Herding cats, or "Harnessing online communities in creative processes, a brain fart"

I have been following and participating in several mailing list threads on the Lucee Google Group and, having observed the usual negativity and cycles of noise in a number of threads, it is clear to me that traditional online community tools are not well suited to positive collaboration in creative processes. This is not to say that I think they are all bad, of course, but that I see opportunities for improvements.

Harnessesing the mass of brain power of a global programming community must surely be an attractive proposition for any project. Doing it well is no walk in the park.

Creativity for logical thinkers

Group creativity has been a passing interest of mine for some time. It started with the reading of The Practice of Creativity and continued with attending a one day training course entitled Creativity for logical thinkers; the lessons from both have stuck with me permanently and I'd highly recommend them both to anyone. The following sections discuss some key points that I think are relevant.

All idea input is sacred

There is a wonderful tale of a brainstorming session at Pacific Power and Light who were trying to find a better solution to getting snow off power transmission lines. The session went something like this (grotesquely paraphrased by me):

Jane: We could get bears to come and shake the telegraph poles

Facilitator: Nice, how might we get the bears to come to the telegraph poles?

Harriet: We could put honey pots on top of the poles!

Facilitator: Love it, how might we get the honey on those poles?

Harry: We could fly helicopters low and do honey drops

Sam: Indeed, if the helicopters are flying that low anyway, might the spinning of their blades blow the snow off?!

The answer was yes, and low flying helicopters have been successfully used since.

Reading a full recounting of this story reveals a more complex story where intervention has broken down barriers and given people a space to talk freely. You need more than absurd ideas to create good ones! Nevertheless, even seamingly idiotic input can spark brilliance given the right atmospheric conditions.

Egos of all participants should be protected

If we agree that all idea input is sacred, however ridiculous, then it logically follows that all participants' input should be valued and encouraged. Giving space and freedom for everyone to contribute without the fear of ego damage is both paramount to success and HARD. People are different. We learn differently, communicate differently and have differences of opinions. Some will be easily intimidated into silence, others will destroy their own ideas before they have finished putting them out.

Here is a reinvisaged telling of the brainstorming story but on an online forum or mailing list:

Jane: We could get bears to come and shake the telegraph poles ;)

Sam: WTFG Jane :rollseyes:

Harriet: Yeah, nice - what next, dancing penguins to cheer them on. Sheesh.

Harry: Can we get back on topic please. Please refrain from sarcasm or idiotic ideas - it's not helpful.

Harry: Yeah, nice thought though.

In my example, there is certainly freedom of expression - but what is lacking is the protection of ego and the guidance to prevent Jane's comedy suggestion from becoming a negative dead end. The environment itself has been poisened with the slightest hint of sarcasm and direct personal attack.

The role of facilitator is needed

People are people. Our natural instincts are not usually best suited to things like truly listening. Group creativity through collaboration requires practiced suppression of these corruptive instincts. This is hugely helped by a guiding hand from an impartial, well practiced facilitator who protects the egos of all participants and keeps creative momentum through facilitative intervention when needed (again, the PPL example illustrates this brilliantly).

My first instinct when thinking of how this role is performed online, was to compare the facilitator to a forum or mailing list moderator. A second thought has persuaded me that this comparison is flawed. Moderation is effectively to do with supression. Good moderation will protect the egos of those who the moderated might be abusing; over enthusiastic moderation will tend to flatten the flow of conversation rather than ignite it in the right direction. A moderator's most likely remit will not be a facilitative one.

Ask the right question

Having a long debate over the wrong question is a huge waste of time and energy. My trainer for the "Creativity for logical thinkers" observed that she had facilitated on a one day brainstorming in which they spent the entire morning, and most of the afternoon, deciding on the correct question that they should be answering through their session; such was the importance she placed on this idea.

We see this time and again in mailing lists, "should we banish profanity from the mailing list?" might be better discussed as "How can we create an empowered community?". Indeed that's not a great question either - it might be worth half a day's session figuring out the right one!

How can we learn from the offline experts?

Group creativity is a well studied field in which I am clearly no expert. It suprises me a little that there is not more material for the online translation of these well worn ideas (though I may just be not seeing it). Does anyone else have an opinion on this? Any ideas on how to combat the shortcomings of online community tooling and/or practices? A couple of initial thoughts:

My laptop is about to die on me so I am going to leave it at that for now. Hopefully food for thought and something useful.

Dominic