Repost: Simple steps for encouraging participation

NOTE: If you are able to read and listen to music at the same time — I cannot — then I suggest playing this video while you read. The music is quite good.

We gave our SxSW panel on women in open source [in March 2012]. It was fun. I’ve really enjoyed talking with Red Hat designer, Mo Duffy, these past few days and Andrea Hickerson is always a pleasure to work with.

Our panel was about encouraging women to participate in open source and open collaboration projects. By ‘open collaboration’ I mean any project that isn’t directly regulated by the market or government but instead relies on a group of self-organized volunteers. Yochai Benkler writes about this at a very high level, but I’m looking for something a little simpler. Also I’m not as interested in how the work is arranged, which is what Benkler articulates well, but how the entry experience for a newbie is designed.

During the discussion, I think we all agreed that when a host of an open source or open collaboration project extends an invitation for newbies to join, that invitation isn’t enough to encourage a diverse group of people to participate. We articulated that problem well, I think, and the audience nodded their heads in agreement. But solutions are hard to come by. Several audience members scratched their heads and asked, “Why is this still an issue?” To which I humbly replied, “I don’t know. That’s what I’m here to find out.”

One answer I thought of during the panel comes from what I’m learning in my grad strategy course. In strategy, we learn that it’s common for an organization to articulate a grand vision yet not clarify an execution plan to achieve that vision. “Why is that so common?” you may ask. Again, I don’t know but I suspect it’s because executing a vision is freaking hard to do.

So in trying to figure out how to add some walk to our talk, how to offer some actionable steps toward getting closer to the vision of more women participating in open collaboration, I called on my first love, music. In music, we engage in something called “Call and response.” The caller can be thought of, in this instance, as the host of a collaborative project. And the responders are potential participants.

Here are the steps for engaging people in a “call and response” collaboration.
1. Offer them an invitation to collaborate (good start, but not enough)
2. Show them how to participate (sing a simple line of a song)
3. Practice the line with them (until they feel comfortable)
4. Take a leap of faith together and sing the song

Now, I know the skeptics out there have been burned by engaging in a process like this. More than once I’ve heard a host of a project say, “I spent 10 hours training that person and they just abandoned the project.” This is a valid concern. That’s why it’s so important to find an easy task for the newbie to learn that won’t take too much of your time. Now, the other skeptics are saying, “Well, if I spend that much time with a newbie, won’t I just be training them to depend on me to lead them? That’s not what open source is about.” This too is a valid concern. To come back to music, a newbie starts off with an instructor, but eventually learns how to play on her own.

This is how you scale participation in open collaborative projects: extend an invitation to a newbie; model for them how to participate; practice with the newbie until she feels comfortable; then, most importantly, take a leap of faith together and sing that song. And when you get really good at this process, you may end up as good as Miles.

video via Chris Azzara

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