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.
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.
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 http://strategy.wikimedia.org/.