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!

Wednesday Play Days

This is my calendar for this week:

It’s a pretty typical week for me, except for one thing. Can you see what it is?

One of the things I need to be happy, creative, and productive is space. Lots of it. I usually fill it up quickly, but that’s okay, as long as I have space to fill. One of the things I’ve done poorly since starting Blue Oxen Associates is create space for myself. It’s hard to do when you have your own company, especially if you love what you do. But it’s necessary.

Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been making some structural changes to try and create space for myself. One of those changes was to start taking vacations. I took my first extended vacation in eight years last October, and last month, I went on vacation again.

(Vacations, by the way, are awesome. I highly recommend them to everyone — real vacations, where you leave your devices at home. I know this is obvious to most people, but for the rest of you, please, do yourself a favor, and take a week off.)

Another change I made was to raise my consulting rates. I had not raised my rates since starting Blue Oxen eight years ago, and I was below market rate, so it was definitely overdue. That made a difference as well, partially because it gave me a bit more financial peace-of-mind, but mainly because it allowed me to hire more and better people for my projects. That made the work better and more fun, and it created some additional space for me to focus my energies on the stuff that excited me the most.

Still, at the end of June, I decided I needed a heart-to-heart with my partner-in-crime, Kristin Cobble. We had just finished a massive project together, busting our butts toward the finish line. Along the way, we had also been pouring hours into building our business, cultivating new clients, recruiting new talent, and planning and thinking together. Not surprisingly, we were exhausted.

So Kristin and I sat down together, and I said, “I want to take the entire month of July off. I don’t know if we can, but I want to. And then we need to make more changes so that we have more space — space to rest, to reflect, to play.”

Kristin was supportive and enthusiastic. We both already had vacations planned in July. Our previous client wanted to do some more work with us, but we weren’t sure when that would get started. We were also in discussions with other potential clients. We knew at worst that we’d have our vacations plus a small break from client work. But knowing that was not enough. I wanted to make more structural changes.

We decided to experiment with a new practice: Wednesday Play Days. In short, we would essentially treat Wednesdays as a weekend. That meant no meetings and no client work. Beyond those constraints, we could choose however we wanted to spend that day. We were using “play” in the broadest sense of the word.

We had several inspirations for this. One was Kristin’s dad, who believes strongly in working intensely for two days, then taking a break. He’s been practicing Wednesday Play Days for a long time. Another inspiration was my friend and colleague, Odin Zackman, who keeps his Wednesdays clear so that he can use it for thinking time. I was originally surprised that he did it in the middle of the week, but he made a really compelling case for breaking up the week that way.

We put it into practice immediately. Kristin has since stopped doing it, finding that, as a mom, it works better to distribute her rest time throughout the week. I’ve been doing it for a month now, and I’ve been absolutely loving it.

In the beginning, it was painful for me to schedule around Wednesdays. When client work is light, I tend to schedule more meetings. Wednesday Play Days prevented me from doing that.

It got easier quickly, though, because the impact was immediate. Whenever I look at my calendar and I see that blank space in the middle, I feel joy.

I’ve filled that space in different ways. A few times, I did “work” — not client work, but thinking and writing work, stuff I really enjoy and never find enough time to do. One time, my parents were in town, and so I spent the day with them, completely guilt-free. One time, I literally did nothing. I just relaxed.

So far, it’s had the desired effect, and I’m going to try to maintain it. This week, I’m being severely tested. A new project is starting, and we’re going to be working our butts off again. I also have some proposals to write for potential projects that I’m excited about. We’re in the middle of an internal strategy process, and we have the usual laundry list of things to do for everything else we’re involved with. What’s truly making it challenging is that all of this stuff is actually fun!

I am sorely tempted to break the “no client work” rule tomorrow, but I’m going to do everything in my power to resist. It may be easier to lift that rule and just keep Wednesdays meeting-free, but I’m not going to lift it without a fight. Things are picking up, but not insanely so. Leaving space in the middle of the week is enabling me to maintain that sanity, and I think the results will pay off for everyone — my clients, my colleagues, my friends and family, and most of all, me.

See you all on Thursday!

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.