Writer’s Lean Coffee

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

At one of my writer’s groups I tried something out you may want to try – a Lean Coffee. Here’s a quick rundown and what happens. You can read up on it above, but I’ll sum up my experiences here.

At its heart, Lean Coffees are self-organizing ways for teams of people to pool knowledge, get advice, and discuss important subjects. It comes from lean business practices, but you can re-purpose it for just about anything.

First, how you run a Lean Coffee (for writers, but you can do it for all sorts of things)

  1. Get a group of people interested in the same subject.
  2. Give them notecards or some other equivalent (or even an online spreadsheet). Have them write down 1-3 things they want to discuss.
  3. Once the questions to discuss are done, everyone gets three votes and votes on what they want to discuss. In my experience, people don’t vote for just their questions, because people bring up topics they hadn’t thought of.
  4. Rank the subjects in order of votes and pick the top one. If there’s more than one top subject by votes, pick one randomly.
  5. Discuss the subject as a group for five minutes. At the end, vote if people want to go on another five minutes. I usually go by majority vote unless it’s close.
  6. Take the next subject by vote count and continue.

Encourage people to take notes or have a designated note-taker if the group is part of a larger team.

I’ve run this a number of times for Agile groups, and it’s always been successful – though sometimes you have to do it two or three times in a row for a team to gel. So how did it go for a random group of writers?

Really good.

First, we had a number of good subjects of discussion. I think that’s because the group had a history of good discussions, often focused on specific subjects-of-the-month. We were primed for this.

Secondly, because we had a diverse group of people, the discussions covered a lot of ground. Different viewpoints created more valuable results – and more valuable questions.

Third, it really got people talking. The Lean Coffee encourages people to talk, and the “bite-sized” discussions made it easy to prompt people who might go silent, and if someone had nothing to say one subject they may the next.

Fourth, the Lean Coffee method encourages solid discussions. People bring up things that matter to them, then vote as a team on what’s important to everyone, and discussion follows. Real quickly you focus on high-value issues, while having a bit of surprise to shake you up and keep you from getting into a rut.

Fifth, it created real team bonding. We shared our concerns and our insights, we got to know each other, we figured solutions to shared problems. I felt like we all left as more of a team.

I am going to repeat this with my writers group, probably every few moths, and may try it in other groups. I also wonder if it’ll work at conventions . . .

So give it a try, and let me know what you find!

Steven Savage

Worldbuilding: The Ecstasy, The Agony, The Stupidity

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I love worldbuilding, and yet I meet people who hate doing, even resent it. That’s because we forget what worldbuilding is for – our audience and their experiences.

Let me note upfront my obvious biases about worldbuilding, from stories to games. I love doing it, and have for years. I love looking at other worlds people created. I believe there’s psychological value in it. I also have and am writing a ton of books on the subject.

But other people I’ve met resent it. I’ve found they fit into a few categories.

  1. “I want to get to my story” – People don’t want to figure out the exact value of the Frbillian gold ducat of Slenderhome. They have an epic drama to write and none of their characters give a damn.
  2. “I don’t want to get lost” – You can easily got lost in worldbuilding, something I do joyously. You may be good at it and like it a bit too much if you get my drift.
  3. “I’m doing this for my audience” – You’re worldbuilding for the sake of the audience first, not to deliver something, but based on the assumption they expect “X” amount of worldbuilding or hate Y or something. Worldbuilding is part of a larger product.
  4. “I want to be like this person” – Which 90% of the time seems to mean JRR Tolkein. We’re busy trying to emulate other worldbuilders as opposed to asking what we need to do and want to do.

I’m sure some of these apply to you as a whole or in part. Worldbuilding can get onerous – even for someone like myself who loves it. I’ve experienced all of them.

Now how do we address them? Much to the surprise of absolutely no one, I’d like to discuss Agile Methodology. No, stay, this won’t take long.

Anyway, a big thing about Agile is focusing on value of something. You have an audience. They need something, and you figure it out and how to deliver it. Worldbuilding is the same way.

Your audience wants a story or a game – so Worldbuild enough to get the story or the game done.

You need a certain among of worldbuilding – Use this precision to avoid getting lost. Feel free to enjoy it, since you are also part of the audience, but also know when to stop.

Know your audience – Ask who your target audience is and deliver enough worldbuilding for them. If you find yourself with a huge list of different target audiences then you don’t have one in mind. You’ll get lost.

Worldbuilding is about delivering value, and knowing enough to deliver a game or a story or whatever. Keep yourself focused by asking how it serves your larger goal. Even if your goal is a world guide for an RPG, you have to ask what delivers value.

Let me close out with a suggestion if worldbuilding troubles you: Write down your target audience and sort them into no more than three categories. Next, ask yourself what these audiences want and list the top three things. This will give you a guide to how much to do – and not do – and make you think about your audience.

If you can’t answer those questions easily, then you’ve learned even more . . 

Steven Savage

Stress Management As Productivity

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

We’re awash in productivity advice telling us how to get things done, how to prioritize, and so on. I should know, I give some of this advice, but I’d like to pull away the curtain a bit and discuss what a good chunk of productivity tips involve.

They involve stress management.

Sure, productivity gurus and coaches won’t say that. In fact, they may not even realize it – they’re all focused on how much you get done and how to make it easier. But to get things done requires focus, reduction of distraction, and reducing mental friction – which is really a form of stress reduction. These gurus and coaches, even the good ones, may not see it.

So, I’ll put it simply: a lot of productivity tips involve preventing, reducing, or controlling stress and worry.

A lot of productivity advice will have you review and be aware of what you’re doing, from backlogs to graphs to BVBs – Big Visible Boards. Though this may sound anxiety producing, it gives you an idea of where you are and what’s going on – it reduces the anxiety of the unknown.

“Responding to change” is a big part of productivity advice, and a core part of Agile philosophy. But by saying you can respond to change, all the advice-givers and coaches help you acknowledge and cope with change. By admitting things change and you can to, a lot of anxiety is removed.

Review sessions, retrospective, backlog polishing? All those times we productivity enthusiasts tell you to look at what’s coming up, prioritize work, and ask what’s important? That’s stress-reducing as well – because you’re able to ask what’s in the future, then get back to the present. It’s a trick for helping you stay aware – so you can stop stressing.

Breaking work down to manageable chunks? Next steps to take? That’s all helping you stay aware and take manageable bits of work you can get done – so you’re productive, aware, and not overwhelmed. It’s simple time management, but it reduces fear and anxiety.

Most productivity advice has a strong element of stress reduction or is about stress reduction. I just like to admit it now that I see it.

However, this truth also conceals something else – if methods of productivity cause stress, it’s important to ask why, because that’s revealing.

Is it because you’re focusing on the method and not the results, worried about dotting every “i” and doing each task perfectly? Then you’ve learned something about YOU.

Is it because external factors are keeping you from working? Are you organized but there’s so many dependencies and problems and needs you can’t work? Then you learned something about your ENVIRONMENT.

Is it because the method isn’t working with your life and challenges? Then you learned you NEED A NEW METHOD of productivity.

Productivity tips and systems should reduce stress. That’s the point – directly or indirectly. If we admit it, we can be more productive.

Which is, if you think of it, less stressful.

Steven Savage