All Good Things Must Come to an End

Posted on October 3, 2011 at 6:25 am by Eugene Eric Kim

December 9, 2011 will mark the ninth anniversary of Blue Oxen Associates, and it will also mark our last day of operation. I’m shutting down the company, and I’d like to explain why.

Chris Dent and I founded this company on two simple premises. First, the world needed to get better at collaboration. This was not a nice-to-have; it was a must-have. Our very survival rested on our collective ability to collaborate more effectively.

Second, the answers were already out there. We just needed to find them and start practicing and improving.

Nine years ago, I was 27 years old, full of ideas and hope, anxious to set our vision into motion, and very ignorant. We were in the throes of the dot-bust, and we had no reputation in this space.

What we had was faith. We had faith in ourselves and in our ideas. We knew that we could make a difference if given an opportunity, and we knew we would learn and improve as we went along.

Nine years later, we’re thriving. Bigger, harder, and more meaningful projects keep coming our way, resulting in growing levels of impact and record revenue.

So why end things now?

Starting Blue Oxen with Chris, bouncing ideas off of each other, and doing work together was an incredibly enriching, fun experience for me, and I really missed him when he left in 2003. Although I continued to work with great people, it never matched the intense experience of building something together with an equal partner.

That changed in 2009, when I met Kristin Cobble, as I explain in my personal blog. It was the first time since Chris had left that I felt so strongly aligned with someone who brought such complementary strengths to the table.

People often wonder what could have been if they only knew then what they know now. I had a chance to see for myself, to start an organization like Blue Oxen Associates all over again with another great partner, only with greater qualifications than I had nine years ago.

So this is more of a beginning than an end. I’m starting a new company with Kristin called Groupaya. The name is a combination of “group” and “upaya” (the Sanskrit word for “skillful means”), and it embodies our purpose, which is to bring skillful means to groups.

My friend and colleague, Jeff Shults, is constantly reminding me of the importance of clean beginnings and clean endings in collaboration. I want to honor the work that we accomplished at Blue Oxen Associates, and I also want to give that chapter a clean ending, so that I can start living a new chapter.

Kristin and I are still in the process of getting Groupaya off the ground, and in the spirit of openness and transparency, we are documenting the process as it unfolds on our blog. You can also follow our journey on Twitter and Facebook.

In the meantime, I’m experiencing mixed emotions as I bring this chapter to a close. I’m excited about starting something new with Kristin, about seeing what’s possible as we continue the pursuit of our mission to maximize the world’s collaborative intelligence. At the same time, I’m grieving.

Blue Oxen has been my baby, my life. It has completely transformed who I am on the inside and what I’ve been able to accomplish on the outside. I’ve worked with groups across multiple sectors and around the world. This work has taken me to nine countries across five continents. I’ve worked with business executives and social activists, rocket scientists and spies, billionaires and hackers. Most importantly, I’ve made many lifelong friends.

I cannot believe how lucky I am to be doing something I love and to have been supported by so many people. I cannot even begin to name all of the people who have helped me along the way for reasons I cannot even fathom. I am humbled by their faith and love, and I feel driven to pay it forward. I have a lot to share with others, and I have even more to learn.

Thank you to everybody who believed in us, who supported us, who worked with us, and who learned with us. You have my everlasting gratitude.

Onward to new adventures!

“Chore Wheels” and Good Information Hygiene

Posted on August 15, 2011 at 8:22 am by Eugene Eric Kim

A few weeks ago, I was at a strategy meeting at Rebecca Petzel’s house in San Francisco, where I spotted this beautiful “chore wheel.” Rebecca lives in a big house with several housemates, and in order to make sure the house stays clean, they divvy up and rotate the responsibilities, using this wheel to keep track of who’s doing what each week. It’s a fairly common thing to do with lots of housemates, but I think this wheel is particularly elegant.

Which brings me to Information Hygiene. In the early days of Blue Oxen Associates, my cofounder, Chris Dent, and I spent lots of time thinking about and naming patterns of high-performance collaboration. Chris was particularly good at this exercise, and he identified two that were really important: Personal Information Hygiene and Group Information Hygiene.

The concept is simple. High-performance groups effectively manage their information. People know what they need to know to do their jobs, they know where information is when they need to find it, and they’re always ready to manage and adapt to new information.

This is not a new concept, but I love framing it around “hygiene.” When we live or work in a shared space with others, we understand why it’s important to keep this space clean. We also understand the strategies for keeping it clean, strategies like the chore wheel.

What if you used a chore wheel to help manage your Group Information Hygiene? What would it look like?

Most groups either don’t think explicitly about Group Information Hygiene, hoping that it all just works out. And as with roommates or officemates, sometimes it just does.

Other times, you need more explicit management. In business, this often becomes the responsibility of a project manager. Chore wheels democratize hygiene, making it a shared responsibility and making everyone accountable to each other. A good project management dashboard is analogous to the chore wheel.

What are your strategies for Personal and Group Information Hygiene?

Happiness at Work

Posted on August 10, 2011 at 8:51 am by Eugene Eric Kim

In 2006, I was invited to give the keynote at WikiSym in Odense, Denmark. Since I was going to be in town, Thomas Madsen-Mygdal generously organized a blogger dinner for me in Copenhagen, which gave me the chance to meet many local entrepreneurs and changemakers.

One of the many, many highlights for me was meeting Alexander Kjerulf, who had recently started a consultancy devoted to happiness at work. Here’s what I wrote about Alex at the time:

Every time we chatted, I found myself scurrying for my pen and notecards. It will take me three freakin’ years to follow-up with all of his stories and ideas, generated over maybe 12 hours of conversation. I plan on trying anyway, because there was a very high degree of relevance and profundity in everything he said. He is a plethora of ideas, knowledge, and — as his title implies — positive energy.

Fast forward five years. Alex came to San Francisco last week, where he gave a talk at the Hub SoMa about — what else? — happiness at work. This was going to be my first opportunity to see him do his thing, and frankly, I was a bit nervous for him. If you’re in the happiness business, then your talk needs to make people happy. That’s not easy under any circumstance, but it’s even harder when your topic is happiness. Happiness is a very soft topic. It’s easy to go way new age, but it’s also easy to squeeze the life force out of your audience by overwhelming them with data.

How was Alex going to engage his audience? How was he going to balance content with emotion? How was he going to teach the audience something concrete while also making them happy?

I’m not quite sure how he pulled it off, but he did it with flying colors. He rocked the house. His talk was a beautiful mix of concrete content and simple group exercises that embodied his principles. People laughed and smiled throughout, but mostly they nodded vigorously as they listened and learned.

The first thing you need to know about happiness at work is that it’s good for the bottom line. Any way you measure it, there is a strong correlation between happy workplaces and financially successful companies. Alex shared many great examples of this. My personal favorite was Southwest Airlines, which not only manages to create a pleasurable domestic flying experience in this age of airline misery, but has only had one unprofitable quarter in its 30 years.

Second, being happy at work does not mean being happy all the time. That is an unrealistic, undesirable goal. But, it does suggest that we need to be happy most of the time, about a 3:1 ratio to be exact. That’s because humans have a biological proclivity to negativity. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias, which basically says that humans tend to remember negative events more than positive ones.

Happiness Framework

Given this, how do we create happier workplaces? It boils down to two things: results and relationships. Getting more hugs at work does not amount to a hill of beans if you’re not accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. It would probably make you hate it even more. Results matter. Being challenged matters. Doing meaningful work matters.

And being appreciated for what you do matters. This is one of the highest potential areas of improvement in the workplace. Fortunately, it’s also one of the easiest.

Results matter, and so do relationships. A lot. The top three factors in leading happy lives are:

  1. Romantic relationships. Men who are in a good romantic relationship tend to live six years longer than men who are not! Women live two years longer
  2. Friends
  3. A good, meaningful job

This third factor isn’t so surprising when you look at the top three things that take up most of our time:

  1. Sleep
  2. Work
  3. Television. (Yes, this is very sad.)

Alex offered a bunch of concrete steps anyone (regardless of your role in the organization) can take to make our workplaces happier:

  • Choose to be happy. Intention matters
  • Know yourself. Self-awareness matters
  • Speak up. Alex mentioned check-ins, which are a regular part of our work practices. Check-ins at the beginning of the day or at the beginning of a meeting allow people to share where they’re at. So if you didn’t get any sleep because your baby was crying all night, and you’re feeling grumpy, share that. Your colleagues are more likely to be understanding and empathetic if they know, and frankly, you’ll feel better acknowledging that
  • Do something. There are so many steps — large and small — that you can take to make yourself happy. It could be as simple as physically moving more throughout the day or celebrating your victories, regardless of how small. We’re experimenting with a practice called Wednesday Play Days that’s already having a positive effect
  • Make somebody else happy. This is so simple and powerful, we often overlook it. We appreciate others so much more than we actually let on, and yet, when we receive a genuine appreciation, it means so much. Take the time now to share an appreciation with one of your colleagues.

I was struck by how closely Alex’s happiness framework maps to our frameworks for collaboration. Thanks largely to my colleague, Kristin Cobble (with a nod to Christopher Alexander), we’ve recently incorporated “aliveness” into our frameworks for high-performance collaboration. I don’t think happiness and aliveness are equivalent, but they are clearly very interrelated.

We say over and over and over again that collaboration is always in service to some concrete, bounded goal and that you can’t lose sight of that. As Alex notes, results matter. But so do relationships, and that’s the part that businesses often forget.

All of the many, many practices and stories that Alex shared apply directly to my business. I plan on incorporating them and sharing them as widely as possible. If you have the opportunity to see Alex speak, go. If you need someone to help you make your workplace happier, I strongly encourage you to talk to Alex. Right now, I’m happy that I was able to see and learn from my friend.

Inclusive Leadership and the Power of Acknowledgement

Posted on August 8, 2011 at 8:01 am by Eugene Eric Kim

I’ve been watching two former clients struggle with inclusive leadership from afar, and I’m preparing to re-engage with one of them. This stuff is really hard, and it takes intense commitment and constant practice to shift. The difficulties stem from two problems:

  1. An overly simplistic mental model of what it means to be inclusive or collaborative
  2. Lack of deep humility

To illustrate the challenges around mental models, it’s useful to examine the Interaction Associates’ decision-making model, which shows the involvement required for different types of decision-making:

I like this chart, but it’s easy to misinterpret. The Y-axis shows “level of involvement,” which is not quite the same as time.

Many people are under the mistaken notion that a more inclusive process takes more time, time you don’t always have. True, greater involvement requires more time. However, the more involved your stakeholders are in the actual decision-making process, the less time it takes to activate them. While it may be faster to make a decision by fiat, the process of getting buy-in afterward may take much longer and may be less effective than it would have been had the decision-making process been more inclusive in the first place.

Committing to being more inclusive is an important first step, but successfully practicing inclusivity is an even greater challenge. Another obstacle in our mental models is that we often conflate leadership with decision-making. This assumes that, ultimately, the burden is on the leader to be smarter than everyone else and to make the “right” decision. This is a weighty responsibility, and it’s misguided.

Leadership is about facilitating the group’s collective intelligence, which, given the right group makeup, should always be greater than any individual’s intelligence. This requires deep humility to do well, which is not necessarily an attribute that most people associate with leadership. Humility is not about disavowing your own power. It’s about weaving your own power with everyone else’s, so that something much greater emerges.

The most underrated, underutilized tool for doing this is the power of acknowledgement. When I’m exposed to new groups, I keep a running tally in my head of how often people acknowledge others. It indicates deep listening, shared language, and reciprocity.

One of the best groups I’ve seen at doing this is the Hillside Group, which is the pattern language community. The first time I attended one of its meetings, I was struck by how often people cited each other, not just in the context of the meeting itself, but in the context of the ongoing work. People constantly reflected back what they heard other people saying, and when they later referred back to these ideas, they were always careful to re-acknowledge those who had first mentioned these ideas.

Lack of acknowledgement often trips up leaders who are trying to be more inclusive and who are even spending the time to do so. They might say, “I listened, and here’s what we’re going to do.” This might even be true. However, there is often no evidence of listening in their words, because there is no explicit acknowledgement of other people or of their ideas.

If you’re trying to be inclusive, but if those around you insist that it’s not working, ask yourself how often you’ve acknowledged others in your practice. It takes deep humility and empathy to do this well, but it will result in healthier, higher-performing groups. There is no better way of fostering a sense of inclusion than acknowledgement.

Gail Taylor on Wicked Problems and Solutions

Posted on July 7, 2011 at 8:54 am by Eugene Eric Kim

I drove up to beautiful Gualala, California up in Mendocino yesterday to visit my friend and advisor, Gail Taylor. As we walked along a trail where the Gualala River meets the Pacific Ocean, I took a moment to capture some of our conversation on video:

For much more of Gail’s story and wisdom, listen to the podcast I did with her two years ago.

Nouns, Verbs, Hairshirts, and Network Philanthropy

Posted on April 11, 2011 at 8:31 am by Eugene Eric Kim

I’ve been interested in networks for a very long time, and over the past few years, I have been drawn into various communities that explicitly self-identify around the term. One of those groups is the Network of Network Funders, which was initiated several years ago by the Packard Foundation and which has since evolved into a tight community of practitioners from the foundation world.

Diana Scearce of the Monitor Institute facilitates this group, and she’s invited me to participate in a few of the gatherings, including the most recent one this past week in San Francisco. (Check out her reflections from last week’s gathering.)

This group has progressed by leaps and bounds over the years. I was underwhelmed by the things people were saying and doing at the first gathering I attended in 2008. At the time, folks there were just dipping the tip of their toes into the space — an important first step to be sure, but well behind what was happening in the world at the time.

This year, it was clear that people are catching up. They’re starting to do some really meaty, even cutting-edge stuff. Many people shared stories and challenges that had me on the edge of my seat, wanting to learn more.

This group’s biggest step forward has been the emergence of a shared language, which has really helped accelerate the conversation, the practice, and the learning. However, at times, the language also seems to be holding the group back.

One problem is that we conflate many meanings into single terms such as, well, “networks.” That can make it challenging to know what people actually mean when they use the term. The other problem is that the language we use can sometimes reinforce mental models we are trying to shift away from.

The Curse of Language

Lets start with that troublesome word, “networks.” Networks consist of people and relationships. That’s it. Networks aren’t good or bad. They just are.

Sometimes, magical things emerge from networks of people. See, for example, Egypt, circa winter 2011. Or that wonderful little web site that hosts that article about Egypt.

What most of us actually care about are Networks From Which Magical Things Emerge. That’s a mouthful to say, and so we generally just say “networks” as shorthand and assume that others know what we’re talking about.

This is where language starts tripping us up. Networks are everywhere. Sometimes nothing emerges from networks. Or worse, sometimes bad things emerge from networks.

All organizations are networks. Some organizations even call themselves “Networks.” Some organizations look like Networks From Which Magical Things Emerge. To make matters worse, there isn’t much overlap between these two groups.

At the network funders meeting this past week, Roberto Cremonini showed us a picture from the turn of the 20th century. It showed different visions of airships of the future, and they all looked about the same: Like ships held aloft by big balloons:

We as humans naturally project what we already know onto what we’re trying to understand. It’s just how we are. Nobody is immune, even if we “know better.”

When we talk about “networks” as an aspiration, what we generally mean are Networks From Which Magical Things Emerge. However, when we try to describe those “networks,” we often subconsciously project what we already know. For most of us, what we know are organizations.

Language is insidious this way, and so we have to be careful how we use it. Fortunately, we can also harness this tricky property of languages to help us think the way we want to think about things.

Provisional Structures

One of the most important aspects of Networks From Which Magical Things Emerge are what Bill Traynor calls “provisional structures” — scaffolding that lets you do what you need and then goes away. Provisional structures are important, because they allow networks to be flexible and adaptive.

In the past, we had to build organizations — a rigid structure — because that was the most efficient way to enable organizing. That’s no longer the case today, thanks to technology. Still, when people talk about designing networks, they often end up designing organizations with network trappings, similar to the ships with balloons. These structures end up being more rigid than they need to be.

(Organizational structures are not inherently rigid. That just happens to be the status quo. As I noted above, most organizations are trying to look much more like Networks From Which Magical Things Emerge. Some are even getting close.)

When I worked with Wikimedia last year, I was constantly struck by how, when we asked community members to design a group structure, most people came up with things that looked nothing like a wiki. Instead, they came up with things that looked like organizations. These were from young people who literally lived and breathed Wikipedia. They also happened to be predominantly students, people who were immersed in rigid, structured organizations when they were not editing Wikipedia.

Similarly, I noticed several of the participants in last week’s network funder meetings revert to organizational thinking as they described their networks. For example, people talked about the importance of “network weavers,” but many seemed to be using the term as code for “project leader.” That’s okay — those two things can be one and the same. The problem is that when you conflate these two concepts, it’s easy to fall back onto old structures when you’re trying to design something fundamentally different.

Here’s an example of a provisional structure. Suppose you are a national organization, and you want to encourage people to organize around your cause at a local level. Traditionally, you might encourage people to start local affiliates, which might consist of a legal structure and some governance, branding, and funding guidelines.

The provisional equivalent could be as simple as a mailing list and a box of T-shirts sent to one of the local organizers. A more sophisticated provisional equivalent might be a web site that shows a map of the different meetups around the country along with their dates, attendee lists, and perhaps associated tweets and pictures.

Another example of a provisional structure is “membership.” Many organizational networks find it useful to have some formal notion of membership, which tends to be rigidly defined. For example, to become a member, you might have to be invited by other members, or you might have to be elected, or you might have to pay dues. Having a formal notion of membership can be useful for governance — determining who gets a vote, for example — and for tracking “growth” or “reach” of a network.

However, this rigid form of membership is not always an accurate reflection of who is actually part of a network. It may not even reflect the most active members of a network. Furthermore, these organizational forms are generally created to serve some top-down needs, such as “evaluation,” sometimes at the expense of what you actually want, such as network growth.

A provisional equivalent of “membership” could be some kind of acknowledgement or badge that anyone could “award” to anyone else. After all, the best way to know you are part of a group is to have your peers acknowledge that.

For example, if you see someone wearing a green pipe cleaner badge that represents reciprocity, that person almost certainly belongs to a community of practice around networks. Anyone can create their own pipe cleaner badge and self-identify as part of the network, or offer it to someone else as an acknowledgement that they are part of the network as well.

Nouns Versus Verbs

One way to shift our mindset from rigid to provisional structures is to focus on verbs instead of nouns. Instead of “organizations,” think “organizing.” Instead of “leaders,” think “leading.” Instead of “network weavers,” think “network weaving.”

When we think about verbs, we think in terms of capacity, which can be shared, which can evolve, and which may even go away. For example, focusing on “network weaving” emphasizes the importance of building that capacity into the network, as opposed to assigning someone the title of “Network Weaver.” Your path toward building that capacity might be to ask someone to assume the role of “Network Weaver,” but that would be a means to an end, not the end itself.

When we think in this way, we also move away from rigid definitions. At the gathering last week, I heard people say that network weavers should not be the people answering questions or doing, but should point to others who know the answers or who are doing. That’s an artificial, top-down imposition. If you look at network weavers in open source software or wiki communities, they often are people who both do and who weave.

Avoiding Hairshirt Philanthropy

There’s another word that I think trips up people in this group. That word is “funder.”

I know that this group calls itself “Network of Network Funders.” I know that funding projects is a big part of what they do. Still, I hate the label, because I think it locks them into a single role that diminishes the other things they bring to the table, which includes wisdom and leadership.

Sean Stannard-Stockton has been trying to make sense of the different approaches to philanthropy, and he recently came up with four core approaches. One of them is the Philanthropic Investor:

The Philanthropic Investor seeks to invest resources into nonprofit enterprises in order to increase their ability to deliver programmatic execution. It is classic “builder” behavior as defined in George Overholser’s Building is Not Buying. The Philanthropic Investor, like a for-profit investor, is primarily focused on the longer term increase and improvement in programmatic execution relative to grant size.

When I hear “funder,” I think about the Philanthropic Investor. None of the people I’ve met at the Network of Network Funders gatherings fall into this category. Sean would probably classify them as Strategic Philanthropists.

The people I met are thinkers, and many of them are practitioners at heart. They are people who have thought deeply and thoroughly about how network-thinking can amplify the impact of the work they care about. But when it comes to leveraging that knowledge, they freeze. They are highly conscious of their power dynamic as funders (which is admirable and important), and they don’t want to overstep their bounds. So they hold back.

Stephanie McAuliffe calls this “Hairshirt Philanthropy” in honor of the shirts Catholics used to wear before self-flagellation. It’s an apt description of a phenomenon that is totally understandable and is also completely ridiculous.

After the first day of last week’s gathering, I wrote:

The people in this room are really, really smart and well-versed in practice — moreso than many consultants I know. They need to step out of the mindset that they are only funders and step into their roles as thought leaders and action partners. Don’t pretend away the power dynamic. It will always be there. Channel it by sharing your knowledge in partnership with other stakeholders with humility, and continuing to do and to learn.

They’ve already done this more than they give themselves credit for, and I hope to see even more of it. Being collaborative in a networked world is very much about holding tensions and constantly practicing and learning. I’d like to see this group move away from its identity of “funders” and instead see “funding” as simply one tool in their ample toolbox for catalyzing networks.

Above all, I’m looking forward to watching this network of practitioners evolve into a Network From Which Magical Things Emerge. I know they will.

Connected Citizens: The Power, Peril and Potential of Networks

Posted on April 6, 2011 at 7:17 am by Eugene Eric Kim

Last November, my friend, Steven Walling, tweeted something that was both innocuous and extraordinary. He said:

Confession: I didn't vote in the recent CA elections, but I did vote in the Wikipedia elections. Sign of a new democracy, or Armageddon?

Steven is engaged with a global community of amazing people who are creating something incredibly important and unprecedented. He’s making connections and learning things in ways that were not previously possible. But his involvement is at the expense of more local, place-based engagement.

Is this the future? If so, what are the implications of such a future?

Last year, I got a chance to explore these questions with my colleague, Diana Scearce of the Monitor Institute, for some work commissioned by the Knight Foundation. More specifically, we were asked:

What will be the most effective network-centric practices for informing and engaging communities over the next five years?

We underwent a lightweight scenario planning process, where we interviewed staff members at the Knight Foundation, leading practitioners, and some of the best thinkers in this space, including Clay Shirky, Bill Traynor, Marshall Ganz, Mimi Ito, and Howard Rheingold.

From this process, we developed three possible futures for 2015, which we workshopped with the Knight Foundation last October.

Diana took our work and — with the help of Noah Flower — synthesized it into a wonderful report which was released this morning: Connected Citizens: The Power, Peril and Potential of Networks. It offers a summary of network best practices with corresponding examples, and it shares some thoughts on implications for philanthropy. And it presents our scenarios, which I think is a useful framing for thinking about the future.

I am heavily biased, but I think it is a beautiful, powerful piece of work, and I strongly encourage anyone interested in networks and social change to read it thoroughly. And I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please feel free to post them below.

Followup to Strategic Planning for Networks Webinar

Posted on March 28, 2011 at 6:00 am by Eugene Eric Kim

I was overwhelmed by the participation and response to my webinar on Strategic Planning for Networks, hosted by the Leadership Learning Community last Tuesday. Patti Anklam posted a nice summary on her blog, and my slides are available on Slideshare:

Over 100 people participated, and there were a number of thoughtful questions I didn’t have a chance to answer. Clearly, people are hungry to put these ideas into practice into their own networks. I’m going to answer people’s questions here. I also created a group on WiserEarth, and I invite anyone interested in continuing the conversation to join that group.

Setting Participation Expectations

The majority of the questions were about participation. Someone asked about strategies for increasing participation. When we got started with the Wikimedia process, we had set pretty high participation goals (using the 90-9-1 Rule as a hand-wavy guide, as I explained on the webinar).

However, I also told my team that if one unexpected person started actively participating because of our open process, that was a net win at the end of the day, because it wouldn’t have happened without an open process, and it would improve the quality of the plan. I think this “one new voice emerging” is a great bar for people who want to try this process and who are nervous about the resources required to get more participation.

Even if you don’t get droves of participants, opening up your process affects alignment in other ways.

At the beginning of the Wikimedia process, Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner expressed her worst case scenario about the process, which was that community members would feel angry and disconnected about the resulting strategy. We all shared this fear. Honestly, even though we were consistently hitting our participation goals, this scenario haunted me every time we did another big outreach push. How would people respond to the work at each stage?

At the end of the process, we presented the strategy at the annual Wikimania gathering in Gdansk, Poland, where about 500 Wikimedians were in attendance. Even though the feedback to that point had been overwhelmingly positive, I was still nervous.

As it turned out, something completely unexpected happened at the conference. Many people approached me, not to complain about some aspect of the process or the final strategy, but to apologize. They had felt badly about not participating more actively.

Because we had spent so much energy inviting people and being transparent in what we were doing, those who did not or could not participate more actively still felt included in the process and aligned with the final result. They even felt guilt about their lack of participation, a guilt I assured them was completely misplaced.

Ensuring Diversity

Several people from the webinar asked about ensuring a diversity of voices in the process. I answered this on the call, but I want to elaborate on my answer here with some concrete examples.

There is no magic formula for ensuring diversity other than holding it as a core value and proactively practicing it. This holds true for diversity in any process, strategic planning or otherwise.

In a traditional strategic planning process, you generally interview outside voices and produce a synthesis that you usually share with a limited group. We did the same thing with our process, except that we published our rough notes so that everyone could see and build off of what was said. By doing this transparently (our fourth principle), we encouraged people to do their own interviews as well.

People did. For example, several Chinese Wikimedians interviewed Chinese bloggers to get a broader understanding of how people in China perceived Wikimedia. We had no plans to do this ourselves, so simply by opening our process up, we were able to get valuable voices into the process that otherwise would not have been represented.

When it comes to inviting diversity, space matters a lot (our second principle). For the Wikimedia process, we were obviously going to use a wiki, but we configured ours to make it more inviting and to maximize diversity of participation.

We inherited some advantages by using MediaWiki, the open source software that runs all Wikimedia projects. For example, as you might expect from an international project, MediaWiki has good support for multiple languages. We were as proactive as we could be about translating our core pages, although we were constrained by a small pool of volunteer translators, whom we worked very, very hard. MediaWiki also has decent web accessibility for the disabled.

We also had to overcome some of the disadvantages of MediaWiki. For example, the Talk page feature can be challenging for people to use. We wanted to include participants who were not necessarily active Wikimedia contributors, so we used an experimental extension called LiquidThreads that was easier to use for discussion.

Space is important, but it’s not everything. We were very proactive in inviting diverse voices to participate.

For example, early in the Wikimedia process, we put together a selection committee to help us seed some task forces from thousands of applications. (I describe this process in more detail below.) We wanted this committee to be diverse and committed, and we asked several people we knew to recommend candidates. The initial list was not diverse. There were only a few women on the list, and most of the candidates were from North America and Europe. This wasn’t a surprise, as it’s reflective of the demographics of Wikimedia’s contributors. But it also wasn’t good enough.

I asked people to start over, and I spent a lot of time talking to as many people as I could, trying to find great candidates who were not as well known. This was hard, time-consuming work, and we were under intense time pressure, but it had to be done. We ended up with a great committee that was over 40 percent women and that represented all regions of the globe.

Fail Forward Fast, Take 1

Several people from the webinar asked for more examples of failing forward fast (the fifth principle). Two of our biggest had to do with how we framed our ask.

My facilitator on the Wikimedia project, Philippe Beaudette, alluded to one of them in a recent Fortune article about our process. The first thing we did when we started the process was create a space (second principle). The second thing we did was ask people for their thoughts (first principle). We framed this as a Call for Proposals.

We had three goals for this proposal process:

  • Encourage community engagement. In order to get participation, we needed to get people engaged in our space. There was no better way of doing this than saying, “Share your thoughts!”
  • Inform the overall process. Again, this was about listening to as many people as possible, so we could start to understand what the key questions, challenges, and opportunities were.
  • Encourage action. This was really important. We weren’t asking for proposals because we (the facilitators of this process or the Wikimedia Foundation) wanted to review them and decide what we wanted to do. We wanted the community (which included us) to see the good ideas and get activated as quickly as possible.

We had great success with the first two goals — we received hundreds of proposals in a few weeks, all carefully organized and discussed by the community, and all of which surfaced critical issues — but we had trouble with the third. People assumed that we were asking for proposals, because we were going to review them and then act on them, which was not the point.

The Fortune article suggests that we hadn’t clearly defined that part of the process up-front. That wasn’t the problem — not in this case at least. As a way of modeling transparently (fourth principle), I was the first to make a proposal, which described this very proposal process, saying exactly what I said above.

It wasn’t that we weren’t clear up-front. It was that we didn’t frame our ask well. There were two problems. First, we called this whole process a “proposal” process. The word, “proposal,” implies that it’s something that some higher body will review, a notion seemingly bolstered by the fact that people perceived to be in a position of power were the ones doing the asking.

This was further exacerbated by our use of the active rather than the passive voice, a point that Samuel Klein underscored many times. Compare:

Please post proposals so we can hear your ideas.


Please post proposals so your ideas can be heard.

The former is stronger — it’s how we’re taught to write in school — but there’s an implicit hierarchy in the language. Not so with the latter.

Fail Forward Fast, Take 2

Our second ask-related “failure” happened when we asked for volunteers to participate in a “deep dive” process. (The participation chart on my failure slide on the webinar alluded to this process.) This was a two-month period where we asked volunteers to deliberate deeply about a particular topic (with topics divided into Task Forces) and to come up with a set of recommendations for the community at large. We would seed each Task Force with applicants screened by the selection committee described above.

Even though Task Force members were selected, everyone was invited to participate in a any of the conversations, all of which were happening openly on our wiki (second principle). This turned out to be a critically important design decision.

In the selection process, as a way of setting expectations up-front, we said that participation would require 10 hours a week for 10 weeks. Those 10 weeks happened to coincide with the holidays. It seemed only fair to include this information in the ask, but in retrospect, it created a huge, unnecessary problem.

The paradox about volunteerism is that your best volunteers are generally already overcommitted. That’s because they tend to be the ones who are most responsible and the most effective. So when you ask these people to commit 10 hours a week for 10 weeks (which happens to correspond with the holidays), they are going to say no.

However, if you simply ask them to spend an hour thinking about a set of interesting questions, those (already super busy and much desired) volunteers are much more likely to say yes. Once they are engaged, they are more likely to stay engaged. That’s simply how they’re wired.

Our ask drove away a lot of the types of people we wanted to participate. We had to compensate for that by spending a lot of time asking people individually to participate, essentially recanting the original expectation around commitment.

Some of our Task Forces got off to great starts, and because this was an open process, the activity naturally attracted other participants.

However, some of our Task Forces were completely inactive. As we scrambled to prod those groups into movement, openness once again worked in our favor. Because the topics and spaces were well-defined and opened, other participants emerged and started carrying those discussions. Most of those people were people none of us knew. As we watched these conversations emerged, we developed relationships with the people doing great work, and we asked them to join the Task Forces, a role that they had already adopted without being asked.

This was the most stressful part of the process, and the fact that things were not going the way we had hoped didn’t help. But this is the critical point about Fail Forward Fast (fifth principle) and my mantra, “If you’re not screwing up, you’re not trying hard enough.” You don’t just assume that you’re going to make mistakes, you require it. I literally had a checkbox for failure on my list of indicators, because I wanted it to happen.

We weren’t going to do the right thing every time. The only way we could learn what was right was by trying things, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. None of our failures were debilitating. We were always able to adapt and move forward.

Other Questions

I want to quickly run through the rest of the questions people asked on the webinar. Again, I’d encourage people interested in continuing this conversation to join the Strategic Planning for Networks WiserEarth group.

I work in an organization where the networks consist of multiple affinity groups (focused on different purposes). Would these principles apply to strategic planning for how to support these groups?


How do you convince an organization that they are really a network?

I’m not sure that’s necessary. The main thing is to convince your organization that activation is more important than the plan itself. If they understand that, you should be able to convince them of the merits of doing strategic planning the network way.

Do you have suggestions for organizations in the start up phase that are mostly a small grouping of organizational partners? One organization is “leading the charge” but everyone is involved.

Model transparently (fourth principle) is the key here. First, go out of your way to build trust. Repeat the mantra about shared leadership over and over and over again. But don’t let the mantra prevent you from taking action. Put a stake in the ground, move forward, but do it transparently, and always be open to doing things differently.

How much time would it take to develop a strategic five-year plan for an organization of about 500 members? We feel like one year is too long.

There are many factors to consider when deciding on length of time:

  • Is your goal feedback or co-creation?
  • How much alignment and trust is there within your network right now?
  • Where will the discussion and engagement happen?

One way to think about this is to consider how you would traditionally do a strategic planning process, then think about what would be required to scale up each phase.

For example, if a five-year plan would traditionally require three weekend retreats for the leadership in your group (say, five people) to deliberate, what would it look like if you opened up the first retreat to 20 people in your network? If it’s a face-to-face process, you have to find the additional 15 people, convince them to participate, and handle the logistical challenge of more people. Plus, you have to add additional time for followup and feedback. If it’s an online process, you have to consider the literacy of your extended group and plan accordingly.

Remember, the Wikimedia process was an outlier for many reasons. I personally think that the most ambitious of these processes should take no longer than a year, and that the ideal process is six months the first time, followed by regular three-to-six months cycles afterward. Strategic thinking and planning should be a continuous process of rapid, iterative cycles.

Did you use the working wikily framework to help with the planning process?

This question is in reference to the Monitor Institute “Working Wikily” slide that I included in my presentation. I did not explicitly use the working wikily work as a guide, but I think it is excellent, and I’ve already incorporated some of the language in future work.

The conceptually underpinnings of all of this is based on decades of work on network thinking and participatory processes. I’m not inventing anything new. I’m putting these principles into practice, and I’m sharing what I learn as widely as possible.

You mentioned a trust-building period prior to the onset of planning. How long does this usually last?

I summarized my thoughts on building trust in a blog post a few years ago. Trust-building is not simply a phase you go through before work happens. It’s both a relational and a task-oriented process. In other words, you build trust through building relationships, but you also build trust through doing good work and following through with your commitments. You have to do both in balance.

If you’re not already in a high-trust environment, you’ll need to invest more up-front trying to build that trust. But you can’t wait for this to happen before starting your work. Here’s where openness and transparency are your friend. Transparency builds trust.

It seems to me that a key distinction between a network and a traditional organization is that networks are much more loosely-bound and voluntary in nature. In my experience, when it comes to implementation of strategies, things often fall apart due to lack of accountability. How did you build an infrastructure for leadership and sustained motivation for implementation?

First, build accountability by modeling it yourself transparently (fourth principle). Set an example, and others will follow.

Second, never underestimate the power of acknowledgement. You cannot thank your contributors too much. No deeds are too small to be acknowledged. We went out of our way to thank contributors publicly throughout the process, and at the end of the process, we sent hundreds of contributors hand-written notes and real-life barnstars as tokens of appreciation.

The beautiful thing about modeling transparently was that acknowledgement became a norm in our process. We weren’t the only ones acknowledging and thanking contributors; contributors were doing it with each other.

Third, be forgiving. We never blamed anyone for not following through with a commitment. This is a volunteer process. I had to remind people over and over again, if you can’t follow through, it’s okay, just let us know so someone else can.

I think there’s an opportunity to develop tools that encourage accountability within networks. One of the most interesting I’ve seen is Better Means.

What method would you use for social network analysis?

On the webinar, I said that I had wanted to use social network analysis to help identify potential participants, but that we didn’t have time. My bias would have been to do some automatic culling of data by looking at how people behave on wikis. I helped develop the notion of page buddies for wikis with some work I did for Socialtext several years ago. You could use that data to infer social networks.

However, I’m working with social network guru Valdis Krebs on a project right now, and he’s convinced me of the merit of using surveys for social network analysis. It would have been a lower-barrier-to-entry process on the Wikimedia project, and it would likely have turned up valuable information.

Do you want both the positive influences and those that tend to be influencers on the anti-side?

I think this is an artificial distinction. You want a diversity of participants. It’s not about one side being positive and another side being negative. It’s about finding the common ground in your network.

Were there any monetary incentives created for people to commit/participate?

Absolutely not. Paying for participation is a recipe for de-activating volunteers.

The leap from tactical to strategic thinking done by people. Seems a heroic leap. Elaborate process?

In the webinar, I talked about how generative questions transforms tactical thinking into strategic thinking. Anyone can think strategically. Whether or not they become strategic thinkers is a different question. You can build that capacity in your community by encouraging strategic thinking over and over and over again. That’s why I think the ideal strategic planning process for networks is ongoing and iterative.

How many people now really understand their Wikipedia strategy… 20 100 or 1000?

I don’t know the answer to that, and I wish I did.

In Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras say that leaders in great organizations spend the majority of their time reminding people of their Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. In my debrief with Wikimedia leadership, I reminded them that this process needs to be ongoing. They’ve done a pretty good job so far, and I think there are other simple opportunities to push these even further.

A simple way would be to regularly survey people and ask if they know the strategic priorities. The beauty of this is that it’s not an evaluation (although the results would be interesting). It’s an intervention. You’re not evaluating people, you’re reminding them of the strategic priorities, which is the main goal.

The principles are great, but is there anywhere I can read about the details of the concrete process you used?

You can read about the process and actually see everything that took place at

Blue Oxen Barnstars: Jodi Engelberg

Posted on October 13, 2010 at 10:05 am by Eugene Eric Kim

I had a chance to catch up with my friend and colleague, Jodi Engelberg, in Miami last week. Jodi is a process designer and facilitator who focuses especially on multi-sector, multi-stakeholder collaboration. She was the first president of The Value Web, a loose international network of collaborative practitioners (many of whom are schooled in the MG Taylor methods) who have worked extensively with the World Economic Forum and other clients.

She recently relocated from Zurich to Miami, just in time for me to see her and catch up. We had a really great conversation over delicious Cuban food, and I asked her if she would share some of her thoughts on the importance of collaborative processes for our future. Watch and enjoy!

How to Win Innovation Contests

Posted on October 11, 2010 at 8:59 am by Eugene Eric Kim
Diana Scearce Facilitates
Diana Scearce facilitates the Knight Foundation scenario discussion on network-centric practices.

The title of this blog post is tongue-in-cheek. Last Friday, I co-facilitated a workshop on network-centric practices for the Knight Foundation with Diana Scearce of Monitor Institute. I finished my part in the morning, and stuck around to watch Diana work her magic in the afternoon.

The last item on the agenda was an innovation contest. The goal was to take the themes and thinking from the previous two days and to come up with ideas for addressing some of Knight’s significant challenges. To make it interesting, teams would form and compete against each other.

I love to co-create, and I especially love competing. In fact, I was a participant at the Monitor Institute’s philanthropy workshop last March where they first tried this particular exercise, and my team won. However, because this was specifically for the Knight Foundation, I didn’t want to step on any toes, so I asked Diana if she thought it would be okay for me to play.

She said if the team was okay with it, then she was okay with it. So I went looking for interesting topics, and I found one that interested me and a team that happily let me join them.

And we won!

Given the significant sample size of two, I’d like to claim that I am the secret ingredient to winning innovation competitions facilitated by the Monitor Institute. However, the reality is that there’s a lot of luck involved in winning these things. Team dynamics matter a lot, groups are small, and you’re under incredible time constraints, so you have less time for forming and norming. If you go down a rathole, you don’t have much time to recover.

That said, I know a thing or two about facilitating collaboration and innovation, and in both cases, I noticed some important things that we did differently from other groups. I’d like to share some of those things here.

Innovation Principles

First, leverage the collective intelligence of the group, and trust that it will result in the best ideas. Since the teams had no pre-defined roles or structure, I focused on listening carefully to others, looking for opportunities to support the group. That often meant playing a facilitative role: watching the clock, synthesizing and reflecting back ideas, and making sure everyone was participating.

That also meant pushing the group to make hard decisions. Many teams — especially in these artificial circumstances — watered down their designs. They were either combining many ideas into one (avoiding decision-making), deferring to someone in their group out of courtesy (politicizing decision-making), or voting. In these situations, voting is a great way to get a quick gauge of the group and a terrible way to make decisions.

Lawrence Halprin famously said that a camel is a horse designed by committee. I saw a lot of camels in both of these competitions. Groups that take collective responsibility to make real decisions are capable of designing horses.

Second, ignore the process, focus on the questions. Each time, Monitor Institute gave everyone a nice template with good questions in order to assist us in the design process. The problem is that people ended up using it as a process template. Creativity is messy and non-linear. When you try to force it into a linear process, you end up creating more blockages.

In my head, I reserved the last 10-15 minutes for converging on an idea and coming up with a presentation. I expected the first 30-45 minutes to be messy and chaotic. I wasn’t worried about it being “productive” in the traditional sense; I was focused on the group developing Shared Understanding. Achieving that allowed us to accelerate the action phase.

Small, Achievable Ideas

Third, come up with small, concrete, actionable ideas. You have two minutes to pitch the idea; you have to be able to explain the idea clearly and make it stick.

Fourth, don’t wait until you win before implementing the idea. Prototype it immediately. One of the Blue Oxen principles is that you initiate change by modeling it. It helps people viscerally grasp your concept, and frankly, it’s more fun and exciting.

When we came up with the Smart Money Award (the winning idea at last March’s convening), we decided to give the inaugural award to the Kellogg Foundation right there. We even pooled together $50 to give as a prize. It was fun, it was funny, it was visceral, and it was meaningful.

At the competition last Friday, the problem we chose was: How do we create the space for more cross-fertilization across the organization, which is geographically dispersed. We had two solutions: encourage people to offer virtual office hours, and create an open question/answer forum on the intranet.

(For those of you who know me, I swear, the group came up with both of these ideas, not me. I happen to love office hours. I think they’re a powerful, under-utilized tool, and I’ve used them on many of my projects.)

Everyone in the group committed to holding office hours. As a twist, we decided to further model the idea by having one of our teammates start the pitch in front of everyone else, then bringing in another teammate to finish the pitch via Skype, which was projected on the big screen. It was unexpected, it was fun, and it was visceral.

Facilitating Collaboration

Finally, a quick aside on facilitating collaboration.

In both competitions, several teams chose to tackle collaboration as their challenge, and most of the teams made a very common mistake. They chose to create some sort of space (a good strategy) without thinking through the incentives for participating in that space.

We tend to make this mistake less often when designing physical space versus online space. For example, a classic solution is to create a common, physical space between two groups with a water cooler or a copier in the middle. What you’re doing is aligning the goals of serendipitous interaction and cross-fertilization with pre-existing incentives — the desire to get a glass of water or the need to make copies.

With online space, people often forget to think about incentives. This omission is even more significant with online spaces, because attention is at a premium. Why are people going to visit your space? Are there online spaces that people are already using? Can you align incentives to collaborate with pre-existing, structural incentives?

These are hard, but not impossible questions. A little extra thinking can make a big difference in the success of your collaborative spaces.