Get The Gears Turning: An story of becoming unstuck

This post originally appeared on Medium

The Story and The Answer

It was a warm and sunny California day. One of the rarer ones, where the fog had dissipated and the warmth of the sun could be felt on my skin. The large, open, airplane hanger like creative space I called second-home was buzzing with energy. We had our idea, we had made some progress, but we were stuck. Serendipity would have it that we ran into our professor by the tall glass and steel walls of the entry way. My feeling of being stuck radiated from my face, as he asked us how our project was going.

I did my best to explain. I thought, of anyone I know, he would have the answer. I am with the guru of solving these kinds of problems. Relax, it’s going to work out. I spoke through the loud echo, provided by the concrete floor, of people talking wildly as they exited and entered the building. Done, now the answer.

“Go out and ask the world.”

I hated those words, for a while. I was not asking for a some sort of cryptic koan-like puzzle to chew on — I wanted an answer. I pressed for a more specific answer only to get the ever frustrating, “what do you think?” or “how might you solve that?” My thinking is what got me to feeling stuck, what part of that doesn’t make sense!? Frustrated, I said a polite salutation and walked on.

That was the beginning of my fascination with getting unstuck.

Since then, I’ve used the advice I was given both intentionally and unintentionally to answer my questions and pursue my fascinations. Going out and asking the world is a forcing function that bridges the ideal vision in your head with reality. It requires that you let go of the ideal vision and get curious about how it might exist in the world. The feeling of being stuck often arises when the ideal vision seems too far away. (See Pixar rule #11.)

Explorations of Unstuck

This going out at asking the world idea is very simple at its core: gather new information and use that to inspire progress. You can do this is many ways: read articles online, talk to people you know, talk to people you don’t know, do something completely different to let your mind not focus on the problem.

After many false starts to this article, I started searching around for unstuck wisdom. In doing so, I read new articles and advice online. This helped me remember previous experiences speaking to others about getting unstuck.

The great big hairy unstuck challenge is that the patterns of thought underlying the feeling of being stuck are created by value and motivation conflict. These become little ruts that we run over and over until we can’t see out of them. The path forward becomes unclear and the energy to move forward begins to stagnate.

Asking the world is a value-based mechanism that inspires motivation because it breeds new ways of thinking. This new thinking inspires and forces new opinions. (It’s important to find inspiration and create ‘fake progress.’) The biggest challenge in being stuck is finding out how to think beyond your current way of thinking. The biggest asset here is being curious — a mix of reflection and taking in new information.

The beauty of getting unstuck lies in this curiosity. It is a breeding ground for growth. It requires going out. And it requires a sense of beginners mind and honesty to see what is being presented to you with as little bias as possible. “Look to like if looking liking move” someone named Shakespeare once said.

I think the greatest value to getting unstuck is perspective shift, which is more of an art. The steps to getting unstuck that others list, are extremely helpful, and I recommend them, but I view them as descriptive, rather than prescriptive. You can get unstuck but it requires stepping beyond where you are now. And you can do that.

photos by martinak15

From the Furthest Edge to the Deepest Middle

In my role as Community Building Intern at Mozilla this summer, my goal has been to be explicit about how community building works so that people both internal and external to Mozilla can better understand and build upon this knowledge. This requires one of my favorite talents: connecting what emerges and making it a thing. We all experience this when we’ve been so immersed in something that we begin to notice patterns – our brains like to connect. One of my mentors, Dia Bondi, experienced this with her 21 Things, which she created during her time as a speech coach and still uses today in her work.

I set out to develop a mental model to help thing-ify this seemingly ambiguous concept of community building so that we all could collectively drive the conversation forward. (That might be the philosopher in me.) What emerged was this sort of fascinating overarching story: community building is connecting the furthest edge to the deepest middle (and making the process along that path easier). What I mean here is that the person with the largest of any form of distance must be able to connect to the hardest to reach person in the heart of the formal organization. For example, the 12 year old girl in Brazil who just taught herself some new JavaScript framework needs to be able to connect in some way to the module owner of that new JavaScript framework located in Finland because when they work together we all rise further together.

community building

The edge requires coordination from community. The center requires internal champions. The goal of community building is then to support community by creating structures that bridge community coordinators and internal champions while independently being or supporting the development of both. This structure allows for more action and creativity than no structure at all – a fundamental of design school.

Below is a model of community management. We see this theme of furthest edge to deepest middle. “It’s broken” is the edge. “I can do something about it” approaches the middle. This model shows how to take action and make the pathway from edge to middle easier.

community management

Community building is connecting the furthest edge to the deepest middle. It’s implicit. It’s obvious. But, when we can be explicit and talk about it we can figure out where and how to improve what works and focus less on what does not.

Mozilla CBT Build Principles

Making implicit information explicit allows us to grow. We are able to recognize and add to something that works well, while focusing less on what doesn’t work well. Being explicit allows us to talk about something we do and/or experience – it allows this information to be shared and understood by others. When we focus on value and impact, we must be explicit in order to understand what is happening.

During my work on the Community Building Team (CBT) at Mozilla, I have been exposed to several themes of how the team works when success happens.  Intrinsically, these are the agreed upon ways by which we do our work. Extrinsically, these are the principles by which we do our work.

I cannot claim to be the single voice for these principles on our team – that would be not Mozilla-like. However, these are things I have been exposed to by working with and reading about the work of all members of the team.

  1. Build Understanding – Demonstrate competence. Seek first to understand. Every engagement is different. We care about people and doing the right thing for them. In order to best help them, we are curious.
  2. Build Connections – Be a catalyst for connection. Our team has a broad reach in the organizations. Sometimes the best way we can build is by connecting what is already there.
  3. Build Clarity – This is important when bringing more people into a project. We seek to navigate through the confusion to create clarity for us, our partners and the community.
  4. Build Trust – This is about having someone’s back. It’s important that the people we work with know that we are in this with them, together.
  5. Build Pilots – Our work is not a one size fits all. We care about the best solution so we test our assumptions to see what works and build from there.
  6. Build Win-Win – Focus on mutual benefit. We engage in win-win partnerships because our success is dependent on others. More people can only sustainably come into a project when it’s mutually beneficial. We want to make our partners look good.

Having these principles allows others people and teams to understand how the CBT works and what things are a valued when doing that work. It allows allow members of the team to have a toolkit to reference when entering into a new engagement and builds a level of consistency about interaction – creating clear expectations for others. All this leads to the sustainable success of the CBT.

I’ve places these into a nice PDF format below.

CBT principles

[Post featured on Mozilla’s Community blog.]

Winning Startup Weekend (SF)

Nikomu Presentation interface spread

This was my second Startup Weekend. My team won! I was CEO and co-founder, partnered with two good friends (my co-founders) who were CTO and CDO. We created an app called Nikomu which was about connecting people through cooking together. For many many years I’ve been interested in how people connect through technology and this was a fun weekend of sprinting to explore new ways to do this.

For anyone who has done a Startup Weekend, they know it’s an intense few days. Teams must form, sprint, and ship. Setting a vision and keeping the team working well together is at least 10x more difficult under this pressure. I knew this from my previous experience so I grew to fill what was needed. Here is what I did:

1) Set and maintain a clear vision

It’s incredibly easy get sidetracked on insignificant issues because there are so many issues and what is significant is often unclear. However, there was an initial vision that brought the team together. I was clear and consistent with this. When we could focus on accomplishing the initial vision –in its purest form– we could clear most of the clutter. That’s steering the ship through the storm and staying on the path.

2) Set boundaries for what is included

Brainstorming sessions lead to so many great ideas. As a moderator it’s important to balance all creative input with what must be accomplished. There were times for all idea to flow and times for being picky. Our ship date was Sunday so I developed the phrase “that’s for Monday.” This quickly became a phrase said amongst team members. It allowed us to acknowledge and even prioritize next steps while focusing on what needed to be done now, with this version. This is very different than “no” which can often shutdown participation.

3) Pick roles, stay in those roles, and trust people

All too often in teams people want to be part of every thing and every decision. I am a huge advocate for participation and there are times when we each individually must trust each other to do what we are good at. As the team manager, I helped facilitate and guide but I trusted my teammates to do what they are good at – and empowered them to trust themselves. This allowed all of us to be more effective.  For example, I could help make the over all user experience vision clear but I was not the designer of the interface.

4) Trust the vision and adapt the product

We would get mixed feedback sometimes. This would make us question if what we were doing was right. The value of a clear vision what that we could trust it and move forward. But we could adapt and build in ways to test the feedback. The most important thing is that the product matters less than the need it is filling. We were quick to adapt the product but we trusted and stayed with our vision.

In many ways during the project I was able to act as the glue that held the team together. That was an exciting and fulfilling role for me as I helped the team execute and turn an idea into reality – in one weekend. I am very proud of every member of the team.

About Nikomu

We all know food brings people together – we use that to build community. Nikomu is an app about connecting people through cooking together. Nikomu automates the setup of a dinner party by managing people, recipes, money, and food so you can just cook with people and enjoy. Our focus is on a shared collaborative experience, not being served like at a restaurant, so you can connect and build community with the people in your city. We charge a flat rate, focus on the young urban population, and have built in security features so you can feel comfortable using the app. Below is a link to the slides.

Nikomu Presentation


I was told this definition needs ‘usually around warm light like a candle’ added to it

hygge dinner 1There is no direct English translation for the Danish word ‘hygge.’ Google will often translate it to cozy but this commonly heard phrase means so much more. The best I can explain it is to imagine that feeling of being close to other people that comes with sitting in your living room around the fireplace playing board games with your family while it’s dark and snowing outside. Hygge is for any relationship whether romantic, family or friends. It’s a focus on connecting, in an in-depth way, with the people in your life and having fun.

Though just a word, hygge to me sheds light on the focus Danish culture has on family and friends – on being closely connected to people. For an American coming to Denmark, I was warned that Danish people don’t talk to random people they don’t know in the way I’m used to and it can be hard to initially become friends. While somewhat true, and I learned to appreciate this a lot (see Lesson #2), there is this whole other side to the depth of relationships people have with each other that I was not prepared for. hygge dinner 2Someone once told me that once you become friends with a Dane, you are friends for life. I wasn’t really sure what that meant until I lived there and saw the depth of friendship most people have with each other. It truly spoke to who I am and what I value. It’s obvious in many big ways and many subtle ways, like the amount of eye contact and level of presence people have with each other. In my classes, I felt like my professor was actually present and interested in what I was saying. In my friendships, I felt like my friends were actually interesting in knowing me – not just being friends. A Danish roommate explained to me that when American’s say “what’s up” a Danish person stops and expects a genuine conversation so it always takes him a minute to remember that’s just saying “hi.” This says a lot about the culture to me.

Hygge shows up in the fact that most Danes eat at home, rather than go to a restaurant. (It shows up in making homemade Danish rye bread – yum!) It shows up in the fact that most Danes I met are close with their family and see them often. It shows up in countless ways and it’s a word Danish people take pride in.

Sometimes when I think of hygge, I think of the closing scene in Moneyball (a personal favorite) where the Dad has chosen to keep his current job rather than accept several times the salary working in a different town because he wants to be with his daughter as she grows up. Obviously the word does not describe that exact situation but I think hygge does speak to that feeling of choosing people (or experiences) over material things.

I stand by my belief that there is no real way to describe hygee. The best way to understand it is to experience it. For that, I must thank Nanna, whom more than anyone else, showed me what hygee means. Likewise, I’d like to thank Camilla, Peter and so many others for also helping me understand hygge. There was a bit of ‘you are too nice’ floating around in my mind at times because I was in disbelief.

I’d like to close with the thought that part of hygge, for me, is about accepting other people. It’s about inviting people in and trying to understand them. It’s about letting people try to understand you. It’s about not talking so you can listen. It’s about active listening and questioning so the person knows they are understood and you care.  It’s about seeing people for who they are, meeting them there and enjoying that time with them. And that is powerful!

Exploring Contributor Motivation

Why does understanding motivation for open source matter? This allows community builders to design more fulfilling experiences for contributors. It allows a contributor to be recognized in way he or she prefers. It allows community builders to advocate for projects that would be exciting to contributors.

The challenge of studying motivation (and thus recognition) is that our internal biases are strong. I can easily assume that the things I am motivated by are what others are motivated by and the ways I want to be recognized are the ways others want to be recognized. These ideas are deeply engrained – it is our internal motivation mechanism after all.

To find some objectivity in this area, I took from academic writing and did my own user research. The results are were synthesized from Organizing for Open Innovation by Wallin (2010) and countless contributor interviews and interactions I’ve had during my exposure to Mozilla. Some of these interviews were done during Summit 2013 and my Europe trip in early 2014.

Six main areas arose (in no particular order):

  • Intrinsic – This is an internal motivator focused on personal growth and self-actualization. Here people contribute because it is fun for its own sake and because they grow personally from it.
  • Extrinsic – This is an external motivator focused on material recognition such as a badge that a person can point to as a representation  and/or certification of their contribution.
  • Community – This motivator is based on our human need to feel part of a larger group that shares our view of the world – having a sense of belonging. (See Why Do People Join and Stay Part Of a Community for a deeper exploration here.)
  • Preemptive Generosity – This motivator is about giving something before it is asked for. It could be anything and it’s tied to our feelings of reciprocity. In a broad perspective, open source itself often follows this rule by releasing code before others know to ask for it.
  • Social Value – Motivation here is about feeling as if your contributions create a better world. There needs to be a clear and strong sense of impact. As Jimmy Wales once put it, “Usually, when people have an eight-hour binge of editing Wikipedia they think, well, I made the world a little bit better place than it was when I started.”
  • Helpfulness – This motivator is based purely on the desire to help others and give back. This is less about changing the world per se and more about having an impact in a person’s life. Similar but different.

When we can be explicit around these motivators, we can design contributor experiences that support them. That creates a more fulfilling experience for contributors and allows a project to grow while remaining meaningful.

Below is a PDF I put together to explore these motivators as they relate to Mozilla (it’s certainly incomplete). However, these should be relevant in all community driven projects and be non-unique to Mozilla.

contributor motivation

[Post featured on Mozilla’s Community blog.]

Community Lessons from LEGO (and other thoughts on community)

Communities form when you find a group of people that you feel you can be yourself around. In this environment, you don’t have to self-edit as much to fit in. You get the feeling that these people share a similar view of the world in some way. Communities form when the answer to, “are they like me?” is “yes.”

It’s not very surprising then that communities can form around brands as brands often represent a certain view of the world. Smart companies notice this and they engage these people in a win-win partnership to give their community value and to create value for the organization. That is no easy task. Here is a bit about how LEGO does it…

LEGO cares deeply about their community. They know that these people drive their brand, provide the best form of marketing and can help fuel new product development. And the community members get a powerful sense of fulfillment in meeting similar people and getting to be more of a creator than a consumer – they get to make LEGO their own. When working with community LEGO follows these principles (a non-exhaustive list):

  1.  Every engagement must be win-win
    • This matters because only in win-win partnerships do both sides have a good experience and can community continue to grow. It means that there is some saying no. But the saying no is so that more yes can happen later.
  2. LEGO does not interfere with community
    • This is powerful because it lets people all over the world organize their groups in a way that best makes sense for them. LEGO does not have to waste resources and can be more culturally sensitive by letting others manage their groups in the ways that best suits them.
  3. Members are respected and expected to respect each other
    • Every community should have a code of conduct to ensure that people respect each other. This is common practice so that members don’t get abused.
  4. Empower people to do what they want to do
    • You can’t force community to do something there is no passion behind doing – it’s just not how it works. The fact that LEGO is explicit about that is a big deal and it makes community respect them for it. That’s powerful.

LEGO has high quality standards and the way their community team works is no exception. They have a communication structure that empowers people to help and learn from each other so that not every person needs to communicate with LEGO directly. There are designated ‘ambassadors’ that communicate directly with LEGO – they help distill and clarify communication, taking a sort of leadership role in the community. This helps LEGO better focus resources and helps build a stronger sense of community among members (win-win).

There is a massive community surrounding LEGO, over 300K. To reference, we currently have about 8K at Mozilla. While our communities do different things, we are all fundamentally driven to be part of that group that makes us feel like we can be more of ourselves. It gives people a sense of belonging and fulfillment – something we all want in life. That is why community management matters. Without it, these large groups of people can’t exist and that sense of belonging can be easily lost.

[Post featured on Mozilla’s Community blog.]