Global Collaboration

Somewhere around 3 dozen people, scattered across the globe from Hong Kong across the US to the UK, Europe, and beyond work together to bring you the collection of useful tips, thought pieces, and inspiration known as Lifehack. I thought it might be interesting to our readers to learn a little bit about what goes on “behind the scenes” at a big site like this – the tools we use, the processes we’ve developed, and the attitudes that help us keep Lifehack stocked with stories 260 days a year. (That’s 5 weekdays a week for 52 weeks – we don’t take holidays off!)

Collaboration Tools for a Global Workforce

Lifehack simply wouldn’t be possible, not in the form it’s taken today anyway, without the awesome power of WordPress. What’s most amazing about WordPress is that it’s free and open-source – itself the outcome of a global collaboration. Lifehack pushes WordPress hard, with dozens of active users under several different roles, and huge amounts of traffic, often coming is spikes that would take most sites down. Lifehack is one of the most-dugg sites on the Internet —

the 31st most-mentioned site on Digg and somewhere around 125th in terms of total number of diggs (sorry, I’ve lost the link to that), and Digg traffic can come as fast as a hit a second. Configured properly, WordPress handles it with ease.

I’ll talk more about WordPress when I discuss our process. HEre are some of the other tools that make Lifehack possible:

  • Campfire: Campfire is an online chatroom service hosted by the good folks at 37Signals. Campfire allows me to meet with Leon Ho, Lifehack’s owner, every other week for a real-time discussion of the site’s direction, special projects, and so on – despite the fact that Leon is based in Hong Kong and I’m in Las Vegas. We also use Campfire for editorial meetings between myself and the other staff writers (Thursday Bram and Joel Falconer). My favorite feature of Campfire is that it archives all your chats, so we can easily pull up a record of past discussions if we need to clarify a point or look for action items.
  • Ta-da List: Another 37Signals product, Ta-da List is a simple task list that allows task sharing between several users. The staff writers use a single list to collect post ideas that they aren’t planning to use – maybe I have a great idea for a post I know Lifehack readers will enjoy, but I lack the time or knowledge to do it justice. Our Ta-da List lets me offer it up to the other writers, who can check it off if they decide to run with the idea.
  • Google Groups: How do you communicate with a staff of 30+ guest contributors? The answer, for us, is an email list. Every guest contributor is invited to join our private group on Google. This list allows me to send them all updates about upcoming events (like the Lifehack Great Big Summer Giveaway), editorial directions, and process changes. It also provides a forum for sharing tips on writing, using social media, and other information relevant to writers of a popular site like Lifehack.
  • activeCollab: This is a project management and collaboration suite that runs on the Stepcase servers (Stepcase is Lifehack’s parent company). In theory, it allows us to assign tasks, attach them to projects, record progress towards milestones, compile information pages about projects, and so on; in practice, I find it far too complex for the small number of people actively administering the site, especially given that our workflow isn’t really divided into “projects” as much as "ongoing responsibilities". I’m sure it works much better for larger workgroups in a corporate environment.
  • Email and other communication tools: Email isn’t fancy, but it’s probably the tool we use the most, simply because it’s ever-present, near-instantaneous, and easily archived. And for person-to-person off-the-cuff discussions, we often use Skype or other IM systems as well.

The Collaborative Process

To make this all work, we need a pretty clear workflow for each week’s posts. When I started at Lifehack over a year ago, articles were posted to the front page pretty much as they were submitted by guest contributors. When I took over the job of editing and scheduling all the posts on the site, I decided that we should batch process our posts — eating our own dog-food, as it were.

Today, no matter how many guest contributors post in any given week, I only spend a few hours on Sunday scheduling posts. Although staff writers and guest contributors are free to write whatever they want (within the scope of the site), I make suggestions of loose themes every month or so — this month was "home and work", for instance.

Such themes, when we have them, are worked out by myself and Leon Ho, and sometimes staff writers Joel and Thursday, during our bi-weekly meetings. Those meetings are also where we work out technical issues, discuss editorial policies, plan the site’s direction, and generally bounce ideas off of each other.

In between meetings, I act as the contact person for question from guest contributors and staff writers alike, dealing with simple issues as they arise and saving the more complex ones for our editorial meetings.

Collaboration is an Attitude

Keep in mind that I have never met Leon or Joel or any of Lifehack’s guest contributors. I did meet Thursday once for coffee when she was visiting Las Vegas for a conference. But basically we are a group of about three dozen strangers. Yet that group of strangers manages to keep a lively mix of stories flowing every weekday, through the whole year.

To do this requires more than just a set of tools — it requires an attitude. Everyone who contributes to Lifehack — whether as guest contributors, staff writers, or readers — does so for reasons of their own. Everyone recognizes that, and as long as I’ve been involved with the site, nobody has made an effort to impose their own view on anyone else. We’ve worked hard to make sure that there’s room for a variety of viewpoints, even conflicting ones — I sometimes disagree sharply with a piece I’m editing, but I respect the author’s intentions in posting it, and respect the readers’ right to agree or disagree free of my interference.

Mostly, Lifehack works because everyone has a clear role and no more is asked of them than spelled out in that role. The development of a clear system for posting and communicating reflects that — I know exactly what I can expect of each person involved with putting Lifehack together.

Conclusion

I’m lucky that mutual respect and clearly-defined roles are so effective, because to be honest, the tools we use are something of a kluge. I would much rather use a single collaboration suite that handled all the tasks we perform in bringing Lifehack together day after day. So far, I haven’t found anything that is functional, elegant, easy to use, and handles multiple roles well. WordPress is the exception — maybe someone will build a collaboration suite using WordPress as a platform?

That said, the kluge we’ve got does work, as the continued existence of Lifehack shows. And it is sure to evolve as new tools become available that handle more of the tasks we need to perform, and handles them more efficiently. And hopefully, seeing how we do it might give you some ideas about your own teams and projects.

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