Professional cat herder = win

Cindy, cat herder

In my post last week I mentioned that we had a professional cat herder, Cindy McCourt, for the Toronto Drupal documentation sprint and that the entire approach was a bit new and different for us. It was certainly different than anything I’d done before, especially in the Open Source or Drupal world. I should start by noting that all of this grew from community efforts by a number of people and isn’t any kind of brainchild of mine. This sprint was an awesome showing of how Drupal contributors can do amazing things.

A Drupalcon beginning

At the Drupalcon doc sprint, Cindy showed up with no laptop and a desire to help. She had already jumped in to help us organize the Drupalcon sprint on the fly and so I asked her if she could help me get myself together for the Toronto sprint. The sprint topic was so diffuse and huge (make Drupal docs better) that I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to make it successful. There were a number of folks asking some high-level questions at Drupalcon so we agreed to have an impromptu meeting out in the corridor to discuss what needs to happen for Drupal docs.

In the Drupalcon meeting, Cindy did what I now recognize as a totally off-the-cuff meeting facilitation, as she tried to understand what the major concerns and goals of the Toronto sprint were trying to address. I came to learn about a whole new skill set that Cindy happens to specialize in: meeting facilitation. In the end, she and Emma Jane Hogbin spent most of the day working out, not just an agenda for the Toronto sprint, but also hammering together a process by which we could walk out of it with something tangible. This was exactly what I had been looking for. It only made sense to ask Cindy if she would be willing to come to Toronto to guide us through the plan she and Emma had started to craft. Luckily, she had the time free and enthusiastically agreed. Having an agenda is one thing, but getting through it is another. I welcomed the idea of having an expert to guide us.

The sprint

When we finally all got ourselves together in the hotel room Saturday morning, we talked about the weekend game plan. We started by setting out the vision of our ultimate target and making sure we were all on the same page. This included discussing the Drupal culture that surrounded our whole process and making sure we all understood the perspective we were working from. We also established rules for the weekend (including that Cindy could tell us to shut up if we got off track) and declared that while solutions are cool, we did not have time to be distracted with those details. Cindy declared anything that was a potential, specific solution to be implemented would go to the “parking lot” list and we would keep moving.

Once we had the ground rules laid and some caffeine in us, Cindy led us through the agenda. Having a targeted agenda set up ahead of time was a huge help, but the real success of the weekend was because Cindy was walking us through it, keeping us on track and largely being an impartial facilitator, rather than an active doc team participant. We systematically broke up the big issues, brainstormed, organized and then dove the next level down, brainstormed more, etc. Cindy let us ramble, wrote down all the ideas flying around and then helped us make sense of the storm and distill the actionable items from it. We looked at barriers, defined goals to address them and got down to nitty-gritty tasks to get there. We went from “OMG, this is an impossibly big goal” to “These are the steps to accomplish xyz.” It was an amazingly organized, yet completely free-flowing process.

In addition to this process of chunking things up into manageable pieces and tasks, Cindy also had an overall “game plan” chart for us to look at from the big picture level. We spent the weekend drilling down through the overall vision, the goals that we want to hit and the tasks that could make them happen. We wrapped up the weekend by looking at the big picture again and talking about other factors that come in to play, like people, ever-present barriers to be aware of, as well as the elements of success. This structure of the target and the ways we can get there are what will be coming out in a kind of “doc map,” hopefully in the next week or so (I’ve still got plenty of writing and mapping to do, but I’m working on it as much as I can).

Eye-opening contribution

Now, I have never taken part in a meeting like this before and I walked out of it pretty much blown away by how effective it had been. I have to say that Cindy was amazing. She knows her stuff and I was really, really impressed with how responsive and adaptable she was through the whole process, starting at Drupalcon, all the way through. Aside from having a lot of experience and knowing the ropes of the process, she is an extraordinary listener. She learns and improvises on the fly at an amazing rate, while making the whole ride as seamless as possible. So, she not only made our sprint rock, but she has opened my eyes to a new way of approaching big, gnarly goals. She has skills to offer our community that I hadn’t even seen before and I am sooo glad that she offered to contribute in this way. I am totally stoked about Drupal docs and I love that we have people like Cindy as part of our community helping us make them better.