Narrate Your Work

Mistake #14: Working in splendid isolation.

Despite the ever-growing number of digital transparency and participation sites, we still don’t really know very much about what we’re doing. Largely this is uncharted territory. People are hacking their way through the dark undergrowth, but few are taking the time to build the map of where they’re going. Those who follow can sometimes catch glimpses of prior trails, but generally everyone still has to find their own path.

People often promise to write up their story after their projects are launched, but that rarely actually happens, and when it does it’s mostly just a PR exercise, concentrating on a few key points, and almost invariably on highly sanitised successes. Sometimes, if we’re really lucky, there’ll be a charming story of how things almost went wrong, but were turned around. We rarely hear of all the little detours, frustrations, or setbacks along the way. But these are the most important. If I see a great site in another country and want to build something similar locally, I’d love to be able to read the story of what was actually involved in building it, as there’s a high chance I’ll otherwise end up falling into the same traps along the way.

I’ve long been a fan of people narrating their work. It’s really useful for lots of reasons, even if you never make it public. Taking the time to regularly1 write about what you’re doing forces you to think that little bit more clearly and raises your own awareness in ways that are almost always positive (like a rubber duck with a memory.)

And if you make that available to other people (even if it’s only people inside your own organisation), you get the added benefit of other people being able to spot potential problems you may be completely unaware of. The hidden icebergs in any project are usually not the things we’re aware enough to ask for advice about, but the unknown unknowns we don’t even realise are issues until it’s much too late. The more people who are aware of what you’re up to, the more chance someone will be able to spot a mistaken assumption, an overlooked danger, or decisions you’re making based on incomplete or incorrect information.

And, universally, I’ve found that even if the only audience for this sort of information is a future you, it’s much more useful than almost anyone imagines. It’s not difficult to see why it might be useful to go be able to go back a month, a year, or even later, and remember what you were doing, why you made certain decisions, what your challenges were, who you talked to, etc. But what surprises most people is how much their memory plays tricks on them — remembering some issues as being much bigger than they really were, and vice versa. Comparing the two is not only fascinating, and fun, but is a useful way to get better at both planning and development over time.

In the corporate world it’s difficult enough to get people doing this, but even those who have seen the great benefits from doing so internally often don’t open it up to the public, citing fears of competitors gaining a lop-sided advantage etc. In this world, that shouldn’t be an issue though. We’re all working towards common goals, right? Right?

It still requires a certain degree of bravery to show people all the mistakes you’re making (and you will make mistakes), but it’s worth doing. Many groups explicitly have “education” in their mission, and there are few things more valuable than being able to see a true picture of what’s actually involved in a project, rather than a clean, sanitised final outcome.

So, please (pretty, pretty please!), tell us the day to day story of what you’re doing — warts and all. What have you achieved today? What lessons are you learning? Why are you a month behind schedule? What’s not working the way you thought it would? What do you hope is going to happen now? What are the interesting stories you’re discovering along the way? What has surprised you about how people are using your site? If you don’t know what to write, or don’t think what you’re doing is really that interesting, find someone who is good at asking you the right questions to unlock all these wonderful stories.

And don’t view this a promotional tool. If you have marketing or PR people, don’t, don’t, don’t allow them anywhere near this. They have plenty of places already to tell their stories — keep this one for the people actually developing the project. This isn’t a promotional tool, although it can certainly function as that. It’s a tool for conversations. You want people interacting with you, challenging things, making you think harder about certain issues, pointing you at other interesting things you should be looking at, or ways of doing things. It’s a way of not working in isolation. There’s a growing community of like-minded groups and sites worldwide. So talk to each other, but in public, and not just on mailing lists. Distill all those thoughts some more and put them out in public with a sharper focus. Pull other people and groups in too. Momentum attracts people, and writing about what you’re doing is a great way of showing that that momentum exists.

And along the way you’ll end up with a great archive of useful learning-by-example material for people to want to build a similar system in some other country next year. You’ve almost certainly diverged significantly from your original plans, and learned a lot about why lots of the things in your original proposal were unrealistic or flawed. If you’d been able to read other people’s stories in advance you might have avoided lots of those traps. But those of us who went before you let you down badly. Don’t repeat our mistake. Write the sorts of posts that you wish you’d been able to read six months ago. Not only will it make it easier for the groups who follow, but I promise you’ll get lots of direct benefit yourself.

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  1. and here I mean at least every day, preferably much more often []
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