Osgood, Dianne, and Mary Elizabeth Sheehan. “Lessons from a
Project with No Managers, No Boss, and Everyone Is a Leader.” Fast
Company. December 14, 2022.
Seth Godin mentioned this V-formation in one one of our Thank you Thursday sessions. Unlike Canadian geese, we had no idea where we were going. We had no managers. We had no boss. Yet, in six months, 300 volunteers from 41 countries worked asynchronously to produce a best-selling book. The Carbon Almanac is now in ten languages. The almanac for kids, Generation Carbon is in 17 languages. There are more than 88 podcasts, a photobook, and a daily e-newsletter.
Seth Godin wrote his first blog about climate damage 20 years ago. Reading Ken Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of The Future in 2021 mobilized him to do more. When he called people to join him, his decades of trust as an author and educator meant concerned writers, designers, editors, teachers, librarians, scientists, economists, artists, parents and even high school students enrolled. They were eager to join a community that was doing something that mattered.
You can’t fix a problem few are confident or comfortable talking about. Our goal was clear: produce an almanac. Almanacs are resource books of easy-to-understand facts. We knew people needed a tool to start talking and taking action, now. While it is not too late, we are all running out of time. During the book’s creation, launch, and movement building, contributors fled fires and floods. Urgency fueled us.
Even though we didn’t know where we were going, we set our culture from the start. During the book’s creation, Louise Karch in Australia led Way to Go Wednesdays. She would publicly name five people and highlight their contributions and character. This was a virtuous cycle. If you were named, you would thank five others. A torrent of appreciation was unleashed every week. After the book was finished, two thousand people joined the movement and we shifted to Thank You Thursdays. For 500 days, being thankful has been our weekly practice. Gratitude is the driving heartbeat of our community.
Work is now distributed, for every project. Fortunately, open-source platforms like Discourse (Discourse.org) make it easier to bring a community together to flesh out ideas. Notion (Notion.so) made it possible for writers and designers from 41 countries to write, edit, illustrate and fact check 97,000 words in record time. Email and Zoom complete the quiver of tools that allow people to be connected, in real-time, wherever we are.
In a broken world, people want to belong. In a hurting world, people want to help. When Seth Godin’s call went out, people answered.
Leaders arrived and found their place in the V formation. Barrett Brooks from the U.S. chose to be the senior editor, joking that we were building a plane as we flew it. A maestro of multi-tasking, he was joined by Linda Westenberg from the Netherlands who added her project management skills. Section editors such as Diane Osgood shaped the chapters, contributed pieces, and edited the submissions of a wide cast of writers. Zrinka Zvonarevic in Finland raised a hand to build a website. Michi Mathias in the UK added delightful hand-drawn cartoons. Jennifer Myers Chua, Jasper Croome, and Andrea Morris in North America led graphics and book design. Paige NeJame led the project to write a kids’ book. And so it grew. Michel Porro, a professional photographer from the Netherlands suspended paying work for months to volunteer full-time as an editor and publishing rep. Vivek Srinivasan from India helped create dozens of articles. Bulama Yusuf in Nigeria helped create our website, and Boon Lim in Singapore led the creation and editing of many graphs and illustrations.
Each leader forged ahead so others could follow, and then rotated to the back, at which point a new leader emerged to move the flock forward.
The V formation operating ethos within the Carbon Almanac network birthed optimism and opportunity. People had the autonomy to develop new skills: writing, editing, infographics, podcasting, PR, and project management, all while meeting tight timelines. Leaders were always welcome to pull back, do less, knowing others would move in and add lift. Burnout wasn’t required.
THE PAGE 19 PRINCIPLE
No one on the team had the qualifications to completely organize, edit, fact check and illustrate a single page of the book. But it needed to be done, so we wrote it, and then the next one and the one after that. Each page was improved and polished by more than a dozen people, working around the clock, from time zone to time zone.
We coined the Page 19 principle and used it every day. As a metaphor, it’s is the antidote to paralysis, overwhelm, and perfectionism. It’s not about getting it right the first time out. This approach fostered trust. It gave people permission to take action and advance the group’s goal.
Trust that you can try, confidence that you can take the first action to advance the group’s goals, and the belief that you can take the next action to make it better, or add layers.
It turns out that just about everything is built this way, not just Almanacs. Because Page 19 gives individuals the chance to find out that they can, indeed, do the thing they didn’t think they could, it’s also about discovery, both on the individual and the group level.
This DNA of discovery leads both to delight and joy, and to a sense of play. This delight can permeate meetings and outreach calls and can fire up attendees. People said, “I was so energized by that call.”
Page 19 leadership is founded not on “I know all the answers,” but rather on “Hmm, let’s try that, and see what happens.”
It’s about being of service, which makes it easier to listen to others. It’s about generosity, not territory.
It’s about helping set up the team as a whole and the team members individually for success. Four things to keep in mind:
Decisions and choices are made, but communication hinges on encouragement, trust, and mutual respect. It allows the group to be nimble — if something doesn’t work, the group can adapt quickly and move to the next thing.
Page 19 is solution-focused and forward-looking, so no one has to fret over “bad” decisions made or screwing up anything. That happened, and now we simply pivot to what works a little better.
Page 19 means that your lived experience is what qualifies you to do this work. The flow of excitement and energy this creates feels circular and generative.
CONDITIONS OF SUCCESS
The rotating V Leadership model offers a way to steer projects and influence people. It breaks through hierarchical structures to release creativity and perspectives. It can build leadership muscle across a cohort and provide space to test skills in the safety of a supportive culture. You can support one leader now, knowing your turn to lead is coming.
It’s simple to start: A self-appointed leader puts an idea in writing and creates a platform for others to join in creating a project to bring the idea to life.
The conditions of success include building a culture that includes:
- A strong commitment to a greater end goal
- A desire to discuss which ideas are worth pursuing
- Rewarding efforts in uncertain terrain without expectation of the outcomes
- Assumption of good intent when receiving input from others and when offering your own
- The truth that some ideas are not great, but can spark a better idea through productive conversation
IT’S NOT A FRICTION-FREE ENVIRONMENT
Friction is essential for movement. Even ice skating involves friction, otherwise nothing much would happen.
Mistakes, on the other hand, are often over-labeled. Our starts aren’t false starts, they’re simply experiments in service of forward motion.
With this in mind, we can minimize misunderstandings and hurt feelings. The golden rule was to criticize the work, not the worker. Without territory to defend, the team simply made things better. Eva may have a great idea for a podcast, but it’s really Tania and Jen with the podcasting expertise. Jen and Ava want our emails to look a certain way but Marcus knows what is possible behind the scenes. Everyone has an opinion on the website, but Jonathan and Zrinka are ultimately responsible for the site staying live.
Our approach requires each person to find their own path to the front of the V formation. This is not a traditional way of working. But this is what works now. We just proved it.
So this is how we tackle climate change or any wicked systemic problem as leaders. We work in and across cohorts. We respect communication styles different from our own. We accept that on this project, we are equals, no matter our personal background. We cut through the noise and find our homing signal. We go out front, take the resistance, push ahead so others can follow. And perhaps more importantly, we rotate back, and someone else moves the flock forward.
We don’t miss our deadlines.
We make difficult choices, because we said we would.
The ocean is made of drops.
This article was produced by Diane Osgood and Mary Elizabeth Sheehan together with the Carbon Almanac Network.