A Shining Example of Failure, Courage, and Learning

Last year, I co-led a project called the Delta Dialogues, an effort to rebuild trust and shared understanding around critical water issues in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. I’m very proud of that work, and knowing that I would have to let go of this project was one of the things that made leaving Groupaya last year very difficult. However, I also knew that I left the project in the capable hands of Kristin Cobble and Jeff Conklin. Moreover, the success of this project ultimately hinges on the participants themselves, and we had a wonderful core.

From the start, we designed the Dialogues to be a transparent process. We hired my friend, Joe Mathews, to be the storyteller, and we gave him one task: Write what you see. He’s been doing that beautifully from day one, from the monthly blog posts on the Delta Dialogues website to his beautiful narrative in the Phase 1 Final Report.

Tonight, I came across Joe’s latest blog post, a description of last month’s meeting. On the one hand, it was hard to read. It was clearly not a good meeting, and clearly, my old team contributed to that.

On the other hand, I felt very proud. I’m proud of my old team, I’m proud of my old client, the Delta Conservancy, and I’m proud of all of the Delta Dialogues participants for continuing to demonstrate a commitment to transparency. It could not have been easy to experience a meeting like this, and seeing it described in this way for all to see could not have made it feel any better.

However, any attempt to solve a truly meaningful problem is, by nature, complicated and messy. When I see stories like this, I trust that I’m getting an authentic picture of what’s happening, and I also get an opportunity to actually learn from it. That doesn’t happen when you whitewash your story, prioritizing perception over learning. Most of the “failure movement” in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector feels whitewashed to me. We need to see a lot more authentic sharing if we’re going to get better at this kind of work, and I’m proud that my old team is modeling this.

I wrote previously about including a checkbox for failure in your list of success metrics, where I told a story of a failure we had at one of the Delta Dialogues meetings that I facilitated. Honestly, that story is like a badge of honor to me. We failed, because we tried something that was hard, we learned from that experience, and we made things better as a result. I’m betting that this most recent failure will turn out to be the same for the current team.

What can others learn from this particular failure? I’m sure there were a thousand things that could have been better, and I’m sure that Kristin and Jeff have been exhaustive in cataloging all of them. I’m also quite certain that they violated the first rule of Changemaker Bootcamp a thousand times over, and I probably would have done so as well if I were in their shoes. It’s easier to see the bigger picture from the outside. I had two major takeaways.

First, I was struck by the simplicity of Joe’s observation that 40 percent of the participants at this meeting were new. That should have been an immediate red flag, and yet, I can also understand how easy it might have been to miss that.

In Phase One, we brought a wide array of sophisticated tools, and yet, these only contributed in small ways to our success. The vast majority of our success was due to our ability to co-create a safe container with the participants  in which to have a very challenging discussion.

This was less about sophistication and more about effort. We devoted an incredible amount of time discussing this among ourselves and with the participants. We even threw in an additional meeting for free, because we felt it was critical to get right, and we needed more time in order to do so. We spent almost half of our precious time with participants doing site visits, rotating the location of the meetings, and giving participants a chance to viscerally experience each other’s lives and livelihoods. None of these ideas were particularly sophisticated, but the decision to prioritize these things in the face of many other pressures required skill and discipline.

In many ways, the current team was a victim of the original team’s success. Once you successfully create a container, people start taking it for granted, and it’s much harder to prioritize. If I were still leading the project, I don’t know if I would have had the skill and discipline to focus on these things in the face of intense pressure to do otherwise.

But, at the end of the day, facts are facts. Seven out of 17 of the participants that day were new. That’s a very large number. In that situation, you either have to commit time to reinforcing the container (either before or during the meeting), or you have to turn participants away.

Second, Jeff clearly had a bad day. I have worked with many great facilitators, and I have seen several of them have bad days. One of the things I learned from Matt and Gail Taylor was the importance of building a great support team and structure around the facilitators to increase the likelihood of their success. Otherwise, the only way a facilitator can be successful — especially when dealing with a wicked problem and a challenging environment — is by being superhuman.

No one is superhuman. Everybody has bad days, even with a great support structure around them. I think a lot of facilitators forget this, and when they have a bad day, they punish themselves relentlessly. Jeff is one of the truly great facilitators in the world. If he can have a bad day, then anyone can. This stuff is hard. It’s important not to lose sight of that.

The Delta Dialogues participants are committed and resilient. They’ll be back, and the process will get back on track.

Doug Engelbart

My friend, mentor, and hero, Doug Engelbart, passed away a few weeks ago.

I first met Doug 15 years ago. He was 50 years my senior with a list of accomplishments I will never match. I was a feisty, curious kid in my early 20s, desperately seeking purpose in my life.

From the beginning, Doug treated me with kindness, respect, and humility. He never tried to put me in a box, as so many people — even close friends and colleagues — often do. He took the time to get to know me personally, to see what I was capable of and what I cared about, and he encouraged me to tap into those things.

For a while, I wondered why he treated me so well. Then I realized that he treated everybody that way. He did so because, more than anything, he cared about people. He cared about his family and his friends, and he cared about humanity.

People. That’s what Doug was about. It’s that simple. He devoted his life to making sure that we, as a society, didn’t forget our essential humanity. Unfortunately, he saw us heading in that direction, and he tried desperately to veer us away from the “cliff.” He was absolutely convinced that he had failed.

He was wrong. I don’t know if there’s hope for humanity, but if there isn’t, it’s despite Doug, not because of him. As he himself understood — at least intellectually — it will take a collective we to prevent such a failure. None of us can shoulder that burden individually. And — maybe as he didn’t understand, but as he practiced to a wonderful extreme — the way we treat each other is at the heart of any grand solution. It’s that simple, and — as recent events continue to underline — it’s also that hard.

The day after he died, my friend, Joe Mathews, asked me if I would write a tribute to Doug and to say a bit about why I thought he was important. I said I’d need a few days to collect my thoughts. I took two weeks, and I still don’t feel like I did him justice. You can read what I wrote here.

As powerful and prophetic as his ideas and his language were, and as important a role as they play in my life today, they were the least significant things that I got from Doug.

His biggest gifts to me were people and permission. He not only blessed me with his friendship, he introduced me to a larger community of like-minded, like-hearted thinkers and doers. Last weekend, at a celebration of his life organized by his friends, I was reminded of how many wonderful people I met through or because of him.

He also made it okay for me to make doing good my life’s purpose. He had chosen such a path for himself when he was 25, which was how old I was when I started working with him. If it was okay for him, it was more than okay for me. I wouldn’t be doing what I’ve done for the past decade if not for him.

I’m not intimidated by the professional bar that Doug set. Maybe that’s my gift… or my folly. I feel overwhelmed by his personal bar. Do good, be good, care about others, treat them well. Simple, but not easy. Regardless, I’m determined to try. It’s the least I can do to honor my friend and everything he did for me.

Doug's 85th Birthday Party

Delta Dialogues

My biggest project last year was around water issues in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. That region is critically important to California, as it provides water for 25 of the 38 million people who live here — two-thirds of our population. This water is responsible for an estimated $400 billion of California’s economy — 20 percent of our GDP.

But there is much, much more at stake than that. There are almost a thousand different species of plants and wildlife in the Delta, much of it native, some of it endangered. California’s salmon industry is dependent on sufficient water flow in the Delta.

Then there are the people who make up that community: a half million people, a half million acres of nutrient-rich farmland, a quarter of a million jobs. These numbers barely scratch the surface of the story of that community: the way of life, the beauty of the region, and the wonderful people who live there.

I fell in love with the Delta while working on this project. This was the only thing that could have happened, because I love California, and I don’t see how anyone who loves California could not also love the Delta.

This simple fact was what made our project possible. Everyone involved loves the Delta. With all of the vicious fighting, name-calling, and litigation in that region over the past half century, it can be hard to see this.

Our team at Groupaya along with my friend and mentor, Jeff Conklin of CogNexus Group, spent much of last year designing and facilitating a process to build shared understanding and rebuild trust in the region. We called the process, Delta Dialogues (one of Kristin Cobble’s many brilliant contributions). I previously wrote a guest post about the project on the California Civic Innovations Project blog, where you can read a brief description of what we did and why we did it.

We hired my friend, Joe Mathews, journalist extraordinaire, California editor of Zocalo Public Square, and coauthor of California Crackup, to observe and write about the Delta Dialogues. He blogged regularly at our project website, and he wrote an amazing wrap-up piece, which we just released last Wednesday.

Go read it now. It’s wonderful: full of characters and color and context and learnings.

It’s also no-holds barred. We didn’t put any restrictions on him, other than a ground rule that participants requested, which was the ability to vet quotes before they were published. (Saying “we didn’t put any restrictions on him” suggests that we had the ability to put restrictions on him in the first place. Anyone who knows Joe knows that this would have been impossible anyway, so we didn’t bother trying.)

So Joe’s account is not all roses and candy. There’s some stuff there that isn’t pretty, specifically his descriptions of some disconnects on our team and of a poorly facilitated meeting in July, which was particularly inopportune in many respects.

Because I left Groupaya, I won’t be participating in the second phase of the Delta Dialogues. It’s one of the many things that made my departure so difficult, especially since we have a lot of unfinished business to attend to. However, it does give me an opportunity to do something that I probably would not have done if I hadn’t left: Write an account of why we designed things the way we did, what we learned, what we would have done differently, what we would have done the same. I will definitely be writing more about that July meeting.

Hopefully, people will find this valuable. At minimum, I know I’ll find it cathartic.

Kristin, Rebecca Petzel, and I will also do a live version of this from 3-5pm on Wednesday, February 20 in San Francisco. If you’re interested in attending, RSVP here for now.

While I tee up my new posts, you can read my previous writings on the project on the Groupaya blog:

If you have specific questions or topics you’d like to see me discuss, please leave a comment below.

“Learnings” and More Wonderful Jargon

My friend, Joe Mathews, posted the following vicious diatribe against my people today on Facebook:

Anxious to prove my friend wrong, I sought out a definitive source. This is what I uncovered:

It looks like the inmates truly have taken over the asylum. So sad to live in such a narrow-minded, hateful world. I’ll just have to take my learnings somewhere where they’re appreciated.

(Nevertheless, that jargon site is pretty hilarious.)