Earlier this week, I told my friend, Jeff Mohr, about a strange result from a survey that we took last year about nonprofits’ experiences working with consultants. As Rebecca Petzel noted in her writeup of the results, the nonprofits we surveyed generally expressed a high degree of satisfaction in the quality of their consultants’ work, but the majority also said that the work had not stuck. (Here’s some additional analysis performed by a larger group of participants at a followup workshop.)
How could organizations be satisfied with the work if it didn’t stick?
Jeff’s response was to cite a term that his dad, Mike Mohr, likes to use: “Noble Pursuit Syndrome.” It seems that folks in the social change space often rationalize work by suggesting that the intentions were good, therefore the work could not have been bad.
Not only is this something I observe others do all the time, it’s something I personally do all the time! My higher self is aware of this and tries to counterbalance it, which is a big reason why I ultimately left consulting. But it’s also a big reason why I stayed in consulting so long. I and my team would work our butts off on an inspiring project, and at the end of the project, we would review our often softly-framed success metrics, discuss all of the things that we thought went well, then collect our checks and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
I always felt (and still do feel) completely validated from a market standpoint. But it was hard to truly assess the quality of our work from a social impact standpoint. While I tried (and am still trying) to be thoughtful and rigorous about impact, I often found (and am still finding) myself falling back on Noble Pursuit Syndrome. It’s a challenge, and I believe it’s a serious problem in this space.
Jeff said that Mike has threatened to write more about the syndrome. I, for one, would love to hear what he has to say, and I hope that others share their thoughts and experiences with this as well.
I had started framing things this way with clients toward the end of Blue Oxen Associates, and we refined that approach at Groupaya, both internally and with clients. It’s also how I’ve been managing my current work transition, and it’s been a super helpful framing.
I’ve found five keys to making this experimental approach work:
Declare your hypothesis up-front. Be intentional, but hold it lightly.
Figure out what metrics to track. Again, hold these lightly. You will almost certainly discover better ways of measuring throughout the course of your experiment.
Commit to a beginning and an end. This is particularly important, and shorter periods work better than longer. (You can always have many shorter experiments.)
Write-up what you learn.
Track all your experiments. I use a digital kanban board (a tool called KanbanFlow) to track my experiments, but I’ve actually been thinking about migrating to paper.
This provides just enough structure to allow you to carry out your experiments systematically without overwhelming them with process. More importantly, it forces you to create time to reflect and synthesize your learning, which increases the chances of that learning actually sticking.
When Kristin Cobble and I were starting Groupaya, we spent a lot of time discussing the kind of culture we wanted as an organization. In particular, we both felt strongly about the importance of integrating personal development into our daily work lives.
In order to meet this goal, Kristin designed a collective process for us based on Daniel Ofman’sCore Quality Framework. The premise of the framework is that our biggest pitfalls are our greatest strengths (our “core qualities”) taken to an extreme. We all reflected about ourselves and about each other using the framework as a guide. It was enlightening to compare the differences in perception.
For example, I identified my drive to learn as my core quality. Too much of that led to dabbling and lack of focus — my pitfall. Kristin and Rebecca Petzel, on the other hand, both chose to focus on my high standards as my core quality. My corresponding pitfall was my tendency to drive myself and my team mercilessly when my standards weren’t being met. They wanted me to be more accepting when people made mistakes and more patient with people’s learning curves.
As we explored this further, we agreed that I actually wasn’t bad at these things. I had evolved these skills through lots of practice over the years. The problem was that these were not natural qualities for me, and when I was stressed or tired (which was often during my stint at Groupaya), Grumpy Eugene would come out of his cave.
Each of us had to commit to a practice to help counteract our pitfalls. Because I was generally good at being patient when I was taking care of myself, I committed to self-care. And the way I would do that was to commit to playing basketball once a week.
I had asked my friend, Lisa Heft, to work with me as a coach the previous year. One of the things I realized from that work was that when I’m playing basketball regularly, I’m generally happy and centered. Needless to say, I was not playing regularly at the time, much less exercising at all. I figured that committing to basketball once-a-week was more than reasonable, easily trackable, and would pay off big.
Despite all that, I got off to a bad start in 2012. We were swamped with the usual challenges of running a business and dealing with client work, and as usual, I neglected my self-care practices. What was different this time was that I felt bad about my neglect, because I had made a commitment to my team, and I wasn’t living up to it.
In order to turn this around, I decided to track my progress in a simple Google Spreadsheet, and to share this with my colleagues, so that they could check up on my progress anytime. I had a row for each week of 2012, and a column for the number of times I had played basketball that week.
The simple act of tracking in the open had a transformative effect on my practice. It forced me to think about the practice regularly, and it allowed me to see in very concrete ways how I was doing.
Over the next several months, I evolved my spreadsheet to incorporate new practices and learning. For example, I wouldn’t always play basketball, but I would sometimes go on runs or long walks, and while that wasn’t as good as basketball, it was definitely good for me (and my colleagues) overall. So I started tracking that too.
I eventually added two more practices to my spreadsheet: turning off work email in the evenings and on weekends, and taking play days in the middle of the week. Every time I did one of my practices, I gave myself a point. Using a line graph, I charted the total number of points per week as well as the four-week running average.
I also added a notes section for context. There were weeks that were restorative despite not doing any of my practices, and I wanted to be sure I noted that. There were weeks when I was traveling or sick.
The chart essentially became my personal dashboard, and my practices became almost a game — keep the line above 1 (my commitment to my team). It was very challenging for me to maintain that on my own, so I started incorporating other tricks such as signing up for a fitness bootcamp.
Moreover, the chart helped my interactions with my team tremendously. Whenever I would get frustrated at somebody, before I unloaded those frustrations, I would first check my dashboard to see if I had been taking care of myself. I often found in those situations that I hadn’t, and it was a signal to me that I should go for a run before I said anything to anybody.
I have found the dashboard so valuable, I have continued the practice. Here’s what this year’s spreadsheet looks like:
Notice the different colors indicating whether or not I did a practice that week. Here’s what the corresponding line chart looks like:
As you can see, the four-week running average is a better indicator of my state of self-care at any point in time than my number for that week or of the overall average. You can also see that I’ve been doing very well with my practices over the past few months. If I were to compare this chart to last year’s numbers, you would see that I’m taking much better care of myself this year than last.
I’ve made the Google Spreadsheet template available for anyone to copy and adapt as he or she sees fit. I’ve also put together a screencast that quickly walks through how to use and customize the dashboard. Post your questions or thoughts below, and if you decide to use or adapt it, please let me know, as I’d love to hear how it’s working for you!
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.
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!
One of my personal challenges at Groupaya was not overwhelming my team with negative feedback. I was generally proud of the quality of my team’s work, and I think I was decent at expressing that pride in the form of positive, constructive feedback. However, I also generally had a long list of nitpicks, and I never felt the need to hold any of that back. In my mind, my positive feelings far outweighed my criticism. However, I often had difficulty communicating that.
My friend, Alex Kjerulf, is a happiness guru, and he speaks often about negativity bias. Humans are biologically more attuned to negative than to positive feedback, between three-to-five times as much. To compensate for negativity bias, you need to share positive feedback three-to-five times as often as negative.
I tried to do this, and I was sometimes even successful, but there was a deeper issue. Rebecca Petzel once said to me, “You’re the most positive person in the company, but somehow, your negative feedback stings more than anyone else’s.” My problem wasn’t necessarily quantity, it was quality.
I tried a lot of different things, and nothing seemed to work well. Out of desperation, I decided to invent a game inspired by kangaroo courts.
Kangaroo courts are essentially arbitrary forms of justice. In government, they describe a corrupt judicial system. In sports, however, they’re used as a way to enforce unwritten rules and to build team camaraderie.
A team’s veterans are usually the arbiters of justice, although the coaches sometimes play this role as well. Veteran leaders might fine their teammates for something ludicrous, such as wearing a really loud tie, but they also dole out justice for disciplinary reasons, such as showing up late to practice. Fines are often used to fund team parties.
I decided that Groupaya needed a kangaroo court. If I could attach a number to my feedback, then the magnitude of my feedback would become more clear. For nitpicks, I would dole out small fines. For major problems, I would dole out larger ones.
Given that we were not as liquid as professional athletes, I figured that an arbitrary point system would serve our purposes. Since we were using points instead of money, I figured we could actually reward people as well as penalize them. Since we had a flat, collaborative culture, I decided that anybody in the company should be able to both dole out and take away points. And if we were going to go through the effort of giving and taking points away, we might as well keep track of them.
On June 13, 2012, I created a page on our internal wiki outlining the “rules” of the game, and I announced the game on our internal microblog. I then modeled the game by docking two points from myself, one each for misspelling two people’s names in different places. (This is a huge detail pet peeve of mine, given that we’re in a relational business.)
The game lay dormant for a few days, then on June 17, 2012, I gave and took away points four additional times:
Eugene: +5 to Kristin for her June 14 addition on Charter markers to the Groupaya Way wiki. It was great information, and it showed that she’s developing an instinct for how to use wikis in-the-flow. Love it!
Eugene: -1 to Kristin for being overly motherly with Rebecca
Eugene: -1 to Rebecca for comparing me and Kristin to her parents.
Eugene: +1 to Eugene for unintentionally conceiving of a way to get people to learn how to use the wiki.
Out of the six times I delivered justice, three were “real,” and the rest were jokes. Two of the three “real” instances were me penalizing myself, and the other was me awarding points rather than taking them away.
At this point, our ops guru, Natalie Dejarlais, figured out what was going on, and contributed her own dry sense of humor:
Natalie: +1 to Rebecca for not comparing me to her parents.
Rebecca and Kristin Cobble, my Groupaya co-founder, were mystified. Rebecca, ever the competitive one, was miffed that she was down a point in a game that she hadn’t signed up for. Keep in mind, all of this was happening online. We had not seen each other or talked over the phone, so I had not had the chance to explain the game verbally.
Shortly afterward, I left town for a client, and while I was gone, Natalie explained the game to Rebecca and Kristin at coworking. They got it, both started playing, and the game took on a life of its own. Everyone played. We gave and took points away from each other and ourselves about 40 times a month.
Lots of them were silly, where we were simply goofing off and having fun with each other. Many were concrete and substantial. Unexpectedly, the vast majority of these were positive. I had designed the game to be a safe way to give negative feedback, but it had emerged as a way of celebrating each other’s successes, of tracking what we were doing well, and of lightening the overall mood.
At some point, I decided that the points winner each month should win a trophy (a Surfer Obama bobblehead doll I picked up in Hawaii along with a tiara that Natalie contributed to disincentivize me from trying to win) and that the points would reset each month. We had a monthly awards ceremony, where Natalie would blast the theme song from Rocky, and Kristin would pretend that she didn’t love Surfer Obama. (When she finally won, she confessed her true feelings.)
The game had its desired effect in terms of improving the overall learning culture in our organization, but its most important contribution was joy and humor. I often pondered writing a mobile app so that we could extend the game to our larger network, as we often found ourselves granting points to our external colleagues and clients, who never got to actually see them (or, more importantly, win Surfer Obama).
I’m strongly considering introducing some variation of the game into Changemaker Bootcamp, as I’m looking for creative ways of introducing more concrete feedback so that participants can track their progress. Amy Wu, Groupaya’s brilliant designer, recently told me that she had adapted the game for her kids to great effect. If you decide to adopt or adapt the game for your team or organization, let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear about it!