Lessons on Mentors and Mentorship

Rebecca Facilitating

My friend and former colleague, Rebecca Petzel, wrote a sweet and thoughtful blog post about mentorship, social entrepreneurship, and her experiences at Groupaya. Truthfully, I got a bit teary when I read it. I mean, she called me an “elder.” That’s just wrong. I’m still in my 30s, for pete’s sake!

In her piece, she said something that troubled me (besides calling me old). She wrote, “What breaks my heart is that most in my current town seem to look their noses down on the opportunity to learn from those with more experience.”

I often feel the same way, but I hope it isn’t true. Perhaps it simply doesn’t occur to people to seek mentorship. Or maybe they’ve had bad experiences dealing with people “with more experience.”

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Advice for (Female) Changemakers.” My second recommendation there was, “Find your people,” and I alluded to a story about forming the advisory board for Blue Oxen Associates back in 2002.

One of the people I approached was Richard Gabriel. I didn’t know him personally at the time, but I had read many of his writings, including his classic essay, “Worse Is Better,” and his book, Patterns of Software: Tales from the Software Community. It was the latter that made me reach out to him. I was interested in applying Christopher Alexander’s notion of pattern languages to collaboration, and Richard was one of the pioneers who had introduced these concepts to the software engineering community.

So I invited him to coffee. Richard turned out to be brilliant, thoughtful, eclectic, and very kind, exactly the kind of person I wanted to be around and learn from. Toward the end of our conversation, I started drumming up the courage to ask him if he would serve on our advisory board. Despite his gentle demeanor, I was very nervous. Richard was accomplished; I was not. Worse, I had no idea what I was doing, and I could barely explain what the company was supposed to be about. These did not seem to be ingredients for success.

But I was there, and he was there, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever have another opportunity to do this face-to-face. So I asked.

Richard said, “Yes, on one condition.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That you actually reach out to me for advice.”

It turned out that others had asked him to serve in similar capacities, but that they never bothered reaching out to him. And he didn’t see the point of being on an advisory board if no one asked him for advice.

How simple and wonderful is that?

To this day, I have no idea why he was willing to say yes, and I’m not sure he knows how much that and his subsequent advice — which I asked for many times — meant to me. But I had concocted many complicated reasons in my head for why I shouldn’t reach out to him and why he wouldn’t say yes. Fortunately, I ignored those voices in my head.

Unfortunately, those voices still talk to me, even today, and it’s a constant practice for me to ignore them. So if you’re seeking opportunities to learn from others and if you’re hearing similar voices in your head, I hope you’ll ignore them too, and ask. And if you’re wanting to mentor others, don’t assume that others will come to you, and don’t get cranky when they don’t. Invite people to learn with you.

(Here’s my invitation.)

I have been extremely fortunate to have had many mentors in my (still very young) life. It’s something that I continue to seek, because it’s such a valuable and meaningful way to learn. A few years ago, my friend, Katherine Fulton, was observing the many mentors in my life, and she said, “You’re starting to reach the age where people are going to be reaching out to you to mentor them.”

That made me start reflecting on the kind of mentor I wanted to be. I’m still figuring it out, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

Be humble. More specifically, don’t assume that your experience makes you better or smarter or wiser than anyone else. Experience is a great teacher, but you have to be a great student. As much experience as I have, there’s even more that I haven’t experienced. That will always be the case. The best mentors never stop learning… from everyone, young and old.

Be open. Mentorship is not about molding an army of young people into clones of yourself. With experience often comes rigidity. I’m determined to fight it, but I know it’s a losing battle. I’ve shared a lot of my thinking and experiences with Rebecca over the years. Some of it, she’s taken to heart, and some of it, she’s rejected. That’s a great thing. Whatever she chooses to do with her life and her career, it’s going to be great, and if I’ve managed to contribute to that in any positive way, I’ll be grateful. Moreover, I’ll have the opportunity to learn from the things that she chooses to break away from.

Be caring. As much as I’ve learned from all of my mentors, the thing they did for me that meant more than any of that was to care about me. I’m overwhelmed with emotions every time I think about this. I would have failed a thousand times over without their moral support, and I’m not sure I deserved any of it. What I can do is pay it forward, to look after those around me without expecting anything in return.

Understanding the importance of caring has been my greatest lesson so far. But, I’m still learning.

Twitter, Facebook, and Social Boundaries

Speaking of tweets and Twitter, I finally succumbed and activated my Twitter account a few weeks ago. Come follow me! I had many reasons for doing so, but the kicker was probably learning that Twitter is in fact for old people. Seriously, my main reason was that I’ve been blog-free for many months, and I wanted to maintain a lighter-weight Visible Pulse for sharing ideas and letting people know that I was still alive.    (MTL)

Unlike my experience with this blog, I initially found it hard to start tweeting. I love to share ideas, but I don’t like talking about myself. My blog has been great for that, and I figured I’d use Twitter the same way. But it’s hard to do in 140 characters. It’s much easier to mention what I had for breakfast than it is to share some brilliant new insight, although simply tweeting “Eureka!” probably fulfills the latter need quite nicely.    (MTM)

So to get going on Twitter, I used a trick that I never had to use with my blog. I built an audience. I started following people, and many of them reciprocated. Now tweeting was about having a conversation with the people in my network. I didn’t have to do this with my blog, because I was motivated enough to start sharing my ideas without it. Getting that audience simply furthered that motivation (the past few months not withstanding).    (MTN)

This is obvious stuff to people who already blog or tweet regularly, but it’s not obvious to those who don’t, and when it’s explicitly understood, it can be used to your advantage. This is why Pattern Languages are so useful.    (MTO)

It would be interesting to do some analytics on tweeting based on size of social networks. For example, do people with larger social networks tweet more?    (MTP)

Another nice Twitter pattern is the character limit: Constrained Space. Many people have told me that they find blogging intimidating, because they feel a lot of pressure to actually write something. The character constraint relieves that pressure. It’s easier to come up with a 140 character message than it is to fill a blank slate. Size of space matters.    (MTQ)

The issue I’m now having with Twitter is with social boundaries, and not surprisingly, the cause of this isn’t Twitter at all. It’s Facebook. My close colleagues know that I am obsessed with Facebook, not because of some deep seeded need to feel like I have a lot of friends, but because I think it is one of the most well-designed online tool I have ever seen. There are all of these well thought out social patterns deeply embedded in the tool.    (MTR)

Because of this, it’s no surprise that so many people across so many different networks use it. My pattern for studying Social Network sites has always been to only connect to people who connect to me first, then to watch what happens. With the vast majority of sites, it’s the same group of people end up pinging me. In other cases, certain niches become apparent. Facebook is the first Social Network tool I’ve used where people across almost all of the different communities of which I’m a part have found and reached out to me.    (MTS)

The problem is that Social Networks are not frictionless. You can’t just mix them all up and expect everything to be wonderful. A while back, Pamela Dingle told a great anecdote that wonderfully portrayed some of the unsavory consequences of these boundary issues.    (MTT)

One of the things that exacerbates Facebook’s challenges with Social Network friction is its open API. For a lot of reasons, Facebook has encouraged people across many different networks to intentionally come together in a shared space. However, its API allows people to bring new networks to the same shared space unintentionally.    (MTU)

I enjoy the status updates on Facebook, and so when I started tweeting, I decided to sync Twitter with my Facebook status. By doing so, my audience went from a somewhat closed community of folks who speak the same Shared Language to a much larger community of folks, many of whom think I’ve gone nuts. These include people like high school friends, most of whom find the idea of posting a picture that’s not hidden behind a password absolutely ludicrous.    (MTV)

Those of us who have been part of Identity Commons for a long time have been talking about these issues for ages, yet it’s fascinating to experience them firsthand. I don’t find them that big a deal, because I have well-defined boundaries that I think work with my different networks. I don’t mention people by name unless I know they’re comfortable with it or I’m attributing an idea to someone. I’ll happily write about what I had for breakfast (Tartine bread and gruyere this morning), but I won’t write about my dating life.    (MTW)

I don’t know how long the Twitter experiment will last. It still feels a bit uncomfortable, but it’s been fascinating, and I probably won’t stop anytime soon.    (MTX)

The Blue Oxen Way

Back when Chris Dent and I started Blue Oxen Associates, we often referred to something called the The Blue Oxen Way. It was something that we both understood and recognized, but that we never actually articulated. Over the years, I tried to rectify this, and I generated pages and pages of notes (including three years worth of rambling blog posts) in the process, to no avail.    (LVU)

Recently, Chris articulated his visions for “Wiki Everywhere,” where he referenced some of our early conversations. As I read it, I relived many of these discussions, and suddenly, it all clicked for me.    (LVV)

The essence of The Blue Oxen Way can be boiled down into three ideas, each of which form the framework for our entire philosophy about collaboration:    (LVW)

The Squirm Test    (LW0)

The Squirm Test is a thought experiment for measuring the amount of Shared Understanding in a group by observing the amount of squirming in a room. Shared Understanding (which is not the same as “same understanding”) manifests itself in the formation of Shared Language. Shared Language is a prerequisite for collaboration.    (LW1)

Much of the messiness of the collaborative process can actually be attributed to lack of Shared Language. Great collaborative design accounts for this rather than wishing it away, which is how most of us deal with it.    (LW2)

Shared Language is The Red Thread that binds all of the crazy things I’m involved with, from Pattern Languages to Wikis, from face-to-face facilitation to organizational strategy. The Squirm Test is a wonderful embodiment of Shared Language.    (LW3)

Be Less Dumb    (LW4)

If Shared Language is the tie that binds, then being Less Dumb is the state that we are all striving to reach. Why are we playing this game in the first place? To be Less Dumb, of course! As you go to bed every night, if you can’t look in the mirror and say, “Today, I became Less Dumb,” then you’re not doing your job.    (LW5)

Less Dumb is the negative framing of “augmentation,” but it sounds a heckuva lot better, and it embodies the same philosophy. Tools should make people Less Dumb. Processes should make people Less Dumb. How do we measure collaboration? One way is to see if we’re Less Dumb in the process.    (LW6)

That’s obvious, you say? If it’s so obvious, why do most tools and processes make us More Dumb rather than Less Dumb? And why are we so often willing to live with that? It may sound obvious, but are we really paying enough attention to this?    (LW7)

Bootstrapping    (LW8)

With Less Dumb and Shared Language (as embodied by the Squirm Test), we have our target and the glue that keeps us together. Our process — the way we get to our target — is bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is building on top of things that already exist, then building on top of that. (The notion of bootstrapping is also the reason why we called ourselves Blue Oxen Associates.)    (LW9)

The most vivid images of my best experiences collaborating have to do with movement — my actions resulting in other people’s actions, which result in even more actions, which inspire me to act further. This is bootstrapping at its best.    (LWA)

Purple Numbers are ultimately about building ideas on top of pre-existing ideas — knowledge synthesis (i.e. becoming Less Dumb) by reusing existing ideas. Also known as bootstrapping.    (LWB)

Collaboration as a System

I spent this past Saturday in Sebastopol “tutoring” Gail Taylor, Todd Johnston, and Tiffany Von Emmel on online Collaborative Tools. I lured Matthew O’Connor into helping by boasting of Gail, Todd, and Tiffany’s deep thinking about and practice of collaboration.    (LVC)

One of our exercises was to walk through all of our respective digital workspaces, demonstrating how we read and wrote email, and worked with online tools. I had gotten some idea of how Matthew worked when we paired at the Wikithon earlier this month, but I was still blown away by his walkthrough. He’s really thought deeply about his work processes and has optimized his online workspace accordingly.    (LVD)

Matthew expressed surprise that he was the only one who had done this, especially since I had proclaimed these folks to be gurus. I didn’t have a chance to discuss this with him on Saturday, so I thought I’d post some thoughts about that here.    (LVE)

To be good at collaboration, you have to treat it as a system. That system includes things like communication, community, Knowledge Management, learning, and leadership.    (LVF)

Most Collaborative Tools companies are either in the communication or the Knowledge Management business. They’re usually selling pipes, PIMs, or document management tools. All of those things have something to do with collaboration, but they are not in and of themselves collaboration. Then again, no tools are. A hammer is a tool for hammering, but it is not itself hammering.    (LVG)

When I think about High-Performance Collaboration, I envision groups with excellent Group Information Hygiene. Ideally, you’d also like every member of the group to have outstanding Personal Information Hygiene (like Matthew), but it’s not a prerequisite. You’d like to see every member to be past a certain threshold of competence for all aspects of the system, but I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to be great at all those things. On a great basketball team, you’d like everyone to be in good shape and have good fundamentals, but some players are going to be superior shooters while others will be great rebounders. It’s not necessary, nor realistic, nor possibly desirable to have 12 Magic Johnsons on a team.    (LVH)

Implicit in my One Small Change post is that there is no one thing. I can think of a number of small, concrete changes that could result in significant improvements in collaboration. This is one of the main reasons why Pattern Languages — collections of named, concrete patterns — are fundamental to The Blue Oxen Way.    (LVI)

Personal Information Hygiene is a critical pattern, because it fosters trust. My advice to groups with trust issues would be to eschew squishy exercises and look at people’s Personal Information Hygiene instead. However, past a certain level, I don’t see great Personal Information Hygiene as being the primary hallmark of a great collaborator.    (LVJ)

Granular Editing

I’ve been working with Doku Wiki a lot recently — it was what we used for the St. Louis Collaboratory workshop — and it reminded me of yet another reason why Granular Addressability is more important than we think it is.    (LFO)

My biggest takeaway from working with Doug Engelbart on the HyperScope this past year: Addressability is for more than linking. Indeed, HyperScope takes advantage of addressability to support some powerful navigation capabilities.    (LFP)

Well, addressability can also be used for editing. And in fact, it is. Both Mediawiki and Doku Wiki support granular editing. The reason? Mediawiki is designed for encyclopedias (specifically, Wikipedia. Doku Wiki is designed for authoring documentation. In both cases, you end up having long pages. Editing long pages in your browser is a major pain in the rear. It’s much easier to edit specific sections.    (LFQ)

Augment, of course, also supports granular editing, except the granularity supported is much finer.    (LFR)

This is yet another example of the following law of Collaborative Tools, which I first mentioned in my manifesto:    (LFS)

Good ideas get reimplemented over and over and over again, often independently. It behooves us to identify these ideas, name them, and implement them interoperably.    (LFT)

(This is also the fundamental principle underlying Pattern Languages.)    (LFU)