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June 9, 2013
notes on change, from digital managers
At this month's 501TechNYC meetup
, I had the chance to meet about 50 colleagues in the non-profit tech field and present a version of our NTEN panel, "3 Faces of the Digital Manager,"
originally given in April with Laura Brahm, Danielle Brigida and Yesenia Sotelo.
The worst part was not having my killer co-panelists from the NTC in Minneapolis. But the best part was spending the final 30 minutes brainstorming with the entire room. The assignment was to make a longer list of "words to live by" when managing digital change inside an organization.
For context, here's the introduction to the NYC talk, followed by the list we built up together.
Every organization has a different "culture of tech," and every web manager, digital strategist or social media editor uses a different approach to get things done.
Your style for managing change is as important as your tools or your budget. And there's no single best approach. Sometimes your colleagues need a tough leader to lift their online work to the next level. Sometimes they just want someone who will listen.
A new digital strategy is only as good as the strategist who drives it and the organization's comfort with change. Join us for a conversation about style and change management. When is it time to motivate your colleagues and when is it time to reassure them? For the next tech project, are you bringing cookies to the meeting, or a bullhorn?
Become a connector
--since you probably already are one. Find the gaps between departments, approaches, and bridge
them by getting people to articulate their needs, commiserate and brainstorm together.
Listen first before pushing for change. Get to know your audience of colleagues. Do what you can to create trust--in you and, if possible, in each other.
Be a translator.
Know how to speak to your different audiences--staff, consultants and web users. Find the shared vocabularies that get people on the same page
Be a diplomat. Charm it up.
Show people how they are getting what they want --while making sure it's the right thing to do.
Once you understand your colleagues' incentives, create opportunities for victory
--what the jargon-class calls "wins." One way to do this is to "shrink" any sweeping promises
Create quiet experiments,
then use small successes to show what's possible and get wider support. Along the way, downplay your own personality. The high-profile leader
is only one face of the digital manager. There are others
In the midst of a massive site redesign by Open Society Foundations, the Mule Design
team told Laura, "Your colleagues need to like you more than they hate change."
Remember that you are a broker of new ideas, and people don't always like
Be perseverant, be flexible and be realistic. A project may take longer than planned, morph along the way, get scaled down from an ambition to an adjustment. A lot of the time that's okay.
Don't just tell, teach.
Managers of change walk a delicate line between promoting their approach and having too much to do. If you're the only person who knows what you know, you're either really lonely, or really busy, or both. To secure a better future for your work, Danielle advised the group at NTEN to spread your knowledge around. A good digital manager gets more people
Create chances for colleagues to evolve together
. It's often better to have a shared vision
than a master plan in the hands of one mastermind
. To make sure the plan keeps evolving, think of change in an agile
way, based on cycles of iteration, review and feedback that are also shared.
Don't let failure be a project's final step.
During our NTEN session, Yesenia reminded the group that when a project meets poor results, or fails to launch, there is a lot to be learned and an opportunity to help your organization "fail forward
." The digital manager who can talk about failure
leads at a higher level of credibility than the one who merely retreats.
In-person collaboration and organizational culture
are often neglected when we talk about the best ways to integrate new tools into your ongoing work--we tend to focus on the tech opportunities not the organizational realities (much less the "largely subterranean"
issues of style and personality).
April 30, 2013
people are the dark matter of tech projects #13ntc
I have a recurring dream where I'm at work. In a meeting. And we're talking about a new technology project and everyone's excited, even the managers who don't know all that much about tech.
Or maybe I'm not remembering it right. Maybe the managers are skeptical and annoyed, even though they do know a little about tech. Or maybe no one's excited, and we have to explain the whole plan again from scratch. And I'm dressed in a towel. It's all blurry and I can't remember if people think the new tools are a great idea or some overhyped add-on that makes no sense.
And that's when I realize: I am wearing my clothes, but it's not a dream.
In the work of a digital manager, how we relate to our colleagues, and whether they can relate to us and our work, is fundamental to online success. People are the dark matter of tech projects. They account for more than 80% of the gravitational force in the universe of getting things done, but technology won't help us see them more clearly.
Our premise was simple: Since every organization has a different "culture of tech," and every digital manager has a different personality, your styles for managing change are as important as your tools or your budget.
You might be the ever-supportive "Perfect Boyfriend
," for instance, listening intently to colleagues and doing all you can to match your work to their needs -- possibly including chocolate. Or you might be the "Tough Cookie
," setting a digital vision and fiercely keeping colleagues gung-ho and on task as you hack your way (literally or figuratively) into new digital strategies that the whole organization will ... eventually ... embrace.
Or you might be Michael Jackson. The one-in-a-million talent who doesn't need to "ask for permission" or "build alliances" to succeed, because they do what they do so well, and dazzle everyone so fast, that they get the permission retroactively. Lover. Fighter. And Thriller all in one.
There's no right formula for the successful digital manager. But you can do more, and bring more colleagues along with you, if you know your own style and choose the right suit for the right meeting. Sometimes it's pinstripes. Sometimes it's a white glove.
You can watch a video of our NTEN presentation below. While you're watching, think about the persona (or personas or personae
) that describes you best. When did you have to bring people tea? When did you have to dance?
February 26, 2013
Stu Stevens won't hear a Who
If there are enough interviews like this one with Romney strategist Stuart Stevens
, maybe wrong-headed social media thinking by insiders will be laid bare faster and die out sooner.
Stevens comments on reader-driven narratives reveal some of the bad social media assumptions that weaken traditional institutions. When crowds use social tools to become more than consumers of news, institutions that think like this will be blindsided every time.
In today's environment, Stevens said, "news is whatever people decide news is."
"I don't think that there is a legitimacy litmus test that you can put on it," he said. "The question that news organizations have to ask themselves and do ask themselves every day is what kind of news do we want to validate?"
Stories like the "47%" video
and Romney's "binders full of women"
fumble "took on lives of their own online," according to CNN's Reliable Sources
interview of Stevens. They definitely did, and social media definitely accelerated and sustained them. But just because the audience has more influence in the digital commons doesn't mean they can hijack entire narratives, or spin them from whole cloth.
Stevens complains that socially sustained stories lack legitimacy and validation from gatekeeper institutions. But Twitter didn't decide candidate Romney was out of touch
with the middle and working classes. He was
. Tumblr didn't concoct a gender problem for Romney. He had one
. Online, on the radio, or in print, a good story lives longer because there's an authentic public interest in it. You can't tweet a dud meme
. And it's getting harder and harder to sell fake news
So, besides sour-graping and the general bafflement in Romney's too-bunkered campaign post-election, what's going on? Why do seasoned campaigners persist in believing that Twitter and YouTube have brainwashed the public into irrational group-think? (Besides the elephant-in-the-room reason, I mean, that veteran political strategists already think of the public
as brainwash fodder.)
It might be because old power
always sees new power as indistinguishable from anarchy
. "It can't be real unless it's our
It might be that old guard political thinking
wants to flatter the media in the hopes that the media will help hold down the fort. "Don't buy what social media is selling, Howard, you owe it to your profession to keep your head in the sand" (or at least, according to this this thoughtful commentary
by Jay Rosen, to sit idly by to avoid embarrassment).
Or it might be that Stevens is no different than any brand manager late in learning to listen at the new social frequency
. There's a signal in the noise and it obeys most
of the same rules as previous human information-sharing. Social media doesn't hijack public narratives; it's more like a mid-air refueling. And the plane has been in the air for a while now.
January 3, 2013
"band of sisters" on Warren's first day
This HuffPost account choked me up. Proud to have supported Elizabeth Warren.
Barbara Mikulski barely came up to Elizabeth Warren's shoulder as the two embraced on the floor of the upper chamber. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, released Warren and attached an official Senate pin to the lapel of the incoming Massachusetts senator's all-black pantsuit. Think of it, Mikulski said she told her, "like the croix de guerrefor all the battles we women have fought."
"Congratulations," Mikulski told her, with her eyes watering as she beat her hand against her heart. "You stand here now in the footsteps of so many women who for so long would have liked to have been here, should have been here, but didn't get the shot. You've got the chance. You have a band of sisters. And we're going to not only make history, we're going to change history."
December 17, 2012
At #TABridge 2012: Donors and Grantees Compare Challenges
The TABridge network promotes dialogue across gaps of expertise and geography, but also across sectors. We were fortunate to have several donors attending from foundations that support fiscal and natural resource transparency around the globe.
Because of the spirit of trust and equality among participants, donors and non-donors were able to have forthright conversations. Too often, the traditional requirements of foundation giving and the practical realities of grassroots advocacy leave donors and grantees straining to meet each other's expectations. This is especially true in technology projects, where many donors are less familiar with online tools and many NGOs are experimenting for the first time.
One NGO participant reminded the colleagues that, while foundation officers must make grants in accordance with foundation missions and their boards' expectations, community based organizations are answerable to communities on the ground, and the vision that created an organization in the first place. Sometimes there's a gap between what these two "constituencies" need from an NGO, and more than one participant talked about turning down grant money when the distance between mission and grant requirements was too great.
Like the realities on the ground in villages or in at-risk communities, good technology practices can put requirements on an organization that donors can't anticipate, or write into grant terms.
The foundation members at the Bridging Session described how donors frequently need to look outside their institution for help reviewing technology proposals, to make sure the tech elements of a plan are well-integrated and effective. One donor said, "The measures of how you assess the value-add of tech to a project are less familiar to us so we need help to get that right."
To avoid surprises and disappointments, another donor reminded NGOs in the room to keep relationships strong throughout the course of a grant. It's harder to solve problems if a grantee waits until "month ten of a one-year grant" to mention them, "but if you'd told me in month five," said the donor, "maybe there would have been something I could have done."
A grantee in the same session said the key is to hold two-way conversations "early and often" with donors--conversations "about making sure we're doing the best work," and not just "making sure we're sticking to the specs of the donor's portfolio."
One important way to improve grantmaking is to find, tell and promote inspiring stories about grants that made a difference. A memorable story teaches people more effectively than any manual or white paper can. Over the course of 2-3 sessions, TABridge participants developed ideas for an online "impact diary" that uses social-media-style tools to collect and organize anecdotes from the field about small and large outcomes from grant activities.
We'll be posting more results from our cross-sector conversations, and emerging ideas for solutions, as the post-event collaborations develop.
December 12, 2012
At #TABridge 2012: NGOs Embrace Technology Reality-Checks
cross-posted from The Transparency and Accountability Initiative
Solid strategies, the wisdom of peers and an upbeat realism were the themes driving last month's Bridging Session for international advocates and technology groups promoting transparency.
Like our 2011 session, the event sought to build bridges between policy and technology experts. Participants from five continents met in Glen Cove, New York from November 27 through November 30. The attending NGOs shared a commitment to improving disclosure and citizen knowledge about government budgets and natural resource wealth, but many of the week's lessons turn out to apply across all forms of advocacy.
Web sites and mobile tools can help citizens and leaders improve governance and uncover corruption, but the full potential of these tools often remains untapped. Through the "TABridge" project, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (T/AI) seeks to improve collaboration on tech projects by identifying gaps in knowledge and improving funding strategies.
Some presentations were highly structured, to expose people to a range of tools and methodologies, but the majority were small, member-led discussions, based on topics chosen cooperatively and refined by an organizer group including Aspiration Tech, Harvard University's Transparency Policy Project, the International Budget Partnership, Revenue Watch Institute and the T/AI.
While the 2011 event invited participants to understand each other's work and communicate more effectively when planning tech projects, this second annual meeting emphasized the need for both campaigners and technologists to understand the entire context underlying any project where technology might make a difference.
In one of the sessions on mobile campaigning, experts Sean McDonald and Emily Jacobi said successful projects don't require good tools but good strategies based on "behavior, culture and the problem one is trying to confront."
It may sound simple, but the shift from "What's newest?" to "What's smartest?" calls on NGOs to think differently--ironically, by asking them to think about technology later, only after considering foundational questions about strategy. A Latin American NGO participant asked if donors were prepared to fund not only digital tools, but the "preparation of people, contexts and a climate of readiness."
Though our group was diverse in both geography and discipline, discussions coalesced around a few key questions, including:
- What is the community and organizational context a tech project needs to succeed?
- What uses of open data, data visualization and mobile tools can lead to real impact on policy and community organizing?
- Are donors and their grantees on the same page about how to plan, propose and support technology projects effectively for transparency and good governance?
To deepen strategic thinking, participants were asked to choose one project and illustrate its strategy in a drawing. Some drawings laid out goals, obstacles and "moving pieces" in a simple narrative.
This drawing from TALC Zambia shows how the organization helps citizens track shortages in medicine, creating two-way communication between local communities and medical resources, and between TALC and the groups that can help reduce shortages. Some drawings, however, looked more like illustrated "task lists" than strategy designs. Organizations need to remember that a strategy must be more than what they do: It's how their actions tie in to the changes they seek.
Participants picked apart strategies and shared experiences throughout the week, exploring the intellectual underpinnings of "theories of change" and huddling in intimate one-on-one advisory sessions.
The more experienced technologists helped others go beyond the latest buzzwords and trends in digital advocacy, like "open data," "visualization" and "crowdsourcing." Discussing uses of government data, Lucy Chambers of the UK's Open Knowledge Foundation said advocates should also look to the "supply side" to improve data management, by working directly with the agencies that release such data. Her view was reinforced by fellow facilitators from Chile, Uruguay and the U.S.
In a talk on using data to support advocacy, participants from Mexico, India, Russia, Tanzania, Zambia, Chile, London and the U.S. worked together to create a checklist for a data-driven campaign. See a first version of the checklist here.
Nearly all attendees wanted to know more about data visualization. Facilitators from the U.S. and Nigeria led multiple talks to demonstrate the good practice and thoughtful planning that make an infographic or map more than a pretty picture. Non-profit strategist Dirk Slater suggested thinking about good visuals in terms of "three gets:" Get the idea, get the story and get the detail.
A holistic approach to tools figured in our talks about "crowdsourcing" (itself a buzzword that has come to mean everything from citizen map-making to group decision-making to mass storytelling). Hollie Gilman of Harvard's Transparency Policy Project asked attendees to discuss their needs, assumptions and knowledge gaps about gathering citizen input. Groups then compared notes and faced the reminder that one size never fits all with tools like mobile phones and databases.
Some kinds of information may look good on a map, for instance, but be more understandable shown as a pie chart. Or you may have a lot of data but no way to convince skeptics that it is reliable. Or you may be texting reporting instructions to people with low to no literacy. "Think before you tech," continues to be a central theme. "Sometimes the best mobile data collection tool is pen and paper," one participant said, or a voice message that be saved and added to a database.
We were fortunate to have several donors attending from foundations that support fiscal and natural resource transparency around the globe. Coming in the next blog post, notes from a candid conversation among donors and grantees about how two-way communication can ensure more successful tech projects.
Organizers and participants are working to distill highlights and write reflections on how knowledge from the TABridge event will influence their day-to-day work. Our growing community will be connecting online and in our respective cities in the weeks to come to reinforce the lessons learned so far, and rethink how we, our colleagues and our peers do our work.
November 19, 2012
In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey
, proto-human primates
circle an ebony monolith from another world, entranced and enraged at the mystery, the otherness, of an object that in one transformative instant brings them technology, war and the power to reach the stars. A lot of the people I meet in the nonprofit world are similarly flabbergasted by the Internet.
I'm not saying that nonprofits are stuck in the Paleolithic Era. After military research, advocacy may have done more than anything else to spur the evolution of online tools (with mayhem and disaster running close behind). Most of what I've learned about the Internet over 15 years I've learned from the community
of activist techies
whose commingled DNA now runs through the digital staffs of newsrooms, political campaigns and advocacy organizations.
But for every nonprofit Internet guru
, or strategist, or 20-something who can launch a blog, there are five policy experts or advocates who aren't looking to master the new tools. They just want these tools to help them change the world.
It should be a golden age. Maybe it is. (Do people know a golden age is happening while it's happening, or do they just declare one and hope they die before being disproven?) It's certainly different than 2002, when most nonprofits sought Internet help from consultants or summer interns. Today, an NGO without a mid-to-senior level Internet staffer
is behind the times.
But if technologies change at the speed of innovation, institutions change at the speed of the human personality. Just because an organization knows who to hire doesn't mean they know what to expect. Those of us who guru from inside organizations need to navigate not only the web, but the impatience of our colleagues with a medium whose power is clearer to them than its purpose.
At the nonprofits where member donations keep the lights on, leaders want online windfalls like the ones that candidates get during high-profile campaigns. When the air in swing states is scented with blood and wedge issues dominate the headlines, it's not that hard to turn a sense of urgency into donor dollars. Natural disasters are the same: Horror becomes sympathy becomes an urge to do something. Organizations don't always understand that crisis comes but once a year, or once every four.
In this climate of organizational impatience, Internet staffers need to remember that colleagues will expect miracles if we don't teach them otherwise. For instance, unless you really can make a federal case of it, legal advocacy doesn't pull in millions online. Unless you know someone named Kutcher or Tebow or Germanotta, you're not going to go from 500 to 5,000 Twitter followers overnight. Online advocacy isn't like bombing, where every shot gets results; it's more like farming: Steady work yields a growing crop over time.
And impatience is a two-way street. When organizations clamor for cool maps
, beautiful infographics
and social media strategies
to keep up with the NGO next door, Internet staff often have to push back and ask for data that would be useful on a map, and sentences short enough to be meaningful in a Facebook post. Hopefully we ask with a smile, but too often I've been like Star Trek's Dr. McCoy
barking back "Dammit, I'm a doctor, not a miracle worker!" (Though McCoy was always the Luddite in that crew.)
We need to come to terms with our own impatience. Digital advocacy
is still a new field. Even the lowliest web intern was hired in some small way to be an agent of change, and anyone tasked with making changes is in for a rough ride. At one job a few years ago, I was alternately cheered for blazing trails, scolded for being too deliberate, and patted on the head for expecting too much. And it wasn't easy to predict which reaction I would get.
It's tempting to sulk when your suggestions don't part the waters, but just because the Internet is still in its adolescence doesn't mean we should act the same way. Rewriting code is easy. Changing your own approach is possible. But it's always foolish to think you can change other people. Those of us hired to help organizations adapt must remind ourselves every day to be adaptable.
Once we've accepted that organizations are impatient, and that we can be too, there's one more group we should keep in mind: regular Internet users, who may be the most impatient of all. In cyberspace, there are no long drives, no commercial breaks and no closing times. People consume and communicate at the speed of their fingers and imaginations, so if you want to enlist them in a good cause, make it simple to understand and easy to begin
Just because you produced a video doesn't mean
it's going to be the next KONY 2012. People will still probably be streaming Downton Abbey
or baseball. Just because you made a Facebook page doesn't mean people will "Like" it, much less click through to your website. They'll still probably be looking at pictures of other people's pets and children.
Email, the web and mobile phones may have made it a little easier to reach people, but they've made it a lot easier to be a nuisance. (Have you ever gotten a spam text message
on your phone?) There are no shortcuts to the good stories
and vivid images
that remind consumers that they're human beings.
If anything, the impatience of the average digital citizen demands even greater patience from the average digital advocate. Life's not a sci-fi movie. One new idea can't get us from Earth to Jupiter in the blink of an eye.