The social change sectors love learning. Being a learning organization, fostering learning, learning and adaptation, adaptive learning. It has many names, but comes back to a perennial thorny problem: how to improve our work.

The prickliest briar in the bunch is the question of learning culture. Whether at a venerable institution or a flashy startup, culture is everyone’s favorite intangible enabler of learning.

Unfortunately, there’s no obvious way to create a learning culture. You often have to approach the issue sideways: if you want your culture to value learning, you can do more by focusing on a culture of adaptation instead. Here’s why.

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This post first appeared on Medium.

Presidential budgets are wish lists with little chance of becoming a reality. But why would anyone wish to create a vast government-run food distribution program?

That’s exactly what one provision in Trump’s recently submitted budget would do, as outlined by Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday.

He described a proposal to distribute boxes of food to people currently benefitting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP — also known as food stamps). At the same time, the government would cut in half the funds currently given on debit cards, which SNAP participants use to buy whatever food they need.

For roughly 38 million people who rely on the program, the net effect would be to dictate half of the food they get, while also creating a government procurement and logistics nightmare.

Mulvaney gave the news a cute hook: Blue Apron for food stamps. A nod to the tech sector, as if he were just bringing a little Silicon Valley disruption to an outdated government program. Branding aside, this proposal defies the latest thinking on how to provide social safety nets, not to mention current trends in the tech sector.

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Hi everyone: I’ve been aiming to write for larger audiences, both out of aspirations to influence broader debates and because standalone blogs have largely become anachronisms. In August, I successfully pitched a piece to WIRED.com on bringing neo-Nazis back to humanity.

I couldn’t get similar interest from a publication for a more recent piece on how American politics has evolved and where it needs to go next. So I’m experimenting with running it on Medium, a self-publishing site with a built-in audience. If you enjoyed my past writing like “Operating in a world with no truth” (one of the most popular posts I’ve written on this site), please head over to Medium for “One year on: Building the politics we want to see.” I’ve included the first few paragraphs below. – Dave


One year on: Building the politics we want to see

Trump’s tactics of division can help us create something better—but can we pull it off?

We’ve reached the one-year mark. It feels like more, not just because the past year has been so eventful—to use a polite term—but because the assault on our democratic foundations started long before. Last November was when the big one hit. The foreshocks and aftershocks have been daily.

The 2016 campaign had already brought the dawning realization that political norms were crumbling. As a candidate, Donald Trump said things that should have ended his career or, at the least, led his co-partisans to abandon him in defense of their own political futures.

Yet he gained more allies than he lost. His disregard for honesty and decency attracted a sorry bunch: the Breitbarts, 4channers, alt-right, Russian Trolls, spineless former primary opponents, and less respectable parts of Fox News. They mounted up alongside their wild-haired warlord, riding toward a post-apocalyptic politics devoid of natural resources or human relationships, screaming to one another for validation—“Witness me!!” in the Mad Max parlance—as they made their mothers ashamed. Together, they stumbled into a victory that even they didn’t expect.

Politics in America has changed. But if we only fight the changes stemming from the Trump administration, then we implicitly endorse the status quo ex ante. Barack Obama’s administration fought toxic and decaying institutions for the progress it made. We should aim to create something better. Doing so starts with leveraging the core elements of political action that continue to shape the outcome of each political fight. They’re the same core elements that Trump uses.


Hooked? Read the rest on Medium. And then help others discover the piece by giving it “claps” (Medium’s equivalent of “likes”). Thanks!

Photo: #NoBanNoWall protest, New York City, 1/29/17. Photo by Dave Algoso. (CC BY 4.0)

Professional identity

I’ve been a freelance consultant for two years and two months. This is my longest tenure at any job in my life. That might just be a sign of the times—the “sharing economy” or whatever—except that I went freelance after a stint of nearly the same length at a small consulting firm. I also worked for a larger consulting company for a bit in the mid-2000s.

At a certain point, I have to admit the truth: that I’m a consultant. That’s more central to my professional identity than any skill or content area. It explains my longstanding habit of leaving jobs after a year or two, as my intellectual/professional wanderlust is only well served by a portfolio of projects and clients. I still keep an eye on potential full-time roles, but the five or six that I’ve applied to in the past two years have mostly been some sort of internal consulting role.

I’ve struggled with this identity because I believe in organizations. Social progress isn’t driven by individuals, but by consistent teams with strong cultures and relationships in their contexts, working toward clear visions with strategies iterated over time, and supported by efficient, established processes. Those are the building blocks of scalable, sustainable change. I’ve enjoyed my roles as an insider, helping to build those organizations. I don’t want to be the fly-in-fly-out consultant, whose four-stage process yields a slick powerpoint (or worse: dense report) of banal advice packaged as stunning insight.

With a few years and a few mistakes under my belt, I’m less worried about falling into that caricature. Each of those building blocks—team, culture, relationships, vision, strategy, and processes—can use an outside boost on occasion. I’ve found the right clients (or more often, they’ve found me). The repeat and referral business provides a solid testament to the value of my work.

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A few weeks ago, a college senior in Virginia emailed to ask for career advice on starting out in development work. The email:

I had a few questions about how you got your career going. I am a graduating senior… I majored in International Affairs, Economics with a minors Humanitarian Affairs and History. I was fortunate to do some service work in Ghana and South Africa and today I intern for [micro-lending organization]. I am extremely passionate about the subject but as I get ready to graduate I am at a loss of where to start. I am looking at graduate programs in development but I have an itch to get back on the ground. I look forward to hearing back from you and truly enjoy your insight.

Aw, shucks. Unfortunately, since I didn’t move into international work until about six years after undergrad, my experience isn’t directly applicable. Fortunately, I’ve read a lot of career advice (from people smarter than me), seen others make their way through the sector, and navigated my own career successfully enough that I have a few thoughts. Our dear Virginian friend is in a common spot, so some general comments are in order.

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Much of my client work deals with learning, including the translation of data into learning and learning into practice, the facilitation of cross-sector learning, and the practices of becoming a learning organization. If you’re a regular reader, then you know these are also common topics in my writing. I’m a big fan of learning.

So keep that in mind when I say the following: Learning means a lot of different things, and you shouldn’t try to do all of them at once.

Taxonomy for organizational learning

In working with development and social change organizations, six types of learning turn up as the most important. I don’t always talk about them in this way with clients (better to use their language, rather than my own) but here’s what I’m usually keeping an eye on:

  1. Individual and team: Building the skills and knowledge of your team, including at both the individual level as well as the relational/joint skills of how a team works together (such as internal communication and team culture).
  2. Refinement-focused: Using monitoring or other data to understand your immediate impacts and what’s working, and then improving your approach based on those findings.
  3. Reflective mode: Taking broader stock of your approaches, opening the door to questioning your fundamental assumptions and radically changing your strategy or even your goals.
  4. Context sensing: Understanding your operating environment (e.g. political opposition, cultural norms, economic trends, weather patterns) and tracking changes that might have implications for how you work.
  5. Within context: How others (e.g. coalition partners, private sector actors, government agencies) are learning, even if that learning never makes it back to you.
  6. Cross-context: Learning across unconnected efforts, e.g. by using research findings from another country to inform your work, or learning in collaboration with those working elsewhere.

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[Note: Apologies to email subscribers who received an earlier draft in their inbox. I accidentally hit publish too soon.]

One of the 2016 campaign’s most enduring lines—from either side—belongs to Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”

At the Democratic convention in July, it resonated as a counter to the baser appeals and divisive campaigning on the Republican side. Over the summer, it became a popular call-and-response at rallies. The First Lady would say: “When they go low…” And the crowd would shout back: “We go high!” By the fall, she tacked on a GOTV message: “How do we go high?” Crowd: “We vote!”

It was a good line. It worked for the campaign, insofar as good campaign lines matter, but the election is over. What does that line represent now?

In the transition period, we’re seeing new lows: a cabinet full of the uber-rich, many staunchly committed to undermining the agencies they’ll lead; white supremacists and conspiracy mongers staffing the White House; an attempted partisan power grab in North Carolina (which may no longer be a democracy); a spike in hate crimes after the election; a president-elect who seems disconnected from the reality and gravity of the position he’s about to take (which a majority of Americans don’t think he can handle); a dangerous flirtation with nuclear weapons policies; and, of course, the general tide of nepotism, conflicts of interests, and potential corruption that has everyone googling “emoluments clause“.

In the face of this, can we “go high” in the Trump era? The Democrats are coming to terms with being an opposition party at most levels of government. This is manifesting in a reconsideration of policy priorities, leadership elections, and some speculation about the next national elections.

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I spent November 8th working at the polls. Not getting out the vote, or even monitoring the vote, but simply part of the electoral administrative machinery: keeping the lines orderly at PS 269 in East Flatbush, helping voters check in and make their way to the booths so they could cast their ballots. There was something reassuringly dull and technocratic about the process that capped the absurd political dramas of the prior year.

I got home late and stayed up later to watch the news coverage. By the time I went to sleep, it was pretty clear what the outcome would be. I woke up to the confirmation on Wednesday morning. I was disappointed, of course; and surprised, like many, because I believed the polls and analysis that said Clinton would win. But I wasn’t surprised by the idea that it could happen. I wasn’t shocked. All the signs were there.

In the past month, my news consumption and social media commentary have both been excessive. However, with the exception of a lengthy Facebook post the morning after the election, my writing output has been minimal. I tried to go into listening mode. I wanted to see what people smarter than me thought. I talked with old friends and former colleagues, including several who I’d lost touch with in recent years.

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Here’s a Friday afternoon idea for you to chew over: How much different are digital news articles today from what they were twenty years ago? Or what print news articles were fifty years ago?

We get them faster, on screens, and with better visuals and video integration. The headlines are snazzier. But the core information being conveyed is still done in a written format that hasn’t changed much since the time when reading a daily printed newspaper (or weekly magazine) were the only options.

That format is so obvious we barely notice it: new information is packaged into an article that tells us what happened (who, what, where, etc.) and gives us just enough background and context to understand it. More thoughtful publications might give more/better background, but they’re all limited to a certain extent. When something new happens or new facts emerge, then another story gets written. Only in a very rapidly evolving situation, like an emergency, will a digital news outlet publish an update to an existing article every few hours; eventually that article stabilizes and they write a new one.

The persistence of this format seems like a big missed opportunity, if only because we don’t consume news the same way we did fifty years ago. Now, when we read a news story and want to know more, we don’t need to wait for the next article. Instead, we either go looking for another news story (for the latest) or we go to check wikipedia (for the history).

What if we combined both of those in the same digital format? Read More

Enough U.S. politics for a while. Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I’ve facilitated several workshops recently, and I’ve also had the nice opportunity to be a participant in a few others. It’s great to see other facilitators at work, as everyone brings a different style and toolkit to the practice. Sometimes half the notes I’m taking in a session are about facilitation ideas rather than the conversation.

Increasingly, I’ve tried to question my model of what the workshop space is and can be. Workshops get a lot of flak for being overly rigged talk-fests, with experts expounding and participants making long comments disguised as questions. Little gets said or done that wasn’t expected. In fact, the only reason anyone showed up was for the coffee/lunch/pub conversations. Duncan Green recently had a post on the enraging aspects of academic conferences (namely, panels) and while he was talking about a slightly different sort of event, many of the criticisms translate over. Obviously I try to steer clear of those sorts of workshops (either running them, or attending them).

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