Interview with Adam Hyde

In the early stages of the BS4ICTRSRCH project, Adam Hyde, creator of Book Sprints, founder of FLOSS Manuals Foundation, and facilitator of the four Book Sprints which are taking place during BS4ICTRSRCH, was interviewed about Book Sprints by the project’s research associate, Rachel Baker. This is an edited version of the interview, which offers a general overview of Book Sprints as well as insights into the process.

Rachel: What were the circumstances behind the first Book Sprint?

Adam: At WSFII (World Summit on Free Information Infrastructures) in London, 2005, Thomas Krag organised something he called a ‘Book Sprint’ there – he came up with the name and the idea of bringing people together to create a table of contents in a room over a week. The group went away with a to-do list and list of chapters to produce and spent a year or so writing the book. It was my misunderstanding of what he did that led to Book Sprints as they are now: I thought they had written an entire book in a week, so inspired by this I organised my first event to write a book in a week. The first attempts worked but were very rudimentary. The books produced now are more complex, better quality and the experience for the participants is much better.

Rachel: Is there a formal/informal division of labour in the Book Sprint process beyond facilitator and contributors, e.g. a researcher, a summariser, an editor, etc?

Adam: People take on certain areas or emerge as leaders in certain areas, or in phases, according to skill and experience, but it is different with every group. It is sometimes true that someone emerges as a fantastic editor, and they will naturally evolve into that role. It’s the role of the facilitator to steer people into these roles at specific times and identify who is good at what. There are few roles that are preset – an illustrator is an example of one of these.

Rachel: Of the five stages in the process (described by David Berry and Michael Dieter, which is the most crucial/complex/difficult?

Adam: The concept mapping (development of themes, concepts, ideas, developing ownership, etc.) is the most critical. The rest of the sprint hangs on this initial stage and is affected directly by its outcome. It can be difficult to crack, especially with complex material. The more concrete the material, the easier it is to structure a book. Conversely, the more conceptual and abstract it is at the beginning, the harder it is to conceptualise, structure and scope.

Rachel: In the concept mapping stage it refers to ‘developing ownership of the completed text’. Is this the stage where you agree rights?

Adam: Sometimes rights is discussed but only if the group is mindful of these things and steers the conversation in that direction. Otherwise I avoid the topic until the end. But it is important to establish ownership early. By this I mean the group as a whole, and every individual must take on the responsibility for the book and see it as theirs. This is one of the key elements for learning how to work in this intense collaborative fashion. Over the period of the sprint it can lead to participants deconstructing legacy ideas of text production, which is often married to the idea of a single author. The idea of 12 individual authors in the room has to be discarded early on. We are not 12 authors we are 12 contributors. The other important part of this early phase is to ‘kill’ attempts by any individual to tell everyone else what the book is going to be: everyone has to take ownership, not just one person. Often the person that organised the sprint feels they have the right to say what the book is going to be but they don’t. It is a group effort.

Rachel: Tell us more about about the role of the facilitator. You are taking on this authoritative role/presence within what is meant to be an egalitarian process. Why is it so key?

Adam: I play this role as both teacher and benevolent dictator. There is a tension between this role and the collaborative nature of the exercise but it is a necessary tension. There is both a downward and upward pressure applied by the facilitator to get everyone sitting on the same plane and it’s not always benevolent. Sometimes I really need to be harsh and strongly directive.

Rachel: Are you ever contributing content?

Adam: Generally not. Sometimes I suggest strategic approaches to the content that are more likely to succeed, which can touch on the content itself, of course. The facilitator facilitates the structure of the group and the content structure of the book, and keeps out of content debates – that is out of the facilitators’ scope. The facilitator needs to recognise when something will fail or succeed. When to intervene, when not to.

Rachel: What needs to be in place before a Book Sprint begins?

Adam: There has to be a hosting organisational person who will adhere to the Book Sprint philosophy. They cannot negotiate it. Most people don’t know how it’s going to work even if they have produced books before, or perhaps especially if they have produced books before. They must have just a topic, not a table of contents or outline. They need to bring 6-16 people in one space, and have the resources to look after people, generate a feeling of collaboration, play the work of a good host. It is a very intensive process; people will become exhausted and need to be taken care of. Access to the net is not necessary but having access to laptops is, a power supply is quite important, and importantly, one table to sit around is critical.

Rachel: Does everyone need a level of shared expertise and common ground? Can anyone participate, e.g. as assistant researchers?

Adam: It depends on the subject. Those with no knowledge can play a role – as spellchecker, user tester, proof-reader, but less so in a content production role, e.g. it’s difficult to contribute to a book on oil contracts without that expertise, but you could play the role of reader or proofer.

Rachel: How does proximity affect collaboration? Are there instances of remote participation?

Adam: There have been a couple of Book Sprints that were entirely remote, e.g. 20-30 remote contributors wrote ‘The Floss Manuals Intro to Command Line’ in 2 days. Only 2-3 people in the room, others online. Deemed one of the best books on the topic. But I discourage remote participation. You cannot rely on remote participants. If they are in the same room you are closely monitoring them, their body language, their energy levels, their engagement. You can see energy highs and lows, sense when it’s productive, when it’s not. Any remote contribution should be treated as a bonus only, not something to rely on.

Rachel: Given the constraints (time, rules, principles, structure), is there much room for reiterative experimentation, meandering, going ‘off piste’? Do you allow diversion from the rules?

Adam: Yes, all the time. Allen Gunn’s partner Lena once said to me that at every Unconference they try something new. When I see an opportunity to try something new I certainly take it. This is the only way the methodology can grow. The point is to not make it look like an experiment.

Rachel: Are contributors more experimental/adventurous within the collaborative, anonymous embrace, when they are relieved of authorial responsibility?

Adam: Yes definitely. Some want to hold on to ‘the author’ for a long time but eventually they all succumb. I used to have a problem in the early sprints not knowing how to keep everyone participating. Some people would fall out of the process. I think I have solved that. However tactics for dealing with the ‘non-collaborative’ can be tricky. The problem I’m focussing on right now is when people keep working on one specific issue/text, they often do not let go of the authorial role – they, and the text, end up being an island, they get defensive, not allowing other people rewrite their material many times. I need to spend more time on solving this issue.

Rachel: Are creative artists more likely to not let go of their authorial tendencies/islands than technical people?

Adam: It’s a personality-type issue, not topic. However I was surprised to find that in some projects Open Source people were resistant to letting people change the work after it had been produced. The few instances of blocking others like this have been by free software people. Open Source communities are often very gated. I expected OS communities to be more open but on a couple of occasions I found a real lockdown and this is because in those sectors there is a feeling that all commits need to be tested and verified and its not ‘just anyone’ that gets the keys to the kingdom. But generally this kind of blocking usually comes down to personality, rather than profession/discipline/practice. Having said that – the humanities is an interesting case. I would say humanities academics find it more difficult to collaborate initially because their entire career is predicated on single authorship. Their pay-scale ladder is worked out on producing monographs, so it can be hard work getting them into a rich immersive collaboration.

Rachel: Have you had instances where contributors insist that they be attributed for what they have written?

Adam: No, not at the end.

Rachel: How integral is the software Booktype to the Book Sprint process?

Adam: In the first Book Sprints it was not used at first. With FLOSS Manuals I started TWiki, a book production platform experiment written in Perl. With a little money I invited a programmer to extend it with some plug-ins – originally Book Sprints were done with that. But extending it was becoming painful. Booki came into existence, then Booktype. All Book Sprints so far used either the original version of TWiki, or Booktype, but recently I’ve come to realise Booktype hasn’t gone far enough yet. I’m currently working on new software for sprints. You could not do a Book Sprint just using Word, Etherpad or Google Docs. There is a specific list of requirements that software must fulfil for a sprint.

Rachel: Can the software track/monitor the behaviour of each individual contributor?

Adam: It is possible to perform data visualisation of the book production over time.

Rachel: How important are established interpersonal relationships – should the group know each other beforehand?

Adam: There are a minority of Book Sprints where everyone knows each other. Usually about a third know each other, the rest don’t, that’s the general picture. It’s difficult to contrast that with groups who all know each other. There have been a few groups who all knew each other, e.g. the JISC Book Sprint were a small group who met for a short amount of time and they produced a lot of material, very coherent. Hard to know if that was an outcome due to them already having a rapport/familiarity and previous experience of collaboration/body of work. I would like to experiment more with these factors.

Rachel: Is there a tendency for dominant actors to influence the direction of a Book Sprint? How do you deal with dominant personalities?

Adam: You have to address it quickly otherwise it will destroy the dynamic in the group. Some individuals can unwittingly sabotage the process unless you get on top of it.

Rachel: What about gender dynamics?

Adam: The first 40 Book Sprints were about software and in that demographic there are very few women. I am very conscious of gender balance/dynamic, so with the gender balance of the software sector aside, so far there has not been anything I’ve felt uncomfortable with.

Rachel: How do disagreements or conflicts get resolved?

Adam: Book Sprints are essentially having a discussion and capturing it as a book. I’m happiest when the group is engaging, talking, working things out in a safe environment. Disagreement is fine – when there is a conflict I try to engineer it to find a away to diffuse the dynamic, satisfy whoever has the biggest peeve, by working the dynamic of the group, e.g. in a recent Book Sprint, there was someone who would not let go of her content which was not sitting well with the rest. She would not allow critique. She had positioned herself as the outsider, coming into the room after everyone, always late. I put her with others to rework her content; she just rejected it, it was painful for everyone. I went back to her; she was very confrontational. I suggested that she work with someone she trusted; a friend (a solution the friend came up with), and then we finally found a way that worked. Sometimes you need to put in a lot of energy to engineer the social situation, and manipulate the dynamics.

When I’m doing my best work as a facilitator it is when people don’t notice my work at all, when actually a lot of care and consideration has been taken. But also it’s important to make it feel light-hearted, shrug it off. Avoid creating an adversarial atmosphere. Make a joke about a disagreement; make it light – this is really important. Encourage disagreement but avoid tension.

Rachel: We take it as axiomatic that collaboration improves the quality and quantity of innovation. But where is the evidence? Does Book Sprint provide this evidence?

Adam: What I have seen in Book Sprint problem solving is innovative. But how do you measure that?

Rachel: Can a Book Sprint measurably result in increased quality and quantity of innovation in the FET field? The ‘learning process’ is not the same as ‘innovative output’.

Adam: The Book Sprints process in itself, positioned against traditional book production workflow, that in itself is already innovative. We are already being innovative by just being there.

Interviewer: Rachel Baker
Editor: Sandra Sarala