Once the World Was Perfect

Read this beautiful poem by Joy Harjo courtesy the good folks at Poetry Flash. It’s from her book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, and it pretty much sums up where we seem to be in the world and why I do what I do:

Once the world was perfect, and we were happy
in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through —
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life —
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we
didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the
next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those
clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time —
To now, into this morning light to you.

The Practice of Generosity

Jessica and Christy

I spent this past weekend spectating while friends and family achieved acts of extraordinary physical exertion. On Saturday, I watched my friend, Greg, complete a full Ironman in Sonoma County — a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and ending with a full marathon (26.2 miles). On Sunday, I watched my sister, Jessica, run her first marathon, which might seem modest next to an Ironman, but is well past the threshold of sanity in my mind.

I will never truly understand what compels people to push their bodies to such extremes. What I have come to understand is the important role that community plays.

My sister runs regularly with friends, a few of whom also participated in the marathon. Those who decided not to run the whole thing volunteered to act as running buddies for parts of the race. My sister had someone running with her for the last 12 miles — no small thing at that point in the race, when your body is constantly telling you to quit. (She’s pictured above with her friend, Christy, who ran the last six miles with her.)

I ran with her from miles 14 through 18. I’m in decent shape, but I’ve never run in an organized race or for more than nine miles (I consider five miles a long run), so I had a hard time relating to my fellow runners at that point. What I could plainly see was that most of the runners were in a lot of pain. Many ran with a labored gait, and many others stopped repeatedly to walk. All along the way, several people had stopped to catch their breath or stretch.

It felt surreal to be running with so many people at once and to feel strong and fully conscious while everyone else seemed to be in pain and slightly unaware. I was in awe of the grit and perseverance of my temporary companions, even while questioning their sanity. Then again, while it was meaningful to experience this viscerally, I wasn’t altogether surprised by it. After all, they had all chosen to run 26.2 miles.

What surprised me was the overwhelming generosity — from the people cheering on the runners every step of the way to the volunteers to the runners themselves, who were constantly looking out for each other, gladly sharing their water and other aids to those in need. There was a bond of mutual support between the runners that was unmistakable, extending well beyond specific actions. I saw knowing nods and glances that seemed to acknowledge the hundreds of hours and miles of perseverance that they all knew each other had experienced. There was no faking it. You couldn’t be there if you hadn’t put in the time.

Everyone cared about each other, and everyone rooted for each other. It felt pretty awesome to experience that first-hand, and it made me wonder what the world would be like if we were all like these runners, if we could all feel that constancy of mutual support.

Upon further reflection, I decided that we are already all like that. We do fundamentally care about each other, and we are fundamentally generous with each other. We just aren’t necessarily conscious about it, nor are we conscious about practicing it. Running brings it out in people, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t be more like that in other aspects of our lives.

My friend and colleague, Renee, is constantly asking about the principles of effective collaboration, a framework upon which we can build and practice. I find these requests challenging, because I feel like these principles have already been articulated by many people, that the framework already exists and is widely understood. Having Renee is a useful foil, because it forces me to challenge and test my assumptions, and it’s surfaced lots of places where I’ve been wrong.

However, I have one nagging belief that has not yet been disproven. I believe that the main reason that it feels like there’s no clear framework for effective collaboration is that the suggested principles seem too simplistic, too obvious.

For example, generosity is a clearly an important principle in effective networks. “Of course!” you might say. “But there must be something else! That can’t be it!”

Are you sure?

At Leadership Learning Community’s Creating Space conference last May, there was a brainstorming session on modules for developing network leadership. We had a number of smart, creative minds in the room, but we got stuck almost immediately. People seemed overwhelmed by the complexity of it all.

I suggested that we focus on one thing and encouraged folks not to censor themselves. Simple, “obvious” ideas were more than okay. They were great!

We chose to focus on generosity as a practice. The group generated a slew of good, interesting ideas. One of them was a generosity award, which anyone could award to anyone else. All they needed to do was to fashion the award out of pipe cleaners and give it someone. It was so simple, we decided to test the idea right then and there.

People started fashioning awards to give to their peers, and three things became immediately apparent.

  1. There were some highly skilled pipe cleaner artists in the room.
  2. People had no problem identifying acts of generosity that had happened over the course of two days among a group of people who largely did not know each other.
  3. Simply naming the generosity that was already happening in the room was itself an act of generosity, one that created a stronger bond and greater sense of community among the group.

Many of the principles of effective collaboration are simple and obvious, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong or insufficient. If we’re going to make progress in the world, we need to start with the simple, the timeless, the human. We need to commit to these things, to practice them unrelentingly, and to give them time to work before we give up on them and seek something new.

Fortunately, while we may forget these principles in our every day work and lives, there are plenty of good models that remind us of their simple, yet critical importance as well as their strong desirability. Running with my sister, watching her, my friend, and their people persevere, and experiencing their community firsthand was a wonderful reminder of what the world would be like if we were all more generous with each other.

Group Identity and Network Leadership: A Tribute to Kat Walsh

Kat Walsh (middle) gives out barnstars at a San Francisco Wikipedia meetup in 2007. Also in the picture are Ben Kovitz (left) and Dirk Riehle (right).

Yesterday, the Wikimedia Foundation announced the election results for its three community board seats. I was happy to see my friends, Phoebe Ayers and SJ Klein, elected to the board, and Delphine Menard, elected to the Funds Dissemination Committee. Those three are grizzled veterans, and they will continue to do great things in those roles. I was also happy to see some new blood, which is critical for the success of any project.

And, I was disappointed to see that Kat Walsh, the longest running community member on the board and current board chair, was not re-elected. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably for the best. I’m a firm believer in term limits for nonprofit board members, and if the Wikimedia Foundation had had them, Kat would have been termed out at some point anyway. I also think that this will be a wonderful opportunity for her to take a break from the drama that Wikimedia board members have to deal with on an ongoing basis.

I don’t know anyone in the Wikimedia community who doesn’t love and respect Kat, and she’ll continue to be a community leader, board seat or not. I want to tell a personal story about Kat that says a lot about what it means to be a leader, especially in a network and in a community.

I’ve been part of the larger wiki community since 2000 (pre-dating Wikipedia). I was friends with Wikipedia contributors in its earliest days, but I only edited sporadically and anonymously. Because of my role in the larger wiki community, I was invited to participate at the first Wikimania in August 2005, where I met many Wikipedians for the first time. I created my user account shortly thereafter, but I didn’t make my first non-anonymous edit until November 2006, and only then at the urging of my friend, Erik Möller.

What does it mean to be a Wikipedian? Obviously, if you edit Wikipedia frequently, you are a Wikipedian, but how frequently? The Wikimedia Foundation currently defines “active contributors” as anyone who edits five or more times a month, but not all edits are created equal. There are the edits that I specialize in — mostly typos and occasional citations — and there are the edits that make Wikipedia sing, the ones that require painstaking research and eloquent craftsmanship. Does one type of edit make you more of a community member than another?

And do you have to be an editor to be a Wikipedian? What about the Wikipedia enthusiast, the people who evangelize Wikipedia to all of their friends and colleagues, despite never having clicked the edit button? What about the people who consistently donate money? My dad has nary a clue of my involvement with Wikimedia over the years, but he has enthusiastically given money every year completely on his own accord, and he waxes poetic about the project. He almost certainly evangelizes it more than I do. Is my dad a Wikipedian?

Most importantly, who decides who gets to be a Wikipedian? What is it that makes a Wikipedian feel like he or she is a Wikipedian?

Back in the day, I never felt like I was a Wikipedian, and I was perfectly fine with that. Whenever I participated in Wikimedia things, people were always very friendly, and I never felt excluded. I just didn’t feel like I was enough of a contributor to consider myself a Wikipedian.

That all changed on November 10, 2007, the day I first met Kat. Phoebe had organized a San Francisco meetup, and Kat was visiting from Washington, D.C. Even though I knew folks there, I was sitting quietly in a corner somewhere, when Kat approached me and introduced herself.

“Hi, I’m Kat,” she said.

“Hi, I’m Eugene,” I responded.

“Thanks for coming! Here, have a barnstar.”

Barnstars are the virtual currency of the wiki community. Anyone can award a barnstar to anyone else for their contributions to the community. Kat made it a point to carry around real-life barnstars, which are beautiful and heavy, and give them out to people at meetups. She did this entirely on her own accord and at her own expense.

I knew who Kat was, and I knew what barnstars were. As I said, I had never felt excluded from the community before — I was at a Wikipedia meetup, after all — but when Kat handed me that barnstar, that was the first time I felt welcomed. It was the first time I felt like I was a Wikipedian.

As networks mature, they sometimes start spending an inordinate amount of time on issues like governance, where defining things like community membership suddenly becomes more important. (This is especially endemic to networks with a strong top-down element, such as funder-initiated networks, but it’s true across the board.) This is where the organizational mindset tends to kick in, and people are easily sucked into complex and difficult questions around criteria. At some level, it’s unavoidable. However, I think that people spend way more time on these issues than are merited (and often earlier than necessary).

Worse, it often comes at the expense of what really matters. Human things, like welcoming people. It may sound basic and perhaps too squishy for some tastes, but it’s incredibly important, and in my experience, groups neglect these basic human patterns to their detriment.

When Groupaya designed the Delta Dialogues last year, we incorporated some sophisticated tools, because we were dealing with a wicked problem and a toxic culture. While we were incredibly skilled at using those tools, that’s not what differentiated our process from the countless other processes that had been tried in that region.

Our secret sauce wasn’t our tools. It was our attention to our participants’ humanity. It was our instinct to open the Dialogues by having every participant describe their favorite place in the Delta. It was our instinct to rotate the locations of those meetings, to have different stakeholders host them, so that other stakeholders could break bread in each other’s homes and get a better sense of who they were as people. It was how we incorporated both head and heart into our process. None of this was brain surgery, and yet, no one else was doing it.

Back in 2007, Kat was already a long-time contributor and board member. All of that was simply status. You can have those things and not be exercising any leadership. Going out on her own and finding simple, human ways to make others feel welcome — that’s leadership, and you don’t need any kind of official status to practice it.

The Wikimedia projects have seen an ongoing decline in active contributors since 2007. The reasons why are complex, and there are no simple solutions to turning that around. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I’m going to offer a solution anyway. Find ways to be more human.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy. There are systemic ways to encourage this, such as making the tool easier to use, revamping the language in the templates, and starting community initiatives like the wonderful Wikipedia Teahouse. All of this stuff is already happening.

Then there are the individual things that everyone can do. Things like reaching out to someone and welcoming them, or expressing gratitude to someone whom you value. Those things matter a lot more than we think, regardless who is doing them, and we don’t do them often enough.

Here’s my advice to everyone who participates in any Wikimedia project in any way — contributor, reader, donor, enthusiast. Make it a point to reach out to one other person. Maybe it’s someone who’s just getting started. Maybe it’s someone whom you’ve appreciated for a long time. Take the time to drop them a note, to welcome them or express your gratitude to them.

If we all did this, I promise you, something magical would start to happen. That’s true of Wikimedia, and it’s true of the world.

Consider this my small little expression of gratitude. Kat, thank you for making me feel welcome!

Branding = Story + Community

My big angst about the Wikimedia Strategic Planning process was that we didn’t focus enough on story. We did a great job creating space, building relationships, guiding conversations, and structuring the process, all of which was why we were successful. But our only-okay execution on storytelling still sticks in my craw to this day.

This angst led to a heart-to-heart with Jelly Helm shortly after the project. Jelly is all about story, and he continues to inspire my thinking. It also led to bringing Gwen Gordon onto a subsequent project in a very outside-the-box role, an experiment that I loved and plan on continuing. Gwen is all about story and play, and she brought life to a project that involved a traditional IT department at a large, global company.

My angst also led to several conversations and a collaboration with Chris Grams. This post is about Chris’s recent book, The Ad-Free Brand, but in order to talk about the book, I first need to talk about Chris.

His title suggests that his book is about branding or marketing. It is, and if you’re interested in those topics, you should read it. But the title doesn’t really do justice to what this book is really about: Engaging with your community, and telling your story.

I first met Chris while leading the Wikimedia strategy process. He convinced Philippe Beaudette and me that we had a great story to tell, and then he pushed us to tell it.

A few months ago, I knew that Groupaya’s launch date was drawing near, which also meant that Blue Oxen’s time was coming to a close. Neither of these were secrets to those with whom I interact often, as I’ve been very open about both of these things. However, I wasn’t sure how to deal with it at a broader level.

I was strongly leaning toward the Big Reveal. You all know what I’m talking about: A cryptic note, all in black, with a mysterious gnome in the background, and the words, “Coming Soon….” Or something like that.

Chris talked me out of it. We spoke for about an hour, kicking around ideas and discussing philosophy, and it amounted to the following advice: Be yourself. Tell your friends the news when you’re ready to tell it. Keep the conversation going.

I know this stuff. It’s what I do. But somehow, when I put on a “marketing” hat, I started getting these crazy ideas about the way it’s supposed to be. I needed to take off that hat and throw it in the incinerator.

Which brings me back to Chris’s book. The Ad-Free Brand is a field guide for how to tell a story and how to engage with your community. That is what branding is truly about. This may not sound as sexy as the gnome-in-black reveal, but it’s much more important, and it’s at least as hard.

The conceptual essence of his book is contained in Chapter Two, entitled, “Ad-Free Brand Positioning Basics.” If you only have time to read one chapter, read that one. In it, he distills the basic framework for ad-free branding into four points:

  1. Competitive Frame of Reference. In which market are you competing? The answer may seem obvious, but it may also be worth deeper exploration. Starbucks isn’t actually competing against other coffee shops, it’s competing against “third places” — places you go outside of home and work, such as parks, restaurants, the mall, the library.
  2. Points of Difference. What makes you unique from your competitors?
  3. Points of Parity. What makes your competitors unique from you, and how do you counter? You’re not going to be better than your competitors at everything, but you should be at least good enough. Target is not as cheap as Wal-mart, but it’s still pretty cheap, and it’s stronger in other areas.
  4. Brand Mantra. This is the essence of the first three points in a few words. It should not only say who you are, it should say who you’re not. Nike’s brand mantra is authentic athletic performance. You will never see a Nike dress shoe.

If you’ve worked out these four points, then you’re halfway there, because you’ve articulated the key points of your story. Of course, how you work these out and what you do with them afterward is hard. That’s what the rest of the book is about.

Chris tells a lot of great stories and provides a lot of tools. If there’s a weakness in the book, it’s that he tries to offer too much advice on how to do certain things well. For example, in his section on designing and facilitating a brand positioning workshop, he starts by introducing design thinking, a worthy philosophical frame, but, when presented in such a short amount of space, one that may detract from the tactical aspects of throwing a successful workshop.

His stories are the great strength of the book. He tells countless stories from both his own experience at Red Hat and from others (including our Wikimedia strategy process) that reinforce his central premise: Building an ad-free brand is ultimately about engaging with your community.

I’ve shared his book with the rest of my team at Groupaya. It’s already proven invaluable in helping us figure out our story, and it will serve as a great field guide as we work with our community to tell that story.

The Networked Nonprofit Board

I’ve served on the board of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) for four years now, and I recently became the board chair. The thing I love most about LLC is how it models its principles. It doesn’t just talk about how leadership should be. It practices it, and it shares its learnings, both good and bad.

Deborah Meehan, LLC’s founder and Executive Director, recently wrote a blog post about our most recent board meeting, where we spent an afternoon thinking about what it would mean to the board if LLC were a more networked nonprofit.

Of course, simply talking about the idea among ourselves would have been interesting, but not as gratifying. Instead, we modeled the idea by inviting guests to think with us. (Beth Kanter, one of our guests, reposted Deborah’s post on her blog.) Even though I and other board members (notably Grady McGonagill) spend a lot of time thinking about networks, the truth is that the LLC staff deserves all the credit for moving us forward in this way.

At the end of her post, Deborah tells an anecdote about me, which I’ve heard her share often:

Two years ago, when we extended an invitation to our community to join the design team for our national meeting over 20 people responded and our board chair, Eugene Eric Kim, had the radical idea about selecting the team, take everyone! Well, that would be an interesting approach to board recruitment wouldn’t it?

She always refers to this idea as “radical,” which always amuses me. What was so radical about it? Organizing a national meeting is super hard, so why would you turn down help? The more the merrier, right?

Those who answer “no” are generally designing for the worst case scenario. If your group is too large, you might get sidetracked. You don’t want to accept a bad seed. Etc.

These are all valid concerns, but designing for the best case scenario is equally valid. You can do more work with more hands. The larger the group, the more likely you are to attract a diamond in the rough. Etc.

I prefer to design for the best case scenario, but I’m no pollyanna. I’ve seen processes get hijacked, even by people with the best of intentions. If you’re going to design for the best case scenario, you want favorable conditions. In my experience, you want the following:

  • Crystal clear goals
  • A strong core group of committed, facilitative individuals
  • A strong network with shared language

If you have these three things, you should be designing for the best case scenario, not the worst. In the case of the Creating Space conference two years ago, we had all three:

  • People knew exactly what the conference was about and what organizing it would entail. It was the ninth time LLC was organizing this conference, so there was plenty of experience
  • The LLC staff was fully committed, and it had hired one of the best facilitators in the business, Odin Zackman (who also attended our board discussion on networks). There were also a few committed, experienced volunteers we knew we could count on, regardless of who else ended up volunteering
  • As its name suggests, LLC’s biggest asset is its diverse community, which is full of brilliant people who are strongly aligned around its values and who have fostered strong relationships and shared language with each other over the years

Like I said, given these circumstances, the idea of accepting everyone who wanted to participate didn’t seem too radical to me.

How can we apply this thinking to boards on a networked nonprofit?

There are obvious places where this applies, and there are places where it’s extremely challenging. The obvious possibilities center around leveraging domain expertise. For example, nonprofits often choose board members who bring specialized knowledge in certain areas, such as finance, fundraising, or technology. In this capacity, board members are acting as advisors, but also network weavers — people who connect the organization to their networks. There’s no reason why you couldn’t open up this role to anyone in the network who was willing to play it.

The biggest challenge centers around governance. Nonprofit boards typically have fiduciary and oversight responsibility. How would you handle this in a more networked way? Network-oriented organizations (membership networks, for example) generally approach this by making some number of their board seats elected positions.

I think a more radical shift is possible. Jack Ricchiuto’s essay on going beyond consensus beautifully describes how to move from planning to activation. I believe there’s a model that builds on this thinking, delegating as much as possible to small groups, with the board acting as weavers.

That all sounds well and good, but the devil is in the details. I don’t know what that model looks like, and I realize that there are some huge obstacles, including some legal ones, that make this very challenging.

Technically, as Deborah notes in her post, LLC does not have this problem. It’s a project of the Tides Center, which means that our board is technically an advisory board, even though we operate as an oversight board. This gives us a bit more leeway to play.

And play we will! At the end of the day, we won’t get to the answer by sitting in a room and thinking really hard. We’ll get there by staying clear about the overall goal, taking small, concrete steps, and repeating the cycle, failing early and often.