know have a “guy.” (We met ours in front of a Chinese restaurant on the streets of Kano, negotiated a great rate, did our business, and moved on without ever leaving our car.) There are, of course, no directories of trusted “guys,” at least none that I’m aware of. Choose badly, and you could end up with a handful of counterfeit money. Or worse.    (N0D)    (N0O)

Haddis Mulugeta told me that, up until about ten years ago, people took it for granted that they would need to include a bribe inside their passport in order to gain entry into Nigeria. Stuff like this is what makes travel hard in these countries. You have to build trust to operate; you can’t trust the formal institutions. In developed countries, trust is institutionalized.    (N0E)

What’s sad and bad is that these challenges have a way of coloring one’s attitude about the people, which is totally wrong. Internationally, Nigerians have a reputation for scams and running drugs. However, letting this affect your judgement of the people as a whole is like saying that all Arabs are terrorists or that all Americans are ignorant and arrogant. I’ve heard nasty stories about muggings and shootings, especially near the Niger Delta. Well, I grew up in a safe neighborhood in suburban Los Angeles, and the guy living across the street from us got shot in his own home. It happens. I’ve spent time in cities all over the world, but I’ve only been mugged once in my life, and that was at the Newark Airport. Based on my experiences, I might argue that New Jersey is the scariest place on Earth. That happens to be true, but in most cases, generalizing like this is really stupid.    (N0F)

I had a rough start to my trip, but I had a great first day here, and I’m starting to get excited. I got to see a bit of Kano, and I learned a few words in Hausa. More importantly, I’m around amazing people.    (N0G)

Of course, the one thing that is guaranteed to get me excited is the food. At lunch today, Cheryl Francisconi told Judith Walker, our host, that I want nothing less than the authentic, local experience. Judith turned to me and asked with some surprise and delight, “Are you okay with cow tails?” Uh, yeah. If you’ve never had my Mom’s ox tail soup, then you haven’t lived. It turns out that Kamyla Marvi is also an adventurous eater, and Cheryl is no slouch herself, so this is going to be fun. I don’t know exactly what Judith and Fatima have in store for us, but I heard the words “goat’s head” and “brain” bandied about, so they’re not fooling around.    (N0H)