Trust Part 3: The Speed of a Network is Trust (post #6)
If the first two posts (here and here) on Trust were lofty and philosophical musings on Why, this one is Lofty’s no-nonsense cousin How, wearing clogs and driving a Subaru Forester. It’s the brass tacks and practical hacks for how to intentionally build trust into the design of your network.
One, we build trust between us and partners. We have 280 partner organizations, and we invest enormous time in knowing leadership in each one of them personally. How does that work, you ask?
- Every organization has a designated “intrapreneur”, the person who leads the 100Kin10 work on behalf of the organization.
- And we talk to that intrapreneur at least once a year, often more often, and make a point of seeing as many of them face-to-face and ideally in their own spaces over the course of the year. When we talk, we ask about their work and their strengths but also their challenges.
- We don’t do this to play gotcha; we do this to support their ongoing success. So we always follow up with at least one resource: a connection to another partner they should talk to who could help them on whatever issues they’re struggling with the most, or a piece of research, or some other tool or support.
- Because we’re small and scrappy, we do this without a bloated “relationship” team. One senior associate in the three-person Community Team oversees all relationships, and recently we decided that all 11 of us on the team should do some calls, so everyone has direct touch on what partners are thinking about and working on.
- Beyond these official check-in calls, we’re in regular communication with more than 50 partner leaders on various projects and ideas.
Two, we’re honest about ourselves. We believe that honesty about our own limitations and sharing our own failures, in pursuit of ongoing improvement and excellence, is the only way for us to be authentic in our work. We couldn’t do it any other way. As a result, partners know we’re honest, and it builds a foundation of trust that allows us to ask them to step up in pursuit of our shared goal.
What does that look like? Here are three examples:
- We did a whole spread in our 2015 Annual Report titled “learning from stumbles” and highlighted four ways we messed up in 2015 and what we learned from them.
- We brought in the designer of Engineers Without Borders’ Failure Report for a provocative lightning talk at our 2014 Summit on embracing failure as a learning tool.
- In the first year of our design-thinking/problem-solving fellowship, when we were building the plane while flying it, we course-corrected in real-time, with the fellows, as we got feedback that ideas weren’t clear or that people needed more time to prototype. It sometimes felt messy and intense for participants, but it was messy and intense, and no amount of sugar-coating would have changed that. So we leaned into it and named it, and everyone walked out much more connected to each other and to us and to the work than would have been possible otherwise. Don’t trust me? The fellows told us themselves, captured in this video.
- We keep revising our programs, acknowledging the strengths and limitations of earlier iterations as we improve based on feedback. Our grant application is a great example.
Three, we’re honest with our partners. Because we have a highly vetted and amazing set of partners, this mostly means we give a lot of praise and ask a lot of learning questions, because our partners are experts at most everything they do. But when there are limitations or problems, we don’t mince words. We do it kindly, with the goal of improvement, but we don’t shy away from doing it.
Let me give you an example: At an earlier stage of our funding marketplace, we invited partners to submit Letters of Inquiry that we strategically shared with our funding partners if we thought there could be a match. Each time we did it, a quarter to a third of submissions was matched with a funder who was interested in learning more; we connected those folks directly, and they were off to the races. But the rest generated no interest.
Which meant that, every four months or so, we had about 20 or so organizations with ideas that no funder was interested in.
We could have hidden behind generic feedback (Top 10 Reasons No One Wants To Talk With You About Your Idea). But that didn’t feel fair to organizations whose work and success we are committed to supporting. So we scheduled follow-up calls with each one of them. My stomach was in knots as I dialed the first, second, and third of these calls. Having done close to 100 of them now, I can tell you that these calls, always honest, mostly productive, and sometimes hard, were also often exhilarating — because we got deep into the substance with people who were hungry to understand why their ideas weren’t getting traction and problem-solved with them. No one, they told us, would give them straight feedback. So they were flailing around in the dark. Because we had called it like it is, those partners came to see us as honest information brokers, which set us up to be their supporters, co-problem-solvers, and more effective champions.
Four, we believe partners are each other’s best allies, and we design everything in the network to reinforce that. I have three kids — all girls — ages 4, 6, and 8. In our house, when a kid comes to us crying to mediate some Very Important Fight (hypothetically; this never happens in our house; just kidding), we say sister hugs are the best hugs and send them back to reconcile with each other. So too our network, only minus the fights.
From the first moment partners join, at every annual Summit, in our fellowship and grant applications, we say to partners that the expertise they need to solve their challenges and reach our shared goal is largely extant in the network, if only they can find each other and learn from one another. When they join the fellowship and our networked improvement community, we tell them that they will be each other’s best allies and co-problem-solvers.
And five, we put our money where our mouth is, building peer-to-peer connections into everything we do:
- We offer collaboration grants, safe, risk-free opportunities, driven by partners, to connect with one another to learn more about each other’s work and test out working together.
- When we pull our 280+ partners together for our annual Summit, we “connection concierge” them to each other with a direct connection both to a partner whom they could teach, based on something they excel at, and those from whom they could learn or workshop with. Each person gets a personalized note with at least two connections. For weeks beforehand, we pull data from our partner survey and phone calls and create a massive matrix of the best recommendations. Out of those have come grants, collaborative projects, friendships, and transformed work.
- When we decided we needed to survey our partners to better and more formally understand what everyone was working, their strengths and challenges, we co-designed the survey with more than 100 partners and then made all the results confidential within the network, open to all partners for learning alone, not for accountability. We realized that, if the survey were an accountability tool, people would be incentivized to gloss over their weaknesses. When it was a tool to drive connection, learning, and improvement, the incentives ran the other way — for partners to share their weaknesses, because they know we’ve got their backs and are looking for ways to use that information to help them improve.
How do we know if it’s working? We’re partnering with Spark Policy Institute to get even better at this, but here’s what we’re doing right now to assess and improve:
- Every year, in the fall, we put out a “Health of the Network” survey that asks people questions that get at, among other things, our Trust Quotient, and we track those numbers over time.
- We’ve taken a page from randomized control trials and have done both anonymous and signed feedback forms and analyzed whether the results we get more honest (= more negative) results from anonymous surveys. Answer: We consistently get nearly identical results. Which tells us that people feel comfortable enough with us, and trust us enough, to tell it like it is, whether that’s good, bad, or ugly.
- We run Solution Labs (most recently on strategically responding to ESSA), in which a range of partners co-invest to bring a shared solution to market. We have done three, and, in every one, organizations that sit on opposite sides of the negotiating table or have long histories of fraught interactions co-invest and even serve on the same leadership team guiding the work.
- Finally, and this is the most amorphous, partners willingly share their vulnerabilities with one another. Whether at our fall Back to School breakfasts in eight cities around the country, in which partners were invited to share with colleagues a challenge they are facing so that those colleagues could help them brainstorm solutions; or in Unconference sessions at our new partner onboarding or Summit, where partners proposed sessions on problems they needed help to solve, we routinely see partners trusting each other enough to share their challenges with one another, knowing that their colleagues have their backs and, far from exploiting their vulnerabilities to selfish effect, instead are there to help them overcome whatever hurdle they’re experiencing.
Joey Wilson, the former head of STEM for Teach for America, a 100Kin10 partner, wrote a comment to the Stanford Social Innovation Review piece on 100Kin10 that captures our aspirations for what this network can be when we get the trust thing right: “For many of the organizational representatives to 100Kin10 (me included), this network represents a safe haven, intellectual trust, and community of advocates for STEM education that is unlike any other network or organization of which I have been a part. This trust is what makes 100Kin10 more than great — it’s what makes the network enduring, solutions-oriented, and always improving. 100Kin10 is the real deal.”