What happened when we put a draft book online and asked for comments? Report back on How Change Happens consultation

So the consultation on the draft of my forthcoming How Change Happens book is over, the draft has been removed then a miracle happensfrom the website (if you want to read it, you’ll have to wait til the book comes out next October). How did it go?

The draft went live at the end of October, allowing for six weeks of consultation before last Thursday’s deadline. In that time, I have discussed it in seminars with academics and practitioners in Washington, Boston, London, Birmingham, Oxford, Melbourne and Canberra. To compensate for the Western bias inherent in that travel schedule, there have been emails flying to and fro, trying (not always successfully) to get a wider range of voices feeding in on the text.

The main messages from readers? Still processing, but overall very encouraging. People particularly liked the case studies and the overall attempt to make issues accessible. Most liked the degree of personal anecdote dragged out of me by the editor, Mark Fried, though a few found it a bit icky.

They had lots to say on content and narrative. People particularly liked the chapters on power and systems, active citizens and advocacy. Some chapters were weak (rule of law, TNCs, leadership) and need strengthening; some issues and actors have gone missing (media, culture); the ‘so whats’ concluding chapter needs an overhaul and boiling down into a few bullet points that people can try and remember during their day jobs (thanks to my activist son Calum for banging that point home!) That narrative – especially the relevance of power and systems thinking – then needs to become a much more consistent thread throughout the book.

That’s just my first skim – I now have to sit down and go through 120 pages of comments from 40 ‘critical friends’, and that’s just the first instalment. Lots more are trickling in late (mainly from my esteemed Oxfam colleagues…..).

I’m a bit knackered, but am now entering ‘one more heave’ territory – taking all those inputs and using them to rewrite the text by the end of January. That will mean ‘going dark’ – no blogs from me, which after 7 years of pretty much daily blogging, is going to involve some serious withdrawal symptoms. If I don’t blog, do I actually exist?

resistance to change cartoon06Was it worth it? You bet: the quality of discussion and input has been outstanding. Someone asked me last week how I grew a thick enough skin to get through what has amounted to a 6 week long viva. Well, this time round, nothing came close to my afternoon being berated by a bunch of South African trots while consulting on From Poverty to Power. Anna Coryndon, the long suffering project manager on both books, reckons this time around ‘people weren’t using the consultation as an excuse to push their pet projects or positions – they were engaging with the draft text and enjoying the process. In many cases, they’d already been following the key themes via your blog.’

But I have to admit it has got a bit edgy at times. When my ego was taking a battering, and I could hear myself becoming defensive or upset, I just listened to that little voice in my head saying ‘free consultancy, free consultancy. The final text will be immeasurably improved thanks to this process, so get over yourself’.

Finally, some ‘learnings’ (ugh) for anyone thinking of putting themselves through a similar mangle:

  1. Everyone has good intentions, but most start reading, and then fall by the wayside (or go to sleep). As a result I have hundreds of comments on the first two chapters, and very few on the second half. I should have segmented the audience more and got people commenting on specific chapters.
  2. I had too many general seminars – I now wish I had organized more of them around specific chapters.
  3. Leave a lot more than 6 weeks to digest the results – everyone will send you shedloads of papers and books to read
  4. Use pdfs, to deter the track changes obsessives

But above all, do it. The advice has been invaluable, and has hopefully generated lots of pre-promotion buzz. The book will definitely be better as a result, but it remains to be seen whether the consultation will undermine or improve sales (OUP crossing their fingers on that one). I haven’t told them yet, but there were 621 downloads of the total manuscript with, interestingly, a massive majority from the US (390), followed by the UK (42), Germany (37) and Australia (29). Is that the sound of sales reps screaming?

So, apart from a quick New Year report back on 2015, no more posts til I’ve finished the book (and that includes would-be guest bloggers, sorry). See you February (I hope)!


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4 Responses to “What happened when we put a draft book online and asked for comments? Report back on How Change Happens consultation”
  1. Kolleen Bouchane

    Duncan, I wish I had made time for this! I’m a last chapter kind of critical friend. That said, that you did this process and that you subjected your ego to that battering is the number one thing we need more of in development.

    If more of us more often could be less attached to being the one person or organization with all the right answers, if our identities could be less tied up in knowing that how we work is THE way, we could accomplish so much!

    Thank you for your contribution not just of the thinking but if this glorious, messy, bloody process.

    Cheers, Kolleen

  2. This is an admirable idea, at least in its scholarly intentions. It hope it goes really well for you.

    I’ve done my recent book (website as here) the other way around, so that the comments can keep coming in – I’m very conscious that my field (the eradication of female genital mutilation) is currently deeply segmented, and I am trying to establish some sort of cross-disciplinary paradigm, as a starting point for effective action.

    I did of course ‘test-run’ whole chunks of the book on long suffering colleagues, but I think that’s a bit different?

    Whether my continuing, topic-labelled, experiment in inclusion (and accuracy)’works’ remains to be seen; one potential challenge is that a lot of those most closely involved in the serious action are not particularly bothered about the ‘academy’ side of things; they are very busy people coping with an unimaginably demanding issue! But that’s often a ‘problem’ (or, more positively, a material fact) in real life, isn’t it?

    Best of luck! Look forward to hearing how you get on.

  3. Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

    Anna is right, we definitely enjoyed engaging with the text. Maybe you should go into retreat at a Mexican mountain cabaña or something of the sort? Mucha suerte, and looking forward to reading the final version.