Understanding Contracts booksprint - how did it work?

13 November 2012

This blog first appeared on OpenOil.net

As you may already have seen, our “Understanding Contracts” booksprint was a success, and the book is now available for download from the OpenOil site. I had the chance to see the sprint from the start, and as you can imagine, it was a fascinating process.

One main point from the week was that, among the melting pot of experience from the authors, we brought together a group of people who would rarely (if ever) get the opportunity to pool all of this experience and work together, rather than simply remaining within their area of expertise and having a passing coffee at industry conferences.

This is a key point; it seems as though frequently the development world around extractive industries remains entirely separate to the industry world around extractives. As one of the authors commented; often, in terms of governance, all of the extractive industries (oil, gas, mining) are lumped together in one programme. However, this classification would never happen on a technical level; the number of companies that work in both oil and mining is very few, and on a more human level, I would guess that it is impossible to find someone who is both a petroleum engineer and a mining engineer.

Within the booksprint participants, we had a third whose experience lies heavily in the industry side of extractives; not CSR representatives, but oil and gas specialist lawyers, and an environmentalist who is consulting now to a large mining company. I like to think that this inclusion and genuine engagement of the industry in such a project gives it much more depth and value. It is great to see discussions of how to engage industry have become much more mainstreamed in initiatives such as EITI, through the multi-stakeholder group, but it’s also important to include technical experts from within the industry, not just social responsibility representatives.

The booksprint provided a great opportunity for people from these two ‘worlds’ to actually sit down and work together, and feedback from the participants showed that this was one of the aspects of the week that they most valued.

On another note, seeing the 10 participants work in such an untraditional method, which must have been quite a change to workshops that they are used to, was also very interesting to watch. It was facilitated by Adam Hyde, founder of BookSprints.net, who has now completed some 50 sprints, but none until now around the extractive industries. Some of the main principles of the book provided quite a departure from more conventional work ethics – for example, that nobody ‘owned’ their writing. Watching your writing being cut, edited, re-edited, and moved around, meant that any sense of proprietorship towards it had to be got rid of fairly quickly, to avoid being offended by future (or immediate!) edits.

The fact that all decisions had to be consensus driven also provided for some interesting discussions, but I’m pleased to report all fistfights were successfully avoided. Of course, those with expertise in certain areas took temporary ownership of writing certain sections, but once those were written, ownership was transferred and the chapters went through a thorough procedure of editing and re-editing. The collaborative software, Booktype, that we used for this was great too, as it allowed everyone to see what others were working on, as well as comparing back to previous ‘versions’ of specific chapters with coloured highlights of what exactly had been changed.

My role as ‘target reader’ for the book taught me a lot, and gave me the liberty to sit down with the authors of particular sections, ask for detailed explanation of complex issues within sections, and request rewrites, or in some cases simply rewrite it myself. However, my experience at OpenOil gave me a slight headstart to the actual imaginary target reader for the book, so to get this level of non-knowledge, we brought in someone with absolutely no experience of the industry.

It was great listening to complicated contract terms, or industry basics, being explained to him (with many questions!) – until they were in simple enough words for him to understand. Then, we would sit down and rewrite the section to a level that he understood, and voila, you have a guide for the non-specialist.

Of course, there are some sections (fiscal terms, for example) which are undoubtedly complex. With these, we had to accept that complex ideas need a lot of explanation, but I can testify that upon reading the section a couple of times over, and looking through actual contracts themselves, it does actually sink in and your understanding will deepen as you go along.

Having an illustrator in the room through the booksprint provided one (fun) way to try and explain complicated issues. Lynne’s method of asking people to come up with a title for their graphic before going into detail with her what it was about, was an efficient way to make sure that actual concepts were being explained in an easier way, rather than simply pictures to break the text up. And seeing an idea being turned into a beautifully illustrated graphic is great motivation to keep going!

As the pdf you can download now is the very first version of the book, complete with the occasional typing and formatting error, we ask everyone to bear with us while we go through the final copy editing procedure. Not all of the lovely graphics are included quite yet, but the final version will be released on November 30th.

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