Archives for the month of: September, 2009
"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=”″ text=”West Farm – ‘Cubicle'”]


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

MCG Logo

Logo by Naina Redhu at Aside (

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:

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 and let’s talk.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Dance Hall 2 by Flickr kevindooley

"Dance Hall 2" by Flickr kevindooley

This guest article is by my friend Eric Siegel:

One of the ironies of the current transition in community and network building is that we seem to have forgotten or ignored the previous transition. The “institution-centric” mode of civic engagement (to use Brad’s phrase) is a relatively recent invention, at least in America. (For a variety of historical reasons, an argument can be made that the institution-centric model has been around somewhat longer in Europe and elsewhere.) In our not-too-distant past, community engagement was much more along the “citizen-centric” model that seems to be emerging, albeit with some important catalyzing functions played by significant social and political institutions.

Here’s a prime example. I teach American Government at the Community College of Rhode Island. I talk in my classes about the decline of political parties in our system. Part of this decline is due to the reduction or elimination of the role that political parties once played in helping connect people to their communities and to each other. A hundred years ago, local political party organizations published newspapers, held dances, sponsored amateur sports teams, arranged for social services. One of the most important functions they served was to help integrate recent immigrants into existing immigrant/expatriate communities. (Anyone who has seen the film “Gangs of New York” will have some idea of what I’m talking about.)

Lots of other public and quasi-public institutions served similar functions. They brought people together so that they could pursue their interests better — not to serve the needs of the organization per se (although they did do that), but to help people serve their own needs. Parties recruited volunteers for campaigns, mobilized voters for elections, and developed partisan loyalty. But they also helped people, especially vulnerable, isolated individuals and nuclear family groups, establish roots and connections that they needed to survive, and that enabled communities to flourish.

Over the last century, these kinds of institutions made a transition from fulfilling a social networking function (in addition to their other roles) to being merely service providers. Now we are beginning to (re)discover the importance of the social networking aspect to the viability of our communities, and discovering that the institutions that used to help do that for us (or should I say with us?) no longer do.

Beginning at the turn of the last century, the political party system began to be remade. The passage of anti-patronage laws in civil service hiring undercut the ability of political organizations to cement people’s loyalty through the distribution of public-sector jobs. Over the course of the 20th century, campaign finance reforms made individual candidates more responsible for their own campaign development, further reducing the need for strong party loyalty ties. Today, the relation between political parties and voters is basically a customer-brand relationship; we’re important to them for our numbers, and they provide us with a choice of elected representatives. But there’s no other real mechanism (or reason) for fostering those deeper ties, for making interpersonal connections, and for developing community bonds. The institutions that once helped us build networks now only want clients.

Eric Siegel is a lecturer in Political Science at the Community College of Rhode Island, and co-Chair of the Green Party of Rhode Island. And a big Martin Scorsese fan.

... Iuvenetus Summus! by Flickr user Poldavo (Alex)

"... Iuvenetus Summus!" by Flickr user Poldavo (Alex)

Andrea Jarrell drew my attention to a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by former Howard Dean Internet wunderkind Zephyr Teachout.

Both newspapers and universities have traditionally relied on selling hard-to-come-by information. Newspapers touted advertising space next to breaking news, but now that advertisers find their customers on Craigslist and, the main source of reporters’ pay is vanishing. Colleges also sell information, with a slightly different promise — a degree, a better job and access to brilliant minds. As with newspapers, some of these features are now available elsewhere. A student can already access videotaped lectures, full courses and openly available syllabuses online. And in five or 10 years, the curious 18- (or 54-) year-old will be able to find dozens of quality online classes, complete with take-it-yourself tests, a bulletin board populated by other “students,” and links to free academic literature. . . .

Because the current college system, like the newspaper industry, has built-in redundancies, new Internet efficiencies will lead to fewer researchers and professors. . . . [A]t noon on any given day, hundreds of university professors are teaching introductory Sociology 101. The Internet makes it harder to justify these redundancies. In the future, a handful of Soc. 101 lectures will be videotaped and taught across the United States. When this happens — be it in 10 years or 20 — we will see a structural disintegration in the academy akin to that in newspapers now. The typical 2030 faculty will likely be a collection of adjuncts alone in their apartments, using recycled syllabuses and administering multiple-choice tests from afar.

So how should we think about this? Students who would never have had access to great courses or minds are already able to find learning online that was unimaginable in the last century.

I reproduced a fair amount of the piece because I believe it is an important point to grasp fully. The institutional structures of academe are poised to undergo profound upheavals. This is due to a confluence of social forces, not the least of which is the general shift to a citizen-centric world in which people demand that institutions and organizations conform to their priorities and needs, not vice-versa.

Just as with the journalism world, we do not yet know exactly how this will play out, though we can sense the general contours. It’s possible that the education of the future will be deeply self-directed, as Teachout describes.

However, most of our prognostications are still rooted in what we believe people need or want from institutions. For instance, the above vision of college presupposes that people come to campus to seek “a degree, a better job and access to brilliant minds” from higher education. Certainly, people do seek those things.

However, like many institutions, there’s something more that people get that they sometimes do not realize they are getting. These elements often go overlooked in our talks about the future.

In the case of newspapers, it is (among other things) serendipity and an editorial eye: There are editors concerned with making sure I have the opportunity to see things I might not have seen otherwise, and overall ensuring there is consistent quality.

In the case of universities, the “more” may be a pedagogy rooted in a day-in, day-out experience. This is left out of many discussions of what higher education might “look like” as the future unfolds. Our conversations typically assume that a “student” is really a “consumer” of education.

But the pedagogy of campus does not just impart knowledge. It imparts practice, too. It forges habits of thought and attitude. It creates students. Many of the methods that higher education uses are ones that people might not seek out if they can pick and choose their program at will — just as an example, many core course requirements.

Where, then, will people seeking education find this pedagogy? Like many things that used to be taught earlier, maybe they’ll be taken to the workplace. For many people, their first encounter with someone telling them “no” is in their first job. Similarly, in a world where people create their own education, it may be that the first time people really learn how to organize their thoughts across subjects (which is the kind of thing many professional settings require) is in the workplace.

This suggests to me that the role of mentorship — or apprenticeship — will only grow in importance. Managers already know they often need to jump-start new employees. They may need to devote even more thought to first-year experiences.

But in what other ways can we convey habits that require practice over time, sometimes over the in-the-moment objections of our subjects? This has been one of the roles of some institutions in public life. With what will we replace them?

My friend John Creighton and I have recorded another video dialogue about the shift in public life away from an “institution centric” world to a “citizen centric” world.

Our starting point was a comment that I heard at last week’s working session so social media and community benefit organizations, which was organized by the National Conference on Citizenship, the Case Foundation, and PACE. At this working session, Scott Heiferman, founder of, said this:

“You know how all these organizations have links to their Twitter and Facebook accounts? Most of them say ‘connect with us.’ But why would I want to do that, and why do you want people to ‘connect’ with you? That still sees your organization as the mothership. Get people to connect to each other somehow.”

This prompted John and I to think about the whole notion of an institution wanting to “connect” with its public — and just how hard it is to take yourself out of the equation and get people connecting with one another. For an institution, this may be the toughest discipline of all.

Here is our discussion:

Creighton And Rourke: “Connecting” Is Not Enough from Brad Rourke on Vimeo.

(Go here to see our whole series of video dialogues.)

I recall I was at LAX, on my way home to Maine. Our flight was being held, no one on the plane knew why. Shortly it became clear that something terrible had happened. Air traffic was grounded for the ensuing week. So many were far more deeply affected than I was. Friends of mine lost loved ones, and they remember this day with emotions ranging from bitterness to hope. But this time has meaning to me, as well, because of my experiences while waiting in LA for a chance to get back home.

Westin Bonaventure Hotel by Flickr user AndrewGorden

“Westin Bonaventure Hotel” by Flickr user AndrewGorden

My Los Angeles hotel had been near the airport, but I moved downtown, as I reasoned that LAX might be a follow-up target. Many people were making similar calculations and changing plans. The Westin Bonaventure Hotel became a little outpost for a few days, as those of us who were stranded wandered the many lobbies, collecting around the televisions that had been set up strategically.

I worked for an organization with a weekly online newsletter. They asked me to talk to people to see how they were reacting, and I filed a report the next week.

Here’s an excerpt:

There was foreboding this week in Los Angeles. Three of the four hijacked planes were bound for Los Angeles International Airport. While that fact appeared to have nothing to do with Los Angeles specifically, there was almost a sense of guilt pervading the town. . . . It was hard not to find someone personally affected by the terrorist acts in some way. Yet the responses I heard were measured and thoughtful. In a town so intensely focused on presentation and image, where even the bail bondsmen have a keen marketing savvy (billboard downtown: “Bad Boy Bail Bonds: Because your mama wants you home”), even the anger had a quiet deliberation to it. . . .

I can remember once, shortly after the Persian Gulf War, I was listening to a talk radio station in Los Angeles, where I used to live. I was almost blown out of my seat by the extreme, angry words of one of the callers, who railed at the racial inferiority of Arabs, sprinkling his invective with creative epithets. The host let him go on at length. I lost my stamina before he did, switching stations. The intensity of the tirade had shaken me, and I feared for the state of the world — mostly because the host and nearly every caller were in complete agreement. I saw visions of government internment camps.

Some see that the role of government is to help us to be more than vigilantes. At a time when revenge can be foremost in the minds of citizens, some see a need for moral leadership from elected officials — to remind us of the values we share as humans, to remind us to avoid blanket condemnations and faith-based profiling. . . . Certainly justice will need to be done, and those responsible for the attack on the United States will need to be punished. But we will also need to take care to remember that the perpetrators are responsible for these acts because they are terrorists, not because they believe in the prophet Mohammed. Thankfully, in the midst of anger and the lust for revenge, there are those who seek understanding and balance.

Thank you to The Institute For Global Ethics, in 2001, for giving me the space to write this piece, which you can read in full here.