Freaking Out Is Part of Systems Change

We are in the midst of a global pandemic.

Re-reading those last two words still feels bonkers to me, even though it’s been almost three months since the first reported case of COVID-19 and almost two weeks since the World Health Organization (WHO) made its official declaration. I had been casually tracking Coronavirus from the start, and I started paying closer attention about four weeks ago. I’ve also been actively doing some thinking and scenario work around planetary crises with a few friends and colleagues for the past year and a half. I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been, but it’s not like this came out of nowhere.

Which made it even more surprising to me when, just before the official pandemic declaration and a week before the shelter-in-place orders started here in San Francisco, I started freaking out.

One of my superpowers is that I’m able to stay calm in stressful situations. I’ve had this power for as long as I can remember, and it’s served me well in life and in work. It’s actually two interdependent practices: recognition and mitigation. Recognition is both situational — understanding when I’m in a stressful situation — and introspective — understanding when I’m feeling stressed. Once I recognize, I usually have a limited window of time in which to mitigate, which mostly consists of me talking to myself and breathing.

Mitigation is useless without recognition. If I’m not aware of my stress level rising, then I can’t mitigate. Which brings me to my kryptonite: In times of sudden crisis, I’m cool as a cucumber, but when the stress slowly sneaks up on me, I’m like the proverbial frog in slowly boiling water. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’ve learned to just let it happen and be okay with it.

That’s what I did when I started freaking out two weeks ago. A few of my friends on social media, whom I trust, had been sounding the alarm about Coronavirus for a few days, and I had started to wonder whether I was taking it seriously enough. After spending a few days thinking it through and talking it over with friends, I started canceling social engagements and sheltering in place, even though I wasn’t feeling sick. I started asking friends and family to consider doing the same, but I wasn’t yet advocating for it, and I was still feeling calm.

That started changing for me the following day, which is when WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. I was completely ignoring my work, instead obsessively reading articles and clicking through posts on social media. When I talked to friends and family who were still resistant to staying home, I noticed a shortness of breath and a hint of hysteria in my responses. That’s when I sat down and said to myself, “Holy shit, I am officially freaking out.”

For me, part of “let it happen, and be okay with it,” is talking about it with others. (This post is one example of that.) The more I talk about it, the more I normalize it, and the less scary and more manageable it becomes. As I told others about my COVID-19 meltdown, I could start to hear a little voice inside my head saying, “Of course you are freaking out. There’s a worldwide pandemic that’s spreading exponentially, killing thousands of people, and shutting down our economy. You’re rightfully scared, and you rightfully feel helpless.” I don’t know why it takes so long for this little voice to start speaking up about what should seem obvious, but it does. It’s just how freaking-out works.

At my previous consulting firm, we used to hand out a two-page document to new and prospective clients detailing our design process. My favorite paragraph was about what I called, “The Freak-out Moment”:

A few weeks before the engagement, the design generally starts to come together, and people often start feeling more comfortable about the process. Right before the engagement, that happy feeling often goes away. It can even be replaced by panic. This is completely normal, and it’s our role to help you through that.

Participatory, emergent processes are inherently unpredictable. Systems change processes in particular are high stakes and complex. Panic is understandable, because, in the absence of certainty, all you can ask for is faith. Faith is a hard sell, especially if you’ve had limited (or, worse, bad) previous experiences.

Part of the role of a good collaboration practitioner is to guide others through freak-out moments. Another role is to manage these moments yourself, because if you’re doing work that matters and if you’re paying enough attention, you will experience these moments too.

There are three things I try to do to manage these moments.

First, let it happen, and be okay with it.

Second, be compassionate to yourself and to others. Shortly before people started rushing to stores to load up on supplies, I went to the grocery store with my sister to pick up a few items. I was already on edge about being in public, and I was especially annoyed that people were not keeping their distance. Afterward, I complained to my sister about it, and she wisely responded, “It’s not that they don’t care. They’re scared, just like you were a few days ago. They’re not paying attention to distance, because they’re just trying to stock up on groceries as quickly as possible.”

Third, remember that you are not alone, that you are part of a larger system, and that your role is not to be a hero. I am indebted to my mentor, Gail Taylor, for constantly reminding me of this:

The success and failure of a process is never fully dependent on you. You are simply part of the system, just like everyone else. Everyone brings their own special wisdom and superpowers. The whole system holds the space, not just you. This is true with facilitation, this is true with design, and this is true when grappling with global pandemics.

COVID-19 is an opportunity both to apply and to evolve what we know about collaborative processes and systems change. I will do my best to share what I already know, I will be paying attention and sharing what I learn along the way, and I hope others will be as well.

At the same time, remember that these are not normal times. Many of us are having to grapple with huge uncertainties with work. Many of us are suddenly having to grapple with working from home and simultaneously taking care of our homebound kids. Many of us are taking care of our parents. Many of us are working on the frontlines, risking our own lives and livelihoods for our communities.

Please, let yourselves and others freak out, and please be as compassionate as you can be both to others and to yourselves. Most of all, be safe.

The Art of Thinking Really, Really Big

What does it mean to be driven by vision?

It’s easy to know what you’re against, what you dislike, what you don’t want. But what are you for? What do you love? What is the world that you want to create?

How do you stay inspired in the face of a stark reality? How do you inspire others?

Last year, I made it a priority to articulate the most important principles for helping groups achieve higher performance. I decided to start this weighty task by writing down everything I learned from my most influential mentors and colleagues. (I would highly recommend this exercise to everyone. It’s a great reminder of who you are and what you believe as well as of how lucky you are to have these special people in your life.)

One thing that stood out for me was how BIG my mentors’ and colleagues’ visions were and how much of an influence that’s had on me and my practice. While I constantly preach the importance of intentionality, I’ve spent far less time talking and thinking about the art and practice of visioning, especially as it pertains to other groups.

The one exception to this speaks to what my perspective used to be and how it’s starting to shift. Two years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled, “Rubber Bands and the Art of Visioning.” While I made reference to some of the really big vision that’s shaped who I am and how I practice, my emphasis for others was less on stretching your vision and more on grounding it, which is where many processes fall short. One of my mentors, Gail Taylor, left a comment challenging me on this point:

Ahhh, the creative tension! Rubber bands are a nice metaphor, stretch too far and the darn thing snaps! But, I have found most people under stretch but if they are willing to go to the edge they reach further and never quite shrink to their former state.

I’ve thought often about Gail’s words. For the past two years, I’ve been working with an inspiring group of social change leaders who are struggling with how to make their vision real. It’s a complex project, with many challenging nuances and not-so-subtle obstacles, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this group is stuck because its vision, while ambitious, is still too small and too cloudy and because it hasn’t figured out how to integrate that vision into its every day work.

Moreover, I have become convinced that this is fundamentally the challenge that ails this country and perhaps the world right now.

My job is to help these leaders get unstuck, to help them get better at the art and science of visioning, of fostering radical hope in a grounded, rigorous way. I’m not sure how to do this, but we’re going to try some things this year, and I’ll do my best to share what we learn. Maybe there will be something there that’s applicable beyond this group.

Last August, I was in the beautiful Michigan wilderness facilitating a retreat for another group of social change leaders. Internet access and cell phone coverage were spotty, so it took us awhile to learn about the hate-filled, white supremacy rally at Charlottesville and the tragedy that ensued. I felt fortunate to be able to process and mourn among such incredible leaders, but upon leaving the retreat a few days later, I felt depressed and demoralized.

As it happened, my next destination was Toledo, Ohio to spend a few days with one of my best friends. Our original plan was to spend a day in Detroit, but as soon as I arrived, my friend asked me if I wanted to go to a rally instead. The white supremacist who had rammed his car into counter protestors in Charlottesville was from nearby Maumee, and organizers were planning a march against hate there that afternoon.

I said yes immediately. It felt like fate that I was there when I was, and I thought it would be cathartic. But I still felt unsettled and nervous.

As we drove to Maumee, we listened to old Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches. (They’re available for free on Spotify.) I found them mesmerizing. Other than his famous, “I have a dream” speech, I had never heard him speak. I was particularly struck by his 1961 commencement speech at Lincoln University, which begins:

As you go out today to enter the clamorous highways of life, I should like to discuss with you some aspects of the American dream: For in a real sense, America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities, and of all creeds can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident — that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the dream.

Very seldom if ever in the history of the world has a socio-political document expressed in such profoundly eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.

Listening to it settled me down, and I haven’t been able to forget the impact his words and his voice had on me that day.

I’ve kicked off 2018 thinking about what I’m trying to learn about visioning for this project, for myself, and for the world, and I decided to listen to this speech again, both to reflect on Dr. King’s craft and to find inspiration anew. It’s been working for me, and I hope it works for you as well. Happy New Year!

Rubber Bands and the Art of Visioning

Reaching for the Moon

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack Up (1936)

My mentor, Doug Engelbart, was a visionary and a doer. When he first embarked on his career as an engineer in the 1950s, only a handful of computers existed — expensive behemoths controlled by stacks of punched cards. Doug had the audacity to envision a world where everybody had access to computers, where they could engage with these devices in real-time using graphical, interactive displays, and where all of these machines were connected to each other.

His ideas were so far-fetched, he spent the next 20 years battling detractors and disdain. That didn’t stop him from making his vision a reality, which he unveiled in 1968 at an event that would later become known as the Mother of All Demos. While he wowed everyone in the room that day, it turned out he was still yet another 20 years ahead of his time, as the technologies he demonstrated that day didn’t become widespread until the late 1980s.

Doug permanently instilled in me the importance of thinking big… then thinking even bigger. Thinking big requires thinking long-term, because big things take time.

But he also showed me that whatever you imagined also had to be realistic. As crazy as Doug’s vision for computing seemed to be in the 1950s, he knew it was possible. His ideas around display technology came directly from his experiences as a radar engineer in the Navy during World War II. Furthermore, he had spent some time studying the rate at which computing technology had been advancing — Moore’s Law a quarter of a century before Gordon Moore had articulated it as such — and he knew that it would be a matter of time before scaling effects would make computing technology both powerful enough and affordable. “A matter of time” happened to be four decades, a long time for sure, but well within the realm of possibility.

Finding the right balance between big and possible is the essential challenge of effective visioning. Doing it well requires the ability to shift back and forth between radically different perspectives without getting dizzy and losing your orientation. The challenge for practitioners is figuring out ways to support this dance between big-picture thinking and cold, hard pragmatism.

None of this is easy.

Getting Real

Last year, I helped support an innovation process for Forward Together, an amazing social justice organization based in Oakland. I led a cohort of staff and funders through a four-month Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets training in preparation for the actual experimentation process, which was led by Rebecca Petzel.

Rebecca kicked off the process with a two-day workshop, where participants rapidly brainstormed and refined ideas. We invited several guests who brought different perspectives and helped stretch what our cohort had previously thought was possible. This resulted in lots of energy, inspiration, and great, creative ideas. Everyone was in high spirits after the first day and a half.

Then Rebecca told the participants it was time to get real. She put up several large, poster-sized calendars, and she asked people to get out their personal calendars so that we could flesh out the plan for testing the ideas.

As people looked through their calendars, you could see their shoulders slump and their spirits deflate. Everyone was busy, and they were having trouble seeing how any followup would be possible. One person after another voiced this same concern loudly and clearly. It was like an avalanche of negativity.

I was taken aback. I had expected folks to get real, but I had not expected complete demoralization. After a very low-energy discussion, Rebecca and I huddled about what to do next. I had been scheduled to review some of the muscles and mindsets work we had done, especially for those in the room who hadn’t participated, but I wanted to scrap the exercise. “They need more time to work through the roadmap,” I argued.

“They need to review the mindsets and all the work they’ve done the past four months,” insisted Rebecca. “It will remind them of what’s possible.”

Rebecca was right. The first step in my Muscles & Mindsets program is for the participants to identify a core set of productive mindsets that they aspire to have, as well as the corresponding less productive mindsets that they want to shift. As it turned out, four of the five shifts they had chosen seemed to apply to this exact scenario:

Feeling stuck
“I’m scared of the unknown and would prefer to avoid it.”
“When I walk into the unknown, I’m going to learn and grow. I don’t know what the answers are, but I’ll figure them out by trying things.”
Not enough time
“I don’t have time for anything more than what’s in front of me.”
Slow down to speed up
“Slowing down will help me make better choices and save time.”
Fixed reality
“There aren’t enough time or resources.”
Flexible reality
“If we think outside the box, we’ll see ways to create time and resources. To do that, we need to be conscious of power and equity.”
“Everything depends on me.”
“We’re in it together. I don’t always have to be out in front. I need to be compassionate with myself so that I can be supportive of others.”

Reviewing these helped our participants become viscerally aware of how quickly they had snapped back to the very mindsets they had been working hard to shift. That relieved some of the anxiety, and we were able to end the workshop on a strong, hopeful note. Still, it was a stark reminder of how simply bringing people together and giving them an inspiring, one-off experience is not sufficient to move people on an ongoing basis, especially when faced with everyday realities.

Stretching the Rubber Band

My friend and colleague, Kristin Cobble, is skilled at getting people to a hopeful place and supporting them in staying there, and she strongly influenced how I approach visioning. In addition to sharing many specific techniques, Kristin introduced me to Robert Fritz’s rubber band metaphor, which has become a central principle for how I think about this work.

In short, a powerful vision is both inspiring and grounded. Think of it as two poles: Where you currently are and where you want to be (the vision). Fritz asks that you imagine a rubber band stretched between those two poles. The goal is to create just enough tension so that you feel pulled along by the vision. If the aspiration is too wild, the rubber band will stretch too far and snap. If it is too conservative, then the rubber band will lie there, limp.

Most visioning processes fail in one of two places:

  • They don’t find the right tension in the first place.
  • They don’t support you in maintaining that tension.

How do you find that right tension?

It starts by being specific, both about where you are and where you want to go. One of my favorite tricks, courtesy of Kristin, is to specify how far forward you want to look, then have you write down your age in that year. You can’t get more specific or grounded than that!

Another trick is to start with vision, then work backwards. Two of my mentors, Gail and Matt Taylor, have been harnessing group genius for almost a half century, and they’ve formulated a set of helpful axioms along the way. Their first two axioms are:

  • The future is rational only in hindsight.
  • You can’t get there from here, but you can get here from there.

In other words, articulate a clear vision, assume that it is true and that you are currently living in it, and work backwards. Tell the history of how you got to the future (getting from there to here), a process called backcasting. Working backwards in this way results in greater specificity and also helps you gut-check your vision. There’s also good research that shows that grounding your vision in this way makes it more actionable.

In a similar vein, Danny Spitzberg of Peak Agency recently shared a powerful trick that he uses with the Goals / Success Spectrum. After he has people articulate minimum, target, and epic success, he asks people to assign a dollar amount to each column designating what they think the cost is for achieving that success. Nothing grounds a conversation better than talking about money. Not only does it help surface different assumptions about costs, it helps people get real about what it will take to achieve different goals, which helps people adjust their rubber band accordingly.

How do you support others in maintaining the tension of their rubber bands?

This is the harder problem, one that has been driving much of my work for the past three years. Most of the time, spending a few days with a group articulating a clear vision and finding the right initial tension is not enough. Worse, it can be demoralizing and even destructive if there isn’t any followthrough.

Maintaining tension requires an ongoing practice of reflection and adjustment. One way to support this is to make sure the vision is captured somewhere accessible, so that people can find it and remind themselves of it constantly. This may sound obvious, but I am amazed at how often people seem to skip this step.

Another way to support this tension is to build in accountability structures. For example, build in time in standing meetings to revisit and check in on the vision. Assign accountability partners, or even hire coaches.

Creating a grounded, compelling vision is hard. Living into it is harder. One of the most powerful ways to support this tension is to acknowledge that it’s hard, to talk openly about what falling down looks like, and to expect that you will fall down often in pursuit of your vision. At our Forward Together workshop last year, Rebecca’s instincts to revisit the mindsets reminded our participants of how challenging this work was, and it enabled them to re-calibrate their rubber bands.

Celebration and Community

I first met Doug in 1998, 30 years after the Mother of All Demos, and I started working with him two years later. At the time, he had a corner office at Logitech headquarters in Fremont, California. To get there, you had to walk past rows and rows of cubicles, each of which had a computer — usually with a web browser open — and a mouse.

The first time I met him there, I asked him what it felt like to walk past those cubicles every day and to see his creations on every desk.

He looked at me sadly, and he answered immediately. “It feels like failure.”

Interactive, networked computing was only a tiny part of Doug’s vision. What he actually cared about was a world where people lived in harmony with each other and the planet. He saw, in the 1950s, that we were moving in the opposite direction, because our challenges were getting harder faster than our ability to grapple with them. He thought he could stem that by creating tools that would help people get smarter collectively. He did exactly that, but it took a lot longer than he expected, and there was a lot more work that needed to happen. Even though he lived in a world where many of his 30-year old inventions were more or less ubiquitous, people seemed to have missed the point of why he had created all of those tools in the first place.

Doug was depressed for most of the time I knew him (he passed away in 2013), and he spoke often about how he was a failure. That didn’t stop him from his single-minded pursuit of his vision, but it also didn’t seem very productive.

Moreover, I most certainly did not agree with his assessment. I was never a very nurturing, feel-good type of person, but I was always good at voicing my opinions. “You have to look at two things,” I would tell him, “Where we are now, and where you think we would have been if you had not done the work you had done. Furthermore, if you insist that we have a collective responsibility to change the way we are, then you cannot beat yourself up individually for our collective inability to do so.”

I wasn’t the only person to say these sorts of things to him, and I don’t think any of us ever swayed him or made him feel better. But while he remained stubbornly self-critical, he always took delight in the tiny, practically inconsequential victories of the many, many, many people who were inspired and touched by him.

I learned so many things about the importance of vision from working with Doug, but maybe the most important lesson is the one with which I continue to grapple: Celebration and community are critical to maintaining the right tension. If this work is so hard that you will fall down many times, then every time you get up is cause for celebration. Recognizing and doing this effectively is an art, one that is made infinitely easier with the support of others.

Brooking Gatewood, who is both a poet and a skilled practitioner, recently shared these wonderful words from Wendell Berry’s essay, “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” which I found both beautiful and apt:

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form…. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

The Art of the Start

Triathlon Start

Two of my mentors, Gail and Matt Taylor, often stress the importance of “clean beginnings.” Whenever you take on any hard, collaborative project, you have to expect that it will get messy in the middle. If you take the time to set up conditions for success at the beginning of the project, you will greatly increase your chances of surviving — even thriving in — that mess. Folks in this business often refer to this as “creating a safe container.”

I’m in the process of doing this with two projects right now — an experiment with the Code for America Incubator Program and the kickoff of Garfield Foundation’s latest Collaborative Networks initiative — and I wanted to share some of my experiences in “the art of the start” from these and other projects.

Creating a safe container consists of three activities:

  1. Literally creating a delightful, inviting space (physical, virtual, or both) in which the group can interact
  2. Developing shared understanding among the group
  3. Making explicit working agreements.

When done effectively, these three things in combination lead to greater trust within the group, which enables it to work effectively moving forward.

1. Create Delightful, Inviting Space

The physical spaces in which we work have a huge impact on our ability to work effectively. Dark, tight spaces affect the mood of the group. The seating arrangement can physically reinforce certain power dynamics. If it’s hard to get to the whiteboard, people won’t use it.

These issues don’t just apply to physical space. If your group has a weekly two-hour phone call with poor audio quality and no shared display, people will dread (or simply tune out) those calls. If you’ve chosen to interact using an online tool that nobody knows how to use, then no one will use it.

Spatial issues may seem trivial, but I think they are just as important as facilitation. In 2012, I co-led a project called the Delta Dialogues, where we were facilitating a multistakeholder group around California water issues. Our participants had been fighting over these extremely contentious issues for decades, and many had standing lawsuits with each other.

One of the early decisions we made was to rotate our meeting locations among the participants rather than seek “neutral” space. We had six one-day meetings scheduled, and we decided to devote half that time to “learning journeys” — essentially tours of each others’ spaces. We did this because the Sacramento Delta is beautiful, and we wanted to spend as much time as possible in that beauty to remind ourselves what this was all about. We also did this wanted participants to experience each other’s environments first-hand to build greater empathy.

This was not a decision we made lightly. Given the complexity of the issues we were discussing, devoting half of our times to field trips felt hard to swallow, and we went back and forth on this decision a number of times. However, when the process was over, participants consistently cited these learning journeys as the most powerful part of the process for them.

Rick Reed, the leader of the Garfield Foundation’s Collaborative Networks initiative, feels as strongly about the importance of the physical experience as I do. He seeks out great meeting space with beautiful light, and he makes sure that the food is excellent and memorable. Some people do not think foundations should be spending money on things like great space and food in light of the economic hardships the nonprofit sector is currently facing. While I am a fan of fiscal discipline, if foundations want to contribute to great collaborative experiences, I think investing in great space and great food are two of the easiest and most impactful ways to do that.

Creating an inviting, delightful space is not just about physical or even virtual space. Language, for example, is a big part of this. I often use the term “ground rules” to describe working agreements (see below), but when I used the term at a Collaborative Networks design meeting, our teammate, Ruth Rominger, pushed back. She thought the implications of “rules” ran counter to the culture we were trying to build. On Curtis Ogden’s suggestion, we decided to adopt the term “working agreements” instead, which is more inviting, but still meaningful.

2. Develop Shared Understanding

The group norming process is about developing shared understanding, which leads to greater trust and stronger relationships. The default way to build shared understanding is to work together. There are great merits to this, but they are easily neutralized or worse if you don’t take the time to have explicit conversations about norms as well.

For example, when I worked as a consultant, I spent a significant amount of time helping stakeholders get aligned and clear around the goals of the project. It was a straightforward, but time-consuming step, one that most groups would skip if left to their own devices. And yet that step alone made a huge difference in the quality of the engagement once we got going. Often, individuals do not feel empowered or accountable to the rest of the group, simply because there is no shared understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing or what’s expected of them.

How do you develop this shared understanding? The simplest first step is to carve out time to have those conversations as a group. A huge part of my experiment with the Code for America Incubator is simply that — giving startups structured time to have explicit conversations about things such as what kind of organization they’d like to be and how they’d like to work together.

Beyond this, there are a few useful tricks. One is to tap into people’s personal experiences and values. Rather than start with the question, “How would you like to work together?”, ask each other, “What’s been your best experience working together?”, or better yet, “Why did you get into this work?” Have people share those stories with each other, then pull out key patterns and insights from the stories.

With the Delta Dialogues, we had participants answer the question, “What’s your favorite place in the Delta?” Many of the participants had known each other for decades, yet did not know each other’s answers to these questions. It reinforced the fact that everybody in the room (including the supposed “bad guys”) had deep connections to the Delta, and it reminded everybody about what was at stake.

Another trick is to design these experiences to be in-the-flow as much as possible. People who design collaborative engagements — consultants in particular — often make two mistakes: They focus too much on meetings, and they don’t pay enough attention to the work that participants are already doing. You’re almost never starting from scratch. People have pre-existing relationships, and they may already have done the work that you’re wanting to do.

I joined the Wikimedia strategic planning process in 2009. The Wikimedia Foundation had hired a traditional management consultancy four months earlier, and they were stuck. These consultants had no experience with participatory processes or with the Wikimedia community, and they had designed a process that was not viable. Their plan looked like most traditional strategic planning processes. They would spend four months doing research on their own and coming up with the “right” strategic questions, then they would unleash a polished presentation to the community at large and ask for feedback.

Not only did this approach not account for the spirit of the project (wiki-style strategic planning) or the culture of the community, it completely ignored the challenge of enrollment. The Wikimedia editing community consisted largely of men in their teens and twenties. They had no concept of what strategic planning was, much less why they should engage in it. Even if they did understand what strategic planning was, they had no reason to engage with us about it. Why should they trust our claimed intentions to facilitate an open, wiki-style process?

I wanted to develop a shared understanding of the work that had already been done, and I also wanted to develop a shared understanding around what we were trying to do with this process. Rather than wait four months to do research in isolation, within a week of starting the project, we were engaging with the community on a wiki. We explained what we hoped to do, and we listened. We didn’t make grand promises, and we didn’t claim any expertise. We basically invited people to tell everybody (not just us) what they thought the Wikimedia movement’s priorities should be and to point to work that was already happening.

In the spirit of creating an inviting container, our facilitator, Philippe Beaudette, stressed the importance of making our space multilingual, given how international the community was. We invited people to engage in any language with which they felt comfortable, and we did our best to translate our requests into as many languages as possible.

We had a clear ask, and that ask felt very familiar to the Wikimedia community. They were used to sharing and organizing their thoughts, and they were not shy about expressing their opinions. Within a few weeks, we had an incredible compendium of well-organized thinking that had already been done by the community, along with a set of thoughtful, strategic questions that people felt were important to explore.

More importantly, people started trusting us. They saw that we got it, that we weren’t going to try to impose something top down on a movement that was inherently bottoms-up. (We would have failed if we tried.) We didn’t try to have some grand kickoff meeting or to facilitate a bunch of private, insider conversations. Instead, we spent time in the spaces that already existed (such as the wiki and in real-time online chat channels), and we facilitated a many-to-many conversation, not just a one-on-one conversation. The community was taking ownership of the process, and we were contributing to it. Even if they didn’t fully understand what we were trying to do, they understood it well enough and they trusted us enough to give it a chance.

3. Make Explicit Working Agreements

I find making explicit agreements on how you’d like to work together to be one of the most valuable things a group can do, whether it’s a small team or a large network.

For example, some might think that “treating other people with respect” should be implicit in every working arrangement. Even if that’s the case, making it explicit can’t hurt, and it can even help. For one, it forces you to develop some shared understanding around what “treating other people with respect” actually means. To some, it might mean never raising your voice. To others, it might have nothing to do with how you express yourself, only that you do. Getting these things out into the open earlier rather than later, then coming to agreement on them will prevent trouble later on.

Establishing working agreements has two other important effects, especially with larger groups. First, it makes everyone accountable for holding him- or herself and each other to these agreements. Often, in large meetings, people depend on a facilitator to keep the conversation constructive and civil. That indeed is one of the facilitator’s responsibilities, but it’s a muscle that everyone in the group should be exercising. In healthy groups, everybody will help each other abide by these agreements.

Second, they set agreed-upon conditions for kicking people out of a group. A lot of people fear open processes, because they’re worried that others will hijack the conversation, and they mistakenly assume that you can’t kick people out of an open conversation. If you create clear working agreements up-front, and if you make sure people are aware of those agreements, then when people unapologetically cross the line, you have the right to expel them.

We had over a thousand people participate in the Wikimedia strategic planning process. Over the course of the year-long process, we kicked out two people from the process as a whole, and I kicked out one person from one meeting (who apologized afterward, and went on to be a very constructive participant in the process). None of those incidents were easy, but when we made those moves, everyone in the community understood and agreed with our actions, because of our previously established working agreements.

This blog post is also available in French. Many thanks to Lilian Ricaud for the translation!

Hack: “Big Board” at Yammer and Microsoft

I firmly believe that a “hacker mindset” is critical for learning and improvement. Effective collaboration is more art than science. While the science is relatively straightforward, you need a willingness to experiment and play to master the art. This is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing “Hack Series” — simple, actionable, replicable hacks that have helped foster high-performance collaboration in real-life situations.

My friend, Cindy Alvarez, is the Director of User Experience at Yammer (now owned by Microsoft) and author of the upcoming book, Lean Customer Experience (April 2014). A few months ago, she invited me to talk with her team about what I’ve seen and learned over the years about collaborative cultures within companies.

Yammer is a collaboration tool for the enterprise. Think of it as a Twitter- or Facebook-like tool for your organization. Tools like Yammer are particularly good at enabling a culture of transparency within organizations, helping teams become more aware of what each other is doing.

However, organizations often resist this shift in culture, even if that’s why they bought the tool in the first place. Working “across silos” sounds great in theory, but it’s a very different way of working than most are familiar with. It means change, and people don’t like change, even if it would make things better in the long run.

In many ways, Yammer product designers (and even their engineers) are in the same business as me. They’re trying to help organizations become more collaborative. They happen to do this primarily through the design of their online tool. In order to design an effective tool, they use powerful methods for understanding how their customers think and feel and for measuring the impact of their interventions. Most process designers would do well to learn the tools of product design.

I had a wonderful conversation with Cindy’s team, and I particularly enjoyed the tour afterward. Yammer, the organization, embodies the culture it’s trying to instill in its customers. You can see this in every aspect of how it works, from its internal processes to its physical office space.

One of the brilliant hacks I saw there was what they call their “big board” (see the two-minute video above). In order to keep track of who’s working on what, they have giant magnetic whiteboards in a well-traveled hallway that list every project with every person in the company represented by a magnet. This has several important effects:

  • Everybody has a visceral sense of what the company is doing.
  • Everybody has a visceral sense of who’s at the company and what everyone else is working on.
  • Project managers can easily assess the impact that reassigning people would have on other teams.

This hack embodies the simple, but powerful principle that my mentors, Matt and Gail Taylor, espouse: Work big. Yammer is a technology company, but they’re using an old-fashioned, physical tool to increase performance across the company. It’s worked so well for them that Microsoft is now implementing the same practice.

As Cindy mentions in the video, Yammer is currently trying to implement a digital version of the tool to accommodate its growing distributed presence. It will be interesting to see whether or not a digital version can be as effective as its giant physical inspiration.