Journalists have talked about the idea of balancing maintenance in newsrooms to “explore potential guiding principles for maintenance-driven journalism,” as Ingrid Burrington put it for SRCCON in 2016. Perhaps you’ve also encountered the stressful work of preserving news products or writing how-to manuals that you wished could be a more pleasant experience. Maintenance is an ongoing practice of care that we have much to learn from.

This became clear when my team entered the middle of our product migration, which was the stage where we tested our patience by pausing innovative projects and focusing on tedious maintenance. Previously in this series, I walked through the stages when we identified layers of our infrastructure and understood the care and attention they need over time. As we proceed through the migration process, the next lesson I’ll share is how we understood our behaviors and habits for maintaining the project until its completion.

In other words, we learned who on our team preferred to call the mechanic to change their car oil when the light came on, who had their appointment booked before the light flickered, and who had the manual on hand and knew how to change it themselves. All of these are correct ways of maintaining something. Still, it makes a difference if you are aware of and plan with the maintenance skills and behaviors of your team early on.

As we began migrating software line by line, our engineers noticed differences in how we conducted the work. Each one came from a different background and had unique knowledge, preferences and understanding of the project. We quickly noticed conflicts in our approaches. What helped us move forward was talking about these differences (exercise below) and working on a collective maintenance strategy to follow. Indeed, without discussions or a formalized plan, our team’s inefficiency and stress would have caused further delays.

Lessons from others in The Maintenance Race

The good news is that every profession requires maintenance, and there are lessons we can glean from each of them. For example:

  • Kongjian Yu, a landscape designer, talks about the risk and culture of “endless maintenance.” His lesson is that we may unknowingly be constructing a high-maintenance environment by focusing too much on aesthetics or short-term goals.
  • Steven Jackson, in his 2014 book Media Technologies, writes of the need for “Rethinking Repair” by advocating for “moving maintenance and repair back to the center of thinking around media and technology,” which he says will invite “functional [and] moral relations” in our organizations.
  • This year, Places Journal is publishing a “Repair Manual” series about maintenance in architecture, which Daniel Barber at the University of Technology Sydney says has been long driven with “practices that reward creation not maintenance.”

These might strike a chord as you consider how maintenance is framed, centered and rewarded in your news organization. To learn about maintenance perspectives and behaviors in your work, I’d like to begin by sharing Stewart Brand’s retelling of The Maintenance Race:

In early 1968, The Sunday Times in London launched a round-the-world race prize (£5,000) to “be awarded to the single-handed yachtsman who completes the fastest non-stop circumnavigation of the world.” Little did they know that the personalities of the sailors who competed taught lessons about how people differ when it comes to long-term maintenance, leading to different outcomes.

The story illustrates the maintenance styles of three sailors:

  • The youngest sailor’s style was: “Whatever comes, deal with it.”
  • The innovative sailor’s style was: “Hope for the best.”
  • The most experienced sailor’s style was: “Prepare for the worst.”

Who do you think won? Who died? And who left their toolbox on the dock? I won’t spoil it for you, but it shouldn’t be surprising that each person’s definition of experience, preparation and confidence was quite different. The unique styles framed their decisions when tending to sailing their boat over time.

Identifying your maintenance mantra

Now that you’re aware of how diverse maintenance styles might be throughout your organization, follow these steps to learn which style resonates most with you and how you can best communicate it to others.

  • Step 1: Think about a recent project you worked on and how you approached maintenance of the work over time.
  • Step 2: Define and write down a brief summary of your maintenance style, or even a short mantra. This might be one you read above or something else.
  • Step 3: Learn how you might communicate this best to others on your team. Follow advice to translate your message from API’s VP of Journalism Programs, Samantha Ragland.
  • Step 4: Keep your maintenance mantra in mind as a reminder for the next short-term and long-term projects in your organization.

As you continue your work, be aware of how your maintenance behaviors compare and contrast against other project stakeholders. Question what might need to change about your maintenance style to better sustain your work, or better collaborate with others, and find ways to influence other people you work with to define and share their own maintenance styles, too.

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