Wiki Maturation - Tossing Tennis Balls

An interesting story about the significance of maintaining business value and ownership, using the metaphor of tennis balls left in a company's server room for over a decade, and how it relates to the challenges of managing a wiki.

by Ben Allums
February 13, 2009

Have you heard the story of Quadralay's 14 year old tennis balls? It's a great example of what can happen when you fail to maintain the principles of business value and ownership.

You see, back in the day (1994), we were working on creating this great new product to single-source FrameMaker 4.0 files to user-defined, text based outputs. At the time, I called the project WDT – WebWorks Document Translator. For some reason or other, our Marketing folks thought WebWorks Publisher would be a better name. I guess they had a point.

Anyway, to break up the day, one of Quadralay's founders would take a little time off and play some tennis. One day, he bought a canister with 3 new tennis balls. He played his game, came back to the office, and placed that container (now with two good balls left) in our storage room. That was 1994.

Those tennis balls stayed in the server room until we moved our offices in 1995.

The tennis balls came with us.

We moved again in 1996.

The tennis balls came with us.

We moved a third time around 1997 to our current address on Burnet Road.

The tennis balls came with us.

The tennis balls eventually wound up in our server room. The “owner” of the tennis balls left the company back in 2004.

The tennis balls stayed.

Until 2008. I finally tossed them out. And even then, I had a lurking voice in my head saying, “They aren't yours to toss. What are you doing?”

You see, we had lost sight of the two most important principles in business: value and ownership. Some people use the term “responsibility,” but that's not the real issue. Responsibility is a natural result of ownership. And value? That's easy to assess once you realize value == use.

In 2006, I was placed in charge of Quadralay Development and IT. And I started asking questions about “the stuff” I was responsible for. And one day, I decided to change my thinking from “responsible for stuff” to “owns stuff”. And everything became crystal clear.

45 monitors, 40 computer shells, 10 UNIX workstations, the original Quadralay SunOS hard drive, our original DNS server machine (15 years old), and the tennis balls left the building. 16 years of collected tidbits which had no business value and no clear owner were gone.

What does any of this have to do with wiki maturation?

Simple. I'll bet you've got a ton of tennis balls in your wiki right now. You call them pages. Do not be fooled by their appearance. They are tennis balls: fuzzy, yellow covered bits of rubber in plastic tubes. They have no clear owner and no business value.

I know this because we have a wiki full of tennis balls. Two wikis in fact. We've been running wikis going back to 2003. We've been working for 6 years to accumulate all this great “stuff”. Now, we're ready to do something about it.

Through experience, I learned about the need for clear ownership. Through experience, I found value can only be assessed through use. But I didn't know how to tackle our wiki problem.

That's where our founder, Tony McDow, comes in. He found a tool to make our wiki work. To change it back into the wonderful, useful, whicky-whacky agent of change it once was before we filled it full of tennis balls. Tony gave us the ability to maintain ownership without sacrificing organizational flexibility. And with ownership, value became clear and our tennis balls began to disappear.

Want to find out how he did that? Well, that's Tony's story. I'll let him tell it.