Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Team Writing--
My current project has four writers dividing up the contents for a Help file in our belief that nine women could have a baby in one month if properly managed. Our motivation is to try to get an initial Help file delivered to QA at the same time the product first goes in for testing. Just to make it more challenging, this is the pilot project for our transition to DITA and our first release out-of-the-gate since becoming part of IBM. To heck with the proverbial adage of eating an elephant one bite at a time. For some reason I thought eating an entire herd would be the way to go. We bundled new release content, new (for us) IBM styles, new authoring tools, new publishing and deployment architecture, and a new information development methodology. Just reading that sentence back to myself has been liberating; it explains the general sense of anxiety I have been feeling and the sleepless nights of late. (It also explains my lack of blogging activity of late--I've actually been working the day job!)

Whether we survive the journey (let alone be successful) aside, I'm amazed we have gotten this far and are still alive. An important element for having gotten where we are is that we have recognized and accommodated the organic aspect of a team and the value of information in context. By that I mean that a team must learn as a team and that learning must occur wrapped around tangible examples and solutions.

We started by commandeering a small conference room and declaring it to be our project's "war room." We worked in weekly iterations, setting the goals for the next week's iteration at the end of the current week. Most importantly, we set up standing war room meetings four days a week for one hour each. In these meeting we shared tool and methodology lessons learned, white-boarded architectural issues, and discussed progress toward project goals.

When we started getting to the point where we were developing content individually, we scheduled formal walk-throughs in a larger conference room. We set up a projector and each day a different writer did a show and tell of what he or she had done. We looked at the product being documented, the Help the writer had developed, and the underlying XML structures the writer had used to identify the semantic content. We added an editor to the team at this point as well.

What I have learned most of all is that even though the daily war room meetings were absolutely necessary and were very productive, we would not have converged nearly as well without the walk-throughs. I must admit that they were stressful at times, having that many peers question almost your every decision, but that is where we became aware of the many different ways a writer could look at something and see it differently. The thrashing around in the walk-throughs is where it all got sorted out. And the range of the discussions was unbelievable, at times tackling high-level architectural issues, at others dealing with the necessary style minutia that does not become apparent until four different writers tackle what is essentially the same document. The importance of an editor at this point cannot be underestimated, acting at times as researcher and historian ("This is how we've done it in the past, this is what the IBM style guide says") and as referee at times.

Had we all hunkered down and stayed in our cubes cranking out content, our project would be a literary platypus of mismatched styles and informational structures. This was an important lesson for us because our traditional approach had been more of a writer-document specialization approach. Certainly easier to manage and maintain consistency, but one that lends itself to a waterfall convergence of documentation at the end of a project, and not as useful in an iterative, early blending of product and documentation we have been trying to get to.

In the next several blogs, I will try to capture some team dynamic guidelines I have learned through all of this.

Stay posted.

No comments: