“The task now is to discover how far they can take us.”

Where are you heading? We were sitting across the table at a cafe, talking about our current projects, when she asked me one of those easy-to-ask, hard-to-answer questions:

“What’s your mission?”

I talked about making work more effective and fulfilling at my firm and yet, even as I was saying the words, I realized they weren’t enough. They might describe my current work, but is that it? Is that all there is?

This I Believe

Among people who are trying to change their companies, there’s usually a feeling that runs deeper. They’re not just trying to improve a bank or a pharmaceutical company, they’re trying to improve people’s lives. Seeking to restore fairness, diversity, and equality. Hoping to make the world a better place.

If that sounds idealistic, it’s because it is. It’s why collaboration conferences can feel more like religious revivals (or what I imagine those to be like) than groups talking about corporate initiatives, change management, and technology. There’s this collective sense of “We’re on a mission.”

But what mission exactly? In my first post, “This I Believe”, I included ideas about fulfillment and humanizing work, but I’ve struggled to describe the broader sense of purpose that I’ve been feeling.

“I’m a Peer Progressive”

I found the words I was looking for in “Future Perfect”, a book by Steven Johnson (who also wrote “Where Good Ideas Come From” among others). He uses the phrase “peer progressive” to describe people using the power of networks - “webs of human collaboration and exchange” - to drive positive change, including social change. Progress is created by the combination of people networks and by the Internet, which continually "lowers the costs for creating and sharing information."

“To be a peer progressive, then, is to believe that the key to continued progress lies in building peer networks in as many regions of modern life as possible: in education, health care, city neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies.

What peer progressives want to see is fundamental change in the social architecture of those institutions, not just a Web strategy.”

He describes a wide range of current examples and future possibilities - from finding and fixing problems to funding innovation; from reducing traffic to reinventing elections. And he purposefully chose such a broad array of examples to show just how many areas of our lives could be rethought and reworked.

“And that is ultimately what being a peer progressive is all about: the belief that new institutions and new social architectures are now available to us in a way that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, and that our continued progress as a society will come from adopting those institutions in as many facets of modern life as possible.”

First Things First

Last week's post about the difficulties of changing any emergent system was “sobering” and even “depressing” to several people. But, I’m actually more optimistic than ever. While each individual’s attempts may be daunting, even quixotic, I am buoyed by the overall power and potential of peer progressives as a group.

“This is why it is such an interesting and encouraging time to build on these values. We have a theory of peer networks. We have the practice of building them. And we have results. We know that peer networks can work in the real world. The task now is to discover how far they can take us.”

And so, that’s my mission: to apply the theory and practice of peer networks to make the world better.

My particular starting point is inside one large corporation trying to make work there more effective and fulfilling. Then, I hope to do more, to build on that learning - the successes and the failures - to develop other peer networks and “discover how far they can take us”.

What to do in the face of “We tried that and it didn’t work.”

Maybe your original idea wasn’t so great. Or maybe it was.

Often, the failure isn’t a fault with the idea, but with the incentives and feedback mechanisms you implemented.

Maybe you should try again.

The story of “Charity Flights”

A former colleague told me about a great idea he had:

“What if people at work could choose to fly coach instead of business class and a portion of the savings went to a good cause?”

We did some quick arithmetic:

  • Say, on average, that coach is 75% cheaper than business class.
  • Assume 5% of business class travelers opt for the cheaper fare.
  • Split the savings 50/50 between charity and the firm.

In a large firm, the cost of business travel can easily exceed $100 million. So, even if only a small percentage of travelers choose to fly a cheaper class, that could mean $2 million for the firm and $2 million for charity.

That’s enough to give clean drinking water for life (for example) to 80,000 people in just the first year. Or 400,000 people in 5 years.

I was excited. But when I talked to corporate travel experts, they sighed.

“It’s a nice idea. But we tried it before - several times - and it didn’t work.”

3 problems 

I was shocked. Asking people to give up the comfort of business class is no small thing, but I thought doing so 1 of every 20 times was a conservative goal.

Yet the travel administrators had hard evidence I was wrong.

“We did a lot of work to make it happen but nobody chose to fly coach. After a while, we discontinued it for lack of interest.”

The problem wasn’t the travel processes or administration. Or that people were generally donating less. Rather, after carefully reviewing the earlier attempts to implement Charity Flights, we identified 3 main problems:

  1. There wasn't enough reason to care. There wasn’t a strong enough emotional component to the campaign. Instead of focusing on a specific cause, we let employees choose their charity. That diluted the impact and wasn’t enough to compel people to change behavior.
  2. There was too little benefit for the employee. All they had was a brief moment of feeling good about their choice compared to hours of discomfort. There was no recognition of what they did or any way to share their action with others.
  3. There was no feedback. A check was sent to a charity a few weeks later but employees never knew what happened to the money or whether it really made any difference.

A better way

Links to a post on driving enterprise change in a scalable way

All around us, we see so many examples of people giving and driving change. “The Dragonfly Effect” describes numerous case studies and provides an overall framework for programs like Charity Flights. Efforts from Alex’s Lemonade Stand to Kiva to charity:water are all successfully connecting people to drive change.

With Charity Flights, we had a good idea and we failed. But we’ll learn from our failures - and from the successful programs - and we’ll try again.

  • We’ll focus our efforts on just 1 or 2 specific causes so we concentrate our message and have a bigger impact.
  • We’ll tell more stories and use more video so people can feel the need to change.
  • We’ll recognize people’s actions on their corporate profiles and use social platforms to share what they’re doing.
  • We’ll make the impact visible. Employees will visit people and places being helped and record their stories so everyone can see the effects of their actions.

We’ll try again. And we’ll make a difference.