A Lesson In Collaboration

"Molly," my Carvin CT3M in all mahogany
"Molly," my Carvin CT3M in all mahogany

I recently spent an evening with two friends, working on a soundtrack for a DVD. My friend Ed Corr’s company, OPX, is creating a video presentation about what the office of the future might look like, if you ask the twenty-somethings who are going to have to work in them and design them. To its great credit, OPX did not want to just slap some royalty-free ambient noises on the presentation, nor were they comfortable pirating commercial music. So Ed asked me and Mike Shawn to help out. (Mike and I are band mates in The West End; Ed is a member of the band City Farm.)

I did not realize it at the time, but I would gain a number of insights into collaboration from that evening. A couple of days after our session, Ed dropped off a thank you card. On it was a Xeroxed passage from a book (which turned out to be Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo):

When your collaborator has a strong vision of where to go and you do not, follow the vision.

When you have a strong vision of where to go and your collaborators do not, invite them along and help them see it.

If no one in the project has a strong vision of where to go, develop a common vision before you start working, or at a minimum find one before you finish. A project with no vision yields mediocre results at best, and usually wastes everyone’s time.

Terrific advice to keep in mind the next time your organization collaborates with another. There’s got to be a vision that controls things. It does not have to be a consensus (one party may dominate). But all must submit to it.

Here is a sample of what we (performing as “West Farm”) recorded:

[wpaudio url=”http://blog.bradrourke.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/02-Cubicle.mp3″ text=”West Farm – ‘Cubicle'”]


(Personnel: Ed Corr, acoustic guitar; Brad Rourke, electric guitar; Mike Shawn, keyboards; engineered by Brad Rourke)

My New Company: The Mannakee Circle Group

MCG Logo
Logo by Naina Redhu at Aside (http://www.aside.in/)

Today I am launching a new company called The Mannakee Circle Group. This will be an extension of some of the work I already do, but it also represents a renewed focus on helping organizations engage better with their public. The name comes from a crossroads of sorts in the town where I live — read the story about that here.

Visit our web site here: www.mannakeecircle.com.

The Mannakee Circle Group

We work with organizations to help them do their work better– advising on strategy and social media, and designing, executing, and telling the story of large civic projects. We understand how people interact with issues, how they talk to one another, how to hear what they are saying, and how to speak to them to be heard.

We will help you improve public life.

  • We can advise your organization how to use social media and how to connect that with public benefit.
  • We design civic projects and help organizations map out their strategies.
  • And we develop discussion materials about issues. This is harder than you might think to do well.

If you are a public leader and are wondering if we might be able to help you with a project, initiative, or problem – chances are we can.

Drop me a line at rourke@mannakeecircle.com and let’s talk.

P.S. The logo is a general representation of an aerial view of Mannakee Circle.

Common Sense Needed Online For Journalists, Too

Google cache of @rajunarisetti profile
Google cache of @rajunarisetti profile

On Friday, the Washington Post’s ombudsman ran with a blog post outlining the Post’s new set of standards for employees who use social media (like Twitter and Facebook). The peg for the article was the story of managing editor Raju Narisetti, who evidently thought that Twitter is a private forum where only his 90 best friends could read what he had to say, such as:

“We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.”


“Sen Byrd (91) in hospital after he falls from ‘standing up too quickly.’ How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail.”

The column points out the obvious problems with updates like these:

“In today’s hyper-sensitive political environment, Narisetti’s tweets could be seen as one of The Post’s top editors taking sides on the question of whether a health-care reform plan must be budget neutral. On Byrd, his comments could be construed as favoring term limits or mandatory retirement for aging lawmakers. Many readers already view The Post with suspicion and believe that the personal views of its reporters and editors influence the coverage. The tweets could provide ammunition.”

Response? Narisetti has since closed his account (here is a Google cache of what it looked like on Sept. 24, the day before the article).

This whole thing is unfortunate on a couple of levels:

  1. The initial offense: It tends to boggle the mind that an editor at a daily newspaper — which, taken collectively, seem to regard themselves as the last bastion of the fading golden age of Journalism — would decide that it’s OK to put these kinds of snarky opinions in writing. We laugh at interns whose intemperate Facebook photos get them in trouble. This is a little more decorous, but little different.
  2. The over-response: Narisetti had the right idea dipping his toe into the social media water. It’s a good way to connect with readers and thinkers. To pull the plug because his hand got slapped is silly. It suggests that he does not imagine that he can actually issue updates without crossing the line. Why not? People are able to make public statements without getting into trouble all the time.

The Friday story coincided with the release of new social media standards for the Post, and they appear to be mostly common sense. Things like:

What you do on social networks should be presumed to be publicly available to anyone, even if you have created a private account. It is possible to use privacy controls online to limit access to sensitive information. But such controls are only a deterrent, not an absolute insulator. Reality is simple: If you don’t want something to be found online, don’t put it there.

Sounds like good advice, and not too hard to follow.

I hope @rajunarisetti comes back. He’d only Tweeted 145 times, not enough to really get a feel for it. This initial mistake can quickly be put in the rear view mirror.

Learning To Theme

Daily Moleskine by Flickr user koalazymonkey
"Daily Moleskine" by Flickr user koalazymonkey

One of the most important skills in working withe the public is, I believe, one of the most often overlooked. People whose work is public facing — community benefit organization leaders, public agency heads, journalists — need to be able to theme what they hear.

Put simply, this means “making sense” of what they hear, but it’s a bit deeper than that.

People don’t talk in sound bites. They don’t necessarily have coherent frameworks through which they view the world. In talking about difficult issues, their comments may be all over the map. Put a group of them together, and it can feel like anarchy.

The great public leaders are able to take these divergent strands of conversation and theme them — to extract the handful of important themes running through the conversation. The truly great ones can do it on the spur if the moment, there in the room during the conversation. This can take the discussion to a whole new level, as people see these threads and can then build off of them.

Much  of my career has hinged on the ability to theme what people are saying. I listen in a focus group for the important elements to include in a discussion guide. In a strategic planning session, I listen for the places where the group thinks they have agreement but really don’t. In a marketing meeting, I listen for a clients needs — both the ones they acknowledge and the ones that, perhaps, they don’t.

I can only remember one time where I was taught anything explicit about themeing. It was all on-the-job. I was talking about this with a colleague the other day, and he said the same thing. Some people just seem to pick it up. Few organizations try to teach it.

I think this should change. It is one of the most useful skills you can have — at a minimum, it allows you to take better notes.

Here’s a way to get started. It’s a very loose exercise — on purpose. The best way to learn themeing is just to do it. A lot.

You’ll need tto get together a few friends (4 or more) in order to do this:

  1. Get your friends together and ask them to talk about a public issue. You are going to listen and take notes. If you need an idea, try talking about health care using this discussion guide. Or talk about poverty using session three (starts on p.12) of this one. Spend about 60 to 90 minutes on the discussion.
  2. As people talk, take notes. You can take part, but make sure you are paying enough attention to get the notes down. Pay attention to key points that people bring up. Listen for:
    1. Where people get stuck
    2. What people’s starting points are
    3. What values are underlying their statements
    4. Trade offs they would be willing to make
    5. Where there is agreement
    6. What people are not saying
  3. At the end of the conversation, and no more than four hours afterward, write yourself a memo of no more than 1.5 pages, recapping what you saw as the major themes. It should be in bullet form, something like this:
  • This group was highly concerned with the cost of health care, especially with routine costs. One man said ‘The nickel and dime you to death.” Catastrophic costs were a concern too. “Five days in the hospital, and it cost $30K,” a woman said. “Thank God I had insurance.”

You’ll end up with a series of bullets that recap the major themes of the conversation. Show it to your friends and ask if you captured the session fairly.

This sounds like an odd exercise, I know. But try it. Most people who do it find it fun to really be pushed to think through and organize what they hear. I can remember the first time I listened to and themed a conversation, it was like a light bulb turned on.

Once this kind of listening — and recapping for yourself — become second nature, you’ll find all sorts of uses for it.

And, you will find your ability to really hear people and act on what you hear to increase exponentially.

Best Practices Are Killing Us

Seeing Trible by Flickr user Foto43
"Seeing Trible" by Flickr user Foto43

A friend of mine recently made the following comment:

“[T]he dresses & hairstyles worn at the Emmy’s were really boring & predictable. Bring back the days before the stars paid stylists, please!”

While I do not watch awards shows, the comment struck me, because it applies equally well to management and leadership. Today’s obsession with effectiveness is killing individual creativity.

Organizations are mired in concern over process and practice. What’s the best way to do things? What are other organizations doing? Why aren’t we doing that? Leaders ask these and other questions, all designed to maximize effectiveness. They hire consultants who know the field, and ask them to dispense advice about what the best organizations are doing, so we can do it too.

But the problem is that they drive everyone in a given space to essentially follow the same pattern and fit the same mold. The general quality of the space goes up — but the creativity is squeezed out and new ideas tend to get killed.

Even worse, the focus on best practices leaves you blind to innovation.

For instance, think about philanthropy. Over the last ten years or so, foundations are concerned increasingly with “impact.” In an effort to maximize the impact of their investments, they now require organizations seeking money to demonstrate impact or at least the possibility of impact.

At some point, one foundation asked an organization for their “theory of change” — their basic logic model for why they will create impact. This has become the accepted practice among foundations and woe betide the community benefit organization that does not have an articulated and crisp “theory of change.”

This approach dries up the funding spigot for organizations that are just trying to help people. I can think of many soup kitchens and food pantries whose theory of change is best summed up: “We help people make it to the next day.” Foundations will see this as a band-aid approach and instead favor the neighboring organization whose theory of change might be: “If we teach adults to read they are more likely to be able to hold jobs that move them out of poverty.” Also a worthy goal, but the immediate, unsexy goal of feeding people is not a “best practice” for philanthropy.

What’s more, in today’s environment it may well be that “theories of change” and “logic models” are vestiges of old thinking. It is much harder to control how things unfold, and it is often much more effective to rely on serendipity and kismet. Think about the success of charity:water whose approach is to leverage the crowd on Twitter. Without the benefit of hindsight, think about how their “logic model” must have looked.

We appear to be at a turning point in the not-for-profit sector, where new ideas are about to take hold. But as they do, smart leaders will still leave room for new ideas and innovation, both to stay ahead of the curve and to harness the individual wacky idea, which 9 times out of ten is a failure but, when it is successful, is a real doozy.

Survey Shows Americans Struggling At Home

I wanted to share with you some work for a client, the Northwest Area Foundation, that is being released today and of which I am very excited.

Each year, the Northwest Area Foundation commissions a survey on poverty — my friends at Lake Research Partners (Mike Perry and Tresa Undem) design and execute it. I write the documentation that goes along with the usual reports and press releases.

Americans Hard Hit

This year’s survey is the first to really show the effects of the recession that officially began in December 2007. These effects are stark. Many already know that 2008 showed a rise in the share of Americans in poverty (13.2 percent, up from 12.5 percent in 2007).

There are now more people in poverty (39.8 million) than ever since 1960.

This survey shows some of the national effects coming home to roost locally: 53% of Americans say they have cut back on what they spend on food, and 38% say they or a family member have had hours cut at work. More than a quarter say they or a family member has been laid off.


Against this backdrop of tough times, the survey shows people very willing to take steps to improve things. From the Policy Brief:

Strong majorities of people say they are willing to do even more to help their neighbors who are struggling.

Eight in ten (80%) say they are willing to volunteer for an organization that helps people who are struggling. Half of that (42%) are “very” willing. Not only that, but seven in ten (70%) are willing to get more involved in their local government by attending meetings or contacting elected officials.

Even though times are tough, six out of ten (60%) Americans say they would be willing to pay $50 more in taxes if it went to local programs to help people struggling in their community. More than half of that number (33%) would be “very” willing to pay such a tax.

Finally, this is an issue that local, state, and federal elected leaders definitely need to pay attention to.  75% of people say that, when they vote, they think about how well a candidate would help people struggling to make ends meet.


For more on this survey, go here. Also, at post time some content was not available on the NWAF site so here is a pdf of the national Policy Brief.