This past week, I spent two days in Tiburon supporting my former colleague and bootcamper, Dana Reynolds, who was facilitating the Code for America staff retreat. Any time spent with the good folks at Code for America is going to be inspiring time, and I couldn’t help expressing this sentiment on Twitter after the retreat was over:
Got to spend the past two days with the @codeforamerica staff. They are extraordinary people doing amazing, important work. Inspired.
I didn’t know Jang, so I glanced at his Twitter profile, and I saw that my friends, June Kim and SeungBum Kim, followed him. That was a good sign, so I responded, resulting in the following exchange, each message less than 140 characters:
I was planning to send an email to some folks at Code for America to follow up, but it wasn’t necessary. Conversations on Twitter happen out in the open, and Cyd Harrell, Code for America’s UX evangelist, saw the thread and responded. This is what happened:
@Ejang very cool!! You should talk to @cbracy and Lynn Fine – great to see what's going on in South Korea! /@eekim
I don’t know what’s going to emerge from this whole interaction, but something good will. At worst:
I learned something new about an issue I care about in a country I care about
I made some new connections
I facilitated some new connections
I strengthened some old connections
All from simply tweeting how I was feeling one evening.
This is what can happen when you have ways to communicate with lots of people transparently and with very little friction. But it’s also critical to recognize what underlies the technology that makes this sort of thing possible: people, trust, relationships, and literacy.
Bottom line: This sort of thing makes me very, very happy.
I spent this past Wednesday with some of my favorite colleagues talking about networks and social change. Garfield Foundation had brought us together to surface our collective mental models about networks and to see where they overlapped and where they diverged. The day was rife with wonderful twists on familiar topics, and I learned a tremendous amount exploring different nuances with the others.
One of the important themes that emerged was enrollment. The classic careless way to approach design is to say, “Let’s just get everybody into a room together and see what happens!” There’s an element of openness here that should be encouraged, but beyond that, this approach is likelier to create more problems than solve them. It’s critical to think through the following questions:
Whom do you want to engage in your process?
How do you enroll them?
At what stage do you enroll them?
How do you want them to engage with each other?
Taj James shared a wonderful metaphor for how to think about enrollment: Picking people up at the train station. Do you want to pick people up at the first stop? The second stop? The third? What would happen if you had picked up the people from the third stop at the first stop instead? What if you want to pick up a group of people at the first stop, but they’re not ready to travel? Maybe they’re not packed yet, or maybe they don’t want to travel with people they don’t really know.
Here are three examples of how I dealt with issues of enrollment in previous projects:
Wikimedia Strategic Planning
The purpose of the Wikimedia Strategic Planning process (2009-2010) was to build a movement-wide set of priorities through a bottoms-up process. We had to navigate around two conceptual myths:
“We have to work in small, closed groups before we can open up the process. Otherwise, it will be too chaotic, and we’ll never get anything done.”
“Once we have something to show people, we’ll put it out there, and thousands of volunteers will magically start working on it.”
The first myth is a common one. It is easier to get things done and build relationships when working with small groups. But should the first stage of a process like this be about “getting things done”? Who gets to be part of that initial small group, and what will be the impact of the people you leave behind at that first station? Also, is “closed” truly a prerequisite for working in small groups?
When I came on board, the team had already drafted a plan that did not open up the process until three or four months into a 12-month process. I immediately changed that, and two weeks later, we were engaging with the community in an open, large-scale way. My reasoning was this:
The end goal was co-creation and broad-scale ownership of the strategy. If you don’t give people the opportunity to get on board early, then it won’t be co-creation.
Even if you gave people the opportunity to get on board, why would they? Wikipedians are overwhelmingly young (in their teens and 20s, many of them students). Most of them had never heard of strategic planning, much less participated in a planning process. Many of them didn’t even know what the Wikimedia Foundation was or that it even existed. They were there because they liked writing carefully crafted, thoughtfully researched articles about areas of interest. Why would they spend time participating in a strategy process?
We already had a small group of people who were committed to working on strategy, and we had some norms and relationships in place. Given that core, I was confident in my ability to open up participation while maintaining a high-level of productivity.
We engaged our core community immediately around questions that mattered to them, and we listened. The initial question we asked was, “If you had the opportunity to change anything, what would you change, and why?” The “why” question pushed people to start thinking strategically, because it forced them to connect tactics to purpose. It helped everybody — not just us — understand what people were seeing and thinking, and it also surfaced people who were already thoughtful and engaged whom we could more actively target in later stages of the project. Because it was many-to-many conversation as a opposed to something like a survey, people were building relationships with each other while they worked through these questions.
We also continued doing our preparation work, but we did it openly, inviting others to jump in and participate. The deluge of distracting volunteers that people feared never came. Instead, the people who did come helped shape and improve the work that we were doing, and many of them became critical leaders later in the process.
With the Delta Dialogues (2012 and still continuing without me), we were dealing with the wickedest of problems: California water issues. One of the ongoing dynamics was the lack of inclusion in existing planning processes. People involved in planning feared disruption, and so they would either exclude stakeholders from early stages of the process, or they would try to control their participation through a set of discouraging ground rules. That simply reinforced the rampant mistrust that already existed in the region, especially when the resulting plans felt one-sided, which made those stakeholders even more disruptive. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We originally proposed a joint small-group / large-scale engagement process, but for a variety of reasons, we ended up focusing on a small, representative group of stakeholders. It was a network leadership play. Our goal was not to “get things done.” That approach wasn’t working, because people were not taking the time to listen and understand to each other. Our primary goal was shared understanding.
Once again, our biggest challenge was going to be enrollment. There was severe planning fatigue in the region, and the people we were targeting were extremely busy. The exact timing (beyond our control) was even more challenging, because it came in the heart of harvest season, when farmers in the region were literally working around the clock, seven days a week. How were we going to get people into the room? How could we keep them coming back?
We played a number of cards:
We focused on people, not just organizations. People didn’t really know much about our organizational client, the Delta Conservancy. But everybody knew, liked, and trusted its Executive Director, Campbell Ingram. People came the first few times because of their relationship to him. It was our responsibility at that point to keep them coming. If he had not already been such a trusted network weaver, we probably could not have gotten this process off the ground.
We bet that participants would buy into the goal of shared understanding versus something like planning.
We invested a considerable amount of time creating a space that was safe, inviting, and transparent. Instead of hosting the conversations in a “neutral space,” we rotated locations among the stakeholders. That deepened empathy and relationships, because people were not only talking to each other, they were immersed in each other’s worlds. It was also far more inviting to spend a day on a farm or in a nature preserve than it was to be stuck in an office building.
We thought explicitly about people we wanted to bring on board at future stations, and we tried to set the stage for that. We produced artifacts that people could easily share outside of meetings, all centrally located at a public website that anyone could point to. We assigned each other buddies, and we encouraged people to talk to their buddies between meetings. We also had a leadership development component to encourage people to have these same kinds of conversations outside of our process. (This part of our process wasn’t working, and we quickly scrapped it. We were trying to do too much.)
Our ongoing challenge was making sure people kept coming back. And, at each meeting, people would consistently say that they had felt swamped and had considered skipping, but that they were glad they came and that this was their favorite time of the week.
Organizational Change Initiatives
I don’t really differentiate an “organizational approach” from a “network approach” in my mind, because an organization is simply a type of network, and the same principles apply. I’ve been in a few large-scale organizational change efforts, and enrollment was always a huge, sometimes overlooked challenge. People don’t necessarily think this is the case, because if you’re working with C-level leadership, they can essentially “force” people to “participate.” The power dynamic here is similar to what many foundations experience. They can easily get people into a room. However, getting people into a room is not the same as enrollment.
Many organizational consultants make two mistakes in their processes. First, they spend all of their time with leadership, which simply reinforces both a narrow perspective as well as a power dynamic that gets in the way of broad participation. Second, they focus entirely on the meetings. Again, you can leverage power dynamics to get people to a meeting, but your success depends on what people do outside of those meetings.
I always apply the same principles of participatory processes to my organizational work, and I invest just as much time building relationships with people at all levels of the organization. Those leaders are critical in getting other people on board at future stops.
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!