Why I Love Working Openly

This morning, I was reminded of two reasons why I love working openly, and why everyone should do more of it.

First, I noticed this tweet from Stephanie McAuliffe:

The Organizational Effectiveness group at the Packard Foundation has been quietly capturing its learnings on an open, public wiki for over a year now. In a field that struggles with transparency, this is a remarkable act in and of itself.

So what has the impact been? I know that they’re constantly asking themselves that question… because they’re doing that openly as well.

I also know that, generally, one of the big hopes / expectations around doing something like this is that others will join in as well. I think this is reasonable, but I also think it’s overstated in terms of value.

Of greater value, in my opinion, is the ability to do what Stephanie did. You want to know what we learned? You want to know what we’re thinking? Easy. Go here. Doing your knowledge work openly allows you to reuse this knowledge in useful ways — repackage it, redistribute it, refactor it, with the ongoing possibility of others joining in as well. Beautiful.

Second, I’m currently working with the leadership team at a Fortune 500 company exploring ways they can collaborate more effectively at a global level. As part of this process, we’ve immersed ourselves deeply in one particular project, trying to understand what’s working and what can be improved.

Most consultancies do this sort of thing in a very closed way: Talk to a bunch of people, gather some data, then go off in a corner and think really hard by yourselves until you come up with something smart to say.

We don’t work this way. For us, participation isn’t constrained to “input” and “feedback.” It’s about learning collectively, which leads to activation. That means opening up our process, sharing our artifacts, and allowing the client to see our thought process with all of its inevitable warts and missteps.

It’s a tricky balance. Our client is busy. We can’t expect them to sit in on all of our meetings or to look at everything we’re looking at. So we’re strategic about designing our process to maximize the time we have with them. But, we also create opportunities for emergence by making our artifacts available and by inviting (but not requiring) participation whenever possible.

One way we’ve done this was to invite everyone on the project to get our biweekly status messages. We’re doing these updates primarily for the project’s leadership, but we saw no reason to restrict it to them if others were interested. And people were: Over 30 people (half of the project team) opted in. Think about the activation potential we untapped through this small act of opening up our process.

In our last update, we included a brief summary of a social network analysis that we had done, and included a link to a seven-page report that provided greater detail. We didn’t expect many people to click on the link, but over half of our subscribers did.

This morning, I got an email from one of the subscribers, an important member of the team, but someone we had not interviewed due to resource constraints. He provided detailed, thoughtful context for several of the questions we raised in our analysis. We would not have gotten this context had our process not been open. We certainly wouldn’t have thought to approach him first.

Net participation from opening up our process in this case was “only” one additional person. But that serendipitous interaction greatly improved the quality of our work, and we would not have found him on our own. This, along with the activation potential that continues to go up because of the broader engagement, adds up to a huge win for everyone.

The Biggest Adventure of my Life

Blog silence here tends to mean that I’m busy, busy, busy. Long trips help me break that silence; there’s nothing better than a long plane ride to write blog posts. Well, I recently completed a very long plane ride to kick off the dooziest trip of my life. I’m sitting in a hotel in Delhi, getting ready to embark on a two week adventure across India and Ethiopia.    (MV3)

How the heck did I end up here? For the past few months, I’ve been working with the International Institute of Education (IIE) and their leadership development initiative for mobilizing reproductive health in developing countries (LDM). LDM is one of four Packard Foundation-funded initiatives to train emerging leaders in reproductive health.    (MV4)

The project is simple. Since the Packard Foundation began these programs in 1999, there have been almost 1,000 graduates spread across five countries: Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines. There is massive potential for learning and collaboration to emerge from this diverse, growing network. IIE has been charged to figure out how to kick-start this process. That’s where I come in.    (MV5)

I like projects that are big, challenging, and important. This one fulfills all three requirements and then some. One challenge is that you literally can’t just throw technology at the problem. The infrastructure just doesn’t exist. I’ve long maintained that the Digital Divide is a red herring when it comes to large-scale problems, and this is an opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is.    (MV6)

The biggest challenge is cultural. We’re dealing with five very different countries. Each country consists of many different microcultures, so simply focusing on intra-country collaboration presents a huge challenge. Finally, you have the microcultures of skills and background among the leaders themselves. And to top it off, I know practically nothing about any of these cultures.    (MV7)

That’s the main reason I’m here. I know a lot about facilitating large-scale collaboration, enough to know that the path towards fulfilling this objective must come from the participants themselves. I know about patterns and creating space and process and tools. I don’t know how much of my knowledge in this space is dependent on the cultural norms with which I’m familiar. I’m looking forward to finding out.    (MV8)

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be exploring Delhi, Patna, and Ranchi in India and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. I expect Internet access to be shoddy, but I’ll post my learnings and experiences when I can on this blog, on Flickr, and on Twitter. And if you have experiences in these countries and cultures or other thoughts you’d like to share, please drop me a line.    (MV9)

The Technology Understanding Gap

Technology is insidious. It has a way of dominating a problem the way nothing else can. If you understand technology, it’s hard not to see everything in that light. If you don’t understand technology, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by what you don’t know.    (MUK)

I’ve known these things for a long time, and I often talk about these things, but I saw the latter phenomenon in a way that really affected me last month at the Packard Foundation gathering on the future of network impact in philanthropy. On the first evening, Clay Shirky gave a preview of his book (available now), Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (which sounds like it’s a real winner; can’t wait to read it).    (MUL)

One of Clay’s contentions was that projects that worked in large-scale networks shared a happy medium between a Promise, a Tool, and a Bargain. In the case of Linux, Linus Torvalds‘s Promise was to build “a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones.” (Note how small and concrete the original Promise was, compared to what Linux has become.) The Tool was source code control (specifically diff and patch in the early days). The Bargain was the GPL, which stated that if you contributed your work, others would as well.    (MUM)

A lot of my work centers around facilitating collaboration in large-scale networks, so I found this contention particularly interesting. The following day, I co-led a session on this topic with Angus Parker. Two of the participants were dealing with the specific challenge of connecting members of a national network of leaders in reproductive health, so we used that as a case study. We decided to use Clay’s contention to frame the problem, resulting in this whiteboard:    (MUN)

https://i1.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2349/2234544757_9be3c47dd2_m.jpg?w=700    (MUO)

What do you notice about this picture?    (MUP)

Obviously, the Tools column is completely empty. That’s a dead giveaway that I’m facilitating this discussion. (That and the horrific handwriting.) Figure out the basics first. Don’t let the question about technology drive the discussion.    (MUQ)

During the discussion, one of the participants asked, “What tools can we use?”    (MUR)

I responded, “Let’s not worry about that now.” So we kept talking and talking, and I noticed the two non-technical participants in the group squirming like crazy.    (MUS)

So I stopped, noticed how gaping the Tools column looked, and said, “You’re uncomfortable about not having discussed the tools, aren’t you.”    (MUT)

She nodded.    (MUU)

“Don’t worry about it,” I responded. “The tools part will be easy, once we figure everything else out.”    (MUV)

“Easy for you, maybe,” she said. “You already know what goes there.”    (MUW)

That was not quite true, but I got her point, and the force of it struck me so hard, I had to stop for a moment. I looked at the gap, and I saw possibilities. She looked at the gap, and she saw a void. That was upsetting for her. It made it hard for her to think about the other aspects of the problem.    (MUX)

It made me realize how much I take my technology literacy for granted. But it also created an opportunity to discuss how easily we are sidetracked by technology. “Tool” does not have to mean software, and making that assumption prevents us from exploring other viable, possibly better solutions.    (MUY)

I had two takeaways. First, I had previous explored doing a basic technology literacy workshop as part of Blue Oxen AssociatesTools for Catalyzing Collaboration series, but I was not particularly motivated to do it. I’m now rethinking this. Second, if I ever do this exercise again, I’m not going to include the Tools column initially. We can throw that in later.    (MUZ)