Interview with Book Sprints’ CEO Barbara Rühling: Learnings from our first fully virtual Book Sprint

Update: Learnings from week 1 and 2

We successfully finished the first ever fully virtual Book Sprint with Red Hat! Read more about the book here. Below Barbara talks about some of our learnings of two weeks intense and gratifying online sprinting.

Timing

It has been surprisingly productive! We planned for everything to take longer in a virtual Book Sprint than in real-space, and we had the right assumption. Working in the virtual space requires a different time management. Participants come together from different time zones, working from home with their families, starring at a computer screen. We knew we couldn’t set daily schedules of 10 to 12 hours and expect the same levels of attention and productivity as in an onsite sprint. We structured this virtual Book Sprint in two blocks of 5 days: 5 days of drafting, illustrations and a first round of reviews, followed by a break of one week and then another 5 days for last corrections, target reader reviews and the final version. 

We kept on track, the atmosphere was good, everyone in the group listened attentively and no one talked over each other, showed up with admiring commitment and got so much work done!

Virtual Book Sprint

A snapshot of most participants and facilitators in the grid view.

See more impressions here on flickr.

Tools

A Book Sprint is all about building a common understanding in the group about their collaborative book project. We used Mural to visualize brainstorming and group decisions. For group conversations, we use Google Meet, after dismissing zoom for security concerns. The book was written in Google Docs, illustrations were done in the collaborative online design tool Figma, and the book design in paged.js.

Interactions

For the facilitator, it is all about getting a sense of the people in a room, who they are, how they interact. In a virtual room with more than 15 participants, there are fewer clues of body language and no spatial perception – where in the room someone sits, for example, or on which whiteboard a particular decision was mapped out. Someone in the group suggested the Google Meet extension “Grid View” that fixes all participants on a grid in alphabetical order, and that helps enormously. 

Online facilitation and mindfulness

To make sure the plenary sessions have a good flow and productivity, it was even more important to agree on some rules with the virtual space in mind. As we would do in a regular onsite Book Sprint, all participants revised a shared agreement before getting started, including etiquette for online meetings. 

For this sprint, we included daily dedicated mindfulness sessions led by one of our facilitators, Faith who is also a mindfulness coach. Faith designed activities for online work environments with her project Calm and Connect. The sessions in the Sprint intended to create a supportive space for participants to centre amidst all the activity and refocus on the tasks for the day. They were also helpful in overcoming the disconnectedness which can be a byproduct of purely online working.  While the morning meditations themed for the day were useful in setting the tone for that particular day, and giving everyone a little personal time to prepare, we soon realised that the afternoon slot needed to switch to a physical pick-me-up so we introduced group stretching. That was quite an amusing sight on video-conferencing! We got some really positive feedback from these sessions too, participants reported that they helped them focus on and prepare for the day ahead.

Our thoughts before the first virtual Book Sprint

We are proudly announcing our first virtual Book Sprint happening this week with Red Hat’s OpenShift Security team.

We have been experimenting with remote facilitation and blended online/offline formats before, to avoid unnecessary air travel. Then Covid-19 hit and changed everything, restricting travel and pushing us towards online facilitation.

Excitingly, some of our clients offered themselves to be happy guinea pigs for the first few virtual Book Sprints that we will run in April. The first of them with Red Hat is happening this week! Here we will share our daily struggles and learnings.

Day 0 – Getting ready. An interview with our CEO Barbara Rühling

You have previously stated that Book Sprints should only be done IRL, what made you change your mind?

“Book Sprints are a form of intense collaboration. They involve spending long days together and sharing a real space really is the ideal situation for the intense but organic process. Things can happen in a snappier fashion.
However, it implies a lot of air travel and recently, even before the Covid-19 situation we were looking at ways to minimize our carbon footprint. Virtual Book Sprints were a viable option for us and of course now it makes the most sense as international travel is restricted. There is a spirit of exploration in the air and we want to use this to do our first virtual Book Sprints experiment!”

This strange time has seen to generate a massive interest in Virtual Book Sprints. Do you feel any pressure?

“Yes, a little. So far we have always delivered great results and kept Book Sprints to a very high standard. I think we will learn a lot from this process. Most of our clients right now want to try Book Sprints in a virtual format. I can imagine in the future there will be much more interest, even when travel is back to normal, so yeah the pressure is on to keep it up to the quality that both we and our clients are happy with.“

Biggest challenges you think you will face in this upcoming virtual Book Sprint?

“In a sprint with every participant on site, there are very fast decision making processes, informal conversations, and long days, 12-14 hours a day. The challenge online will be applying a more rigid structure because in a virtual room we can’t have the same organic conversations that we are used to in real life interactions. We will also be taking more breaks, because if we tried to keep the same intensity online, I figure it would be exhausting for everyone. We will take a few extra days for reviewing after the usual five days, to spread out the working blocks and have more breaks in between. We are figuring out ways to be creative, which is the fun part for us, working with different exercises and time schedules. Flexibility and creativity is what we think best equips us for the challenges ahead.“

What do you hope to accomplish during this virtual Book Sprint and how do you think this will shape you going forward?

“We hope to achieve the same radical efficiency and the same great result at the end of the sprint. The virtual sprint method can really shape the future of the company, I think. For our clients it’s always a challenge to get all their experts in one room for five days, so if we do have the option to offer this virtually, it can be really interesting for Book Sprinters in the future. We are super excited!”

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