This Website is a Metaphor

We just finished a two-year project. It was one of the largest internal projects that we have ever worked on and it has fundamentally changed our organization. The funny thing about this project is that it happened in spurts, without a clear work plan or timeline. The project was guided by ideas and although there were very few hard costs, it happened with the input of 100s of people and through the work of staff and key volunteers. The final tangible product is this website; however, it is the less tangible shift in organizational culture that is the true victory.  

In the summer of 2009, I went to a social technology conference in Toronto put on by Web of Change. The key message from the conference was the web should rest at the centre of our work. This meant more than having a shiny website and some social media channels. Organizations having success online were internalizing the core values of the web. Their work was transparent, open, networked, and accessible. They were telling real personal stories and inviting people to join them and make an impact. After the conference, I felt nervous excitement realizing that some of these new ideas could radically alter Pivot’s work.

At that time, Pivot, like so many organizations, operated more like a collection of loosely connected silos – fiefdoms, as I often say. We were too busy with the “real” work to pay too much attention to the way we worked. There was passion and strong relationships holding the organization together, but there was little internal communication, less decision making protocol, and people worked on their own projects fairly unsupported.

The first pieces of change happened quickly upon my return. We started by setting up an open team to discuss the intersection of our work and the web. The entire staff was invited to join in and the turnout and the level of engagement were encouraging. I realized quickly in those first few meetings that some real change was happening. Our “web team” quickly became a place for Pivot to discuss how best to communicate our work. It is not that these discussions weren’t happening before – they were – only now they were happening in a convened space that was available to everyone in the organization.  Almost overnight our web communications became more grounded, more coherent, and much more interesting.  

At the same time, Pivot was undergoing some core structural changes. The success of our new web team deeply informed the way our organization changed. In late 2010 we created four core teams that are responsible for all aspects of Pivot’s work. In order to break down work silos and provide a platform for ideas to come forward everyone in the organization is invited (and mostly attends) all of our meetings. So we have community organizers giving ideas on legal strategy and lawyers providing input into our social media strategy. Over the last year, we have gotten to know each other better, learned to work with each other, and have seen fuller people emerge.

We have also seen significant barriers to participation erode. We still have job titles, and skill sets, but our culture has become much more democratic with people participating in aspects of the organization that in the past may have been left to smaller, closed groups. We have also seen people grow their skills and step into new territory building a culture of experimentation, honesty and personal accountability. And as an organization our work has gotten better. We are more coordinated, integrated, internally networked. We have reduced redundancy making our action/reaction time quicker. We have also become much more focused and clear on our mandate.

Our new website (designed and developed with volunteer passion by Joel Bennett – thanks Joel!) is the outward reflection of these changes. For years we talked about “getting” a new website – I realize now that the structural changes we have made since Social Tech Training in Toronto made our new website possible.  Without these core changes to our internal culture, a new website, would have just been an empty piece of technology wrapped in a beautiful package. As it stands our new website is the centre of our organization, full of stories, personalities, victories, and connections. It is open, experimental, and evolving. It is exactly what Pivot needs to be.