365 Photos Project: One Month Update

I managed to make it through 31 days of my 365-day photo project. There were a few days when I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off, including one where I took a picture of my clock at 11:54pm.

The worst was when I took some pictures that I thought would be good, but that came out blurry, missed a few that I really regretted, and ended up posting an artful-ish shot of a bunch of hot sauce bottles from the restaurant where I ate dinner. I felt really deflated that night, as the hot sauce photo seemed to pale in comparison to all of the great things that had happened that day and that I failed to photograph successfully. I thought seriously about giving up.

I’m glad I didn’t. The photo ended up stirring lots of discussion with and support from friends and colleagues on Facebook, which reminded of why I’m doing this project in the first place and which really helped me reset my perspective and attitude. In particular, it sparked an exchange with my friend, Nancy White. (More on this below.)

I’m doing this to practice my photography and storytelling skills. I don’t know if I’ll get through the whole year, but I’m proud and amazed that I got through 31 days. I haven’t spent an inordinate amount of time on the project, but I also haven’t been mailing it in either. I’ve been good about carrying my camera with me, and on days when I have nothing (four in January), I’ve been creative in making photographs. Almost a third of my photos (nine) were taken inside either my apartment or my parents’ house, so I’ve been forced to be creative often.

I love the resulting journal of my life — it evokes happy memories, and it reminds me of the full month that I’ve had and all the people with whom I spent quality time. (23 friends and colleagues made it into last month’s set!) I’m also loving the conversation the project is generating among my friends and colleagues, both on social media and in real life. Shockingly, people find my pictures more interesting than my ramblings on high-performance collaboration. The project is also eliciting a lot of wonderful personal stories from others, further validating the power of pictures.

I don’t think I’ve taken a single great picture this month, but the tracking is helping me recognize what I’m doing well and what I still need to work on. I am much more conscious of light and composition than I was two years ago. I shot two pictures with flash (once on-camera and once off), and I manipulated the external light in two shots, including the aforementioned clock shot.

I’m proudest of my shot of Elena Salazar above. Elena had these great arm tattoos, including one that said, “California,” and another that said, “Family.” Given the nature of the gathering, I asked her if I could take a picture of her with the latter. I chose the background thoughtfully, taking into account the bright colors and also the kids painted on the wall. I chose a wide enough aperture to blur out the background, but also clearly see her tattoo (although I probably could have stopped down the aperture a little more), and I focused on her eyes. I paid a lot of attention to crafting that shot, leveraging skills and instincts that have evolved over the past year.

In general, I’m finding myself more mindful of moments. It’s also been a great impetus for me to get out of the house. But more than anything, it’s reminded me of the importance of practice, of having a learning mindset, of letting go of judgment, and of focusing on craft and process. It’s strange and humbling to have to be reminded of this, given that it’s such a focus of my work, but it’s making me better at everything I do.

Up until our recent exchange, I don’t think Nancy knew how much her own efforts were inspiring me to keep at it. She has a great attitude about everything she does, and this project has been no exception. I watched her plugging away consistently, even though she was traveling halfway across the world for work and using her cell phone and a cracked tablet. It motivated me to suck it up and keep capturing and posting.

Learning in public can feel incredibly vulnerable, but Nancy has never been shy about it, and the rest of us get to benefit from that in everything she does. Earlier today, she posted these wonderful reflections about her project, including some excerpts from our exchange. I particularly loved her learning recap around attention, identity, and practice.

But forget about her process. Her personality and her values shine through from her photos. I see color and whimsy as well as her love of food and art and the outdoors. I see that she’s been working a lot, but I’m also glad to see that she’s walking with friends and in nature. Her pictures of the water in the fog are moody, surreal, and calming, and they make me want to be in the northwest right now.

I love what I’ve been learning from this process so far, and I loved how it’s unexpectedly brought me closer to my community. Let’s see if I can make it through February!

October Progress Report on Balance and Impact

I’ve been on quite the adventure since I last reported on my journey toward life balance and greater impact five months ago. In a nutshell:

  • My mentor passed away this past July. I was already in a reflective state, but Doug’s passing kicked it up a notch, and it reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing.
  • I completed a second pilot of Changemaker Bootcamp, and I felt ready to take it to the next level. That process turned out to be simultaneously discouraging and hopeful. It was discouraging in that I wasn’t able to get the enrollment I had hoped for. It was hopeful in that I think I understand why, I felt a tremendous amount of support from most of my peers, and I feel a renewed commitment to making this happen. I just started a third pilot this past week, and I have strong interest from a few organizations to do a cohort bootcamp for them.
  • I started doing weekly checkins with my friend, Seb Paquet, which are about to evolve into a much larger experiment on new, networked ways of working. More on this soon.
  • I’m launching a new website next week. More on this soon.
  • I recently took on a consulting project.

Yes, that’s right, I’m consulting again. Up until last month, I had been very disciplined about turning down consulting opportunities, staying laser-focused on my own experiments. Then, two things magically aligned. First, I started actively seeking organizations interested in doing a cohort version of bootcamp. Second, Rick Reed of Garfield Foundation made me an offer I almost, but ultimately couldn’t refuse.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors are notoriously poor at collaborating. The problems are both cultural and structural, and they are particularly frustrating given the social mission of these sectors. I’ve mostly avoided these sectors — particularly philanthropy — because I think there are bigger leverages for change with less structural and cultural baggage, and I’d rather focus my energies there. However, I’ve obviously made exceptions.

In 2003, the Garfield Foundation launched an initiative that would eventually be called RE-AMP (“Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project”). The goal was to reduce global warming emissions across eight states in the Midwest, but the approach was markedly different from other initiatives in the sector.

Garfield spent several months convincing other organizations — both foundations and nonprofits alike — to sit at the table together as peers and to go through a strategic planning process together to see what they would learn. It was a long, arduous process with missteps along the way, but in the end, these organizations aligned around a common strategy. The collective strategy was different from what many organizations — including Garfield — had originally set out to do, and it required these organizations to take a long look in the mirror to see if they were truly committed to letting go of control and following what had emerged from the group.

More importantly, the group developed networked structures for working together. Rather than creating a new, centralized organization to manage processes and make decisions, they found ways to pool resources and build the capacity of existing organizations within the network.

This investment in network alignment and capacity has helped shut down a number of coal plants and resulted in many new clean energy regulations throughout the Midwest, results that would not have been possible without these organizations working in concert with each other.

Rick Reed, the initiator of this project, has his roots in sustainability activism, but his current mission is to change the way philanthropy works so that it is more collaborative. RE-AMP was a great success, and now he — along with his co-conspirator, Ruth Rominger — want to see if the model can work in other areas. Earlier this year, Garfield Foundation put out a call to find networks of nonprofits and foundations looking to solve complex problems together. For the next three years, Garfield wants to work side-by-side with one of these networks, providing both financial and knowledge resources, to help it achieve its goals.

I first met Rick a few years ago at a talk he and Heather McLeod Grant (who wrote a wonderful case study about RE-AMP) gave. Heather invited me to join Rick and Jennie Curtis, Garfield’s Executive Director, for dinner afterward. As it turned out, Rick was aware of some of my work, about which he had some kind and generous things to say.

When Garfield put out its call for proposals earlier this year, Ruth called me to explore the possibility of getting involved with the project. The obvious thing would have been for me to be part of the pool of potential consultants for the network that emerges from this process, but I put the kibosh on that idea. I wasn’t consulting anymore.

Still, we had a wonderful conversation. I was curious to hear more about what they wanted to do, and I was taken by how much of a learning mindset Ruth (and, as I would later discover, Rick) possessed. They did not make presumptions about their past success, nor did they apologize for it. They had a sense of conviction around the basic principles in which they did their work, but they were also very conscious of how nonlinear their learning was, and they were not looking to impose a recipe onto others. They are both smart, creative, and passionate, and they both have a very nice presence.

Flash forward to this past August. I was ready to test the Changemaker Bootcamp model on cohorts, and I was looking for pilot groups, so I started calling up various people I knew — including Ruth — whom I thought might know of potential groups. As it turned out, both Ruth and Rick were intrigued by the bootcamp idea and thought that whichever network emerged from their process might be a good candidate.

Furthermore, Garfield was just about finished whittling down its 62 applicants to ten, but Rick was feeling a desire to bring in some external thinking to help raise the quality of their evaluation and possibly prune the list further. So he came up with the following ideas:

  • Invite some network thinkers and doers to gather together for a day and to provide feedback on the potential finalists. He wanted to use this process as an excuse to surface a diverse set of experienced viewpoints into a robust evaluation framework.
  • Invite some of these guests to participate in the subsequent site visits with the finalists.

They ended up organizing a workshop with three of my favorite people in the field — Taj James, Nancy White, and Odin Zackman. That alone was reason for me to participate, but I had two other selfish reasons. First, I am on an ongoing quest to synthesize my thinking into usable frameworks. Second, I wanted to see Rick and Ruth in action.

As you might imagine, that day was amazing. Rick subsequently invited me to participate in the site visits, working around my schedule so that I could visit as many of the candidates as possible. We’ve also been exploring the possibility of me joining the “brain trust” for next year. I’m still not entirely sure what that means, but I love the spirit of their intent, and if all the cards fall in the right places, I’m going to do it.

This project is different in significant ways from my past consulting projects, but the reality is, it’s still consulting. I left consulting for a reason, and for me to come back to it, the project needed to align strongly with some very specific goals. Truthfully, I struggled with this. I was hypersensitive about the possibility of rationalizing my participation rather than being disciplined and strategic about my choices.

I discussed my quandary with some close colleagues — Seb and Rebecca Petzel in particular — which helped quite a bit. But it was something that my friend, Mariah Howard, shared with me that really helped me see more clearly.

Improv is among Mariah’s many talents. She explained that, in improv, audiences love to watch performers scramble. A classic improv technique is to throw unexpected curveballs that force the performers to think on their feet. This opportunity, Mariah suggested, was one of those curveballs — new information that I didn’t have before when I was formulating my strategy and making decisions. She encouraged me to play rather than obsess.

My goal is to help as many people as possible improve their collaborative literacy by focusing on two specific leverage points: practice and artifacts. Those happen to be two things that Rick and Ruth value tremendously. I need a testbed on which to experiment with ideas. Rick and Ruth have created an amazing testbed in which the stakes are meaningful, and they have been extremely generous in inviting me to play with them. If we’re successful, it will be both a learningful and impactful experience.

I’m going to continue developing Changemaker Bootcamp (which will hopefully overlap with the Garfield work). I will continue to pursue my other experiments (although I’ve had to whittle down the list, always a good discipline). I’m going to leverage the tools and practices I’ve developed over the past year to stay focused on my goals, to adapt in thoughtful ways, and to live a balanced life. I’m going to take the time to reflect on and to share what I’ve learned. I’m going to take lots of pictures.

Most importantly, I’m going to have fun! I feel extremely blessed to even have the opportunity to do this kind of work with such incredible people, and I do not take that lightly. I love the whole range of projects in which I’m engaged right now. I’ve already walked away from the Garfield site visits inspired and challenged, and I’m looking forward to sharing more!

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.”

Leaving Trails and Serendipity

This morning, I’ve been doing some time travel. I’ve been doing a lot of writing and reflecting this weekend. Some of it has been for clients, some of it has been for this blog and the Groupaya blog, and some of it has been on internal wikis. I do a decent job of leaving trails, and tools like blogs and wikis have nice features that encourage serendipitous connections. That’s resulted in some interesting stuff I’ve written in the past rising to the surface.

Here are two previous blog posts that turned up serendipitously because of stuff that I wrote this weekend (including this post):

About five years ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Work Rhythms.” (This post turned up as a “Related post” under my previous blog post, since Nancy White is mentioned in both.) It talks a lot about the merits of slowing down, and it references influential interactions with folks such as Nancy, Chris Dent (my Blue Oxen Associates cofounder), and Howard Rheingold. It’s interesting to see how much I thought about this stuff five years ago, how much that thinking has stuck with me five years later, and how much I still struggle with this.

Here’s a nice historical piece about coworking, a blog post I wrote in 2005 entitled, “Coworking Open House, November 21.” (This post turned up because I was searching for stuff I had written previously about wikis encouraging serendipitous interactions. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, but I found this post instead.) It’s an invitation to an early event my friend, Brad Neuberg, threw to spread the gospel of coworking, a term that he coined. It’s awesome to read and remember this, knowing what a huge phenomenon coworking has become since. What’s even more interesting about that post is that I didn’t know Brad that well at the time, but I had clearly connected strongly with him. A few months later, I hired him to be the architect and chief developer for Doug Engelbart‘s HyperScope, a wild professional and personal experience that I still treasure today.

The Real Work: A Poem by Wendell Berry

A weekend gift from a chain of friends: Nancy White, who saw it from Jerry Michalski. This poem, “The Real Work,” is by Wendell Berry:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.