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Why Experiment?

Linking STP’s internal experiments to their mission

In May, we presented a webinar focusing on Learning through Experimentation. Eugene and I outlined the experimentation process, and Jodie and Eden shared STP’s motivation and the practices that have shifted, challenged, and opened up their organization. This blog post situates STP’s internal experiments within the larger context of supporting and challenging a network of progressive leaders, drawing from what was shared in our webinar.

You can watch the webinar and learn more and read an overview here.

Here’s Jodie’s eloquent explanation of the motivations for learning through experimentation:

STP is building a functional cross-movement network of progressive leaders who think long term, share a common agenda, and can move to action together. At the heart of the network are 21 powerful movement leaders from across issue areas that have far-reaching influence and lead critical progressive institutions. Since 2010, we have supported them (the Wye River network) to connect deeply, build trust, strategize, experiment, and collaborate in ways that strengthen our power and unite our progressive voices.

This group of leaders include people like Mary Kay Henry (President of SEIU, the nation’s largest public sector union), Cornell Williams (President of the NAACP), Ai-jen Poo (Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance), Annie Leonard (ED of Greenpeace US), Ilyse Hogue (President of NARAL).

So Why Experiment?

Climate of Inequality Walls

Inequality is growing and climate change is worsening while racist rhetoric and hate is on the rise. In the face of that, the progressive movement has yet to secure the necessary power and alignment to overcome these daunting challenges.

We can’t expect to linearly scale and knock down wall after wall until we’ve reached the promised land. The landscape is too complex and dynamic.

We need to be tackling more than one wall at a time. We have to be trying many different things in parallel and learning from each other in real-time. We have to be agile and adaptive.

Right now, we’re not agile, adaptive and learning together. We often get in each other’s way rather than working in tandem. We don’t leverage knowledge and innovation from other sectors. Our approach to change is often reactive and haphazard. The structures of our  organizations don’t support the kind of innovation, coordination, and collaboration we need.

Even if we were to solve all of these collaboration problems, it still wouldn’t be enough. It’s not enough to work more efficiently. We have to work more strategically.

Our most promising leaders know all of this to be true and are finding the way, but they struggle to break out of old patterns. They lack the dedicated time, resources and expertise to invent new systems and structures, and to practice in new ways.

They want a network where they can experiment together,  develop new practices, and think long term.

We knew that rapid experimentation and learning was a big part of that answer.

We started by asking: How might we best support and challenge our networks to strategize and work together more powerfully and effectively for greater impact?

In service of that question we began a series of internal experiments (on ourselves) primarily as a way to help us develop a stronger point of view about what experimentation looked like and how to support it. It’s been a great ride, and we’ve seen some surprising outcomes.

STP continues to walk their talk. They have integrated experiments into their weekly team meetings and this summer have been testing questions including:

  • How might I feel less behind on quadrant 2 (important but not urgent) systems work? (Coming Up for Air)
  • How might we stay organized and connected so that our individual work is focused and productive and our team work is vibrant, fun and supportive of our best work? (It’s Getting Better All the Time)

Simultaneously, STP is focusing more externally to challenge and support their network and are using our learning through experimentation process as a frame. Stay tuned for updates on this process soon.

Flashback to 2015

With the new year, STP is starting a new phase of experimenting that will include both internally- and  externally-facing experiments. This post is a reminder of what our first phase was like together.

Experiment Update from November 16, 2015:

STP staff continues to rock on experiments. Last week we debriefed the Wye, Help Us experiment. This was a simple and straightforward experiment that came up in response to an email soliciting takeaways from an in-person meeting. However, taking the time to debrief uncovered new experiment possibilities. It became clear that the quality of virtual engagement and response rates is something around which we should be intentional about experimenting (likely in Phase 1 of the network planning process). Specifically, we might want to get more concrete about our expectations around engagement and create a dashboard to aggregate and track how we’re doing across all STP networks.

On our weekly experiment checkin call, we asked STP staff and our consultant team to reflect on some of the challenges and high points seven weeks into the process. Below are excerpts from their reflections.

Highs:

  • “I think my highs were Log it or Lose it, because it has really helped me organize my work. And Big Picture Little Picture, because it helped make team meetings more engaging, and inspired the new one (Just Right Connection), which also promises to be an improvement.”
  • “It has felt satisfying to know that we are actually identifying our weaknesses and our strengths, as a team. Some of the experiments have also brought up new ideas and ways of thinking around how I manage my work – which also helps to manage stress. I also feel much more connected to my co-workers, less isolation and more shared ideas/work.”
  • “Identifying problems and addressing them. New practices for how we better organize and track our work. We’re created a sense of momentum.”
  • “There is greater staff engagement and agency around how we’re doing and where we’re headed together.”
  • “Really embracing the spirit of experimentation. Being very iterative. Using the structures to make intentional changes and adjustments that are hopefully providing value, leading to learning.”

Challenges included:

  • “Time. Time. Time. I fully recognize that this process is an investment that has already given us returns. But, the time it takes can be frustrating. I’ve had a few moments of not wanting the hear the word ‘experiment,’ but primarily as a reaction to being overwhelmed and not wanting to look outside of my own work.”
  • “Hard to keep up with all of the different experiments.”

Taking time to reflect on our past process, both the highlights and the challenges gives me perspective and inspiration for more experiment action!

 

What’s New on the STP Network Support Site, No. 5

2016 Planning Update

We’re nearly done designing a loose framework around network planning for next year. STP has two challenges. First, its participants are tremendously busy, more so than average because many of them are executive directors of their organizations. Second, much of its work over the past six years has largely been siloed in small groups. People identify more with these small groups than with the network as a whole.

We’re going to try to shift this next year in a few ways. First, we want to acknowledge and build upon the small group work that’s already happened. There are several meetings already scheduled next year, and we hope to start opening up people’s thinking at those meetings. We will also link the different design teams for these meetings into a larger design team for the overall network.

Second, the network-wide design team will be open and permeable. Anyone who wants to participate will be able to participate. We hope to get about 15 people, and if we can regularly get two-thirds of that group participating in design conversations, we’ll be doing great.

To support that openness and permeability, we cannot be overly dependent on meetings and phone calls. We need to have other ways in which people can participate. How we tell the ongoing story and how we create entry and exit points for people will be critical.

Part of how we’re going to do that is to have people talk to each other as much as possible in pairs and maybe slightly larger groups. We won’t require that everybody be on the same phone call. The support team will have to really be on its game in terms of synthesizing, integrating, and reflecting back in order for this to work.

Next week, we’ll align around what we mean when we say, “systemic analysis,” and we’ll try to nail down some final details before wrapping up this iteration of the planning process.

Experiment Update

In other news, we’ve completed three experiments! STP staff has been not only hard workers but courageous and graceful in navigating and reshaping their current internal practices.

Check out the lessons learned from Log It or Lose it, our experiment relating to tracking decisions and next steps from meetings. The experiment was wildly successful, and STP staff decided to make it the norm, integrating it fully into their work moving forward.

One quote the demonstrates significance of this experiment as well as how it connects with the Your Plate, My Plate, Sharing Dessert experiment:

“This feel like an important next step for us as an organization. I see both how it will help us work more efficiently and interconnectedly as well as help in places we have had some bumps. It requires a huge amount of slowing down, and this will take some getting use to. I think it will shine a light on issues of capacity.”

This week marked the end of My Plate, Your Plate, Sharing Dessert. Stay tuned for lessons learned and the design of three new experiments next week that continue to examine STP’s internal processes.

What’s New on the STP Network Support Site, No. 4

We are keeping a brisk pace with the experiments. Lessons learned from Big Picture, little picture were posted, and a page for a third experiment, dubbed My Plate, Your Plate, Sharing Dessert?, was updated last week.

You may have noticed previously that sharing experiment pages on Facebook created a generic preview and thumbnail—not very useful for sharing! 🙁  Because our dashboard data lives in a spreadsheet and the experiment pages are built dynamically in the browser, Facebook was only able to scrape Open Graph tags from the base template. To solve this problem, we’ve added a function to grab metadata from the Google spreadsheet when the base page is being built on the server. Now when you share Idea or Test pages on Facebook (or other platforms supporting Open Graph), the posting tool will generate a nice summary with image thumbnail (if available). Hurray!

What’s New on the STP Network Support Site, No. 3

Lots of action last week around the experiments. The page for the second experiment, dubbed Log It or Lose It, was updated. You can also find instructions for how to start a new experiment as a submenu item under Experiments. 

The debrief date and workstreams for experiments and storytelling have been updated on the project roadmap.

You may also notice that screenshots of the website for these update posts have been darkened to reduce confusion about what is an image and what is the actual blog post text. Let me know if that helps!

Planning for 2016 continues to progress. Eugene came back from the Wye River meeting with a much clearer sense of what people care about, what their relationships are to each other and to STP, and the role that the Wye River cohort is playing in the network as a whole right now.

We’ve decided to focus our energies around planning the first quarter of 2016 (through the next Wye River meeting) in greater detail and keeping the rest of 2016 relatively high level. That will give us the opportunity to enroll key members of the network and give them a co-creative voice in planning for 2016 and beyond.

The challenge will be to plant enough of a stake-in-the-ground so that our thinking around 2016 isn’t general-to-the-point-of-meaningless, but is also open enough so that others can come in early next year and own and shape it.

We’ve got three more planning meetings to figure this out. Stay tuned!

Experimentation Begins and You’re Invited!

We are in the experiment process!

This an update on our current experiments and instructions for how to start your own experiments. You can see an overview of all our ideas and tests on our dashboard. Many thanks to Amy Wu for getting this first iteration up and running so quickly.

BIG PICTURE, little picture:
Our BIG Picture, little picture test is about to wrap up and so far the results are overall positive in terms of creating more connection to self, work and the team at weekly team meetings.

Here is a reflection from Eden:

The centering & big picture/little picture experiments have both been incredibly grounding. The centering exercise quiets all of the “noise” and has left me feeling better connected to myself & my team. Big pic/little pic really opened up the door to honest and important conversations that our team rarely has time & space for.

Stay tuned as we’ll be analyzing our data and culling out lessons learned in the next two weeks.

Log it or Lose it:
Simultaneously, the STP staff is embarking on a new test, called Log it or Lose it, around documenting decisions and action items in real times through the use of a meeting log and Smartsheet, a program for project management.  The design of this experiment is a slightly more complicated iteration of documentation that started this summer and did not catch on.  As we were designing this experiment,  I asked about what was motivating people to do this rather than see  this documentation as extra work.  There was an assumption that meeting notes are NOT inherently fun.  I was impressed by the clear articulation of their importance:

  • Seeing that we can do this together and that it’s effective and efficient will boost morale. Feeling like ball is rolling forward, and our tasks are making a difference. 
  • Help keep plans up-to-date every day. Having work plans up-to-date — even when busy — can provide great peace of mind. Feel more in-control, satisfied.
  • Reduce confusion around decisions, priorities!

Updated Experiment Process Instructions:
I’m encouraging the STP team to keep on ideating! I know that there were other ideas percolating that came out of our Kick Off and that ideas will keep flowing as we get deeper into the planning and storytelling processes. Check out our new page detailing how to start your own experiment and what support we’ll be offering along the way.

Everyone is welcome to come up with new experiments to test.
Congrats to the STP team on a very strong start to experimentation!
Thanks for your willingness to jump in.

What’s New on the STP Network Support Site, No. 2

Last week was a quiet one on the website, with most of the team (Jodie, Eden, Idelisse, and Eugene) in Maryland for the Wye River gathering, and then on to destinations beyond. Looking forward to learnings and reflections from their journeys showing up here!

Meanwhile, in Oakland, Edie and Alison started designing another experiment. The new idea, Dialed In, was added to the experiments dashboard; details of the yet-to-be-named test are in progress.

What’s New on the STP Network Support Site, No. 1

Our project website officially went live on September 25, with the inaugural blog post about the Story of Your Name introductions, kickoff summary, and experiment dashboard. Since then, we’ve implemented a new menu structure and published another blog post and a stakeholder map.

Navigation and Sidebar Menus

The main navigation menu has been reorganized to reflect the organization of our work in Phase 0, with tabs to the landing pages for each workstream and the metastream, and our project journal. Blog posts and documents related to the workstream appear in sidebar menus.

2016 Planning

Following the first planning meeting on September 28, Eugene wrote a thoughtful post about alignment and enrollment, and created a Kumu stakeholder map. Links to the evolving planning documents can be found at the top of the sidebar menu of the 2016 Planning landing page.

Experiments

Last week, STP staff jumped into their first experiment, BIG PICTURE, Little Picture, with not one but two team meetings.

Our project site will continue change as the work progresses. These weekly summary posts will track that evolution.

Aligning Around Outcomes and the Challenge of Enrollment

This past Monday, we had our first official meeting of the 2016 planning process. I kicked off the meeting by asking about success and stakeholders. This unleashed a torrent of thinking around theory of change and other issues, which was unexpected, but great. All of these issues are interrelated. The order in which we tackle them doesn’t matter. What matters is that we eventually converge on several critical issues.

It’s going to take some time and ongoing discussion for us to do that, but I wanted to share some thoughts and questions right now.

The number one challenge with any group, regardless of structure, is enrollment. STP’s network consists of busy leaders who do not necessarily operate with a mindset of abundance. Even if we identify goals that the network itself considers to be of very high value, getting people’s attention and time will still be a huge challenge.

If time and attention will be at a premium, then we have to be very disciplined about priorities. The number one mistake that people (including me) make with these kinds of processes is that they try to do too many things. We need to make clear choices, and in order to do that, we need to get very clear about our theory of change, so that we can choose interventions that we think will have the highest impact on our network.

This is exactly what we’re wanting the network itself to do — come to a shared understanding of the system they’re all trying to change so that they can make smarter, more strategic decisions.

At our Monday meeting, I learned the staff is currently hedging on how collective these decisions and actions need to be. Maybe it’s enough if everyone individually acts in smarter ways as a result of this shared understanding. Maybe agreement, especially at scale, is not important, at least not right now.

Maybe, maybe not. We have to be more rigorous in how we determine this. First, we need to understand our network more comprehensively, so that we can understand both what’s desirable and what’s possible.

What we currently understand about the the network is largely colored by interactions with key leaders of the Wye River and Black Lake cohorts. That’s a small sample size — about 10 percent of the overall network, depending on how you’re counting. I’m anxious to hear from the larger network what it wants and where it stands, and I’m anxious for the network to hear this from itself.

Second, we need to get clearer about the outcomes we’d like to see. Most of the goals we were discussing on Monday were process-oriented. With time and attention being such a constraint, it’s not enough to choose processes that will “improve things.” We have to choose processes that will get us where we want to go. In order to do that, we need to have a clearer, more concrete sense of what success looks like.

To use a running analogy, it’s not enough to say that we want to be in good shape. We need to be clear about whether we’d like to be able to run five miles or run a marathon.

Getting clearer on desired outcomes takes us back to the network. It may be that we may not have all the right people in the network right now to accomplish what is desired. If that’s the case, we need to identify who’s missing and figure out how to enroll them.

Next week, I’ll have chance to meet members of the Wye River cohort, listen in on their meeting, and watch them interact. That will help inform some of my thinking in preparation for a followup discussion with Jodie and Idelisse after the meeting. I hope that, by the following week, we’ll have converged enough around these current questions to start drafting a plan.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to share design ramblings here. I welcome your thoughts!

Fun Is Our Middle Name

On Tuesday, we kicked off the planning process for how Social Transformation Project can best support and challenge its network in 2016 and beyond. We opened the morning with an introduction exercise called “The Story of Your Name,” which elicited some rich conversation and we learned some surprising, fun tidbits about each other.

For example, I didn’t know Eugene is Eric to his family, or that he shares his name with a famous female K-pop star! We learned that Edie has a green thumb for garden and community wherever she lands. When looking for a co-schemer, Jodie is a great choice, possibly because she has the best shoes. Leila is a modern dancer and her name means the way sunlight shines through dew in the morning. Eden is a world traveler with a saucy sense of humor that bubbles up just when you need it. Alison can ride a bicycle carrying 77 things, including a tropicana vase full of tall-stemmed flowers. We’re pretty sure one of Ide’s ancestor’s had an outdoor hearth, but the important thing we all agree is that Ide is cool as hell.

Here we are, being silly at the end of the day. I’m no soothsayer, the Wu () in my name notwithstanding, but it looks like we’re going to have fun in the coming weeks!

(left to right) Idelisse Malavé, Amy Wu, Jodie Tonita, Leila Talore and family (on clipboard), Edie Irons, Eugene Eric Kim, Eden Kidane, Alison Lin (front).