When I speak about my book Humanize, I often cite the example of Google and its “20% time.” If you don’t know, Google allows all employees to spend 20% of their time working on any project they want. Seriously, they don’t need approval. Now, they still get evaluated based on contributions to the organization (there goes your plan for spending 20% of your time playing World of Warcraft), and obviously they are spending 80% of their time on Google’s core business, but for that 20%, THE EMPLOYEES GET TO CHOOSE what they spend their time on. That’s signficant decision-making power–power we generally don’t give to our employees. This is part of a culture that embraces decentralization, by extending decision making power (within clearly defined containers) to people in the periphery of your organization, rather than concentrating it at the center.
The downside of sharing this example, however, is that it gives people an out: “Well, sure, they can do that because they are Google and they have effectively unlimited resources.” This out is particularly true in nonprofits and associations, who often feel that the resource-rich corporate world cannot provide us with lessons we can apply in our world.
So at a recent conference (Blogworld Expo), Maddie Grant and I spoke about Humanize, and instead of only giving corporate examples, we actually brought a nonprofit membership organization in to serve as our case study. The organization is NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Network. They only have a dozen staff. They are not big and corporate and oozing with money and resources. They are a struggling nonprofit like the rest of us.
Yet they are not like the rest of us. They are crystal clear about their values and very consciously live them in the way they do their work every day. They give program coordinators the power to jump in and tell a webinar presenter to up the energy if they hear on the twitter stream that it’s boring the participants. They write publicly about the parts of their annual meeting that failed. They are not afraid to experiment with programs and learn from them. They let their staff express themselves authentically on social media. They share internal data with members when asked, even if they aren’t sure it will paint a pretty picture.
NTEN is one of the most human organizations we’ve come across. They truly embrace the idea of being open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous (the four human elements we identify in the book). And they did it without a big corporate budget. They did it while still delivering value to their members. They did it while still successfully implementing things like education, networking, and community building. They did all the stuff we other nonprofits and associations are doing…but they built a powerful and innovative culture at the same time.
Strong cultures are not created based on access to lots of resources or a large budget. Strong cultures are created based on disciplined clarity and commitment. First you get really clear on what is valued in your culture. And I don’t mean just high-level, mission-statement clear, with lofty talk of integrity, honesty, and excellence. I mean the discipline to get clear on why being transparent or decentralized, or focused on learning truly matters to the results you seek. And after the clarity, you get serious about the commitment to make it happen. You walk the talk. You do it and live with the consequences. I think that’s what NTEN did. What are you waiting for?
Here are the slides from our presentation with NTEN staffer Amy Sample Ward, at the Blogworld Conference in New York.