How Bill Jensen Disrupted His Writing Process

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How Bill Jensen Disrupted His Writing Process by Tim Sanders

March 05, 2013

Bill Jensen is the best selling author of several books, including Simplicity and Hacking Work.  He's bringing his next two projects to Net Minds Select: Disrupt! and The Courage Within Us: Profiles In Disruption.  True to form, he's disrupted the writing process by employing a novel collaboration method.  Here's what he has to say about it.

Tim:  Bill, I’m impressed with how you’ve approached writing Disrupt via collaboration.  You’ve got quite a tribe giving you feedback on your manuscript.  Tell us why and how you set this up.

Bill:  I needed to walk the talk.  If I’m writing about not being fearful of failure, and the value of iteration, I should live it.  I selected Ning [for my collaboration platform]. Some of the people that participated weren’t thrilled with the interface, but cost-benefit-wise, overall it was the best solution that I found.

Before establishing the online component I searched [my network] for 40-50 people who would be willing to be a part of a community to read this book all the way through.  You really need that many people because over time, only a quarter of them will be reliable for what you send them on chapter-by-chapter basis.  I’ve been writing long enough that I have some loyal followers who were easy to connect with via email.  I also went through my Twitter following, my blog post comments to select a representative sampling of perspectives and work experiences.

I wanted to be sure that I got the right mix, intentionally selecting some people that completely disagree with my perspective.  I wanted feedback to represent the spectrum of the universe of readers.  Some people are going to love it. Some people are going to hate it. I wanted all of that without being sanitized. First I enlisted my participants through an email or direct message [via Twitter] asking, “Would you be willing to be part of this?” Then, once I got 40-50 yeses, I set everything up in a Ning forum.  Then I sent my participants the chapters, and they responded to the chapters through the forum format.  In the past, prior the explosion of social media tools [like Ning] I did this through email. The only responses they saw were their own. This time, it’s just like everybody else, where everybody is commenting on other people’s comments and they’re building on each other. 

Tim:  What were some of the most useful insights from this group that impacted your manuscript?

Bill:  The biggest ongoing impact was the perspective of the stakeholder groups that they were representing. Some people looked at it from an HR perspective. Some people looked at it from a CEO perspective.  Whatever comments or changes or tweaks they required were not major alterations. Usually I had to add a paragraph or two in to segue between ideas. To say, oh yes, this is how this applies to you that are being disrupted also. It was kind of like a continuing “also” edition.

The most difficult thing for me to do, and it was hard sometimes, was treat everyone’s feedback as valid from their perspective, then try to match it to my vision for the book.  It’s very hard to take critique or feedback from someone whose vision doesn’t match yours and still try to find a value in it.  My first knee-jerk reaction would be to discount it thinking that they just don’t get it.  I worked very hard to ensure that every single comment had some kind of validity.

Some participants pushed back one of the early subtitles where was I was describing the 25 patterns [of disruptive visionaries], as laws. I got feedback that I got was these really aren’t laws that you should follow, but instead, best practices.  We’re still going back and forth on the formalizing what the subhead would be. The current iteration is habits. Changing that one word [in the subtitle] changed the framework of how I treat these things. It was very helpful.

Another thing I discovered is that my participants wanted much more of an instruction manual. That’s not necessarily what I was writing with this book. For example, there are three main sections in the book: Dos, Don’ts, and Guiding Principles. Guiding Principles was where I got the most feedback, such as “but how do I do this? How do I be true to myself? How do I stay true to my gut?” Instead of ignoring those comments, I wrote a pre-amble, which is two-page, this is how “how-to’s” fit in this book. I addressed the reader’s comments up front.

Another example of how this group impacted my manuscript came from comments like, “This relates not just to people who are disrupting, but people who are being disrupted.” I knew the people that are being disrupted don’t necessarily want to break the rules.  One pre-reader especially, came back and said, “You’re still not hitting that point well enough. You need to honor these people. They’re like anchors.” That was his word, which I ended up using. They’re like anchors. Their wisdom is sound, and they need to be listened to. They don’t have to be disruptive to be successful. That ended up being a two-page, mini chapter at the end of the book that is now called, “A Tribute Honoring Non-disruptors.”

Tim:  How did you prevent design by committee, as we like to call it?

Bill:  Oh, that’s easy.  It’s my book.  I’m the final decider. That’s why I needed to do some introspection before I begin this process. I choose to throw stuff out or to keep stuff. I choose what to pay attention to.  I’m the final say and my vision is what matters. For that to happen properly, I need to approach everybody’s feedback as if it’s valid and work hard to say: How would I address this within this vision. It was easy to not be design by committee because it’s a committee of one, me.

For more information on Bill, visit SimplerWork

Tim Sanders

About Tim Sanders

Tim is a bestselling author and former Yahoo! executive with a mission to disrupt the traditional publishing and self-publishing industries and share knowledge with authors looking to publish and market high-quality books.

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