“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”.