Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Why Labstorms Work

As I hand over the reins to Britt Lake, our new CEO, I would like to reflect a bit on the amazing journey the Feedback Community has been on together over the last few years. Though I am stepping down as CEO of the Labs, I will remain heavily involved with the Community as a Senior Advisor to the Labs. I would love to hear your thoughts on any of these posts at feedback@feedbacklabs.org.
In this first post, I want to describe the “ingredients” that make LabStorms – collaborative brainstorming sessions we facilitate every two weeks for the feedback field – so successful. In the next post, I will talk about how decentralized, distributed collaboration has been key to the field’s rapid growth. In the third post, I will reflect on how feedback can enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion. 
Earlier this year, we convened our 100th LabStorm at Feedback Labs. 
LabStorms are collaborative brainstorming sessions at which members of the feedback community help each other solve challenges and push the boundaries of feedback practice. The 100th LabStorm was with RNW Media, a non-profit based in the Netherlands that helps give voice to marginalized youth in the Middle East and North Africa. The assembled group – about half attending in person and half online – helped RNW wrestle with three questions: How do we deal with imperfect data sets? How can we best manage the power dynamics inherent in our programs? And how can we be transparent about our data practices? A write up of the conversation is here.
Feedback Labs has now facilitated 108 LabStorms, including the most recent, which brought together 21 people from 14 organizations based in 10 cities to discuss the details of the Feedback Quiz, which is scheduled to go live in the coming weeks. All LabStorms are problem-driven: one organization presents a set of challenges, and all participants spend an hour trying to help the group address those challenges. 
Over the 35 years of my career, I have noticed that many important breakthroughs come from people and organizations that have only “weak links” – that is, they work in adjacent but not identical disciplines and geographies. Connecting people and groups across weak links has been key to the flourishing of the Feedback Community. For this reason, I love the fact that LabStorms span not only the US but the globe, both in terms of presenters and participants. 
The design of LabStorms is simple. Every two weeks, an organization presents a feedback-related initiative to about 10 peer organizations and asks for help on three questions or issues. 
Their peer organizations spend the next hour trying to help them. Since we operate under Chatham House rules, participants are generally candid about their challenges, as well as modest about their advice. Feedback Labs takes notes, discusses them with the presenting organization, and publishes them if the presenters think it will help them succeed. This atmosphere facilitates learning, a common sense of purpose (and often language), and even a common identity. 
In the 89th LabStorm, held last year, the presenter was Nurse Family Partnership(NFP), a US nonprofit. NFP nurses visit low-income first-time mothers during pregnancy and for two years following birth. NFP has already shown impressive results – for example, a ⅔ reduction in behavior and intellectual problems in children. But, like all LabStorm presenters, they are not content to rest on their laurels. They ask their clients “What do you need to make your life better? Are we helping you get it? If not, what can we do better or differently?”
LabStorm number 107 featured NEST, a non-profit based in the US that works globally to give voice to workers in small businesses and cottage industries worldwide. They got help from feedback pioneers from the Center for Employment Opportunities, LIFT, Keystone Accountability, GlobalGiving, Development Gateway and many others. In the process new professional connections were established – connections that often end in ongoing relationships and collaborations.
The generosity of time, attention, and candor participants give during LabStorms is not something we take it for granted. Our team obsesses over making sure that everything – from the video-conferencing technology to the temperature in the room – works well so that there are few distractions. Each time we set the stage with the main goal: We are here to help this organization, not to criticize it or to tout our own programs. We will lift each other up, and in the process, we will make our own work more powerful. We will spur each other on, and push the boundaries of the feedback field forward in ways that no one organization could accomplish on its own.
LabStorms are a key reason that the Feedback Labs network encompasses over 600 organizations that have attended our six Summits, shared ideas with each other online, and collaborated to drive the feedback field forward.
LabStorms create a space in which organizations feel assured that their peers will support their work without stealing their thunder. Collaborations, ideas, and approaches emerge. 
This is how real learning – and real progress – happens, and it has laid the foundation for the next phase of our work together. The stage has been set, and the best is yet to come.

[Cross-posted from Feedback Labs.]