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.

Social Artistry

Last week, my friend, Elissa Perry, a poet and a leadership consultant, asked me how my recent foray into “creative processes” was affecting how I thought about my work. She was referring specifically to my photography dabblings, but I was confused at first. I didn’t understand her distinction between “creative processes” and “my work,” because I always thought those two things were one and the same.

Both my sisters are “artists” in the more traditional sense. My older sister is a violinist married to a composer. My younger sister got her MFA in creative writing, although she is now a practicing lawyer. While their mediums of choice are different from mine, I don’t see my work as being substantially different from theirs.

I was in the business of designing experiences that facilitated high-performance collaboration. I used the same creative muscles that my sisters did to do their work, and I got to express myself in the process. My work stimulated me intellectually from solving a problem and emotionally from being creative. Like all art, the process of creation was sometimes a frustrating grind, but it was overall a wonderful, joyful experience. I’m feeling it right now as I design the next iteration of Changemaker Bootcamp.

A few years ago, I came across the term, “social artist,” from Nancy White to describe this kind of work. I haven’t quite adopted it for myself, but I think it’s an apt description.

As for Elissa’s original question, here are some recent musings about how my photography has affected my other creative processes:

And this is a great excuse to share some of Elissa’s artistry. At last week’s wonderful Creating Space X conference, the notions of “bridging” came up several times, so Elissa treated us to a poem that she wrote that was inspired by the new Bay Bridge. It’s part of a collection entitled, “Everything Indicates.”

March Progress Report on Balance and Impact

At the start of this year, I reported that I had left Groupaya in pursuit of greater balance and impact. In addition to closing out some client work, my plan was to pause, reflect, and play.

Two months into 2013, I would say I’ve had moderate success. My life is certainly more balanced than it was the past few years, but it’s only been moderately more spacious. It’s been very easy for me to fill up my time, as I predicted it would. Overall, I’ve been good about filling that time with life as opposed to “work,” but “work” has crept in a bit more than I would like. For example:

I could have said no to some of these things, but they haven’t been the main reason for my lack of spaciousness. The main reason has been poor boundary management with my remaining client obligations. Ironically, I’ve been missing a lot of the structures from Groupaya that enabled me to maintain those boundaries. I left the company to create more space for myself, but that also meant losing some structures that enabled me to maintain that space. In particular:

  • I no longer have a team and operational infrastructure supporting my work. A lot of this stuff is mundane (like invoicing and scheduling), but time-consuming. I’m also missing some of our team accountability practices, which helped keep me disciplined in my obligations.
  • I stopped maintaining a regular work schedule, which made it all too easy for obligations to pile up rather than distribute evenly. I’ve also missed some of our team’s practices that helped me maintain a strong rhythm throughout the week, like our weekly checkins and our virtual water cooler.
  • I eliminated my Wednesday Play Days. I figured that all of my time right now is supposed to be play time, so I didn’t need to carve out a formal day for this. I was wrong.
  • I stopped time-tracking. I have historically avoided time-tracking like the plague. But at Groupaya, I actually became one of the strongest advocates and enforcers of the practice, because it enabled us to quantify our progress in many areas. We learned a ton from the practice, and it helped us improve many of our processes. But when I left, I immediately reverted. One of the reasons you leave an organization is so that you don’t have to do stuff like this. This was a mistake. As it turned out, tracking time is a wonderful way to keep you focused and to help you maintain your boundaries.

The good news is, I don’t need to be part of an organization to implement any of these structures. Now that I’ve felt their absence, I’m slowly bringing these structures back into my life, tweaking how I implement them to better fit my current circumstances.

The better news is, I’ve managed to retain other structures from my time at Groupaya that have enabled me to create more space in my life. (I’ll share these structures in another blog post.)

The best news is, I’m much more relaxed these days, my life feels much more balanced, and I’m learning a lot from unexpected places. (Again, more details to come in a future blog post.) Highlights have included:

  • My work! (I know, I know, I’ve got problems.) I’m excited about a workshop I’m co-organizing with Rebecca Petzel next week on how consulting can have a more transformational impact on the nonprofit sector. And I’m super excited by the culture change work I’m doing with the Hawaii Community Foundation. I’ve been able to do these projects slowly and spaciously, which makes them all the more fulfilling. And I’m being disciplined about not taking on any more client work as I finish up these projects.
  • I spent a week with my older sister and her family (including my two awesome nephews) in Cincinnati.
  • I’m seeing and reconnecting with lots of friends. I’ve been negligent about this the past few years, and it’s felt really good to make time for people I care about.
  • I’m cooking more.
  • I’m reading a ton, including two novels, which has been great, because I almost never read fiction anymore. I love to read, and I know my life is appropriately spacious when I’m doing a lot of it.
  • I’m running and hiking more, and I’m starting to play basketball again regularly.
  • I’ve started to get more serious about photography.
  • I’m taking care of a lot of real-life stuff. I’m examining and implementing systems for everything from financials to information management. This will require several more months to complete, which makes me wonder how anyone manages to do this stuff without taking extended time away from work.
  • I’m learning and re-learning a lot about myself. I’m still trying to make sense of what I’ve learned over the past ten years, and I don’t have clarity yet on what I want to do in the future, but I see the fog starting to dissipate.

I’m having to tweak things here and there, and I miss my old team a lot, but beyond that, life is great.

Help Wikimedia Win the Management 2.0 Contest!

One of my past projects is a finalist for the Harvard Business Review / McKinsey Management 2.0 Challenge. I am recruiting Wikimedians and everybody who cares about open collaboration in general and the Wikimedia movement in particular to help us win.

From 2009-2010, I had the pleasure of designing and leading the Wikimedia strategic planning process. Not only was it the first strategic planning process of its kind for Wikimedia, it was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. It was a completely open, movement-wide process, where anyone in the world could help co-create a five year plan for the movement as a whole. It was risky, it was scary, it was stressful, and it was exhilarating.

And it worked. Here’s what happened:

  • More than 1,000 people from all over the world contributed to the project
  • These volunteers created over 1,500 pages of high-quality, new content in over 50 languages
  • The year-long process resulted in five clear movement-wide priorities that has resulted in a movement-wide shift over the past year

If you’re a Wikimedian, you’ve seen and felt the renewed focus. If you’ve followed Wikimedia, you’ve read about initiatives that have emerged from the plan: closing the gender gap among contributors, a shifting emphasis on the Global South, and a slew of innovative features focused on strengthening community health. All of this came out of the planning process.

Why did it work?

It worked because we had an organization (the Wikimedia Foundation) that was committed to the cause and the process, even though it was an enormous risk for them. It worked because we had a great team. But the main reason it worked is that Wikimedia consists of an amazing, engaged, passionate community. We created a space, we invited people to come, and passionate, devoted, really smart people came and took care of the rest.

I’ve been wanting to tell the story of the process for a long time, but the usual thing happened: I got busy with cool new projects. Along the way, friends and colleagues have convinced me to get bits and pieces of the story out. Diana Scearce of the Monitor Institute has been a huge evangelist of the work, constantly putting me in front of philanthropic audiences to tell the story. The Leadership Learning Community (on whose board I serve) asked me to do a webinar on the topic last March, which garnered a great response.

Chris Grams has probably been our biggest advocate, and he’s the reason I’m writing this blog post today. Chris heard about our work through a mutual colleague, and he asked me to lead a webinar on the project for opensource.com. Something about our story stuck with him, and he kept finding ways to talk about us.

Several months ago, Chris told Philippe Beaudette (the facilitator of the project) and me about the Management 2.0 Challenge. As usual, I was too busy to contribute, but Chris pushed us. He wrote the initial story, and he kept kicking our butts until we fleshed it out. And so we did.

Today, they announced the top-20 finalists, and we’re one of them. The other 19 stories are really great, and it’s an honor to be nominated. But you know what, our story is the best of the bunch. We’re talking about Wikimedia, the greatest, free, volunteer-created repository of human knowledge that exists on the planet. We ought to win.

You can help us do that. The final judgement will be based on the feedback the story get, and how the story evolves as a result. So for starters, we need feedback. Please read the story. Rate it, comment on it, and ask as many people as possible to do the same.

Thanks for helping!

Photo by Ralf Roletschek. Cropped by Deniz Gultekin. Licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

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.