Do you experiment?

 

by Liz Fraley, CEO of Single-Sourcing Solutions

Last month Tom Johnson of the I’d Rather be Writing blog interviewed me about why I started TC Camp. He wanted to know why I started something that was so obviously energy and resource intensive?

It’s true that I have a lot of things going on. Single-Sourcing Solutions is 11 years old this year. I sit on the board of 3 non-profit, community-based, educational organizations: TC Camp (4 years), the SF Bay ACM (17 years) and I just volunteered to be the Program Chair for the East Bay STC chapter. And I started the TC Dojo, the community-driven webinar series (4 years) and Mastermind groups (going on it’s 2nd).

Occasionally, I get the question: Why would you do this to yourself? The answer is this: I thrive on two things:

First, I have discovered that I derive an intense satisfaction when I am able to improve the capabilities of the people in my community. This should come as no surprise to any of our customers. This ethic is in everything we do and how we approach the work we do. Customers learn when they work with us. Rather than growing increasingly dependent on us, they grow into competent, fully independent and self-sufficient practitioners. We function like a part of their team strengthening everyone in the process. It’s amazing.

Second, having a wide variety of experiences helps me make connections. This is where the experimenting comes into the picture. With TC Camp, I took a model that worked for Silicon Valley programmers and moved it to the techcomm venue. The result? Something none of us expected. TC Camp has grown 20-30% in attendance every year since we started it. We’re bursting at the seems and it’s always, always different.

The TC Dojo webinars were another experiment. We took the standard webinar format but gave it a Camp influence by asking people to vote on the webinar topics. The result was a webinar that asks the audience what they want to learn, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a marketing plan that tells people why they should grow and learn (and buy a particular product). And the icing on the top is that it has been a lot of fun to highlight other professionals, other companies, when we solicit experts to be the ones teaching the topics the community has asked for.

Don’t even get me started on the Masterminds. That has taken things to a whole different level!

Where else do you get that?

Why does it work? Well, because I am willing try different things out. Because we’re a small company with a strong community service streak, we have the flexibility to do things like TC Camp and TC Dojo.

You never know what results an experiment will bring. That’s why we do them. That’s why UI/UX professionals run user experience trials (those are just controlled, observed experiments). It’s why Marketers run campaigns and do A/B testing.

You should be experimenting whenever you can. If you’re always doing the same old thing, how do know you’re doing the best thing you can? Technology changes. Experience levels change. Your users grow up (or get younger and have totally different starting levels than those docs that were first conceived 12 years ago).

In most cases, if something doesn’t work, you can always do an update or change it in the next round. Not a lot of harm done. If it does…there’s usually an award, promotion, or recognition around the corner.

Great seeing you at Lavacon!

At Lavacon last month I gave two presentations: one traditional and one…Not. We all know that I like to experiment right? TC Camp, TC Dojo, TC Mastermind groups are my most successful and well known. This time, I decided I would write up three skits and let the stories convey the lessons I wanted to get across in my presentation.

I wrote up three skits:

  1. Bookbrains Anonymous meeting
  2. Richard Simmons inspired DITA Fitness informercial
  3. DITA Cult member induction

I told my story about how I adopted a DITA mindset: How I learned to fight bookbrain and love the topic. And, like all good cult members, I gave tips on how you too can convert to the teachings of Guru D.

It was really fun to do — nerve wracking since it was the first time I’d written skits. But I had some help.

I inducted several members of the audience, including Keith Schengili-Roberts and Tom Magliery to testify at the BA Meeting. (They read from scripts.) Thanks to Kit Brown-Hoekstra for joining me in passing out the message of Guru D.

shannon-ditacult

Peppered throughout the presentation, were quotes from actual writers, real people, real situations, that demonstrated the struggle with changing your book-based mindset to topic-based writing. Keys to watch out for if you’re moving to DITA or Topic Based Authoring and have a scared or reluctant staff.

I think the best part was when I listed the 12 Steps to achieving DITA enlightenment. Or maybe it was How to Spot a Bookbrain. We will all have to wait for the reviews to find out.

Everyone who came to my session got a DITA Cult Member button at the end. These were one-of-a-kind buttons that I got requests for all week after they’d been spotted in the wild.

keith-ditacult

If you’ve never been to LavaCon, it should be on your list to try. LavaCon is the one traditional conference where you can do non-traditional things. Thankfully, Jack Molisani agreed to let me try an unusual presentation style to see how it worked. We had such a great time, I will try it again. After all, I can only get better, right?

We all solve the same problems

We’ve all been in that position where we are trying to work something out and wish we had someone to bounce ideas off of. Someone who knew us, what we were going through, who had expertise that was the same as ours. Only different. Someone we could leverage in real time, right now, to get us through our current predicament.

We all solve the same problems

Only the order changes

Just because you’re doing DITA or XML doesn’t mean your project matches someone else’s.

Every project moves at a different pace. And every business has different needs at different times. We all solve the problems that we need to solve first and put other problems on the Later Stack.

For example, need Translation? For some companies, the answer is “Eventually” but today, they need to get content to the web. Like, yesterday. So they put the Translation project on the stack and deal with getting good web output and making sure the right customers get the right information.

A different company might have translated content as a top priority. Today. They don’t need web content right now (but eventually, sure). Again, one problem gets tackled, the other gets put on the stack. A problem to solve tomorrow.

Each company grows expertise in-house. The problem solvers have good lessons to pass on to others.

To pass on to each other, in fact.

It gave us an idea

And so we’re trying something new

We created a mastermind group for technical communications professionals and invited all of our active customers.

It’s one of the things I love about working for Single-Sourcing Solutions. We’re always trying things. We constantly look for new ways to collaborate and share and to grow the expertise of the professionals around us.

We’ve been privileged enough to see our customers grow into experts, to have real knowledge to share with others.

We limited it to our customers for a year: Monthly meetings where our customers would get together to share their experience with each other. To leverage each other.

It worked–really well

Especially for the small teams

For the small teams, there was no more waiting for an expert to get hired (not that someone was actually going to give us more headcount). No more waiting for the next conference to figure it out (even if someone was actually going to give us budget for a conference). No more waiting for an answer that may never come when we write a vague description of the problem and post it to a mailing list. No more trying to get our deliverables out while still trying to find time to figure it all out. Alone. Fastfastfast!

Instead, they got a team of experts they could leverage. The virtual environment means they can share their screen talk about their real problems, in real time, and get answers.

Access to the mastermind groups made it seem as if they had all effectively grown their teams–without adding to their headcount.

It worked so well, we now have three different masterminds — one for General Technical Communications, one for Arbortext users, and one for Windchill IT Professionals.

You can have it too

Join the TC Mastermind Group

For less than $40/month — less than your cable bill — you get the benefit of having experts at your disposal who can focus on your problems. Right now. Today.

Groups are kept small to preserve the intimate atmosphere and to encourage close relationships. Group members are static — the same people meet week after week, so the close relationships can develop and members don’t have to worry that some stranger is out there listening in.

We don’t share company secrets, we share strategies, expertise, and our networks. We talk candidly about things like working out linking strategies and legacy data management and developing instincts required for good topic based authoring.

Think of it as part support group, part networking group, part discussion group. With the mastermind group at your side, you’ll never be alone again.

Give yourself the support you need and join the Mastermind Group.