Nov 07 2014

Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons – Words to Live By

The work of Elinor Ostrom comes up again and again as I engage with people from different parts of my diverse network. This is always an indicator to PAY ATTENTION. Here is a brief summary of Ostrom’s * Principles for Managing a Commons via “On the Commons.” This has been in my draft file for too long, so I’m getting it OUT!

A classic example of this was her field research in a Swiss village where farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow to graze their cows. While this would appear a perfect model to prove the tragedy-of-the-commons theory, Ostrom discovered that in reality there were no problems with overgrazing. That is because of a common agreement among villagers that one is allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they can care for over the winter—a rule that dates back to 1517. Ostrom has documented similar effective examples of “governing the commons” in her research in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, and Los Angeles.

Based on her extensive work, Ostrom offers 8 principles for how commons can be governed sustainably and equitably in a community.

8 Principles for Managing a Commons

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

As I prepare to facilitate a research scientists team retreat with communications and teamwork on the agenda, I am refreshing myself with some foundational ideas and thinking. Anything else I should be looking at or revisiting?

via Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons | On the Commons.

7 responses so far

Nov 06 2014

Why The ____ Would I Wake Up at 4am for a Hangout? Project Community – CogDogBlog

Why The ____ Would I Wake Up at 4am for a Hangout? Project Community 

Alan shared a great blog post about the final Project Community Hangout – it is wonderful so I’m being a lazy blogger and pointing you towards it. I’ll have a final reflective blog on this… but later! I need to catch up on my sleep first!

Of course, I also have to share the great pic Alan found…

Why The ____ Would I Wake Up at 4am for a Hangout? Project Community - CogDogBlog

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Nov 03 2014

You Can Observe a Lot By Watching – Yogi Berra

watchingbyAliaQunhuaFlickrCCThis is the second post in a series about how we learn from our work. The first one can be found here.

The great American baseball player/philosopher Yogi Berra, said “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

That quote popped into my mind when I was on a phone call with a group of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grantees of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program. We were on a great 90 minute call with those working on projects in Africa when one participant shared this story. The following is a total paraphrase!

I received this drawing of a septic tank from one of our colleagues in India. Looking at it, I saw it was a great design, but I closed the email and moved on. A few months later I visited and saw the remarkable tank and realized what a breakthrough it was and thought, why did I just close that email a few months ago? Why didn’t I share it with a colleague in Africa who I knew would be interested? What was it about that face to face moment that crystallized the learning for me?

“You can observe a lot just by watching.” All humor aside, I’d like to greet that with a rousing “Yes, AND…” The AND is that we are getting so programmed for efficiency, and addressing every little blip on the radar screen that we miss the importance of the things we are ostensibly “watching.” When we go into the field, many of those distractions are electronically de-tethered. We focus, focus, focus on what we actually see in front of us. We ARE watching with all of our attention and thus can reflect on the importance of what we are seeing.

So is the solution to simply go into the field? Well, not so practical. Not so sustainable. Sometimes not even possible, especially for anyone lower on the project hierarchy. It is not equitable.

So what do we do?

We are currently initiating two experiments to try and solve this problem. I’ll share the first here, and save the second for a follow up post. (Focus, focus, focus!)

Shared, Open-Topic Conversations

One is the semi-regular, open agenda telephone calls with subgroups of BDS grantees. The calls were initiated by the portfolio leader, as a response to working with the KM team and hearing needs from grantees. By walking the talk, our client is using his leadership position to invite conversation, versus disseminate requirements or content.

So far it feels like having between 8-12 people on the call is a good size. There is enough diversity, but not too many voices so everyone can have some air time and attention. We use a telephone bridge line and a shared note taking/chatting space. (Our “community technology configuration.”) Currently we’ve been experimenting with Meeting Words (

We do a quick check in, then each person is invited to share some insight about their current work. People use chat or voice to ask questions, answer, look for possible collaboration opportunities, but more importantly, pay attention for 90 minutes to thinking across the portfolio, not just within their project.

Because there are others there “listening” to us, we speak and pay attention differently than a quick scan of an email. My sense is that the more we can recreate the sense that we are together, the more this behavior shows up, rather than paying attention with half an ear whilst doing email and reading a note someone in the office just set in front of us. The shared note taking space helps focus attention and offer different means of engagement. We didn’t have it the first call and I personally felt less coherence. (That could just be me.) When we added it for the second call, people did not have to wait for “airtime” to talk – they could type. In addition, I did live note taking in the wiki side of the page and invited others to improve my note taking. In when the links! In went the correct spelling of a report. And we had very useful, collaborative notes ready by the end of the call. Boom!

The turn taking helps stimulate our past experience of being in a room, in a circle together sharing a beer or coffee, and simply talking with each other.  It helps the shyer people know there will be a space for them, even if they want to pass. It evens out some of the inevitable power dynamics of funder/grantee, boss/team member.

At the end of the second call we asked ourselves if we found value in the call and the meeting words and the quick informal feedback was very positive. I was even surprised at how positive. What did we do right? What could be improved? We still need to answer these questions.

The final piece of these calls is just starting up – following up with sharing of mentioned resources, setting up follow up actions for pairs with shared needs or interests, and development of asynchronous discussion threads of topics identified as useful for more depth.

My key questions going forward on this include:

  • How often do these calls need to be to build sufficient trust and practice to be, and be perceived as valuable and worth the time spent? In other words, what is the heartbeat of this practice? Time is always the scarce resource, so value MUST exceed time spent. This raises the question of what metrics help us understand received and perceived value. Is it important to have metrics or is informal feedback enough?
  • How will the proposed follow up items emerge and how will we discern the value of these experiments? Will we succeed in sustaining asynchronous interaction or is that even another step away from the “face to face attention.” Again, what are our metrics?
  • Finally, if these calls continue to provide value, who else would benefit from/want to attend? How far away from those in charge of the grants should we go? I personally think we miss a LOT by not having these conversations with front line staff, but it becomes increasingly logistically challenging and time is that darn choke point.

Have you done informal, regular knowledge sharing calls? What have you learned about convening them? Measuring their value? Let me know and I’ll share it back around! Because, after all, you can observe a lot by watching, right? J

10 responses so far

Oct 20 2014

Mirror Mirror, On the Wall: Learning in a Crowded Life

mirrorbyPhotoComiXonFlickrCC14 years ago I did my first overseas gig in Central Asia. I stayed with the project over three years including a number of trips to Armenia to work with the team on the ground. (See White-2005-Little) Ostensibly I was there to help facilitate learning around using online tools for community development, particularly in rural towns being connected via a school connectivity project. But in the end, what I realized was that my role was as a mirror for the team to see itself.

As we had our final closing circle for an After Action Review before the project began its transition away from the organization to the Ministry of Education, we started with the first question “What did we intend to do?” That was pretty easy. The project had a clear mandate, goals, and measurable intermediate outputs. We transitioned quickly into “What did we actually do.” There were the things we had dealt with, change, reformations of assumptions and operating conditions, etc. No big surprises.

When we got to the third question, “What did we learn?” we sat for a moment in silence, pondering. You could feel something change in the room. The concern that the Ministry would muck it all up, unspoken, but present. The acknowledgement of grief of having to let the program grow was palpable. Maybe even a sense of failure, fearing the transition was untenable.

Then one of the amazing women of the program opened her mouth and helped us begin. She said something to the effect of “Nancy Jan, you have helped me realize how much we have grown in our ability to really support change in our communities.” Then it began to flow, and the group unearthed first changes in themselves, the lessons they learned. From there insights about structural and environmental factors emerged in ways that were constructive for subsequent work – for the Ministry’s and their own. Something broke open. It was no longer a laundry list of things done.

The ability to learn lessons about projects, to surface them and analyze them with sufficient clarity starts with the ability to learn about ourselves. To reflect on our ways of working, of perceiving the work we do, of our assumptions and blind spots. This team had started with little appreciation of their own skills, their ability to influence their partners and stakeholders, and their deep creativity sprung from their even deeper commitment to their work. If anything, they hid their own light.

I’m currently working on two projects that are, in essence, about how we learn from our work. One is the development of a self-paced eLearning module on Experience Capitalization, which is a process for describing project work, extracting lessons and recommendations, creating communications products and channels for those lessons so they can be seen, adapted and used by others with similar interests and goals. How do we build our individual and organizational capacity to do that? My mirror role is to try and understand and interpret the content created by subject matter experts, and see it through novice eyes.

The second project is as a very peripheral participant helping a knowledge management initiative pick up clues to what is being learned about the learning in the project. How do we notice useful bits, pick them up, reflect on them and share them? The team leader has expressed a very open willingness to start with himself, which is rare and wonderful. So mirrors up!

I keep going back to that moment in Armenia, and the same element emerges. We often don’t (or can’t) see what is right in front of us, mostly because we are too busy, working too fast, and can’t seem to find the “mirror” to stop and look ourselves in the eye and reflect. We may lack some basic structure or affordances TO reflect. What if we took time to reinsert reflection and these affordances into our work? Would something change?

Is it that simple?

I don’t think it is that simple, or that learning from doing IS simple. But this pattern of finding a moment to “be heard” – even if by our own selves, is critical to both identifying and internalizing/applying learning. It is that moment of taking a breath before we do something new, something technical or challenging. Focus. Attention.

So back to the mirror. When you ask someone, heck, when you pay someone else to help you learn, you take the time to learn. One of those odd incentives that seem silly because of course we want to learn. But we don’t. That’s when the mirror role comes in very handy.

As much as I LOVE being the mirror (it is a fantastic role), it is not a sustainable strategy when learning becomes a matter of importance as it is in my work in international development. Think of the learning that is, or SHOULD be going on now with the Ebola epidemic.

I am going to write about this a few more times in the coming weeks and months to try and whittle down one or two things that are actionable, doable and can be motivated from within to leverage more learning from our work, and helping it connect with others who may be able to use our learning.

Image by PhotoComIX on Flickr, Creative Commons

4 responses so far

Oct 08 2014

Where is the Cooperation in International Development and Cooperation

Warning: The following was written in haste, has repetition and can very much stand a good edit. But if I don’t hit post, this won’t go out. Life is busy.

Earlier today my friend and respected KM/KS practitioner Ian Thorpe Tweeted a link to a consultancy announcement.


I blithely responded:

Now, I was pretty tough on Ian and did not offer any context. Later this morning he posted a really thoughtful blog post on the thinking behind his organization’s desire to have their own internal Knowledge Exchange Toolbox. I started to post a comment, but the comment grew so large I decided a post here was called for.

I’m going to quote a sizable chunk of his post and then my response. But if this interests you, please go read the whole thing.

But, I think there are actually a few good reasons to reinvent or at least adapt.

People working in an organization tend to have more trust, and are thus more likely to use something that has been specifically created for them and has some form of official endorsement. This sounds like “not invented here syndrome” – but it’s not quite that.

The advantages of developing your own toolkit (or platform, strategy, bibliography, taxonomy etc.) include:

  • It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand
  • It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context.
  • The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better.
  • The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects.
  • The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.

Overall these points mean that there is a sense of organizational ownership of the toolbox meaning not only is it officially sanctioned, but also officially supported and adapted to what the organization needs.

Thanks for adding really useful context, Ian. I find your reasoning totally logical. I have also heard it many times at other organizations.

First, can we connect usage to the factors you noted above in the context of ownership? Has anyone objectively looked at how usage of such a tool matters if it is internal or external?

I strongly suspect usage is driven by other, less visible, more informal things like seeing other peers use the tools, having colleagues they value endorse or role model, etc. I don’t have data. But in considering this,  I wonder about our assumptions about

  1. the use of these toolkits in general, and
  2. the importance of the points you make toward use (and improvements going forward).

Or are we just masking or missing the deeper, underlying issues? I really don’t know and I’d really LIKE to know.

I confess, I get totally frustrated when my own clients hire me to do things that are already done. The KS Toolkit came out of that frustration after three separate clients asked for the SAME thing and the differentiating factor was not whether the tool was on a private intranet or public, but branding. Yes, branding. Does that change the value of the toolkit? Should it?  Now, that said, over time the existing Toolkit product needs improvement. And your focus on adaptation is to me SUPER IMPORTANT. The issue of how to create and improve cooperatively sourced products alone deserves another blog post. (Note to self). But lets go back to rationale for internal vs. cooperative, shared resources.

I think a lot of the points you make are right on, but I also worry about some of the underlying causes that make these ideas of “needing internal validation,” “our language” and stuff so important in a field like international development and cooperation. From where I sit, I thought our field has shared goals.   So why do we have these counterproductive insider, invented here, not invented here, we are different from everyone else, etc attitudes? What do they represent? Control? Power? Fear? Territoriality? Reliance on the status quo?

Do we really understand if and why we need our unique products? Or is our vision too limited to see both the value and possibility for, and the mechanisms to cooperatively create, use, and improve resources?

Let me get more specific and look at each of Ian’s reasons for a customized product.

  • It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand. Having a sense of identity and ownership is important. But reinforcing organizational buzzwords and jargon does not help wider cooperation in the development field, no? Why might we want to reinforce this behavior? Think of the “beneficiaries” as well. Doesn’t our insider language and jargon distance us from them? 
  • It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context. This is a compelling argument for internal platforms. Curation, adaptation and tailoring are really useful “value added” to a toolkit. But why not do that adaptation in a public, cooperative platform where others can learn from what you do, particularly those closest to your organizational domains. Why not do it WITH those others? Hm, as I write this, I wonder about shifting from “organizational” context to “practice” or “domain” context. So if tool X is more useful in working with Y population, lets make sure all of us working with Y population have access to that tool adaptation and can contribute towards its ongoing improvement?
  • The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better. I can’t figure out the value of this being internal to an organization. Again, it relates to the practice, no? The global public good here is pretty darn high…
  • The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects. Why can’t this happen in a cooperative platform? Heck, it might even contribute to better interorganization practices as a whole? And who is the arbiter of quality at the tool level when we rarely seem to care or pay attention at the application level where the IMPACT happens, right?
  • The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.  Again, I can imagine this same value on a public/cooperative platform.

Adaptation is an important thing we ignore very often in KM. There is too much sense that replication and scaling are the solution. So I deeply respect this aspect of adaptation that I sense in Ian’s response.

My “yes, and” perspective  is that what you learn/do through adaptation is of value beyond your org. And insights come from beyond your org. And your org exists for public good, right? Why not build more nuanced structures that facilitate open, public, crowdsourced resources, ones that add that layers of adaptation – for example there are other orgs sharing UNICEF’s targets and goals who might also benefit from this need to improve tools.

I fully know that what I’m suggesting is not easy. We have learned through the that people DO have different needs, need the material organized or expressed differently. But those reasons don’t appear to be organizational. They appear to be driven by the users context and practice. And that these contexts and practices vary WITHIN organizations, and are often shared ACROSS organizations. And cooperatively creating and supporting a shared resource doesn’t fit into most organizational process or budgeting parameters, so when we see things like the we are seeing the work of committed individuals who make things happen, often in spite of their organizations. (And deep bow to all of you, including Ian who has been a toolkit supporter.)

I think there is a much larger, more valuable proposition of opening up some of this work across organizations and getting off the  focus on our organizations. Lets focus on our goals and the ultimate reason we are doing this. So every human being has the right to and access to food, clean water, housing, education and human dignity.

So what are the barriers? What is it we are really avoiding by sharing this “knowledge infrastructure?” Is it convenience? When we work for global public good, what is the cost of this “convenience?” What is keeping us from shifting towards more cooperative and networked structures which can tap a potentially broader and more diverse set of expertise, share the burden of refinement, adaptation, improvement and just simply reduce this recreation? We all need and benefit from the process of adapting and improving tools.  Many of the tools in a Knowledge Exchange toolkit will have relevance to wider audiences. At the same time, so much of what is in these toolkits is not rocket science. What IS rocket sciences is the organizational shifts and changes that actually enable people to USE this stuff. Toolkits are just a resource. And this opens another Pandora’s box for another blog post!

I’ll say it. Lets start breaking down more walls instead of using what is convenient and conventional to maintain the status quo. And a little starting point like KM and KS toolkits seems like an ideal laboratory to find new, cooperative, networked ways to maximize value and minimize waste. Let’s recreate and improve together. Otherwise we are supporting wheel reinvention.

And Ian, thanks for lighting me up to write about this today. You have helped me clarify my thinking. The next two things we need to consider is what it takes to cooperatively create global public goods (and a lot of good people have been doing some great work in other domains from which we can learn), and how to move the tools from toolboxes into practice!

via Why we sometimes need to reinvent the wheel | KM on a dollar a day.

22 responses so far

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