Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

In John McKnight and Peter Block, recent book, Abundant Community, they state,

Volunteerism was never designed to be efficient, only satisfying.   Systems were never designed to be satisfying, only efficient.

This simple truth speaks to something that I have come to know in my heart over the last few years working in volunteer management.  As I have often described it to people, instead of trying to figure out how I can do the same or more with fewer people, I actually look for ways to involve more people in the work.  If your goal is to mentor a child, do you really want to do that efficiently?  If volunteers are seen as resources, then the standard view of creating an efficient program would be to reduce the number of volunteers it takes to mentor a child, or to get more mentoring out of each volunteer.

But a mentoring relationship is not a system, it is a building block of community.  The rules are different and we can not use the same language to talk about mentoring as we use to talk about manufacturing.  It is too easy to confuse not only why we do what we do, but the beauty in HOW we do it.  We build community through making connections between people and between associations.  More connections, stronger connections, are better.  Taking more time with one another leads to higher quality relationships.

I refuse to be efficient in volunteering.  Can anyone give me a reason why I should accept this language and concept of efficiency for volunteering and community building?


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One of the hallmarks and nightmares of the ODKM program, is our use of a research process and paper we call the “PRAE”.  From the perspective of the grad student that is forced to write these papers, PRAE is a four letter word that elicits fear and anguish.  However, when I was at our Learning Community on Sunday and had a moment of enlightenment, I realized that when I have finished grad school, I will be grateful for all of the practice of what is really experiential learning.

The PRAE is based on David Kolb’s work on experiential learning.  The idea is that you can work through a cycle to take your “concrete experience” (what happened at work for example), reflect on it, conduct research based on the questions that arise, and then create an action plan for testing your new insights.  In this way of thinking about self study, your experiences in life are always potential for a learning cycle.  At the same time, your actions are really experiments in life, which, if you choose to reflect on, you can learn from.

Experiential Learning Cycle

When I am done with grad school (wow it sounds great to say that), I will continue trying new things, asking “what” questions, reading, being curious, and making choices about how to act in a given situation.  Now, when I leave a meeting thinking, “how did that go so wrong?”, I realize that I have the skills and technique to actually pursue an answer and enter the next meeting more aware.  Maybe there is something to this whole school thing…  now if someone could please remind me of that when I have 3 PRAEs due this semester, I would appreciate it.

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Radical Evolution book coverSchool’s back in session, which means I am hitting the books again.  This semester delivers up a strange mix of texts and I decide to start (while still in vacation in Vermont) with Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau.

I have to admit, I started off hating this book.  The author seemed to be trying to shock and awe in every paragraph without actually reflecting or challenging his own thinking.  Early on he also puts down the Virginia Square neighborhood (where my campus is), so I was annoyed at him on that front as well.

Anyways, once he got passed drawing the reader in with salacious examples, he actually got to a very interesting presentation of scenarios.  Scenario planning is a technique that we first read about in The Age of Heretics, and ever since reading about it, I have wanted to try it.  Garreau takes the assumption that “technology drives history” and this concept of the exponential rate of change of technology to posit three scenarios, Heaven, Hell, & Prevail.  As a  critical optimist (?), I saw prevail as the most likely scenario.  However, I overcame my disagreableness with the Hell scenario as Garreau explained that thinking about worst case scenarios is a helpful way to actually avoid worst case scenarios.  In the end this book raised many questions in my mind and answered almost none.  Hopefully I can come back and reflect on some of those questions on this blog.

For now, a few highlights from the book:

Quote about immortality from Francis Fukuyama, who sees this issue as a moral issue,

The deeper issue is, can people conceive of dying for a cause higher than themselves and their own f***ing little petty lives?

Quote from Bill Joy,

Scientists do not believe they can do their work if they have to consider consequences, but such free passes are no longer sensible in the age of self-replication.

Quote from Brown and Duiguid,

It is through planned, collective action that society forestalls expected consequences (such as Y2K) and responds to unexpected events (such as epidemics).

Quote from Jaron Zepel Lanier, who thinks that “the belief that a human is like a computer [is] the current repression”,

The very nature of oppression has always been to force people to live within the confines of some idea about what a person is.

Quote from Don Kash,

The great management issue in the world is not scarcity, it’s surplus.

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Summer semester (ODKM program at George Mason University) has officially come and gone.  As you are pulling together your summer reading list, maybe I can recommend a few gems from my own recently read list.

In no particular order:

1. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl  – when I first saw this as an assigned text for the Leadership class, I was confused about the relevance, but after reading Frankl’s beautiful work, I think it should be read by all future leaders.

2. Flawless Consulting by Peter Block – this tome is a must read for would be consultants.  I also bought the fieldbook and companion, but I would not recommend it unless you get a great deal on the pair.  Also, I have heard there is a new edition coming out this Fall, so you might want to wait till then to purchase it.

3. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins – Perkins drove me crazy with his ego and money lust, but he has a great story to tell and a lot of thought provoking commentary.  I chose to buy this one as an e-book, which worked well.

4. Organizational Consulting by Edwin Nevis – Old school OD.  This is the most theory heavy text that we read this semester.  It is a short book, but packed with challenging ideas.  If you need to read this for class, start early and take breaks to absorb the ideas.

We also read a tree’s worth of articles.  I will try to pick out a few to highlight in a future post.

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Peter Block and John McKnight

Peter Block and John McKnight

Today I had the pleasure of being part of a discussion group with John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development fame.  He and Peter Block (one of my favorite authors) have just come out with a new book, The Abundant Community.  (note: the book just came out so I have not read it yet but plan to do so as soon as I’m done with school reading)

McKnight focused much of the conversation on the importance of associations for democracy and strong communities.  In this context he is referring to groups of people (usually neighbors) who get together to identify the issues in their communities, figure out how to solve community problems, and organize the community to implement those solutions.  McKnight argues that associations are one of the defining features of the US and were identified as such as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone, brought to light the fact that associational life as we have known it for centuries in the US is on the decline (and has been since the 1960s).

With McKnight and Block’s new book they hope to demonstrate that associations are not just nice to haves, but are essential to a community’s core functions.  They outline six areas in which associational life is key to community health:

  1. Personal wellness – 90% of an individuals health is based on life factors, including their connections to their family and neighbors.
  2. Safety – community policing and National Night Out are just a couple of examples of the role neighbors play in safe neighborhoods.
  3. Economy – the majority of jobs are related to local businesses
  4. Environment – the decisions we make at a local level are key in grassroots change
  5. Food – McKnight cited the importance of local grown food
  6. Children – it takes a village to raise a child

I appreciated McKnight’s key arguments, but it left me wondering about the difference between networks and associations.  One of McKnight’s arguments for associations is that institutions have reached the limits of what they can do for us.  This is the same argument that I hear Beth Kanter and Allison Fine making in the Networked Nonprofit.  It seems like everywhere I turn these days I am reading about how powerful social change and social movements happen through networks.  I don’t hear the word association used at all.  Are networks the same as associations?  If not, why not?

The way that I live my life as member of the millennial generation, I live it through networks.  Using social media, I keep in contact with people that I have met throughout my life.  If I switch jobs, move to a new city, or just have a question about how to do something, I turn to my network.  I reinforce my relationships with people through face to face interaction, but the online networks like Facebook and LinkedIn make it possible to maintain those connections between face to face gatherings.  I may join an association for a short period of time, but with my greater need for flexibility and my penchant for moving regularly, I am less likely to invest time and make a commitment to an association.  When I speak to the interservice club council and others like them, they are very frustrated by young people like myself who are not joining local associations.  The advice that I and others have given these groups is to be more like a network.

So now we get back to the question from my recent post about free agents, How does the connection someone has with their online networks affect their relationship to local in person networks?

Or to put it another way, are networks and the free agents that thrive in them the answer to Robert Putnam’s concerns about the unraveling of associational life?  If not, what are we missing and how can we build those features into a way of connecting with one another that embraces both the best of the social web as well as lessons from centuries of voluntary associations?

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cover of "Helping" bookI consider myself to be a helpful person. In my professional work I am in a service job within the volunteer field, which is all about helping.  I am always asked for and offering advice.

How much do I really understand about the dynamics of helping?

Although I was socialized to be helpful from the time I was very small, I do not ever remember a formal lesson in giving or receiving help.  This is why I chose to read Edgar Schein’s book, Helping, for a recent assignment for ODKM.

Schein identifies two different frames in which to understand the helping relationship:  theater and economics.

By thinking of helping in terms of economics, Schein highlights two very important principles: communication is a reciprocal process that must at least seem to be fair and equitable, and relationships are based on scripted roles that are culturally defined.  The second principle is the one that I had thought about before reading this book.  From an early age we are taught to be an equitable member of society giving and receiving help: holding the door for others, saying please and thank you, asking for what we need in a polite and scripted way.  However, I was also aware of complications of the first principle, that communication should be fair and equitable.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, unfolds the communication that happens in a doctor’s office between two different families.  In one family, the child is prepped before his doctor’s visit and encouraged to ask the doctor questions about the diagnosis.  The child’s parents are leveling the playing field between the doctor and the child by encouraging the child to take an active role has the patient.  In the other family, the cultural and family norms dictate that the child shows deference to the doctor and does not speak unless directly asked a question.  The child accepts his “one down” position in the doctor’s office.  Unless the Doctor makes an effort to make the situation more equitable by starting in a humble inquiry mode (asking simple open ended questions), he may not be as successful in helping the child because he will not be able to understand the child’s symptoms and what problems actually need to be addressed.

There is a lot of attention to the first principle in the social work field as well.  I have worked within a County government human services department for the last four years.  Even though I am not a social worker, I have observed the practice of social work and have been exposed to different approaches.  One newer approach is called Asset-Based Community Development.  This approach intends to restore face to community members who have been labeled as being in need of help.  Schein’s analysis of the social economics at play in helping relationships reinforced my belief that an asset approach is the best one for building relationships and ultimately for solving community problems.  From this approach, you see the client as someone who has value and is in need of help to bring that value to light.

One of the peculiarities of my line of work which came to light in reading this book is the confusion over offering help and asking for help.  Since I work at a volunteer center, it is my job to respond to email in which someone is both offering to help and also is asking for help.  Basically, it is our role to help people figure out how they can help.  Sometimes when a potential volunteer emails us, they are emailing in the mindset that they are offering help.  Since we are in the business of helping potential volunteers become volunteers, our response is often that we can not use their help, but can help them find a place where they can help.  I think it would be interesting to look carefully at the language that is used in negotiating this dynamic.

How have you seen the social dynamics of helping play out?

What aspect of the helping relationship could volunteers and volunteer managers better understand to improve their working relationship?

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Person holding a lot of books

Photo Illustration by Doung Sundin/WINONAN

So I’m starting to freak out a little bit because I went a smidge overboard in my ordering and pursuing of reading since the semester ended. I of course ordered the books we are required to read this semester, but I also ordered a bunch of the recommended readings that I found for great prices at half.com.

In addition, I’m continuing to read Malcolm Gladwell and finished the book that Jay was given at Thanksgiving. All this is to say that I am writing this blog post if for no other reason than to account for what the heck I’ve been reading and remind myself that I need to actually put my attention on the school assigned books.


What I’ve Finished Reading Lately:

Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.

Shop Class is a must read for anyone who has ever uttered any of the following jargon:

“knowledge worker” “knowledge economy” “the creative class” “collaborative team environment” “right brain thinking”

or anyone that has a son or daughter that is is interested in a skilled trade.


Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self Interest. by Peter Block
This one I got from the library on Audio Book and listened to on my way to New York. It is a quick listen and definitely thought provoking.

What I’ve started reading but haven’t finished:

Wikipatterns (assigned book)
Seems like a good read for information on how to understand and set up wikis.


Catalytic conversations: Organizational Communication and Innovation (assigned book) by Ann Baker
This is my professor’s new book, hot off the presses.  So far I like it because it is helping me to understand some of why we do things the way we do them in the ODKM program.


The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters by Peter Block
I’m on a Peter Block kick at the moment.  Luckily all of his books are pretty quick reads and they build on one another.


What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
I can’t say I would strongly recommend this one. It is just Gladwell getting more money out of the same content that he has already published in the New Yorker .. much of which was material for his other books and will seem like old news.


Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block
I am referencing this book for my work with the Community Volunteer Network.  This is my favorite of his books so far.  If you are interested in community work / social work / volunteer engagement, I would recommend this title.  It is very similar to Better Together by Robert Putnam (another book I started reading and never finished).


A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink
I think Pink needs to read Matthew Crawford’s book and get back to me.

Things I have bought but have not even begun to read:

CompanyCommand (assigned)


Images of Organization (assigned)


Learning Through Knowledge Management (assigned)
The Knowledge Evolution: Expanding Organizational Intelligence (assigned)


The World Cafe


Storytelling in Organizations


Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn

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