Change the way you ask for help (DRAFT)

DRAFT!  Work in progress, feedback welcome! See the first comment for some specific questions

Revised version to appear on The Ideators’ Journey, kicking off a series on collaboration and innovation, perhaps as two posts.

Eve’s Ask for help makes a great introduction to a series that Mikal Lewis and I will be kicking off on collaboration.  Eve, Michael, Mikal, and many of the other people you’ll see participating in this series met on the Ad Astra (Analysis and Development of Awesome STRAtegies) project I led at Microsoft.

During this series, we’ll apply approaches from Change the Way you see Innovation to a real-world problem: designing a free web-based collaboration tool, while simultaneously exploring business opportunities in this space.  In this post, I’ll lay out an initial scenario, and Mikal will take it from there.  First though a little background for people joining our journey in progress.

Collaborative writing

Ad Astra was a grassroots strategy effort that focused on innovation, culture, and collaboration with a remarkably diverse* team of amazing people.  One of our specialties was collaborative writing, where projects like our Open Letter to Ray Ozzie and Harry Potter and the Future of Think Weeks involved fifty or more people collaborating via a wiki, a blog, email, and in-person meetings.  Even though the weaknesses in the tools we were using made it difficult and time-consuming, the results were consistently good and occasionally outstanding.

Since leaving Microsoft, I’ve continued this approach with more of a social network focus. Get FISA Right’s open letters, videos, and questions involve people from and Facebook as well as our wiki, blog, and Google Group.  More recently I’ve also focused more on Twitter, for example broadening the review of a recent blog post via a Twitter chat.  Again, great results — and plenty of room for improvement in the tools.

So that brings us to the product opportunity, and perhaps a business opportunity as well.  How to make this easier?  Are there ways to add enough value to start a sustainable business?

Start small

To explore these general questions, let’s start small with a specific scenario.   For an essay I’m working on called Twitter *is* a strategy, I’d like to get broad feedback and discussion about a draft version of a document. There are a lot of people whose perspectives I’d like to hear.  How to go about asking them to help me?

Despite good mechanisms for revisions and comments, tools like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and wikis don’t really address this.  With Word, I’m on my own for getting the document to people and incorporating their changes into a master document.  With Google Docs and Wikis, I still have to get them the link.  And more importantly, I have to ask for help in a way that will be listened to, and then make it as easy as possible for anybody to give feedback.

So for Twitter *is* a strategy I started by putting up on my blog, Liminal States. Making a comments on my blog is much easier for most people than Google Docs (which requires registration), a wiki (which is very intimidating technically), or Word (which requires a separate application, and then finding a way to email the saved version back).  I even allow anonymous comments which is often useful.

Next I needed to get the link out to people and ask them for feedback.  Here I used a variety of methods: tweeting about it on Twitter, sending it to an email list, posting it in my Facebook feed, and then sharing it directly with a few people on Facebook or Twitter.  I varied my request depending on the audience; for example, on Twitter I was pithy and included some hashtags and people I thought would have feedback, and on the ProgressiveExchange mailing list I set it in the context of a debate with other list members.

As the feedback came in, I did my best to keep up with it and thank people.  I also let people know about updates regularly on Twitter, and occasionally in email as well (email’s more intrusive than Twitter, so I didn’t want to bug people).   When people said things in email that I thought would be useful to include in the blog thread, I’d write them back and ask them to cross-post, or offer to do it myself.

A couple questions

As the comments show, I got a lot of feedback — in fact, the discussion even spilled over into a couple of other blog threads.   The next revision of this essay will be a lot stronger.  So I’d say this was a success.

But dang it, it felt a lot more complicated than it needed to be … I was constantly cutting-and-pasting.  And I know there were a lot of people who would have had something good to say here that I didn’t reach, either because they never got the link or because they realize they had something to add to the conversation.

So the first step in our ideators’ journey ends with a couple of questions:

  • How could technology and “best practices” have made everybody’s life easier throughout this?
  • And how could I have done a better job asking for help?

Please discuss!


* by Microsoft standards, that is