changing the wind

A photograph from the bow of a small sailing craft on calm blue waters. Grassy brown hills dotted with green shrubs on the horizon separate the light blue sky and the sea below. A white and blue sail hangs from the mast, with rigging here and there. Kind of a weird flex way to say I’ve been on a sailboat.

One of my strengths at work is creativity. I enjoy coming up with new ideas and different approaches to problems. Some of these ideas are pretty out there! When I started my career, I had to learn how to gain buy-in from leaders in a traditional hierarchy. I would make minor tweaks to their ideas, judge where I could push and where I couldn’t.

Several years later, I’m a senior manager leading a small department. I have the institutional power I need to act on my ideas. I can also encourage, elevate, and expand on ideas that come from my staff or colleagues. My ideas, too, have expanded. I now spend time daydreaming about systems-level changes. These ideas have the potential to affect a whole company, or even an entire ecosystem.

But I’m not an executive director. I still have hierarchical superiors. These leaders are often less excited about disruptive change that challenges power structures. It doesn’t make my ideas bad, but it does make them risky.

if the executive won’t do it, nobody should
You can often tell what a leader values by the workgroups they create. Leaders show us their priorities in explicit and implicit ways. They will talk more about the ideas they like, and less about ones they don’t care about. Their intent here doesn’t even have to be malicious. There are only so many hours in the day. If the executive is not on board with an idea, it doesn’t have to go anywhere.

A leader can show a project is important by assigning it to someone. They can make regular check-ins on their progress. The opposite end of the spectrum is also true. They could assign a ‘priority’ task to a committee that rarely meets. Or they could approve a vague plan with distant timelines or impossible milestones.

If leaders show no reward for success and no consequence for inaction, why would anyone spend time on it?

Early in my career, I interpreted inaction or ignorance as permission to do something. This created renegade cells that ran counter to the status quo. Working in this way sometimes made me feel worse about my ideas. What does success look like? If my boss found out, would the idea excite them? Would they think this was all a waste of time? Would they feel undermined because I was doing this without their explicit support?

ok then so how do we get new ideas off the ground?
Any time I do something on my own, I need more power and energy to get it done. I have to get all my other work done before I can work on my “passion projects.” I enlist others who have similar interests. I find allies across the company who support these changes and will advocate on their behalf.

I find it’s helpful to study what ideas executives do like. What kind of metrics do they consider valuable? When an idea does get off the ground, how did it happen? What approach did the person use? Easily-approved ideas generate funds, make a process more efficient, or have tangible benefits.

There is of course the worst approach, for when all other options fail. Incrementalism can help get an idea’s foot in the door. I don’t support it, though. You might help create a one-and-done decision that nobody has the capital to ever revisit. And if that incremental step does fail, the more ambitious idea will never get off the ground. This happens in politics all the time. For all the electoral costs of the Affordable Care Act, we lost the ability to push for true universal healthcare coverage. Now, progressives are forced to defend a healthcare plan with serious flaws.

what would this look like with a distributed leadership structure?
I’ve spent my career navigating white-dominant workplace hierarchies. I dream about finding a workplace with true power distribution (without having to create it). In such a structure, people can create new ideas without the threat of an override from a person with power. An idea can be reviewed, tested, accepted, or rejected on its merits.

The advice process is well-suited to create decisions that affect a large group. Autonomous teams can scope and test their own smaller ideas. If those ideas are a success, other teams can choose to adapt them. All of this can happen without a person in power unfairly moving the scale in either direction.

Changing an organization’s direction can feel like having to change the wind itself. It can happen! It’s so satisfying when it does. For all the work that entails, it’s sometimes easier to find a ship that believes in sails.

when the work is interesting

a photo of Myrtle Falls, a trickling stream near Paradise, WA. Mount Rainier looms in the background against a saturated blue sky. a lush valley separates the falls from the mountain. it’s mostly green with a few flowers here and there. if Paradise was boring, i would simply leave Paradise. but it was kind of fun (we left eventually).

There is a video that has gone around leadership seminars for years now. The video is of a person dancing alone at an outdoor concert. This person starts out alone, but is soon joined by one and then dozens of dancing people. There are a few easily-shared lessons that come from this example. Some might say it means that you don’t need a large following to start a movement. For others, it’s that it only takes one person to begin something.

All these lessons are true, if generalized past the point of being meaningful. To me, the most important part of that video is simple: the person at the start of the movie is having fun. We wouldn’t see this example if someone else had put them up to it, or if the dancer wasn’t plain enjoying themself. It’s not easy being someone you are not. Sure, some successful people are disingenuous. Yet most movements begin with a passionate, charismatic leader, leaders, or cause.

the things that we do are art
If our work is an art, then for whom are we artists? I’m not much of a painter, but I like to write. I’ve been writing for almost as long as I’ve been reading. But in school, I agonized every time I had to write an essay. It’s a (funny) expensive story that I took seven months to write the last term paper I needed to graduate. I took a long time to learn that if I didn’t enjoy writing something, why would someone else enjoy reading it?

Nowadays, I write things that I want to read. I create things that are interesting to me. I put my energy towards things I already have energy around. Even in my day job: when we have a list of group projects to work on, I ask the group which projects excites them the most. If there are no pressing deadlines for the other projects, we do the most inspiring projects first.

I am one of five leaders in a local anti-racism coalition. We’re all volunteers supporting a sixteen-year-old institution with a noble purpose. My colleagues and I have ideas and goals we want to pursue, ways to grow ourselves and further our mission. I also feel the obligations of a coalition that has made many leadership changes over the years. But old programs woven with nostalgia make it hard to do new things and still keep the old ones running. The conflict is a conflict because those old programs don’t mean as much to me.

how would i rebuild an institution?
We don’t need to focus on the parts that don’t matter to us. We can create things that we want to see and do and interact with. I would make membership easy to join. I would make it easy to join us on the leadership team. And then I would let those leaders do the things that interest them.

We don’t need to follow “tradition” for people who are not around to enjoy it. If the work is important, we will find someone who likes to do it. If we don’t, it might not be in our lane to do. Rather than trying to uphold the old, we could spend our time uplifting the new. We could stretch ourselves as learners, not educators. We could let people create their own spaces.

It’s a function of capitalism that insists we have to be all things to all people. If we aren’t expanding our market share, we must be doing something wrong. I think we can instead try being ourselves, and see who ends up joining us.

normal wasn’t working

a photo from 2007 of a poster in Mendoza, Argentina that i thought was hilarious. a bus ad for Diario Ciudadano features a cartoon of a first-, second-, and third-place podium. Diario Ciudadano is third place. two unnamed newspapers, “Diario 1” and “Diario 2” are ahead of them. large letters at the top of the poster says, “Somos el tercero diario de Mendoza”, or “we are the third-place newspaper in Mendoza.” in small letters at the bottom of the poster is what i assume is their tagline. “vamos por más,” or “let’s go for more.” this is something i can get behind! though i was once on a team that got bumped up from last place when another team was disqualified. “let’s go for more!,” i said.

We’re now entering month 6 of people in the united states talking non-stop about COVID-19. The terrifying rush of March through May is over. I spent all summer talking about racialized police killings and the ethics of masks. And now, people who are six months exhausted are ready for things to “get back to normal.”

I agree. I want things to get better. But “getting back to normal” is also a little bit of a tell. Whose normal are we getting back to?

For some people, the subtext is that they were pretty comfortable in the before-times. It means they did not spend their days consumed by stress, or worry for their family. People in the u.s. are suffering right now at uncommon levels. People in and outside the u.s. have been suffering for much longer than the pandemic. It’s only now, when suffering is at a peak, that we are speaking with a loud enough voice.

What unsettles me now is that for some people, their solidarity is only as strong as their discomfort. Their fight for justice may only last long enough to return to their relative measure of safety. But normal is not a place everyone wants to return to. This is why so many people now are demanding something better.

when you realize this
Food banking has changed in minuscule ways since 1967. This is the year St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, Arizona became the first food bank in the u.s. In the intervening 53 years, the safety net has gotten worse. The number of people in poverty has grown to the exclusive benefit of a handful of billionaires. There is no reason why we should fight as hard as we must to turn back the clock only a few years. We should not want to dream of a world where poverty still existed. We should be demanding a world without poverty.

We have a unique opportunity here to move past what we thought of as normal. I was on a call this past week, an Imagination Lab hosted by the organization Closing the Hunger Gap. The facilitators invited us to be radical in our ideas to end hunger. My group talked about the goal I’ve had for a while: food all food should be free. Free at grocery stores. Free at food banks. No restrictions, no means testing. Home delivery for people with mobility issues, or those who live in rural areas.

There are better futures than the one we came from. It will take as much work to get there as the future that recalls the past. The future we should be dreaming of is one that we all build together. I’m not as interested in knowing what it will take to get us back to normal. Let’s talk instead about what is worth saving from this world, the one we’ve left in ashes.