Neil Tambe

Let’s go.

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

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Ending Social Inequity Begins With Ending Political Inequity

I can't go into the details, but a member of my family was recently preyed upon by some seemingly crooked cops. And it got me thinking about the rough set of circumstances that some people are born with. Say you were personally affected by some number of these circumstances:

  • You grow up in a poor neighborhood
  • You have an unstable family situation
  • There were a lot of kids who try to get you to smoke or do drugs growing up
  • You have an appearance which makes it hard for you to make friends
  • It's hard to find people to help you with your homework
  • You were not nurtured or were maybe even abused as a child
  • You are not of the majority race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity where you grew up
  • English is not your first language

Now what the general societal narrative tells you is that if you work really hard, make a reasonable amount of reasonably good choices, and don't do anything catastrophically stupid you'll make it and have a good life. That you'll be okay and not have to deal with an unreasonable amount of hardship.

But this is what gets me - say you are a person who has at least a handful of those statements applying to you. And let's say you work real hard, make a reasonable amount of reasonably good choices, and you do not do anything catastrophically stupid. You do everything right.

The way I see it in American today, there's still a good chance you won't make it, because you get miffed hard by the system. Because if you're one of those people I've referenced above (and maybe not even as in as difficult a starting point as one of those folks) you still have to deal with these political realities, which are totally outside your control:

  • Cops are going to write you up for things that you don't deserve
  • Even if you get good grades, you can't afford to pay for college or graduate school
  • You get passed over for a job (or paid less) for reasons having nothing to do with your qualifications
  • You are poorly represented in congress because your district is gerrymandered, and so laws and policies never slide your way
  • Because of your social identity, you're never able to act like yourself - you always feel like you have to put up a front
  • You never feel like you can enact political change because of the tremendous influence of money in politics (and you're not a rainmaker)
  • You don't have the personal or family connections of others so you never get access to the best jobs, mentors, or business opportunities

So let me recap where we're at with this hypothetical example - you're born at a disadvantage but you work really hard and do everything right. But you know that you probably still won't make it because of how much the system is stacked against you. So whether you work hard or not, you hold the reasonable belief that your chances of being upwardly socially mobile are slim. So why even try?

If I were in that situation, I'd find it very hard to motivate myself to work hard. And even though I'm incredibly privileged because of the circumstances of my birth, even feel politically marginalized in some of the ways I've listed.

All this makes me think that if we're ever going to resolve social inequity in America, we're going to get nowhere if we don't resolve political inequities first. Because if we don't resolve political inequities, it's disillusioning to the point of giving up hope. And, I couldn't hardly blame anyone for giving up if the political deck was stacked against them like that.


This is all a bit stream of consciousness and written rawly. I get that. That sort of style seems fitting, given the topic.

The Fading Corporate Dream

Over the past year, I've noticed high-talent folks I know start to rebuff the corporate dream they thought they wanted. These folks are the top performers at their firms leaving after a few years or the rockstars that avoid the corporate route altogether. "Why oh why?" sing the corporates, "why are are these talented people leaving?" Here are all the reasons that I've heard and observed:

  • Co-workers / management aren't competent
  • Co-workers / management don't actually care about creating value for customers, they care about their own careers
  • Employees aren't recognized or given opportunities based on merit - it's about your tenure or ability to network
  • They company isn't interested in being bold, innovative leaders in their markets
  • The company's work-life flexibility terrible
  • The organization moves too slow and/or doesn't take risks
  • Employees can't chart their own path / you feel like a cog in a machine that does the same thing over and over
  • Employees don't learn and grow either in formal settings or on-the-job
  • Employees can't be themselves, they have to act a certain way
  • Employees aren't value or recognized and/or they don't see how their work actually has an impact on customers' lives or the world

The list goes on.

The dissonance now exposed Most people in this country want to be free. We don't live in a country with an autocratic system of government, so most people have at least some glimpse of what it means to be free. Think about what being free feels like for a second. It means you're able to pursue your own dreams and assemble peacefully. It means you're able to speak freely and have your day be relatively unintruded by the influence of institutions. You are able to be yourself and express yourself. It means you have due process of law if you break the rules or are accused of wrongdoing.

Now think of what life is like in a large corporation. It's not at all free. Instead of pursuing what you want, you do exactly what your boss tells you to do for fear that you'll lose your job. You don't really have the ability to express yourself unless you have a lot of power or authority in the organization. You are constantly bombarded by doing the stuff your boss doesn't want to do. Depending on who you are or what your connections are you get preferential treatment by authority holders in the organization (you don't get due process). No, corporate life today is anything but being about freedom. On the contrary, corporate life is all about control.

This is why employees are leaving corporates in droves: they don't want to be controlled, they want to be free.

Running corporations with a controlling mindset used to fly because employees had no viable alternatives elsewhere in the job market. Small firms didn't really have as much impact on the world as they are able to now. Small firms weren't stable and they didn't provide opportunities to learn and have that learning be viewed as legitimate by other companies. It was difficult to access networks of people, resources, or customers unless you were a big firm. As you can see, even just a few decades ago, smaller firms provided much less value to employees than they now can.

That dissonance - that corporations often operate like autocracies in a society motivated by the pursuit freedom - is now exposed. Not working for a corporation is now a legitimate choice. It's easier to find smaller firms or start your own business. People now have the capability to tap into global networks of ideas and support which gives them a safety net to lean on if things go badly. People can now move (literally) across the world more freely. Potential employees are no longer stuck. That's why people with a lot of talent (and even people that aren't blessed with a lot of pedigree) are doing something different - they don't really have to work for corporations anymore.

The punch line The fact of the matter is that corporations that want to recruit talented people won't be able to operate as autocracies for much longer. Many corporations are already starting to change. But it's not just about tech sector or startup perks, that won't be an antidote for long because it's a superficial change. Corporations instead have to fundamentally change their assumptions about their employees - they're not robots you program, they are assets that you have to garden and groom to unleash their full potential. Corporations have to stop being autocracies.

If corporations don't shed their autocratic roots, the corporate dream will continue to fade. And then, things will really get interesting.

The Time Problem - Part 1 (Data)

So, I'm too geeked about this data to write a full post before sharing, so I figured I'd split this post up into a few parts. 

Here's the context:

I've been really fascinated by "The Time Problem" (my words, nothing official) in civic engagement. It seems like time is a limiting factor for a lot of people when it comes to citizens participating in their communities. So, I wanted to investigate this to see how we use time and how we use time is changing.

Thankfully, the American Time Use Study has some of this data. I also wanted to run some calculations to try to account for the effects of changes in the number of non-profits, population, GDP, etc., so I built a few other datasets into my spreadsheet.

Anyway, I figured I'd share the dataset before writing a post with observations. You can find it here: It's currently editable so please note your changes if you make any. Also, apologies in advance, I didn't name my calculations / variables terribly clearly but if you follow the formulas you should be able to figure out what's going on.

Full disclosure: there datasets are definitely imperfect (GDP is not Real GDP, the NFP count data isn't pulled from the same months each year, it's not a large dataset etc.). That being said, I only wanted to look at trends and am doing the best I can with the dog food I have. I think it will be interesting, regardless...I'm already starting to see some interesting stuff in the data.

In the next post - hopefully later this week - I'll talk more about my hypothesis, the data, and some observations.

Probably should have done some work this evening instead of be a huge nerd. Woops.

Essays #2

A few months ago, I posted one of my graduate school essays in an effort to be more open about my thoughts and feelings - and connect more with others. Now that I'm done applying, I wanted to post a few more essays which reveal some things about me which I normally shy away from talking about.

I feel so lucky to have applied because the process of reflecting to write these essays was incredibly therapeutic to me and have helped me understand who I am and what I value much better than I ever have before.

Here are three things to consume. This will be my last post about this topic on Civic Yuppie, but I'm planning to do more reflection about all this stuff on Scraps.

1 - This is a multimedia essay that I never submitted. It was optional and instead of a video, I submitted a short essay instead. Ever wonder why I have an Orange Juice obsession? Here's the story. This is only a draft cut; I never made it professional grade because I never submitted the essay.

Here are the other two pieces. I invite your remarks:

What matters most to you, and why?

More than anything, spending time and having deep relationships with other people makes me happy. For example, I love hosting people – whether it’s cooking them dinner or meeting up before a night on the town. I love being part of great teams; the feeling of doing something extraordinary with other people exceeds the measure of any extrinsic reward. Speaking personally, I hope with all my heart that I’ll be blessed enough to be a good husband, father, and citizen someday and that I’ll have deep, committed relationships in each of those realms [Author's note: I almost wrote an essay about the notion of wanting to be a good husband, father, and citizen (It's a really powerful hierarchy of identity in my life). I didn't work because it wasn't "deep" enough and the essay never flowed correctly.]

Because deep relationships are my greatest source of happiness, telling the truth is far and away what matters most to me. I don’t think deep relationships – let alone any relationship – can exist without trust. Trust can only exist between people, I think, when all parties tell the truth and act honestly. As I see it, telling the truth is the magic ingredient that unlocks the possibility of having deep relationships at all.

Even though I’ve always had a sense of why deep relationships and the truth are important to me, I finally understood how the ideas connected while on a trip to Thailand in August of 2011. On the trip, two friends and I visited a Buddhist Temple and we talked for a few hours with a group of Buddhist monks. We immediately started asking them about Buddhist philosophy and our conversation, fortunately for me, quickly turned to the subject of happiness.

The monks drew a link between happiness and permanence. Their view was that only “permanent” things, the pinnacle of which is a relationship with God, can lead to happiness. This is because impermanent things, like wealth and fame, are always fleeting. One can never feel secure – or happy, ultimately – by impermanent things because they must constantly be maintained and the longevity of impermanent things is never guaranteed. I’ve realized that this is why I’ve come to find happiness in deep relationships with other people – next to a relationship with God, they’re probably the only things in life that even have a chance of being permanent.

This gives truth tremendous importance in my life because it is the anchor to which my greatest source of happiness, deep relationships with others, is tied. Truth is the foundation from which everything that matters to me is built. To me, truth is a prerequisite for deep relationships and thus a prerequisite for happiness itself.

In addition to underpinning my individual happiness, telling the truth guides my thinking on how to rebuild communities and institutions, which is what I hope to do in Detroit over the course of my adult life. In my experience, communities and institutions – whether it is families, companies, or cities – crumble when people do not, or are compelled not to tell the truth.

I don’t think it’s possible to rebuild institutions without designing systems which support and encourage honesty or think it’s reasonable to expect institutions to function effectively if individuals act dishonestly. In my hometown, Detroit, this hypothesis has been disturbingly accurate; over the course of decades, dishonest behavior has triggered everything from the crippling of city finances to the fueling of racial tensions between Detroit and its suburbs.

But even beyond its implications to my happiness and my aspirations to rebuild institutions, telling the truth matters to me because it makes me feel like I’m respecting the gift of life. I’ve come to value my life a lot because of the many examples of beauty, suffering, loss, and joy I’ve witnessed or experienced as I’ve come of age. By this I don’t even mean that I’ve come to value the opportunities I’ve had because I was born into a middle class family in the United States of America, instead of abject poverty. More simply, I mean that I value the fact that I’ve woken up every day for over 25 years and can take a deep breath as I emerge from underneath my bedcovers. That’s a privilege I appreciate and I think that trying to live as a man of character – which starts with honesty, I believe – is something that honors that privilege.

What do you want to do – REALLY – and why [School Name]?

In our world today we’re trying to solve 21stcentury problems which are complex and fast-changing, with 20thcentury institutions which are siloed and slow and it’s not working. In particular, if Detroit’s institutions are not rebuilt, I worry that all of the City’s resurgence and revitalization will evaporate and that another generation of Detroiters will be lost in the shadows of economic, political, and social decline.

Quite simply, I am determined to prevent that from happening – I intend to build institutions and communities which unleash human potential rather than perpetuate human suffering. In my career, and civic life, what I want to do (REALLY) is rebuild Detroit’s institutions so that they are enduring and meet the City’s needs in the coming century. More specifically, because Detroit struggles to address cross-sector issues – like talent development and homelessness – I want to create new models for solving cross-sector problems and engaging citizens. Moreover, rebuilding Detroit’s institutions is something I feel a duty to do because too few young Detroiters understand that it’s necessary.

Detroit is the first city being rebuilt in a world of constant disruption, so I don’t just see transforming Detroit’s institutions as a regional matter, either. I consider Detroit to be a testing ground for the next wave of community redevelopment which will occur in coming decades. In addition to serving Detroit, I want to make a broader impact in the world by reforming institutions in Detroit and helping others adapt and adopt our models elsewhere.

After thinking about the audacity of wanting to do something like rebuild the institutions of a major American city, I’ve realized that the most critical thing I need to develop further – more than any set of business skills – is my passion, courage, and confidence. I know I can learn what’s necessary to accomplish my goal to rebuild Detroit’s institutions, so long as I have the motivation, tenacity, and fortitude to go after something so difficult. That is why I want to attend the [School Name] – in my view it’s a place which cultivates passion, courage, and confidence in its students and helps them get a management education as part of that that larger, more important aim.

I noticed this ethos most clearly when visiting the [School Name] for a prospective student day. I was grabbing a bite to eat at an outdoor buffet and I started chatting with a student passing through on her way to the library. The first question she asked me was what I was passionate about and interested in, making it very clear to me that passion is truly what drives [School Name] students. This theme extended to all the people I met and all the programs I heard about, like “[Program #1]” and “[Program #2]”. Passion, I think, is part of the [School Name]'s DNA. That is exactly the type of community I want to be part of, want to contribute to, and feel like I need to be part of to have a fighter’s chance of rebuilding Detroit’s institutions. 

Everything that happens after

Don't let my scampering of election-related disillusionment on social media fool you, I care deeply about our nation and about public service.  But now that the election is over, I'd like to weigh in on the election and plead for follow-through and pragmatism. For persistence, inclusivity, tenacity, and grit.

This is a yelp for governance.

Without going on a tirade on why I'm incredibly disillusioned by elections and the electoral process, let me tell you why I think governance matters more. Let me start by painting a picture.

There are people in our country who are suffering. They are hungry, broke, ill, or worse. There are people in the shadows of the shadows who are voiceless or who are voiceless in practice, because they're spending all their time trying to survive and physically cannot participate in the affairs of our republic.

There are also people who aren't suffering. I'm lucky enough to consider myself one of them. Our lives certainly aren't perfect (as those of you who read my other, more personally introspective blog can probably attest to) but we're doing well. We can eat food consistently. We have a roof over our heads, consistently. We can spend time, energy, and money toward leisure activities. We are in decent health or at least have access to health care.

Finally, there are people in our country who are on the cusp of suffering and not suffering. Some folks will fall backwards and suffer, and others will move toward health and prosperity.

Governance affects all these groups. For those suffering, governance provides needed relief to help them simply survive and also can provide a path upward. For those who are not suffering, governance has more than likely aided their station and opportunity in life. For those that are on the cusp, the difference between bad governance and good governance can mean the difference between good and awful life outcomes in the short and long term. For us all, governance affects our well being and happiness.

Elections, by contrast, don't actually tangibly help people. Elections don't feed the hungry and they don't defend our border from threats foreign and domestic. Elections certainly have the potential to nourish our hope and belief in America but they don't do anything in the real world. They are a fleeting sort of moment, they don't keep the lights on.

We can't tap out after the elections because elections don't help people. They are are event which sets the stage to help people.

Let me cut to the chase. The election was important, but now it's over and it's time to refocus on good governance. What really matters and makes a material difference in people's lives are not elections, but everything that happens after.

Community Narrative - The Deep Infrastructure of Civic Engagement

I posted this up on Civic Commons but wanted to cross-post here, for tracking purposes. I really think there's something to this idea. I'd appreciate any feedback you have, if the topic piques your interest.

New idea to explore, thoughts? | Community Narrative - The deep infrastructure of civic engagement via @civiccommons

A (mini) Detroit Manifesto

The motto for the City of Detroit - Speramus Meliora Resurget Cineribus - means, "we hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes." This motto was coined after a June 1805 fire burned the city to the ground. Now, curiously enough, the motto fits the precarious predicament that the City is in as well as the undying optimism of its residents.

Detroit is on the leading edge of the social and economic shifts that will disrupt our country and perhaps our world. It is a city being rebuilt in a new mold - it uses a blueprint without powerful central institutions, a pioneering new industry, or social homogeneity. In my humble opinion, it’s the first city being rebuilt in a new world of constant disruption.

For that reason, I think it's an incredible opportunity to visit Detroit, a metropolis in flux, to learn about the deep shifts occurring here and how they are manifesting in the lives of everyday people. By visiting Detroit, one can get an intimate look at an amazing and interesting city, but also get a glimpse of what's to come elsewhere.

I firmly believe that when America looks in the mirror, it sees its reflection as Detroit. Consequently, I think Detroit's story is one that is frighteningly important, not just because the City's revitalization is critical to residents for its own sake, but because our collective fates are tied up in what Detroit represents: a new world where shi[f]t has already happened.

Detroit: Transformation or Revitalization?

I'm working on a grad school essay, and I got to thinking about the words we, meaning Detroiters and Michiganders, use to characterize the turnaround efforts in the City of Detroit.

More often than not, we talk about "revitalizing" Detroit. To me, this means refreshing and returning Detroit to the state it once was. It's re-energizing what's already there. It's not changing what's there, per se, it's just "bringing back" Detroit.

I think there's something off about this frame.

As far as I'm concerned, Detroit - and other cities across the country and world - have outdated institutional frameworks. The way organizations and governments run is built for an older world. To put it bluntly, the institutions in Detroit are built for a time without digital infrastructure and ubiquitous internet connectivity. Instead of being built for a world that's constantly changing, current institutions are built for a world that changes slowly.

Rather than claiming that it's a story of revitalization, I think we should characterize Detroit as a story of transformation. Why? Because we need a transformation, not a revitalization. The workings of institutions in Detroit, and again, other cities too, has to fundamentally change. Of course, I could be wrong about this...but I dare you to try convincing me. (I think about institutions all, day, every day and consequently have sharp, thought-out arguments and a fierce, cavalier, even bulldog-ish attitude about the subject).

Now, transformation doesn't have to mean wiping out the people, culture, and community sovereignty that exists in Detroit. I mean this in a technical sense (literally, transformation doesn't have to wipe out culture, there are other ways to go about it) and I also think it would be a tragedy if elites in the city used transformation as an excuse to wash over the character and spirit Detroit currently possesses.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I think Detroit needs to be a transformation rather than a revitalization and I think we should use language that reflects that.

Leading in the public and private sectors - challenges

I had a very interesting (and serendipitious) conversation with a colleague of a friend/colleague on the way to the train station today. After a few other topics, we got to talking about the importance of vision vs. execution in the public sector which got us talking about the importance of results-driven leadership in the public sector. Moreover, he was commenting on how sometimes what it takes is to keep your eye on the goal and even drop a few "screw you"s if you have to and just get something done.

Over the course of the conversation he triggered in my mind a fairly interesting model for what leaders/organizations have to go through with any decision they make.  It's simple, but that's a good thing.

Step 1 - Visioning: here you have to decide what the organization is going to do and why
Step 2 - Scoping: here, you figure out who in the organization (or country) is going to do it and/or buy-into it
Step 3 - Executing: here, you have to decide how to get people to actually act on the vision

So, I think there are some interesting observations here and implications for business and public/social sector organizations - 

Visioning - this is hard no matter what. In the public sector it's especially hard because the vision involves large, large numbers of unique people. In the private sector it's hard because your vision has to turn a profit. These are very different problems, but both are compelling.

Scoping - this becomes easier if you can limit the scope of people that are included in the issue because you can cut people out of the benefits or decision making process. It's kind of "Jobs-ian" view as my friend can say "screw you" to people who just don't get things done and cut those people out of the rewards. Unfortunately, in the public sector/social sector it's hard to do this because the cost of excluding people from the activity / reward has real human costs and moral implications.

Executing - things "get done" voluntarily or involuntarily. In the public sector almost nothing is fully involuntarily. Even taxes are something you can avoid for awhile. In the private sector many organizations have the luxury of getting people to do things involuntarily, in the public sector a lot more inspiration and persuasion is required. The tough part for private sector is, the ability to force people to do things is corroding - eventually (and this is happening already) probably all employees (or at least a whole heap of them) will have leverage over their employers.  As a result, "force" won't really work because those employees (e.g., members of the creative class) will just go elsewhere. (Credit where credit is due, John Hagel, John Seeley Brown, Lang Davison and others publish about...the original idea is not mine).

Now, what are the implications?

1. I think this framework helps to understand why leadership in the public/social sector is so hard: each step (visioning, scoping, and executing) involves a lot of people that the leader doesn't really have control over.

2. If it's getting harder and harder to "force" people to do things, the private sector will probably have to learn how to get people to do things without forcing them. That's hard.

3. I sometimes struggle to see the "visioning" of public sector organizations, namely government. It seems like that a lot of the time politicans focus on policy outcomes (a la execution phase) rather than the broader vision of what we're doing and why. Maybe that's why our outcomes often seem to go awry...they're not informed by the dynamics which occur at the system level, which is to say they're not informed by a comprehensive vision.

4. There are three real competencies here that leaders and organizations seem like they need to master, especially in a world where it's hard to force people to do stuff: crafting an insipring vision which people want to buy into, how to really connect with large and diverse groups of people to understand their needs, and figuring out how to get people to do stuff without being able to use force.

5. In addition to number four, you actually have to communicate this stuff, too, so that's a fourth competency.

Anyway, just some musings. Anyone have any thoughts? Am I whack? Is this helpful?

Purpose is permission

In the many arenas I play in - work, community, family, civic society, etc. - I always seem to reach consensus with peers that defining purpose in an organization is important. In some organizations, like not-for-profits, defining purpose is even expected.

There are many reasons to define a purpose, such as:

  • It provides focus - by clearly defining purpose organizations can focus their efforts on what really matters to them
  • It is empowering - employees feel more engaged when they feel like they are working for a purpose
  • It aids recruiting - by championing a specific purpose, employees (and probably customers too) can self-select more easily into your organization's ecosystem. Recruits show up to you and are more likely to stay if they are pre-disposed to support your purpose
  • It builds brand - I'll defer to my marketing friends on this one...but if you have a clear purpose it probably helps you be distinctive in the marketplace?
Moreover, based on my observations of the organizational world, organizations with bold exclamations of purpose which appeal to loftier aspirations than shareholder value and operations excellence usually have better results on all the levers I've listed above. I'd also posit, however, that aspirational gives employees implicit permission to unleash their potential - which is awesome.

Let me explain.

In organizations, lots of people don't ever bring all their skills and talents to their work...not because they don't want to, because they can't. They're subdued by their organization's culture or by fear of reprimand. Given the choice, people often opt for lesser-risk activities and behaviors. They believe they have to "follow protocol" to get something done. They have to please their bosses and don't want to "step on their colleagues toes". Because they've been taught to value perceptions in the workplace, employees don't give it their all - they can't because they're suppressed by organizational norms.

So, here's the cool thing about aspirational purpose, it gives employees orders from a higher authority, if you will, that supersedes oppressive organizational norms. By conveying a loftier, aspirational purpose, it provides political cover to employees who want to do something different to achieve that purpose (assuming they are sincere in their efforts). If someone questions employees' unorthodox behavior (which bucks the convention of the organization) those employees can point to the purpose of the organization as justification for their behavior. If the organization's leadership truly values the organization's aspirational purpose, achieving that purpose is tremendously important and they are probably more likely to let unorthodox behavior slide.  In effect, to employees who are truly motivated by the organization's aspirational purpose that purpose is freeing - the higher purpose gives them implicit permission to break cultural norms to achieve it.

How an organization defines and truly embraces aspirational purpose is the topic of another post, I think. That's a huge question that has intense impacts on life in that organization.

Ambition vs. Actualization in the Social Sector

A few weeks ago John Hagel tweeted a link to a Huff Post Blog Post titled: Is Your Ambition Making You Stressed?

The post is a good one, you should read it. The takeaway is that there is a difference between ambition and actualization.  Here's an excerpt:

My colleague, coach Lianne Raymond, has something brilliant to say about this.
She differentiates between actualization and ambition.

Actualization or Ambition?Lianne writes that characteristics of ambition include:

  • the need to impress
  • status-seeking
  • pursuit of acclaim

Ambition is rooted in insecurity. What we do from a place of ambition tends to feel heavy and stressful, and leads to very short-lived satisfaction.
By contrast, characteristics of actualization include:

  • authenticity
  • vitality
  • playfulness
  • meaning

I think this is especially important to be self-aware of if doing community work, because the stakes are high and the pain one can cause is real. In the social sector people who are "ambitious" translate into power seekers who seek to influence over serving others, in my opinion. This is problematic when the opportunity to influence or serve becomes a tradeoff. If you are ambitious you might do something that's not in the interests of those you're serving so you can gain influence. This sort of act is hurtful...some might even say it's exploitative.

For that reason, I think that it's our responsibility - if you're looking to influence, serve, or both - to determine whether your goals are ambitious or actualized.  If they're solely ambitious, get out of the game. Don't put yourself in a position to be a community steward. It's not fair to be surreptitiously ambitious and pretend to be actualized - it insults people's trust and puts them in a position where they think they are protected from harm when they're really vulnerable to it.

It's hard, I admit, to be self-aware enough to determine if one's motivations are ambitious or actualized.  But we have to try to figure it out so that we can minimize the hurt we cause to our neighbors who need the most help.

Service to others is about precisely that: others. I worry that people who have ambitious intentions care more about themselves and their influence than they do about others. That tragically flaws their judgement, regardless how talented they are, because when push comes to shove, they may choose aggrandizement over helping others.

I suppose this may be an impetuous cry, but I really do think it matters. Community stewards need to be able to make sacrifices for others, not the converse. Commitment to helping others must run deep and be able to persist through any circumstance or level of pressure.

So, my community-oriented friends, ask yourself why you do community work. Is it for you (ambitious) or the community (actualization)? Ask yourself this often.

Preventing Volunteer Classism

Over the past year, I've come to think a lot about skills-based volunteerism as the result of the pilot program we've started to scope and plan projects. For that reason, I've come to strongly value skills-based volunteering and the potential impact (it's really big) the movement can have on transforming communities. For skills-based volunteers, however, I think it's incomplete to simply volunteer skills - hands-on volunteering should not be forgotten.

Now, there are a lot of reasons to take this tack - hands-on volunteering's inherent value, the practicality of diversifying the types of volunteer experiences, the speed at which hands-on volunteering can be executed, etc. - but i'll pick one. Hands-on volunteering prevents skills-based volunteering from becoming uninformed of reality and helps skills-based volunteers stay grounded.

Simply put, understanding what really influences a social problem - at the ground level - is a really important perspective to have when addressing a social problem. Understanding the inner-mechanics of a community hones your instincts, if you will. Because hands-on volunteering can help volunteers understand community needs (when done right) in an authentic, and even visceral way, skills-based volunteers should do it - it helps you use your skills more effectively.

The more important reason, as I see it, for hands-on volunteering is humility...for skills-based volunteers I mean. I've seen (and felt personally) the creation of classes between types of volunteers as skills-based volunteering becomes more high-profile. Surely, skilled-based volunteering is super valuable and perhaps more valuable, in dollar terms, than hands-on volunteering. But that does not mean that skills-based volunteers are more valuable human beings. Unfortunately, I think skills-based volunteers are starting to think exactly that.  I worry that this sort of attitude is the undercurrent of a "volunteer classism".

In my time swimming around skills-based volunteering, I get the feeling that no small amount of folks (whether they be from not-for-profit organizations, companies, or among the citizenry) think that skills-based volunteers are better people, and that hands-on volunteers are lower sorts of people. I think that's false. I think there's a clear distinction between someone's inherent worth as a person and their value as economic and social actor.  Which is to say that the type of volunteer you are has no bearing on your worth as a person.

Hands-on volunteering, in it's propensity for doing simple and usually manual labor, puts every sort of person side-by-side with each other. It brings people of different social identities into a team working toward a common goal.  To me that's anti-thesis of volunteer classism, if you will, and it puts the issue in the right frame - volunteering is not about being a better human being than another, it's about achieving common community goals.

Putting moral reservations about classism aside, if doing volunteer work is intended to abate the distance and conflict between classes, we ought to do our volunteer work in a way that's not classist. For that reason I think hands-on volunteering is important (even, and almost especially) for skills-based volunteers. Hands-on volunteering can prevent classes from forming by helping skills-based volunteers that your value isn't tied to your vocation and that every type of volunteer is an equally valuable human being

Making friends, building community

My friend JBC sent a few of us an interesting article from the New York Times yesterday about the difficulty about making friends after 30.

Overall, the basic rationale for why it's difficult to make friends later in life, makes sense. Here's a clip from the article:

In studies of peer groups, Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California, observed that people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had.

Basically, she suggests, this is because people have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now. “You tend to focus on what is most emotionally important to you,” she said, “so you’re not interested in going to that cocktail party, you’re interested in spending time with your kids.”

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

I don't think focusing on relationships that matter most is scornful, either. What does seem like a miss on the part of the journalist, however, is the way the issue is framed. It presents friendship as something someone should pursue for only their own benefit and neglects the importance of building new relationships as a community imperative.

Let me explain.

The way the interviewees/author of the article present the construct friendship is that you do what makes sense for you.  You mix in people that fill gaps in your life. You put forward the effort to make friends as long as its what you want and what feels good to you.

Which is sensible. Like I said before, I don't think it's unreasonable to put forth effort in certain types of relationships or relationships with certain people.

I think we should push ourselves harder, though. If we extend the idea of being friends with people because it's what we want or benefits us, it probably takes us to a place where there are people who are in a "friends deficit". It probably leads to have fragmented communities and less-than-vibrant neighborhoods.

I think it takes a little extra effort on everyone's part to make sure people aren't left out.  A little investment into the community bank, if you will.  If we don't make an effort to create new relationships, people who aren't already plugged-in will be left out.  This could be people from all the scenarios the author mentioned - someone who moved to a new place, a recent divorcee, or many other life transitions which cause friendships to reset.

Being a person that's constantly alone - I travel for work all the time - I'd be miserable if other people didn't make the effort to try to make a new, random, friend. My parents also have to live separately for work (My dad lives in California because of a job) so I've also seen first hand the devastating effects of going to a place and not having friends - maybe not even friends, just other people that you can lean on for support - later in life. I'm really thankful for people who are okay with meeting someone new, even if it's just in passing.

I also think we'll all be in a place at some point in our lives where we have a deficit of friends. For that reason, I think it's important to think of friendships as more than just an individual concern, but as a community investment that we should all make - we'll probably all be beneficiaries of someone who doesn't have to be friends with us but does, someday. 

It also just seems like the right thing to do. If we're healthy and happy, why not take a little extra energy to affirm someone else new who may not be totally healthy and happy?

For the record, I'm not suggesting we all spread ourselves so thin to the point of not having deep relationships with a small group of people. What I am suggesting is that we always try to make an effort (with time, or letting our guard down, etc.) to invest in new relationships that help keep communities connected and vibrant...even if it's not always easy.

Political debate and global citizenship

Most of the time, I agree almost decidedly with John Linkner (he's really smart and pretty divergent in his thinking). Today, he had a post titled Why I Don't Care About Obamacare (or Abortion or Gun Control) on Forbes and I disagree pretty strongly with some parts of his remarks. Given that his post is somewhat about dialogue and disagreement I thought it'd be worth remarking / responding. Before that though, let me outline what I do agree with.

In my respects, I don't disagree with Josh's conclusion - why bother worrying about controversial topics like abortion or gun control (note, I've excluded healthcare from this list - I also think it's curious that Linkner uses "Obamacare", a politically charged term, in an article where he criticizes pointless, inflammatory political debate). My rationale is different however - I don't think the dialogue is wasteful or causes a diversion of focus, I just think there are other issues that take priority. Moreover, I suspect a lot of the issues that are hotly debated are predominately raised to mobilize latent constituent groups instead of to actually debate them, which is disheartening and divisive.

I also agree with Josh's statement a few paragraphs in:

"Our country’s decisions are determined by a majority; the people making these determinations were put into place by the ultimate majority: public opinion. Once our officials are put into place, it is their job to make decisions for the greater good on our behalf – your anger or support after the fact won’t adjust their choice"

Indeed. Legislators are agents who vote on our behalf (a la "little r" republicanism) and I think it's good that way. It makes it easier to make tough choices. Also, I agree, anger or support after the fact will not adjust a previously made choice.  That's a matter of fact.

Anyway, allow me to disagree with two sentiments Linkner presents:

1 - "Wasteful: Think about how much time, energy and emotion people spend heatedly discussing these issues. What does it accomplish? Not much. If the same logic went into a company’s decision-making, nothing would ever get done."

2 - "Refocus: If you take all that emotional capital and re-invest it into something more relevant to you personally, think about the dividends that could result. Simply ignore the debates in the larger political climate that affect your success a lot less than the time you spend on them. Instead, repurpose that energy into your true passion, no matter what that may be. Think about what riches would flow from this type of attitude"

We live in a world with global problems that need (in the words of Gordon Brown's TED Talk) a global ethic to solve. Plainly said, there are many different opinions on how to solve these global problems - many of which which conflict with each other. More than that, there are different outcomes that different people desire from different situation (e.g., authoritarian dictators desire something a lot different for their nations than the people within them desire).

All in all, there's a lot of potential for conflict. Conflict, rather, is truly inevitable. And we have  a choice, we resolve it or we don't.  I think we have to, because to get anything done without resolving conflict requires coercion, deception, or both. I happen to think that "getting things done" and avoiding coercion/deception are both worthy aspirations.

So, I've presented an undefended claim above: that things don't get done if there's unresolved conflict (unless actors are coerced or deceived). I think this is true, think about every argument you've been in - can you move forward with a plan unless the conflict is resolved? For example, can you plan a trip with your friend if you both want to go to different places? Can you raise your kids in a single faith if you're in an inter-faith marriage and you don't reconcile your views with your wife? Can Europe even begin to prevent financial meltdown if they don't agree on a plan of attack?

So, I'd disagree with Josh's contention that heatedly discussing issues accomplishes nothing. On the contrary, I'd suggest that nothing is accomplished unless we hotly discuss issues. Without hotly discussing issues we don't resolve conflict, unless we coerce or deceive. And if we don't resolve conflict, we don't get things done. Consequently, we'd better hotly discuss issues. The discussion doesn't necessarily yield immediate results, but I don't think results would happen at any point in time without the discussion happening to lay the path for action.

I also don't think that the answer is to take the energy we would spend and channel it into something more relevant to us personally. I think doing so leads people to be aloof to broader concerns and circumstances beyond their own backyard. Maintaining a global perspective (i.e., a perspective where we empathize with people across the globe) is essential, I think, to solve global problems.  I think channeling all our energy into our own interests probably cultivates an attitude which does the opposite and degrades our global perspective. Linkner doesn't advocate for all people avoiding political debate (in fact he encourages people with a such a passion to pursue it) but I suggest a more extreme position. I think it's important for all people to engage in political debate which elevates a global consciousness.

Now, this argument falls apart with the claim that only a limited subset of people need to really address broader problems and have a broad perspective. I disagree. We are incredibly connected by our actions and our ideas. We won't solve climate change unless we all change our behavior. We won't have safer neighborhoods unless we all watch over our streets. There may be many policies which only need to be decided by a few people, but we all have influence (whether we like it or not, and think so or not) on the outcomes. Call me naive or optimistic, but I think a global perspective makes it more likely and easier to follow-through on our responsibilities as global citizens.

Bear in mind, I think focusing on passion is important (and agree with Josh in this respect). But, I think there's also a place and importance for spending time refining our collective global consciousness - there's a need to discuss conflict.

Toward the end of his post, I start to agree with Josh again:

"The point I’m making isn’t to avoid proactive involvement.  If you are passionate about a political, social, or community effort, by all means you should dive in and make a difference.  Individual citizens ranging from Rosa Parks to James Brady have played a key role in shaping our nation.  However, if you plan to do nothing but complain, it is a total waste of your time.  The bitch-and-moan club has millions of members, yet creates nothing but anger and frustration.  If you chose to delegate policy making to the politicians, stop your indignant rants and start repurposing that energy into something productive for both you and society."

Obviously, narrow-minded ranting with no intention of listening to other people isn't really helpful in developing a global consciousness. But the answer to stopping ranting isn't to shut up, it's to push harder and harder to listen to each other and have enlightened dialogue.

Don't agree with me? Let's chat.

Engaging John and Jane Doe - applying strategic change to citizen engagement

Engaging citizens in government seems like it'd be a funny venture because it's unlike engagement anywhere in the private sector (on the face, at least). You have to connect with people who are outside the walls of your organizations because citizens don't work for the government...making them sort of like customers. At the same time, citizens elect many leaders (or elect people who are appointed / confirmed by elected leaders) which kind of makes them like shareholders. Beyond that, when examining the values of our constitutional, democratic, republic, we are a country "by the people and for the people" implying that we are indeed a part of government to some degree, akin to employees.

Which makes engagement interesting: how do you (you meaning any type of political actor, which is confusing in itself) engage a constituent, who is a quasi-customer|employee|shareholder?

Well, let's apply some tricks from the strategic change playbook: let's understand the audiences, the message and topics to engage people in, and engagement vehicles.  For now, let's assume government is one entity and simply look at this situation as a one to many relationship, instead of a many to many relationship (i.e., there's one "government actor" and many different flavors of constituents).

As we go, I'll call out the action steps that would be required in truly developing a well thought out constituent engagement strategy.

The Audiences

Basically, this part is simple but really difficult to do. Understand who needs to be communicated with and what influences each of these groups. The short answer is that everybody needs to be communicated with about everything.  That's obviously not good enough because there's not enough time or money in the history of the world to do that, so let's break it down.

So, who needs to be communicated with? Well, pretty much everybody needs to be to some degree, but to get started how to make meaningful distinctions between constituent groups. In companies this is easy, one usually breaks down an employee populace into a few categories: role/function, location, and level. When speaking about constituents though, it's not so easy.

Action Item #1 - first, figure out how to make meaningful distinctions between constituents
I'm not some sort of political operative, but it's pretty plain to see how constituent groups are broken down today: race, geography, income-level, gender, and maybe some interest groups (conservationists, evangelicals, trial lawyers, etc.).

The trouble with this is there are a lot of different hats people wear and it's not always easy to see how folks' different identities intersect.  This is absolutely important to do, however, because it's really important to target messages based on who you're talking to.

Something that may be interesting to do is to create "personality profiles" which combine some of these identities / affinities into some clusters.  I'm guessing there's probably data to do this, or ways to have people choose which of their identities mean more to them than others (in fact, I know there are, for reasons I can't discuss on this blog).

Maybe there's a "soccer mom" profile, or a "suburban small business owner" profile that can be clustered.  Maybe there are about 50 other clusters that could be made. Obviously, there would be a lot of clusters but that's okay...we're talking about segmenting a nation of 330 million people.  And, having fifty clusters is much simpler than having combinations of characteristics across several different dimensions.

There are probably lots of ways to group constituents, I won't really get into the best ways to do that.

Action Item #2 - next, determine what makes each group tick
This is one of the easy ones, really listen to and learn about each constituent group.  What makes them tick? What influences them? How does their day run? What do they like and dislike? What's their culture. Once the audiences are identified you really have to understand them. This takes research and interaction.

The Message
Another important consideration to think about is what constituents need to be engaged in...meaning what do you have to communicate with them? This consideration slices two ways. First, what is the message/topic that constituents need to be engaged in. Second, how engaged does each group have to be at the end of it?

Action Item #3 - Determine what each constituent needs to know about | be engaged in.
This is a really important step, because it's never the case (I've never seen this circumstance, at least) that everyone needs to know a lot about everything. Providing information that's not relevant fatigues audiences and also causes confusion. Moreover, once you determine what each constituent group needs to know it's a lot easier to craft a clear message because you're suddenly aware of who your audience is and how they might conceptualize things in their mind*.

Now, in public affairs, this is very complicated because there are many different different topics and actions required of constituents. Moreover, to even index constituents with particular messages, you need to determine all the messages that are out there and which ones are really important to communicate. In other words, one has to figure out the entirety of what they want to say and what's really important and what isn't.

Action Item #4 - next, determine to what degree each constituent needs to be engaged
Constituents are not all created equally when it comes to communication. Obviously all constituents are important, but they all have different abilities to influence the outcome of a specific policy or program. And quite frankly, each constituent probably doesn't want to be completely engaged in everything. So, another step to take is determine the degree to which each constituent group needs to be communicated with.

Some constituents may need to be really engaged and supportive of something, whereas others may just need to be aware.  Some may need to have operational knowledge of something where as some need to be so well versed that they becomes spokespeople about the issue. Maps this out.

The vehicles
The last step (yes this really is and should be the last step) is to determine the vehicles with which you can communicate with constituents. Once you've done that, use all your knowledge to determine which vehicles should be used to communicate certain messages to which constituent group.

This is really important to be the last step, because without good data and thought behind it it's probably going to be very difficult to prioritize and sequence communications vehicles effectively.  Doing all this analysis on the front-end makes it a lot easier to target messages.

Action Item #5 - List out all the vehicles you could possible use to communicate with people
Here, start with existing vehicles.  There are probably lots of them: emails, mail, advertisements, twitter, facebook, townhalls, door knocking campaigns, church events, phone calls, text messages, a street team, etc.  There are lots.  Then, imagine new vehicles - maybe it's a bake sale, maybe it's a talent show...who knows. Your imagination is the limit to this.

One thing to note about communications vehicles is that it's super important to have vehicles which work in two directions - speaking and listening.

Action Item #6 - Match vehicles to each constituent groups and messages
Laying out your plan is the last step before execution. Match up each constituent and message to the best communication vehicle to communicate that message. When possible bundle messages and groups together (when they need the same message from the same vehicle).  That will minimize work for the communicator and the constituent.

When I started writing this post, I thought that it would be wildly different to think about communicating with constituents than it is with employees.  It's not.  The same planning and execution process exists. But it is different in that it's much, much more complicated. Which makes it all the more important to think through an engagement strategy for your constituency.

*- Also, this sort of goes without saying (and is the post for another message), but it's really important to craft a clear message.

Rules for Politicians to follow

I originally posted this on Big Think, but realized that I never posted it into this blog. It's an idea circa May 2009. Here's the link and text.



I had an interesting conversation, as I often do with the friends I was with, about politics. The question was prompted by discussion about student-group politics at the University of Michigan. The opinion of my other two conversation partners was that politics is a not so great thing (their opinions were stronger, but I'll just leave it at that). 

I disagree, I think politics can be done well and I would embrace politics, if a political actor adhered to the following three rules. Politics should be considered an honorable profession, instead of a opportunitic one.

The three rules that political actors should follow.  If they did, maybe "politician" wouldn't be as dirty a word:

1) The ethics rule
Figure out what is right and what is wrong. Spend most of your time doing this, not campaigning. Obviously, on some issues it's really hard to figure out what is right and what is wrong. Unfortunately for politicians, they cannot hide behind this because they have to vote on whether they agree or disagree. Use the people around you: constituents, staff members, the party, whatever...and use your own values. Do the best you can, don't fake it. We'll know. Then proceed to rule number 2.

2) The no-bullshit rule
Articulate your viewpoint to your constituents, honestly. You must do this, and not just give a "bullshit reason" about actions or a vote. It is your responsibility to communicate and if you make an action then you must be honest about it. There is NO way around this rule. People need this information to evaluate you as a representative. If you don't do this, you are cheating your constituients.

3)The vulnerability rule
You must be willing to lose--elections, support, etc. This, I think is the most fundamental of the three rules, if a politician is not willing to lose, they will be incapable of implementing rules number 1 and 2. This is because they will be too focused on figuring out the difference between a winning move and a losing move rather than right and wrong just as they will focus on telling people what they want to hear instead of telling the truth.

If all politicians followed these rules, I think people would be a lot less skeptical of them.

Some say that the whole point is winning the game, because things don't get done without playing the game. I disagree, people want honest leaders who do what is right. If you follow these rules, you will be elected time and time again...truth wins over falsity.  At the very least, your honor will be presevered in the long term. If you follow these rules and you do lose, it just means you're not the right person for the job at that place and time.

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com