Lessons Learned from Writing as a Team

I spent the week of February 23, 2015 at the National Conservation Training Center facilitating a team who are re-writing a government handbook that has not been updated for 20 years. The handbook provides guidance to employees of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for how to implement one section of one congressional act, and it integrates components of at least six other acts.

After it is written, it will be subject to review by nine regional offices, a team of solicitors, and an executive management team. It is anticipated to contain 150-200 pages, with 10-15 appendices adding a potential 100 pages to the body of the document.

This is a major writing endeavor.

In another post, I wrote about the obstacles to writing as a team. This team impressed me with their intelligence, their experience, and their commitment to the project’s outcomes. As a result, we did not encounter those specific obstacles.

What we did encounter were experiences that I’m not sure any of us anticipated. So I thought it might be useful to delineate a few of these.

tech supportKeeping remote participants engaged – Our team was in a constant state of flux. We had different people in the room and on the phone nearly every day. We used a conference call line and a WebEx connection, and we kept notes that we emailed to everyone each day. From time to time, remote participants would jump in to say that they were having difficulty hearing someone. And the team leaders did a nice job asking for their participation.

Lesson #1: Keep remote participants engaged by encouraging them to speak up, by eliminating side conversations, and by using available technology rather than apparatus in the room such as easels or whiteboards.

questionInvolving institutional leaders – Our team had 1.5 days in the middle of a 2-week period to meet with solicitors and institutional leaders. That gave us sufficient time to identify questions for them, and for them to touch base with their colleagues and gather answers for us before we left the team environment.

During these discussions, I noted some disconnect between the team and the leadership as to what was perceived as relevant to the writing project. The team sought clarification on topics in greater depth than will be included in the final document because writers need to know their subject matter thoroughly so they can organize and articulate it clearly to readers.

The team was also responsible for sharing with its leadership the gravity of certain policy decisions and processes. The work group proved an excellent opportunity for leadership to become informed about the struggles facing its workforce as it tries to implement what might otherwise seem a straightforward policy.

Lesson #2: Allow the team to determine what information is relevant for them. Match the gravity of their concerns with thoughtful solutions to which all upper management has agreed.

Write with FaithStaying focused – Our writing team was freakin’ amazing! We rocked through 14 chapters of government policy in 3 days.

Yes, you read that correctly.

3 DAYS!!!!!!

These people are wicked smart, have years of experience in the field, and are completely committed to writing this handbook, now.

Still, we got bogged down. And it was not because of ego, and it was not because of stubborn-mindedness, and it was not because of group-think. Our swampy marshes (or sloughs of despond, depending on the time of day) were the places where our policy touched other government policy and we did not have final decision-making authority. Instead we had lots of questions, some good suggestions, and no clear answers.

I feel like we did a good job of scoping both our questions and our suggestions. But I also feel like in our eagerness to complete the writing project, we continued to revisit these areas despite our awareness that we could not resolve the problems.

Lesson #3: Draw a clear line between what you can and cannot accomplish in one session as a team. Write what you can. Have faith in your team and in your commitment to the team that the rest will be resolved.

I really appreciate the questions and comments that you have posted on this series. Clearly, team writing is a topic that strikes a chord with many people. Please, keep the feedback coming. And let us know the challenges (and the triumphs!) that you face as you write collaboratively.


  1. This is really impressive. As a writer within the Fish and Wildlife Service, I find it hard to fathom getting that much done in such a short time. Good job, everyone! Government efficiency 101!

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