Planning is killing us and prototyping will save us
- that's the provocative premise of a new book from Zaid Hassan, cofounder of Reos, and host to a small but mighty group of activists, facilitators, designers and social entrepreneurs that I joined earlier this month for a workshop at the Lokey Graduate School of Business at Mills College.
As a nonprofit consultant and participant in over a dozen strategic planning processes, I've seen the limitations of traditional planning approaches first-hand. The difficulties are confounded when the planning centers on navigating situations or challenges of complexity, where the actions undertaken will inevitably produce reactions from multiple stakeholders and result in a fundamentally new situation.
The startup community, by and large, gets this. The social sector - or at least the funding institutions within the social sector - mostly does not.
For all the talk and activity around Lean Impact, most of the innovation-focussed philanthropic resources are still being passed out to plans constructed within a traditional planning paradigm. Even when the focus is on allegedly on the outcomes, the desire for accountability often results in the imposition of a planning methodology that values presumptive specificity over messy reality (#imho).
Furthermore, the societal challenges we face today are incredibly complex. From climate change to global poverty, from infectious diseases to cyber conflict, the world has never been more interconnected and never been more unsuited to taking on those challenges within a planning paradigm. What are some alternatives?
Hassan laid out a blueprint for what he calls Social Labs - interdisciplinary teams empowered to explore a portfolio of proposed solutions to a particular social or environmental challenge. They do this not by writing white papers or convening blue-ribbon panels, but rather by doing - by working to prototype the implementation of promising ideas in 30- or 60-day sprints. This approach, much like Upwell's own MVC (minimum viable campaign) model of campaigning, draws heavily from agile software development and recognizes that only by getting out of the building (or conference hall) can you test your ideas with real fidelity.
Here's a description in his own words: [UPDATE: the video embed has gone astray - here's Zaid on YouTube]
If you know you're almost inevitably going to fail, then the point is to learn from failure as quickly as possible in order to move forward. Hassan and Reos have brought forward a truly promising approach to big, thorny, complex problems.
I'll be watching their progress with interest, but more importantly with my sleeves rolled up.
Here on the good ship Upwell we're often asked to help folks think through what Big Listening for their cause or issue might look like. This raises some intriguing questions about what their cause or issue is - what's in and what's out of their particular mental model for that thing. Call it a bukkit, m'kay?
What's in the LOLRUS's bukkit? Most likely bivalves.
Measuring something requires you to define it. The trick in measuring a conversation is that conversations change over time as participants engage in dialogue. And as conversations dynamically evolve over time, so too do the methods of expression (i.e. terminology, imagery, metaphors, etc.), the composition of participants, and the accompanying platforms. Much like species evolution, these changes are not always in a direction that we perceive to be fruitful. Evolution can lead to progress just as it can lead to dead-ends or fragmentation. Because of this, no conversational “listening” can ever be exhaustive (as some elements of the conversation will always be overlooked), nor can it be perfectly accurate (as noise will always creep in).
In bounding an issue for the purpose of (big) listening to it, we begin by developing a conceptual framework. For the purposes of explanation, let’s imagine our topic is marine debris a.k.a. trash in the ocean.
We would begin by outlining the conceptual and temporal boundaries of analysis for marine debris. The temporal aspect is important because a keyword group developed for one time period may lose significant accuracy (and utility) when applied to another period. For the conceptual outlines we often make use of a mind map such as the one for ocean acidification shown below.
For marine debris the concept map would include items such as marine trash, the pacific gyre, marine plastics, great pacific garbage patch, seaplex (minus exclusions for the botanical shampoo of the same name), albatross AND plastic. The concept map would also include people, campaigns, expeditions and organizations such as Miriam Goldstein (a marine debris expert), The Trash Free Seas Alliance, the Plastiki, and Seaplex.
The concept map becomes a design artifact for further conversations about the conversation. Although we sometimes shortcut this process in the interests of time, we refine the map through a series of discussions and exchanges with subject matter experts and knowledgeable people in the industry or industries at play. It's worth noting that since we're interested in public conversations, speaking only with the issue wonks can be counter-productive, since their language is often arcane and infrequently used within the culture at large. The map for Oceans concepts (shown above) actually had to be dramatically revised once we realized it was full of science jargon and lacking anything to do with Mermaids, little or otherwise.
Hipster Ariel was in your bukkit before it was cool.
Once we have a solid map of the conversation, we turn the map into a series of keywords - but that's a topic for another day. So if you're thinking about what Big Listening for your issue might look like, consider thinking of a bukkit. What's innit?
In late October, we saw a big, sustained spike in online attention to an article that came out in the Newcastle Herald, entitled “The Ocean is Broken.” The story chronicles ocean yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen’s experience retracing a trans-ocean journey he had sailed 10 years ago, and his shock at the profound decline he saw in sea life and ocean health. According to the Herald, the article “smashed Fairfax Regional Media records.” The article, definitively lacking hard science, clearly struck a chord with readers worldwide, and Macfadyen is now fielding requests for interviews, letters from concerned citizens, and offers from documentary filmmakers to help tell his story.
Our community of ocean lovers and ocean communicators was intrigued, so we decided to don our Upwell analysis hats and put our Big Listening tools to the test, to answer a couple key questions. First: Why did this story, above all the others that talk about ocean health, go so big? And second: What can Team Ocean learn and apply to our work?
"The Ocean is Broken" has been shared over 115,000 times on Facebook and Twitter, and is still being shared now, a month after it was originally published. In fact, in just the last week, the story has been shared between 40-80 times per day.
The story was first shared midday in the UK on October 18 (early am in the US), but didn’t achieve real momentum until it was shared by Caitlin Moran on Twitter on October 20. The British media personality and author has 470,000 followers on Twitter, and is known for her humorous (and often NSFW) tweets and her high level of engagement with her followers.
Several other Twitter "celebrities," including Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, shared the story but it seems this tweet was what tipped the initial scales.
The story did exceptionally well on Facebook, with over 100,000 shares, nearly 100,000 comments, and over 85,000 likes, heavily overshadowing numbers on Twitter. (Source: SharedCount)
The shape of the “spike” is much wider than similar stories would be. This means there was sustained volume over several days, and the story had legs for much longer than 24 hours. Indeed, Twitter conversation levels in the past week have remained in the 40-80 mentions per day level. (Source: Topsy Pro)
A story with real legs: Twitter mentions of “The Ocean is Broken” Oct 17-Nov 13.
It's a human interest story.
The data above tell only part of the story. The heart of the story lies in understanding why the initial people who read "The Ocean is Broken" decided to proactively share it with their friends, followers, readers and fans. With articles coming out every week that tell us oceans are hurting, why did this one go viral?
One thing that's important to distinguish is that this is not a science story, or an environmental story. It is a human interest story. The author, Greg Ray, was not writing an article about ocean health. He was recounting and sharing the powerful personal anecdotes of Ian Macfadyen.
When we, as conservationists and scientists, want to connect people to an issue we find important, such storytelling is a powerful tool. A story can bring a wonky issue to life. Take, for instance, the health care reform law (Obamacare). Journalists, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies are relying on storytelling to connect with people. A story about how someone who had been previously denied health coverage due to a pre-existing condition is much more interesting than an article detailing all the changes in the new law.
Scientists are often trained out of including narrative or anecdotes in their writing, but this is a reminder that that reluctance to get personal can come with a cost.
Not only did "The Ocean is Broken" tell a story, it was able to incite emotion. With Radian6, we were able to get a better understanding of people's reactions to the article, en masse. The below three word clouds represent the three days that saw the highest volume of sharing.
Note that the emotive words are closely related: nightmare, frighteningly, terrifying, disturbing. With lower frequency we see words like sad and depressing. While positive emotions tend to spur social sharing at a higher rate than negative emotions overall, it is also the higher energy emotions that spur sharing. Fear is a higher energy emotion than sadness. The language used in the article, from the very beginning paragraphs, is clearly meant to evoke these nightmarish fears:
The wind still whipped the sails and whistled in the rigging. The waves still sloshed against the fibreglass hull.And there were plenty of other noises: muffled thuds and bumps and scrapes as the boat knocked against pieces of debris.
The article is also written for the web: short paragraphs that make scanning easy, a powerful and personal banner image to catch the reader's attention, and a confident and potentially controversial title that makes the reader want to learn more. "Broken" isn't a word we're used to hearing in the context of the ocean - it's poetic, symbolic, and new to our lexicon. And if someone saw the phrase "the ocean is broken" in a tweet, there's a good chance they might have hit Retweet without even reading the article because they agreed with the headline so strongly (admit it: you've done the same thing.).
There's certainly more to learn from this story - tell us your thoughts in the comments.
// This Toolkit is in progress.
// Have suggestions for what should go in here?
// Get in touch
Welcome to your home for shark-saving resources to help you defend, protect and celebrate sharks online during Shark Week (starting Sunday, August 4 at 9pm ET)!
There's a lot in here, so we've packed all the action-y goodies at the top, and pushed the background information to the end.
Table of Contents
I. Being a Super Engager
- The 2013 Shark Week Cheat Sheet (a one-page pdf packed with tips, info and the Shark Week schedule)
- How To Drive The Shark Conversation (Without Jumping It)
- -- Tips for effectively engaging online during Shark Week
- State of the Shark Online (“the Sharkinar”)
- -- Recording, Slides, and Notes from our Shark Week online briefings (July 16 and August 1)
- Myth-busting Resources
- -- Rapid Response Kit for Busting Shark Myths (particularly on twitter)
- Tips for Twitter and Facebook (from 2012)
- The best-est shark photos and videos to share and amplify
II. Background Information
- Shark Week 101 (Wikipedia) (By the Numbers)
- Shark Week Schedule
- Shark Week’s online campaign plans
- Shark Week Official Online Channels:
- -- Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr | Website | GetGlue (Social TV app)
- -- How to Engage Online with Shark Week [per Discovery]
This toolkit is a living, breathing thing, so please send us suggestions for additions and alterations. Also, let us know what this toolkit helps you do, and we'll repay the favor by driving more attention to your content!
Upwell is not a newswire for the ocean. It does not exist solely to pump out out retweets and links; if it did, it would be adding to the noise without necessarily increasing volume in a valuable way. So we subject the mass of possible topics to a triage test.
Version 2.0 of Upwell’s curation criteria, September 2, 2012
The first items to be discarded are those that don’t pass the scientific smell test; if the science isn’t credible, it’s out. Other considerations include:
In order to be as effective as possible, it’s important to select topics that lendthemselves most easily to wide and willing dissemination, and spark conversation: what wedescribe as ‘liquid content.’ This can either be content that is already liquid—for example,content that is visual, awesome, scary, funny or cute—or that we can make liquid. The publication of a National Research Council report evaluating the federal response plan to ocean acidification is undoubtedly important—but seriously, what are you more likely to share with friends? That, or this:
Before-and-after pics. Good for US Weekly, good for Upwell.
We’re a movement with a message. Not everything we share or amplify is Debbie Downer material. We also celebrate good news and successes and also highlight the awesomeness of ocean life. Even so, as part of our morning triage, we prioritize campaigns that have not just a generic conservation message, but the potential for specific impact: for example, petitions, seafood purchasing recommendations, etc. We find that content that is paired with action is more shareable.
Building Social Capital.
We calibrate our focus across issues, people and organizations in orderto cultivate trust, animate our network and maintain access to the most compelling oceancontent. We share content that comes from every corner of Team Ocean, with an effort toward spreading the love in a balanced way. If an important influencer asks us to share something, we do it. Generosity builds and maintains relationships, thereby increasing our social capital.
We are always looking to grow our network and expand to new audiences.We prioritize content and campaigns that allow us to go beyond the choir and reach new influencers to enlarge the conversation and build the network.
Sometimes the hook is an article in the New York Times that’s generating discussion onTwitter. Sometimes there is no hook, and we have to find it, or make it. Tying ocean content with events like the Olympics, Rio+20 or Lance Armstrong’s steroid use helps up the shareable quotient.
Has a news story or piece of content already reached its saturation point? If something has already received a lot of coverage and attention, we judge whether it's worth our effort to create another spike in attention (like an aftershock) or if it's already been shared by as many people as it will be (saturated). Often, the best way to judge whether something is spikeable is to ask whether the content will be shared two or three degrees out of our network. Will it generate interest and conversation beyond Team Ocean?
We look for awesome news and content that we think has been egregiously under-amplified. Sometimes a hot piece of news just wasn't packaged in the right way. We mine our network and find the awesome stuff that few have seen, and we repackage it to go farther.