Civic Engagement, Technology, and Change

Back in the winter of 2013, I technically said goodbye to my full-time home at Groupaya and went in search of a new professional identity. Around the same time, our great city of San Francisco put out a call for innovation fellows. This $60,000 a year fellowship sounded like a pretty good transition year, so I wrote an application.

Today, during an information hygiene binge prompted by taxes procrastination (the only way I voluntarily clean-out / organize my files) I found a draft of that application. It’s actually a pretty handy and succinct explainer of my perspective on civic engagement, innovation, collaboration, change, and what I’ve wound up doing in my year since “leaving” Groupaya, even without the support of the city who undoubtedly brought in a technologist. Sigh.

Tell us why you are interested in working for local government (Word limit: 200)

I understand why our general citizenry feel disengaged from government: representation is so far away, it’s hard to believe your voice matters, there’s an overwhelming influence of money in politics, and it’s challenging to believe one person could influence such a complex system. I understand, but I don’t believe this is an inevitable state of affairs. Local government is the place to change our crisis of civic engagement. We all live, work, and recreate in the same beautiful city. We are neighbors, we are equally invested in making San Francisco great. It would be an honor to be part of San Francisco’s already innovative efforts to update the experience of being a citizen, and help usher in a 21st century perception of government, governance and civic engagement.

How do you envision your experience making an impact in San Francisco? (Word limit: 300) *

In December 2012 I co-designed and facilitated a volunteer day for the San Francisco Urban Planning department. We tested a variety of systems and visual mapping tools at our disposal to explore an important question together: how can we make participation in urban planning for San Francisco citizens (and staff) more fun and effective.

What I encountered on this day were passionate and intelligent city employees hungry to have challenging conversations, ask the hard questions, and bring together diverse voices to make this city great. I left feeling fortunate to have an incredibly progressive planning department constantly seeking the tools to push further. What I heard from them is they left craving more genuine investments (beyond just this one, enriching day) in their capacity to facilitate and design experiments in effective, participatory planning methods and technologies.

I’d love to help build this capacity, and specifically help both citizens and city employees increase their ability to do the important work of creating the future of our city in more participatory ways. This doesn’t just mean identifying the technology (although I’m capable of pushing that direction having run crowdsourcing platforms and wikis), but also the mindsets, behaviors, and structures that will support us all using this technology to its fullest potential and work more collaboratively together. As with all change, I see this happening through well defined and researched, manageable experiments where we quickly prototype, learn, and continuously adapt.

What would you like us to know that you haven’t already shared? (Word limit: 200)

I travelled to Sweden in ‘08 to study in a unique leadership masters course, an interdisciplinary and international program exploring how we could make progress on some of the greatest sustainability challenges of our time.

What I learned is that solving great challenges is not about finding the right technology or solution, we have an abundance of those, but the real question lies in our capacity to work together, to lead change through complex, uncertain times.

My perspective on innovation is that it’s not simply about finding the greatest and best technologies, but also innovating how the work gets done and how we work together. Since writing a thesis on collaborative innovation, and spending four years as an industry consultant helping organizations and networks shift to a culture that allows them to harness their collective potential, I’ve been hungry to apply this learning and work to innovations in how we govern together.

8 May 2014 ·

RAP

Why Men Need Women

"It’s often said that behind every great man stands a great woman. In light of the profound influence that women can have on men’s generosity, it might be more accurate to say that in front of every great man walks a great woman. If we’re wise, we’ll follow her lead."

24 July 2013 ·

Aligning for Impact: A Recap

Recently I wrapped up a brief contract designing and facilitating a workshop for a great network of funders. The task was to model and explore what it would look like if this powerful and diverse community took steps to further align their work for greater impact in the field. Not only am I pleased to say the workshop went as planned (we had clear success metrics that we hit by all counts), I’m extra pleased to say the act of co-designing this workshop was in and of itself a delightful experience; all of us who participated in the design found the collaboration energizing and rewarding. It’s what we aim for as collaboration consultants: modeling the potential of well thought-out collaborative spaces in the way we do the work. Since trying and succeeding are two very different things, I wanted to pause and celebrate just what went well in this instance.

1. Context

As with most successful projects, we had constraints. There wasn’t enough time to prepare, and definitely not enough time to do the work. Frustrating? Of course. But as hard as it is to admit, constraints are often a key to success. They force us to be more focused, more disciplined, bite off less, and work smarter. We worked with these constraints to get really specific about the goal we were tackling, and as we all know clear focused goals are an important ingredient for success.

2. Space

We designed a space that allowed us to work transparently and asynchronously leading up to the workshop, making the most of our limited time. As a consultant, I think one of the scariest and most important things I do is model the value of working in a more open and transparent way. Even though we were short on time, we opened up the design team to include more diverse perspectives which helped ensure we were designing a workshop which was relevant. I worked to keep all documents, thinking, and decisions available on a shared google site that the whole team could access. This invites everyone to engage with the design when and if they have the chance. I do this with all my projects, but have never had clients jump into the space and participate in the design work asynchronously as quickly as this group. I believe having that access and shared participation helped us all believe the work would be completed, despite looking a bit messy along the way.

3. Collaborative Mindsets & Behaviors

But most importantly, I have to say, it was an amazing group of women (with some great men behind the scenes, influencing the thinking and work), who participated, and exhibited a few key behaviors and mindsets creating a rich collaborative environment.

Curiosity. Everyone was hungry to learn. Every meeting, every conversation, and even the final deliverable were all taken as part of a larger learning experience. I think it’s extremely difficult to maintain a learning mindset when the stakes are high. To keep that learning mindset, all the way through the many risks of putting yourself out there with a network project, is impressive.

Trust. It goes without saying it’s challenging to work together if folks don’t trust each other, and I was particularly impressed with this groups ability to trust everyone’s good intentions and communicate through whatever uncertainties arose.

Clear communication. Of course, this trust was facilitated by clear, thoughtful communication. This group is extremely intentional and considerate in all forms of communication: from phone calls, to well-constructed emails, it made a huge difference.

Embrace Diversity. Folks listened, and built on the ideas of others. We didn’t always agree and not every suggestion was incorporated. But when different ideas or disagreements came up, we treated them with respect and saw them as opportunities to strengthen the design. This seems to be one of the hardest piece for groups to master: actually embracing different ideas as strengthening instead of personal critiques. I suspect our early emphasis on clear, shared goals supported folks putting ego aside and embracing ideas that helped build towards these goals.

Flexibility of Roles. Even though roles and expectations were clearly defined, (Hint: I was the consultant and facilitator) everyone was willing to cross boundaries to support each other. I have never had a client ask me if I was having anxiety dreams and if I needed support in a meeting. That shows a clear understanding and commitment to the end goal by all parties, and a willingness to “work the line" to ensure we all crossed that finish line.

We’re just kicking off a second phase of work: it’s even more complex, with greater uncertainty, and a larger design team. It will be a test if these structures and mindsets can carry us through another successful project. We’ll keep you posted.

(Note: this blog is cross-posted on Groupaya.)

16 July 2013 ·

The great email vacation experiment

I’m a sucker for old-timey movies. Gimme a black and white film with Humphrey Bogart and I’m a happy lady. However recently all these cinematic glimpses into a different professional era have left me with pangs of jealousy, curious how I too might gain the professional effectiveness and focus of all these leading men from an era before personal email and 24/7 connectivity.

The Challenge?

When Sam Spade needed to sit down and have a good think about solving a tough crime, all he had to do was sit at his desk and close the door to place himself in a thinking sanctuary. Need to schedule an appointment? Buzz his handy secretary! Looking for a warm meal and a home cleaning, there’s some female in every major characters life that makes sure those things are taken care of.

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Our new economy has brought tremendous access and opportunity for women like me. It’s also brought with it expectations that I should be as effective at solving tough crime as Sam Spade while managing a raging river of non-stop correspondence, keeping my life afloat, taking care of friends, my home, and balancing a million hobbies. And don’t forget all the time I need to spend surfing the internet watching cat videos! No wonder the busy trap was such an instant hit on Facebook.

To me, this isn’t a feminist issue. I’m not trying to take a side in the Slaughter vs. Sandberg debate.

This is a human issue. It’s not just women I see struggling to get through endless to-do lists and thousands of emails a month while making a real contribution to the world. It’s the men and women of a connected generation. Like so many others, I find myself trying to balance the opportunities and excitement of this modern life with the real limits of my personal capacity.

The Experiment!

Right now my main point of intervention to try and bring some some Sam Spade like effectiveness to my life is structural. Based on a blog post from Tony Schwartz at the energy project, I’m trying to structure my days to include three 90 minute bursts of focused working, followed by real, genuine breaks. Like a walk in the park, or yoga, or 30 minutes cuddled up reading my kindle (note: a month in I’ve adjusted it down to two bursts a day to handle the realities of meetings and phone calls). I’ve used what I learned from the Power of Habit to try and make these focused work sessions routine: I set up a cue (a hot cup of earl grey), a routine (turning off email and phone and getting down to business), and a reward (checking the mind candy that is facebook).

The Impact.

I haven’t been perfect, and taking the advice of habit expert Leo Babauta I haven’t berated myself for that imperfection. But the results have been real. I feel better about myself at the end of the day because I can point to genuine accomplishments. I am able to turn off my computer every night knowing I was proactive and productive, breaking the cycle of constantly reacting to whatever is at the top of my inbox. And I’ve made serious progress on some tough challenges.

After almost a month living in the 90 minute experiment, I’ve come to realize that the biggest payoff has come from turning off my email during that time. It’s a mini email vacation. My phone goes into airplane mode so I’m not secretly, distractingly anticipating a blinking light or buzz that signals new stimulation and respite. By flipping off my email, I move out of reactive mode, into creative mode.

The downside is I’ve fallen even further behind on personal email than I already was. So I do apologize for that.

The moral of the story? Turn off your emails for at least a few hours a day. And facebook, and chat, and twitter. And just see what happens. You could be amazed.

3 April 2013 ·

RAP 1
"We’re relying on 20th century work practices in a 21st century world"

~ The Energy Project

25 March 2013 ·

RAP 1

The Best Minds of Our Generation, and Keeping Them Alive

These days I spend too much time brooding on my communities relationship to their work, and the many personal sustainability issues stemming from this relationship.

When I rage against long hours, missed weekends, my friends all nod in agreement that this is a problem, but add the caveat… “Of course, that is unless you love what you do and you are fighting to make a difference.”

And then I sigh sadly to myself. Because to me that only makes it all the more important to step back, refresh, keep perspective. How can we be effective at making even a small impact if we aren’t taking care of ourselves, and taking the time to really be in the world we’re working so hard to impact?

I have my own theories on how a work-a-holic culture is only holding us back from our true potential. But Tanene Allison addresses this culture, with it’s dangers and opportunities, far more eloquently than I ever could. I’ve pulled out an illuminating passage below, but every word is worth a read. I encourage you to click the link above.

Doing the hard and intense work necessary to change the world should not be seen as thus also taking a vow of poverty, or a vow to give up a balanced life. The work to create a better world must be held alongside a regular appreciation of the good in the world we have now. Whether the particular good that fuels someone is the ability to pause for sunsets, or to create art for the sake of art, or to spend more time listening to music, or among loved ones. Whatever it is that adds particular pleasure to our lives, it usually is not seen as equally important as the endless to-do lists we have in front of us. This is so even when the things that give us pleasure might be as simple as decent sleep, healthy eating habits, and time among those who remind us why we do what we do.

The only way to keep the brightest among us fueled and able to create the massive change we all benefit from has to include allowing more of this balance. This is an issue about personal balance, about workplace cultures, and also about how we treat each other.

15 March 2013 ·

Closing the loop

Sometimes I dream about starting a consulting firm called Feedback Loops. The premise would be simple. I’d transform the world by helping people ensure their engagement, collaboration, or outreach work actually exists within complete feedback loops.

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I firmly believe that in order to realize the full potential of any participatory process we need complete feedback loops. Too often I’ve seen organizations focusing on listening. They create new mechanisms for employees to provide ideas, or host meetings to gather feedback from community members. And don’t get me wrong, listening is a great place to start and is a huge leap forward for many institutions. But if you stop there you’ve missed the boat. You need to show people you listened. And showing people you listened does not simply mean doing what they asked (which is another mistake you see too often).

The simplest illustration of this I’ve heard was from a participant in a design workshop Groupaya hosted a few months back. The topic was improving participation in city planning processes. One participant wisely stated:

When I ask my family for input on what we should have for dinner I’m asking them to participate in the planning. When I ask my daughter, she says she wants ice cream. I respond “Great idea! But we’re not going to have ice cream because…”

And there’s your complete feedback loop. Voila.

Of course the more varied the participation, the more complex closing the feedback loop becomes. But it’s worth a shot. Because even an attempt helps build trust and relationship with your community, and I believe is part of the secret sauce that makes participatory processes truly transformative.

14 March 2013 ·

Respect your elders

I’ve spent the better part of the last five years helping start-up’s start-up.

Most recently I was the first employee at Groupaya, and took the gig as a respite from a somewhat overwhelming previous stint as a first employee at another start-up, Myoo Create.

My friends thought this was a strange way to take a break from one start-up with a funny name, going right into another start-up with a funny name. But what made this engagement different was that I was going to have mentors, really engaged and present leaders to learn from and grow underneath.

You see my community of social entrepreneurs leans towards the youthful. As a young do-gooder fresh to San Francisco, I reveled in that opportunity. But by 27 I was not so secretly craving some genuine leadership.

And so I counted myself lucky to join an organization with not just one, but two leaders who were willing and accomplished mentors (see the Groupaya team below).

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Now as I’m about to turn 30, my mentors have gone their separate ways, and I am leaving my second start-up behind. But unlike before, I am armed with a whole new set of wisdom that draws not just on my own experience, but that of my mentors with many more years of falling and getting back up to learn from.

I feel light years ahead of where I did two years ago, and while I am still piecing together exactly what I did learn and what it all means for life post-Groupaya, the one thing that’s abundantly clear is that I would not have traded the opportunity to work under strong mentors.

And what breaks my heart is that my current town seems full of folks shunning that very opportunity. Throughout Silicon Valley and San Francisco there’s a youth gold rush. Start-ups brag they do not consider hiring older applicants. We are building homogenous companies full of the youthful, and I am suspicious of how long they can truly succeed.

I consider myself far more effective because I did not have to personally learn every lesson that was imparted on me by Eugene and Kristin, that I could veer around holes into which they’d already stumbled.

So if you have a little inkling that “gosh, it would be nice to have someone with a bit more experience to ask advice of,” I’d encourage you to listen to that voice, slow down for a minute, and go learn. Just see what happens. 

I promise, you will not be too old to make a difference afterwards. And eventually this bubble will burst (as they always do) and Silicon Valley will remember there is a reason for the age old wisdom “Respect your elders.”

8 March 2013 ·

Better citizinship? Who has the time.

Last night in his SOTU, President Obama invoked one of my favorite themes: citizenship. He reminded us all that while we of course need our elected representatives to do their part, we, as citizens, need to take our responsibility and power to affect this country seriously.

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He called on the story of Desiline Victor (which obviously made me weep with joy), and got me thinking about a very real barrier to these small acts of good citizenship that on a large scale add up to a better country. It’s the same culprit behind our rising blood pressure, stress levels, and weakening communities.

Of course, I’m talking about Time.

At least in my little pocket of America, work-a-holism is the cultural norm. People fill their lives to the very brim. As time has become the ultimate scarcity, I wonder whom among us would really feel at liberty to stand in line for 6 hours and support Desiline Victor if the moment called?

I was recently reminded of just how good those good citizen moments feel on my mini-mountain sabbatical. The trip was fantastic in every sense of the word, yet undoubtedly my favorite moment was my one self-less, excessively simple good neighbor moment. I’ll tell you the story below (because it makes me look awesome, obviously), but I had a few poignant realizations after this good citizen moment:

  • It felt good all the way down to my core to help a random member of my (albeit temporary) community
  • It’s horrifying that the woman I helped was shocked that someone actually took the Time to help
  • It’s even more horrifying to think how unlikely it is I would have stopped had I been moving at my normal, jam-packed pace of San Francisco life.

I’ll share the story below, but I committed right there and then to try as hard as I could to maintain at least some of that vacation like white space in my life upon return. If I succeed, I hope to do more of what my president asked of me while doing something that make me feel really, really good inside: be a good neighbor with the flexibility to respond when my community is in need.

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OK - story time! For those of you who want the short version: I helped an old lady who had fallen and couldn’t get up, rather than leaving it to the proper authorities. The nuance is this all happened on skiis in really deep powder. Pretty simple, but it really did feel amazing.

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Let me set the scene: We’re in Bozeman, MT on a Thursday. The gods have just given us 23 inches of the lightest, fluffiest powder in a surprise overnight snow storm. For those of you who haven’t witnessed the frenzy of a mountain town on a powder day, I think everything can be explained by the mantra “there are no friends on a powder day.” Schools close, everyone calls in sick, and it’s every man for himself in the rush to get while the getting is good.

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Luckily for some older lady, I’ve been in the lowlands for the past four years so my powder instincts were un-tuned. When I heard cries for help as I entered my favorite woods in search of some more face shots, I naturally turned into the flat lands to help. Turns out, an older lady had literally fallen into two feet of powder and couldn’t get up. She’d had recent hip surgery, and in the rush of a great ski day had forgotten her limits.

When I spotted the problem, I’ll admit my first thought was to call for the ski patrol. After all, they are the professionals we pay to help people on the mountain and I had skiing to do! But this was also probably the ski patrols hardest day of the year: they were ferociously trying to keep the mountain safe from avalanches, dealing with lots of serious injuries, plus lord knows how far away they were while this woman was lying in the cold snow. This was a straightforward problem I was capable of dealing with.

So while others zoomed past enjoying their powder, I stayed behind to help. It took some effort, but we got her up and moving back to her husband.

Her gratitude was remarkable, if not slightly horrifying. She was confident everyone would ignore her please for help. She truly made me feel like an angel and was trying to repay me when i had to ski away in anonymity to put an end to her gratitude. I left pretty huffed up and pleased with myself, and tried to commit to being helpful in the future because it really did feel great.

13 February 2013 ·

RAP
"We were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can."

~ President Barack Obama

13 February 2013 ·

Rebecca Ann Petzel's Blog