Archives for the month of: February, 2010

My latest article at my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Toyota Needs Action On Three Levels

Last night I gave a talk on ethics and leadership and I based a large section of it on a reading of Akio Toyoda’s Wall Street Journal op-ed piece apologizing for his company’s shortcomings and outlining plans to correct them. Published Tuesday, it is a good example of some of the concerns that face a public leader in trying to craft and lead an organization that not only talks ethics but also acts on its ethics.

'Working on machinery' by Flickr user NIOSH

'Working on machinery' by Flickr user NIOSH

Set aside, just for the moment, any anger you may feel that an op-ed statement is perhaps too little, too late. There are definitely ways in which some may say his statement falls short, as does the fact that he had to almost be shamed into attending congressional hearings on Toyota’s problems. Instead, let’s take his statement at face value, because, by doing so, we can draw lessons from it.

The story of how Toyota responds (is responding) to its catastrophic problems illustrates the three levels on which leadership must work if an organization is to act ethically. I have written about this before — I call it Heart, Head, and Hands. What I mean by that is intention, policy, and execution.

  • Intention: What is my mission and purpose? To what extent is the achievement of my goals more important than how I go about it? (Heart)
  • Policy: Are there systems, structures, and practices in place, and are they sufficient? Do they connect logically with my mission? Can they reasonably be expected to result in the fulfillment of my mission? (Head)
  • Execution: Am I carrying out my plans, in the way I intend? Am I following my own rules? (Hands)

So many organizations focus on the first two, and ignore the third — but that’s where things go wrong. All too often, when a problem comes to light, the organizational response is to create new policies and procedures. But many, many times the problem is that someone did not follow rules. Often, there’s one slip that gets tolerated, and then magnified over time. A leader needs to keep their eye firmly on all three levels.

Toyoda’s op-ed is remarkable because he admits that it is at the level of execution that things broke down, and he sees execution as the critical component in correcting the problems.

Sure, he points out that Toyota’s heart is in the right place, as he refers to the “Toyota Way.” And in multiple passages, he outlines specific plans about how he will be correcting the safety problems that are coming to light. That is, he’s got his head in order.

But he also talks about the hands. He admits that it wasn’t a matter of having wrong policies — but that Toyota did not execute its own plans properly. “I recognize that we must do better — much better — in responding to safety issues,” he writes. Elsewhere, he admits, “we didn’t listen as carefully as we should — or respond as quickly as we must” to problems. And, “we focused too narrowly on technical issues.”

That’s looking backwards. Looking forward, Toyoda writes:

I pledge that Toyota will set a new standard for transparency and speed of response on safety issues. We also will strive to lead on advanced safety and environmental technologies. And I will continue to personally visit our sales and manufacturing workplaces to reaffirm the Toyota commitment to excellent quality.

Here, too, is a good lesson — a lesson about execution. It takes three things from a leader to really push execution: Commitment to focus on execution over time; Accountability and a willingness to be held responsible for outcomes; and Courage to act on decision. Toyoda’s statements suggest he is thinking about all three factors.

I am not a Toyota owner, but I know many who see the current problems as a blip in an otherwise stellar record. Akio Toyoda’s statements suggest that this can truly be the case — so long as the execution really is there.

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Membership Rolls Dropping. What Does ‘Support’ Look Like?

Yesterday on the DC Metro, I found myself seated behind someone who was reviewing the minutes from a board meeting. I don’t normally read over shoulders but this was just about being shoved in my face. The font was large and clear and had lots of bold. I recommend that people think twice about what sensitive documents they peruse in public — I am not proud to say I could not stop myself from glancing along.

Be Careful, Stick Figure by Flickr user chad_k

'Be Careful, Stick Figure' by Flickr user chad_k

The heading proclaimed these as the minutes from the meeting of a very high profile national advocacy organization. This is an organization that has been around for decades and has been very effective in changing national views on a range of issues. (I am not saying what group this is.)

The page my travelling companion was reading recapped a contentious discussion about membership. Turns out that this organization has fewer than 60,000 members. That caught me up short. It seemed wildly out of step with the organization’s powerful profile.

It also opens up a window into the crisis of confidence that large nonprofit institutions are  facing throughout society. Everywhere you turn, you see formerly-major institutions losing relevancy and crumbling. They are good organizations that do good work. But they are running into brick walls all over the place. The United Way, the League of Women Voters, many public broadcasting stations, and more. Community benefit organizations are facing more difficulty in fundraising, and increasing skepticism. And memberships are falling off the cliff.

Shrinking memberships is a real problem for these organizations, as dues are one of their important revenue sources. Here’s one thing that I believe is going on: The perceived value of my membership has increased. That is, it takes a lot more to get me to “join” an organization now than it used to.

There are many reasons for this. An argument could be made that declining membership rolls are reflective of a sector that is ripe for a shakeup. That may be part of it. But there is a broader force as well.

There are now more ways to show one’s support of a cause, campaign, or organization than there used to be. From easy “liking” and “fanning” on Facebook to retweets, online petitions, and blog comments, the spectrum of options available to prospective members has widened and deepened. Actual, dues-paying membership is ‘way over there at the edge.

Effective organizations are taking account of this and are finding new ways to find revenue (creating for-profit non-profit hybrids), and using new metrics besides just  “members.” For mission-based organizations, focusing on “members” will undercount your actual influence and distort your operations, taking you off mission. More important is having a good understanding about how people move from one form of support to another, what levers you can push to encourage that, and what the utility is of each form of support.

I wanted to share with you some important work that my friend, Beth Offenbacker, is up to.

Beth leads a firm called Public Decisions, which is breaking fascinating ground as one of the premier online real-time training, conferences, and stakeholder engagement. Many of her conferences take place in Second Life, which — more than just being a toy — allows you to do things you can’t otherwise do such as virtual tours, in-depth conversation among far-flung people, and more.

Beth has partnered with Learning Times, a leading producer of online communities,  to convene an annual international flagship conference. This year’s conference is coming up, and it looks very interesting.

Here is what Beth’s materials say about it:

Including the Excluded: The 2010 Stakeholder Engagement Online Conference

Public, private and nonprofit/NGO professionals who experience challenges with effectively engaging diverse people or groups are invited to attend the Stakeholder Engagement 2010 Online Conference: Including the Excluded. The three-day program highlights practical insights and best practices from around the globe for engaging people who have historically been excluded (for example, those subject to racial or ethnic discrimination), individuals with physical or mental disabilities, or persons who are socially excluded for a variety of reasons (such as people who are homeless or in a country illegally).

Held on Tuesday, March 2 through Thursday, March 4, this online conference is open to the public and no travel is required. Registration is $179 USD for individuals and $2,000 USD for site registrations. Group discounts and full-time student/faculty rates also available. Complete registration details are at

The conference is ideal for professionals whose responsibilities include engaging stakeholders on an ongoing or periodic basis, including those in the fields of planning, environmental management and engineering, health, education and nonprofit management.

Registrants will become part of the online conference community, attend conference sessions, participate in networking activities and take field trips in Second Life. They also will be able to access session recordings, presentation materials and continue networking with fellow registrants for at least six months following the conference.

Including the Excluded is presented by PublicDecisions, the online provider of professional development programs for stakeholder engagement and Learning Times, the leading producer of online communities and online conferences for education and training. The Presenting Sponsor is Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

You can keep up on what’s up with the conference by following @publicdecisions on Twitter or search on the #SEConf2010 hashtag.

(I was an early adopter with Second Life. My name used to be Bradrourke Dynamo. Alas, I let that identity go fallow and I recently recreated an identity. You can find me in Second Life under the name: Brad Roundel.)

Yesterday I gave a presentation introducing a new discussion guide designed to help people deliberate over the issue of childhood drinking. I am happy to say the event went very well and there were a lot of people in attendance (more than 125, by my count).

Me outside my talk

Me outside my talk

I opened the talk with a discussion of wicked problems. Among many of my colleagues in the dialog and deliberation field, wicked problems are old hat and not very interesting. However, among more normal folks, the idea never fails to generate energy and very interesting “ah-ha!” moments as people ponder the implications.

That was what I saw yesterday, as people nodded their heads and their facial expressions betrayed discovery.

Ordinary Problems

A lot of problems in public life that communities face are technical in nature. How large should the dam be?  How do we plow snow most efficiently? How should we invest the City’s retirement funds? These are the kinds of problems that it is best to ask experts to address. They can tell us what the best, right answer is and then our political leaders can drive the appropriate solutions.

Other problems are educational in nature. Some people don’t know that they shouldn’t park on certain streets in snowy weather and plow operations get fouled up. Other people are not aware of the services available to them as low-income residents, so they do without things they need. These kinds of problems can also be solved in straightforward ways by getting more information out to the right people (not to say they are easy to solve, just straightforward).

Still other problems are just political problems, or engineering problems, or scientific problems.

Wicked Problems

Then there are wicked problems — these are often problems that beset communities over and over. Persistent poverty is a wicked problem. So is persistent crime. What we do about health care as a community (or nation) is a wicked problem.

Wicked problems were first formally defined and described by a pair of planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973:

Now that . . . relatively easy problems [like shelter clean water, and roads] have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn. . . . A growing sensitivity to the waves of repercussions that ripple through . . . systemic networks and to the value consequences of those repercussions has generated the recent reexamination of received values and the recent search for national goals. There seems to be a growing realization that a weak strut in the professional’s support system lies at the juncture where goal-formulation, problem-definition and equity issues meet. . . .

As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning – and especially those of policy or social planning – are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not “solution.” Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved – over and over again.)

What Wicked Problems Look Like

Rittel and Webber identify ten characteristics of wicked problems. That’s a lot of characteristics to keep in mind, and many are in fact corollaries of one another, so I tend to simplify it a bit.

Here are the key factors I usually talk about:

  • There is no agreement on the cause of the problem, or the cause is not clear
  • There is no definitive solution to the problem
  • Every solution has trade offs
  • Any solution will take multiple actors (e.g. community groups, individuals, and government)

It boils down to this: Wicked problems are so intractable because they involve conflicts between values and every solution has a downside.

For instance, one contemporary wicked problem is what to do about the possibility of terrorism on U.S. soil. We don’t agree on the cause — is it radical Islam, is it porous borders, is it oppression of developed nations, or something else? There is no definitive solution — will jailing all potential terrorists do the trick, or deporting them, or how about educating people around the globe about the freedoms America represents? Every solution has trade offs — for example, if we drastically restrict air travel that may be effective but at the cost of curtailing our fundamental freedom of movement. And, any solution will take multiple actors — government can’t just do it themselves, not can individuals just be more watchful on their own.

Solving And Re-Solving Wicked Problems

We seem to be destined to solve and re-solve wicked problems, precisely because we have to re-strike a social covenant each time we face the problem. In the terrorism example, in 2001 we were willing to live with sudden dramatic travel restrictions in pursuit of security. Today, in 2010, our willingness to go along with that deal is not as wholehearted.

For communities (and nations) to face wicked problems, we simply must deliberate together and weigh the options.  This is not an educational question, but a deal-making question. We must decide together what deals we will strike. Otherwise, we will be faced with imposed solutions from leaders that have tepid support at best.

It has been my honor to work in various ways on exactly these kinds of questions over my career, exploring and articulating the values trade-offs inherent in difficult public problems. It is rewarding, and sometimes difficult, work. But it is work that we in communities will need to keep plugging away at.

The problems we solve today will be back later – not because we did a bad job solving them, but because circumstances change.

Because they are wicked problems.

By the way, here is the presentation I used at my talk, in case you are curious:

Today I am giving a presentation at the release of a new community discussion guide that I am excited about. It is a collaboration between the National Issues Forums and The Leadership Foundation To Keep Children Alcohol Free, which is an organization made up of spouses of governors and former governors.

The discussion guide is called: Childhood Drinking: How Can We Prevent And Reduce The Number Of Children Drinking Alcohol? (Available here as free PDF.) It is meant to help communities deliberate over this issue and develop common ground for action. I am the author.

Underage drinking: How can we prevent and reduce the number of children drinking alcohol?

Underage drinking: How can we prevent and reduce the number of children drinking alcohol?

Here’s an introductory overview, from an abbreviated version:

Alcohol is the drug of choice for America’s youth. By age 15, half of the nation’s children and adolescents will have had a whole drink. Among 15 year olds who do drink, one study shows that on average they binge drink (five drinks or more per session) twice a month.

How many children are drinking that way? According to a federally funded survey conducted by the University of Michigan, 8 percent of eighth graders (13 years old) have binged in the past two weeks, and 18 percent of tenth graders (15 years old) have done so.

Underage drinking is not just a problem for parents to worry about. It can have ripple effects that spread throughout the community. Recent studies indicate that drinking at a young age can derail a person’s later development, which can harm communities.

Childhood drinking is a problem for the entire community. It does not have a single solution. It can increase crime, lower productivity, and raise health care costs.

It must be addressed by many different kinds of people, because solutions will depend on actions by everyday people, community organizations, and government.

Here are three options for addressing childhood drinking, along with the major trade off or drawback to each:

  • Option One: Reach Children With Problems Early — Some children have problems when it comes to alcohol and other issues. We need to find them as early as possible and help them. But: Professionals will intrude in families’ lives; the issue may get pushed underground.
  • Option Two: Remove Access and Incentives — If  we are going to make it so our children don’t drink, we will need to change the community. This includes not only making it harder to get access to alcohol, but also stronger enforcement of the laws. But: We will need more control over children’s day-to-day activities as well as more restrictions on adults’ behavior
  • Option Three: Help Children Through A Difficult Time In Development — We need to help children through the difficult elementary and middle school years so they do not get derailed. But: Responsibility for parenting children will shift from the family to professionals.

Here is an introductory video made using Xtranormal that gives an overview of the options and trade offs:

I enjoyed working on this project and I thank the National Issues Forums and the Leadership Foundation for the opportunity!

To learn more about how to host your own community conversation on this issue, contact the Leadership Foundation.

Next week I will be talking to a group of civic participation experts about social media and how it may (or may not be) affecting democracy, dialog, and deliberation. I began to put my thoughts together in a series of bullet points and it rapidly became an outline for a longer paper. I thought I would publish it here and point my colleagues to it, in order to jump start our conversation.

Social Media And Emerging Alternatives To Top-Down Professionalization In Public Life

What are we talking about?

The Internet has simply become infrastructure (email, static web pages). Social media is emergent now, but it is also on the way to becoming ubiquitous. Facebook, for example, has 350 million users worldwide, half of which sign in every day. More than 60 million accounts are in the U.S.

Social media is also known as Web 2.0, a term which is almost obsolete. What it means is an approach to the Web in which individual contributions are paramount.

Social media’s inherent difference — the core difference between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0 — is that the contributions, comments and other responses of users are seen as intrinsically important. This is a shift in thinking from masses accessing content to masses creating content online.

The key, for civic purposes is: Social media allows many-to-many communication unmediated by central institutions or organizations.

A Study Of Emergence

Asking what effect the Internet will have on public life is similar to the question of how the telephone changed American life. This is an apt comparison for a number of reasons. At its most basic level, the Internet is a new mechanism for communications.

The definitive social study of the telephone is Claude S. Fischer’s America Calling: A Social History Of The Telephone To 1940. This book, published in 1992, studied the spread of the telephone throughout California through primary source material as well as through interviews with people who were alive in the 1910-1940 timeframe.

Telephone by Flickr user Esparta

Telephone by Flickr user Esparta

The parallels to social media are uncanny and persistent. For example, the worries that the establishment had about this new technology and its possible deleterious effects were very similar to what we hear today. In 1926 the Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee discussed the topic “Do modern inventions help or mar character and health?” Among the specific questions the proposed by the committee were “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” [and] “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”

Another common response as the telephone emerged into ubiquity was derision at the triviality of the uses made of the telephone. “We are at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the telephone . . . and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions, and the more leisure they have the more active do they become in destroying ours,” wrote one professor.

Also of interest is how the use of the telephone evolved from its intended purposes. In 1910, Bell was advertising the telephone as an efficiency tool, suitable for business and, to a lesser extent, for making the running of a household easier (for example, ordering groceries became easier).  Just thirteen years later, people’s actual use of the telephone had evolved to the point where sociability was the main point. A 1923 Southwestern Bell training manual for sales staff said: “[T]he telephone . . . almost brings [people] face to face. It is the next best thing to personal contact. So the fundamental purpose of the current advertising is to sell the company’s subscribers their voices at their true worth – to help them realize that ‘Your Voice is You,’ . . . to make subscribers think of the telephone whenever they think of distant friends or relatives.”

From Emergence To Ubiquity

The best examination of using new technologies to organize — that is, of individuals self-organizing outside of the constraints and plans of institutions — is Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing without Organizations (2008). Shirky points out — as does Fischer — that change happens when new technology becomes ubiquitous. Text messaging has driven much more change than has Facebook. The telephone drove change when it became normal to call people and converse for sociable purposes.

The parallel with telephone adoption, and the point about ubiquity, are important ones to keep in mind because they can help frame conversation about engagement and social media, and also stave off alarmism.

Conversations about social media often devolve into conversations about techniques: How can we use our Facebook page to get more donations? That’s an uninteresting way to approach the conversation. It is little different than saying, how can we best use the phone to solicit donations?

Of greater interest are the questions like these:

  • What is going on that we can point to as alternative ways of civic organizing?
  • What are the implications for democracy?
  • Can we name what is needed that evolves away from organization-first thinking?

What is going on?

What are alternative ways of civic organizing? The best way to describe what is going on is to say that people are getting used to new mechanisms for engaging with one another.

In looking at what is happening, we should look at (sometimes spontaneous) efforts that unfold over time, and that involve many people interacting with many.

By Flickr user Beverly & Pack

By Flickr user Beverly & Pack

People point, for instance, to the “green revolution” in Iran — people around the world spontaneously developed ways for Iranian people to get information past government censors about what was going on. People outside of Iran began collating and collecting the information. Institutional news sources began using this information in their reporting. The piece in Iran that is interesting is the way spontaneous individual actions (creating repeater sites) was picked up by institutional entities (news organizations). The key driver of the Iran effect was text messaging (a ubiquitous technology).

Another example, this one from Shirky’s book. A 2002 Boston Globe story on Father John Geoghan revealed he had a history of fondling or raping boys and had been moved from parish to parish. In response to this, a small group of laity met in a church basement in January that year. The 30 gathered church citizens decided they ought to organize and so “Voice Of The Faithful” was born. Within six months they were 25,000 strong and international. Their pressure was key in the decision of Cardinal Bernard Law to resign near the end of that year.

This is in stark contrast to a similar set of circumstances ten years earlier, when the story of Rev. James R. Porter came to light, also in the Boston Globe. Similar laity outrage, in that case, simply “dissipated,” according to Shirky.

The difference between 2002 and 1992 was the advent of ubiquitous means of sharing news. “In 1992, the Globe wasn’t global, and the Porter story stayed in Boston,” writes Shirky. “In 2002 the Globe didn’t need to spread the Geoghan story to the world’s Catholics; the world’s Catholics were capable of doing that themselves.”

The key elements here were: News on the Web, email, and blogs repeating and republishing. These ubiquitous technologies had coalesced into an ecosystem.

What are the implications for democracy?

This is a harder question to answer than “what is happening” because it is inherently speculative. The answer is we do not know what use citizens will make of brand-new tools as they become ubiquitous. But one good guess is that people will use new technologies to do the same things they already do in civic life: kvetch, discover problems, name them, and consider how to solve them.

To the now-entrenched ecosystem described above, social media has now been added in, primarily in the form of user forums such as Craigslist and through Facebook. Civic organizing outside of institutions now takes place in these areas, as a dynamic ecosystem: blog posts and comments, forums, email lists, and Facebook. The linchpin of neighborhood organizing is increasingly the email list. Most computer literate citizens are a part of some community list (for parents, it is often a school list).

These lists — because of their ubiquity — are areas where emerging civic issues crop up, and get named and framed (to use terms from deliberative theory) before crossing into more institutional regimes (for instance, being brought up in community meetings).

Social media is also acting as a gateway for new people to enter — or feel a sense of efficacy in — public life.

Here is a very small example. I founded a community blog, Rockville Central, which I run with a partner, Cindy Cotte Griffiths. It has grown to become the second most-read local blog in Maryland. This has brought new readers. As this has happened, a number of people who did not see themselves as civically active before, now expressly point to online activity as having opened the door for them to be involved in public life. They now contribute and pitch in on community meetings, some have become community activists and speak up at city council meetings. More importantly, many have become “connectors” in the community-leadership sense of the word.

To sum up: New means of communication have become ubiquitous and are already being integrated into the already-existing community ecosystem dynamics.

Can we name what is needed that evolves away from organization-first thinking?

My colleague John Creighton and I have been doing work on the difference between institution-centric and citizen-centric public life. There is a confluence of factors that make for a coming revolution in many of the public institutions. Citizens are taking matters into their own hands — in part because they can, and in part because that is their expectation. Both of these are as a direct result of ubiquitous new technologies.

These new demands are driving radical change. For instance, Florida now requires all school districts to have an online education plan.

A citizen-centric organization will understand and work with the ubiquity of these new channels and the desire for people to use them.

From Adelaide, Australia, a story made the rounds a few months ago and had people wringing their hands. Two girls trapped in a storm drain chose to update their Facebook statuses with pleas for help rather than dial the local equivalent of 911.

This had local officials worried, according to a government spokesperson: “If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000 [the local equivalent of 911], so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway.”

This is an institution-centric view of what happened: The girls did not use bureaucratic systems properly. But they actually were communicating in as effective a way as they knew. It is the problem of the institution that it has not caught up to the way people increasingly communicate: through social media where one comment can go out to many people at once.

It’s not just teenagers, either. In Atlanta in May 2009, a city councilman was worried that his cell phone battery would go dead while he waited on hold for 911. So, he sent a message to Twitter: “Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson St. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet.”

One thing that we can watch for in terms of less organization-first thinking is for these institutions to acknowledge that social media is a part of the ecosystem people use to communicate, and not a “channel” to be “managed.”

Consider a comment that I heard at a recent working session on 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, complained: “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.”

That’s the point of the Atlanta councilman’s “Pls. Retweet” note. His plea got picked up and quickly made its way to the right person — not because he sent it to through the right channel, but because a connection of his did. This is the power of the many-to-many facet of social media, and the largest change for public life. The many-to-many is becoming ubiquitous.

This is the crux of the difficulty for organizations. The whole notion of an institution wanting to “connect” with its public is problematic. Organizations that move themselves away from being the focal point will contribute the most to public life.

But, for an institution, to take itself out of the equation and getting people connecting with one another may be the toughest discipline of all.

When they discover Myers-Briggs personality types, many people are transfixed by the dichotomy between “extraverts” and “introverts.” This may be because this is the easiest and most in-you-face concept.

That was my own experience, when I first learned that I am an ENTP personality type.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has four factors, each of which has two possible values. Knowing these values can allow us to understand what our biases and inclinations are when it comes to our personaties, as well as those of others. This is useful in the workplace (and, in fact, in any situation where it’s all about how people get along: families, civic efforts, etc.).

Equal Opportunity Employment by Flickr user pasukaru76

"Equal Opportunity Employment" by Flickr user pasukaru76

It’s especially useful to know (or be able to identify through observation) others’ types, because that can help you get along with them better and — as a leader — can help you create balanced teams that are the most effective. It helps to have lots of different types around.

Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Extravert / Introvert — Where you get your energy
  • INtuitive / Sensing — How you take in information about your world
  • Feeling / Thinking — How you like to make decisions
  • Judging / Perceiving — How you organize your world

One’s Myers-Briggs type is not destiny. It is more a description of what your “default” or preferred way of handling things is.

Each of the factors is important in its own right. But, in the workplace, I have found the last letter-pair in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to be particularly  important. This is P vs. J — “Perceiving” vs. “Judging.”

Peceivers And Judgers

Many people misunderstand this factor, because of the pejorative sense the word “judging” conveys — they hear “judgmental,” which people see as negative. But it has nothing to do with that. This factor describes how a person organizes their world.

A P is always scanning for new information and prefers to defer making decisions until absolutely necessary. A J, on the other hand, is always on the lookout for decisions already made, and prefers to make a decision and move on whenever possible. For a P, decisions are contingent and new ideas can reopen decisions that had already been made. To a J, decisions are only reopened in extreme circumstances.

In the workplace, J‘s tend to get on P‘s nerves, who see them as overly uptight. Meanwhile, P‘s tend to absolutely infuriate J‘s, whe often regard them as unstable and mercurial.

Seth Godin’s recent article on hunters and farmers can be seen as a description of P‘s (hunters) and J‘s (farmers).

Tips For P Leaders

Lots of nonprofit leaders, in my experience, are P‘s. I’m one myself. Over the years I have learned a few pointers in getting along and thriving.

Advice for leaders who are P‘s:

  1. Remember what others are hearing. Remember the J‘s around you are looking for and actively cataloging commitments made. So, when you muse about things, talk through alternatives, and suggest you might be rethinking this or that initiative — others may be hearing definite plans. This can cause anxiety and misunderstandings.
  2. Find a safe sounding board. As a P, you need to find someone to bounce ideas off of. It might be safest to look for someone outside your organization to talk to.
  3. Play to people’s strengths. J‘s are incredibly good at identifying the commitments people make — who promised to do what by when. They are the best people to have taking notes at a staff meeting, they are in their element driving complex projects with intricate deadlines, and in ensuring that policies are adhered to. Do you need solid and consistent performance, day-in, day-out? Get a J on the job.
  4. Be clear when you’re just talking. Make sure you let people know that sometimes you are raising ideas without any decisions attached — and that you will definitively say when you do make a decision. It is important for others around you (especially J‘s) to be able to know what is stable and what is fluid.
  5. Careful you don’t get distracted! If you work with many other P‘s, it’s easy to get sidetracked. P‘s are distracted by shiny objects and, get a few of them together in one room, it’ll be one new initiative after another! That’s great, but . . . older initiatives may tend to fall by the wayside. As a leader, make sure there are enough J‘s around to keep things on track.

That last point, about getting sidetracked, cannot be overemphasized.

The Distracted Organization

In my experience and observation, it is very easy for an entire organization to take on P characteristics if there are too many P‘s in senior leadership without any J balance. And, for whatever the reason (we can speculate all we want) it seems like there are a lot of P people throughout the nonprofit sector.

Furthermore, people often (not always) tend to gravitate to folks like them. So, a leader can end up surrounding themselves with people they like, but who do not necessarily complement or balance their skill sets.

So, many organizations can themselves become mercurial, easily distracted by shiny objects and new ideas. I can remember returning from a meeting with one organization. The meeting lasted three hours and we never even touched the agenda. “That is a totally P organization,” I told my colleagues. (I even wrote a memo about it for others, for their use in working with the organization.)

Knowing this, knowing the potential for distractedness (the downside of the P factor), it is important to work against that and actively seek out people who are different from you. This is of course true in an inclusionary sense (gender, ethnicity, orientation, background, and so forth) but it is also true in a personality type sense.

What Are P‘s Good For?

Are P‘s a terrible thing? Distracted, mercurial, flighty . . . they sound like a nightmare in the workplace!

Speaking as a P, certainly not. P‘s can drive a lot of energy, creativity, and out-of-the-box breakthroughs (these are not solely the province of P‘s, don’t get me wrong).

If you need a stalled project accelerated, put a P on the job. If you have a high-energy and time-limited task (like prepping for an important meeting or event), a P can really shine. Because of their omnivorous approach to things, a P can be great in a generalist troubleshooter position and (balanced with a good J as a partner) can be a great manager.

In a future post, I may outline my thoughts about some of the other Myers-Briggs factors and how they relate to leadership. Please note, though, that this is just based on my experience and I am not an expert on personality types. I’ve just thought a lot about them and try to use them in my day-to-day life.

What’s your type? How has that impacted how you get your work done?

Yesterday Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in response to a question at a congressional hearing, suggested that Toyota owners ought to avoid driving their cars.

MotorShow 2007: Toyota Rav4 by Flickr user Gaspa

MotorShow 2007: Toyota Rav4 by Flickr user Gaspa

Specifically, he said: “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, take it to the Toyota dealer because they believe they have the fix for it.”

The result was widespread pandemonium and criticism across the Internet. In a hyper-connected age, the episode raises some good points.

(Note that I am not talking about the new issue regarding the Prius braking system; this particular episode revolved around the accelerator issues for other vehicles.)

Certainly, it’s reasonable advice to tell someone to quit driving their car, too, but did the head of transportation for the nation have to say that? Toyota has a valid argument that this unfairly kicks them while they are already down. Why not, they might respond, just tell folks to go to the dealer, and omit the whole get-it-off-the-road part? In fact, they responded Toyota responded with a straightforward “they are too safe.”

And, LaHood quickly retracted his statement and said it was an “obvious misstatement.” But I think he may be overreacting to his initial overreaction. LaHood faced an honest dilemma: what to say? There is no perfect answer. My colleague Rush Kidder would point out that he faced a right-vs.right ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, LaHood needs to take a measured stance, not provoke pandemonium, and weigh his words carefully. But, on the other hand, as the chief transportation safety officer of the country, LaHood has an equally strong obligation to place safety first and if that means a company is upset then so be it.

The fact that one clause in one sentence bounced around the Internet so quickly adds intensity to the fundamental dilemma that any leader faces when faced with the need to advise citizens on what to do in difficult times.

The Dilemma Of Evaluation

On a smaller scale, yet no less intense sometimes, foundation and nonprofit leaders face similar dilemmas. We live and work in a world where evaluation and impact measurements are the rage. Grant seekers are under pressure to show potential funders that their programs actually do what is hoped and that they have a decent bang for the buck.

Funders, at the same time, are under pressure from their boards and from economic forces to ensure that they are spending their money wisely.

What this means is that the independent sector has become evaluation-happy. And, this places philanthropic leaders at a crossroads. They are learning a great deal about what works — and what does not work. The question is: What to do with negative reports?

On the one hand, it’s important to share information about effectiveness so that people don’t waste their time and money. And, certainly in the case of absolute failures that’s a no-brainer. But most evaluations are more nuanced and it is not entirely clear if an initiative absolutely failed or whether it just didn’t work as well as it could have.

Given that, and on the other hand, what right does a foundation leader have to spread around such ambiguous information, when such evaluations might dissuade other funders from donating and so hurt the organization in question? So there is a strong moral argument behind not sharing evaluation information. But this leaves possibly ineffective initiatives potentially running indefinitely. Because new funders need to start at square one with their own studies.

Resistance to evaluation is as natural an urge as any — who wants to examine their own possible failures? But there is also the broader question about what use is made of evaluation data. There is no simple answer to this, and I am not about to offer one here.

I will suggest that one thing that is needed is for individual leaders to be more willing to face their own fears. It is not a calamity if a charitable effort is not very effective.

Once, some time ago, I was asked to perform a self-evaluation on a fairly large initiative. The results of the study would, in part, determine if our grant would be renewed. It turned out that the evidence suggested our hard work was tilting against too strong a headwind. It’s effectiveness was questionable, especially on the expansive level we were considering.

My report was met with consternation from my organization as well as from our funder. It threw a monkey wrench into things. We recalibrated and ended up doing something different (and arguably more effective, though that too had ambiguous results). Not the end of the world. But — in the moment — all of us involved had a great deal of fear. Our reputations, our livelihoods, our organizations were at stake.

Still, expressing honesty takes a culture that supports it. While easily said, this can be a hard thing in practice.

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Keeping Track Of The Other Unemployed

Yesterday, the government released data by metropolitan region on unemployment. That got me thinking about one of my pet peeves with unemployment data.

That number that gets reported? It dramatically understates the problem.

The official unemployment rate is the number of people actively looking for work. That number does not include so-called “discouraged workers” (people who could work but who have given up), people who are working part time because that’s all they can find, and more. In fact, here is the official list of all the unemployed and underemployed that the official figure does not take into account:

Marginally attached workers are persons who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past. Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not currently looking for a job. Persons employed part time for economic reasons are those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.

I have long known this but have not looked closely at the actual numbers, simply filed it away as a curiosity. But today I was curious: How has the American underutilized workforce been doing over the past year? I took a look at the data from November 2008 through December 2009.

Here is the official unemployment rate, month by month, for the past year or so, compared what I think of as the actual unemployment rate (which includes all those folks described above):


(Click for full size)

In November 2008, the official unemployment rate was 6.9%, and the actual rate was almost double that, 12.8%. In December 2009 it was 10% with an actual rate of 17.3%.

More than one in six Americans are out of work or are working part time because they can’t find anything else.

I understand that ral economists might quibble with my terminology, “actual” unemployment. I am not trying to win a Nobel Prize here, just look at the actual experience of real people as opposed to the press releases. I am also not pointing fingers at any administration. The recession started on George W. Bush’s watch, and continues under Barack Obama’s. It appears to be beyond both of them.

I was also curious about the “other unemployed” people. This is the group that tugs most at my heart strings. Has this gap been widening? It is hard to visualize from the bar charts so I made a new chart:

Click for full size

(Click for full size)

The number of “other unemployed” has been growing slowly but steadily over the last year. In November 2008 it was 5.9% and we ended 2009 at 7.3%.

In fact, while the government just focuses on the “official unemployment” rate, they make the whole set of numbers available. News organizations would provide a better snapshot of America by reporting the larger number. So, in my view, our nation’s unemployment rate stands at an incredible 17.3%.

Let’s not forget these folks.


(Note, the charts are by me, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those who are curious, the current recession began officially in December 2007, when the official unemployment rate was 5.0% and the actual rate was 8.8%.)

Some readers know how deeply I care and am energized by the modern Abolitionist movement across the world. There are more slaves now than there ever were at any time in human history. Human trafficking is tied with arms dealing for the second-most lucrative illicit business (after drugs). It is a $32 billion industry worldwide. More than two million children are sold into the sex trade every year.

Image from 25x4

Image from 25x4

What is slavery? Here is a succinct definition from Kevin Bales, who founded Free The Slaves:

Slavery is one person controlling another person using violence or the threat of violence, exploiting them economically and paying them nothing.

We often see terms like “slave like conditions”, or see the word slavery mixed in with paid child labor, sweatshops or similar forms of labor abuses. It is a mistake to confuse slavery with labor exploitation or other labor crimes. If the victim is paid or can get away it is not slavery.

In modern day slavery, human beings are literally bought and sold as property on an international market, for amounts ranging from $80 to $5000 or more. They have no control over their lives or their children’s lives: where they live, what work they do (usually dirty, degrading or dangerous), their sexuality, or their health. Being enslaved is extremely hazardous to human life and health – for example 25% of child slaves in India do not make it to adulthood, and another 22% are permanently disabled.

My friend Sarah Symons is the founder of The Emancipation Network, which works to get people out of slavery by helping them find ways to support themselves (and to help them in the transition from bondage to freedom). Sarah is on one of her periodic trips to India to help with some of her organization’s partner agencies and the schools they support.

She writes, in part:

Today we visited 10 of our school sponsored kids who have been placed in Ram Krishna Mission Boarding School. It was absolutely amazing! The kids looked so good, so happy and healthy and clean, that I almost did not recognize them. These girls, aged 6-13, were all born into the Kidderpore red light community of Calcutta. Their mothers were trafficked as young girls into brothels, and are still working the streets, kept captive now by a complete lack of other options, and by the extreme stigma hanging like a cloud over the whole district.

When the children lived at home, they shared a tiny room in the brothel with their mothers – it was a dangerous situation in the extreme, as there is always the risk that a client would tire of the mother and reach for her young daughter instead. Our partner agency Apne Aap, which runs a prevention program in Kidderpore, eventually took these 10 girls into the night shelter because they were at especially high risk or had already been exploited. The Emancipation Network began paying for their schooling three years ago and this past spring, they were enrolled in the Boarding School. . . .

The red light area is a scary place for a child to grow up. There was never enough food, clothing, supervision or attention and these kids had to become self-sufficient at a very early age. Seeing their mothers hurt and exploited on a nightly basis was the hardest part. Without intervention, girls growing up in red light areas almost always end up in forced prostitution themselves. . . .

Education is a surefire way to end the cycle of intergenerational slavery. Educating girls is the fastest way to transform a society from within.

(The full article, which is stirring, is available here.)

There are two ways to support The Emancipation Network. One is to directly sponsor children so more can be lifted out of slavery. The Emancipation Network pays for their schooling in boarding schools like the one Sarah describes in her blog post.

Another way is to purchase items at the Made By Survivors store. This shop contains products made by freed slaves and the proceeds directly support abolitionist efforts. There is some very cool stuff here.

Thank you to my friend Sarah and everyone else who works so hard to free people. Your actions both inspire and shame me. I should — we all should — do more.