December 14, 2015

Fervent, Humble, Uncowed: The Hard Work of Putting Principles into Practice

For the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of lecturing at Hofstra’s Zarb School of Business. I always relish my time with these aspiring entrepreneurs, and I’m especially impressed by the way they balance realism and idealism.

Their sensitivity to this tension was on display during our most recent conversation, as they asked about how we maintain Reboot’s internal culture. It’s a topic near to my heart as we’ve always worked hard to be a principles-driven organization. A few years back, we articulated these in a list that is shared with every staff member during onboarding, and which guides our work and culture. The Hofstra students immediately saw how challenging this idealistic list might be to put into practice:

Reboot Principles

This list is both high-level and incomplete, and constantly evolving (in keeping with our commitment to being adaptive and inquiring). It captures the spirit of the values that we strive to keep front-and-center in everything we do.

But the Hofstra students were right: It’s incredibly challenging to follow through on these ideals. Their questions led to a rich discussion: How do you maintain fervency when dealing with problems, like poor education, that are decades or centuries in the making? What does it mean to be moral when you’re making choices between mutually unpleasant options? What are the consequences of being uncowed when speaking up can cost us future and larger opportunities to push for the change we believe in?

Inspired, I brought the conversation back to our team. I see these principles at work every day when I look at what my colleagues are producing, but I realized it had been a while since I had heard from them specifically about how they understand the process. So I did a quick survey, and asked a few individuals to chat a bit more. As it turns out, we could write a long book on this question, but here are just a few of the themes we surfaced on what these principles mean in practice:

They mean Reboot has to stay “right-sized.”

“I think Reboot’s small team enables us to be nimble and scrappy, free from excessive bureaucracy. It allows and encourages contextually-driven approaches to problem-solving.”
— Adam Parker, Communications Designer

In a very physical sense, the principles have shaped Reboot: Committing to these principles means growing slowly and cautiously. We have built our capacity and grown to meet new challenges, but we are always resisting the momentum that so many consulting firms fall into, where “feeding the beast” becomes more important than sticking to principles. Our size also helps us do adaptive, bespoke work.

They mean we value our staff as people.

“The work we do lends itself to our principles. Our team has to be really passionate about our work. I call it the ‘Reboot Recipe,’ for different projects—different people have different quantities of the values. We push each other to make the project what it needs to be.” —Nina Kiernan, Operations Manager

Everything we do is a product of collaboration; none of us could maintain these principles on our own. Different team members bring different strengths, and we constantly challenge each other to be better. Our size also encourages empathy and collaboration between team members; we have the space to know each other outside of work, and think about each other holistically as humans.

They mean we toggle between principles at different project phases.

“Being a realist is powerful because it helps you understand what is possible within all the constraints. But, sometimes seeing the world for what it is (rather than from a more optimistic or idealistic view) can feel constricting and overwhelming.” — Emily Herrick, Communications Designer

Being “adaptive” and “bespoke” is different at the beginning of a project than it is in the home stretch, although they still apply throughout. The emotional peaks and valleys of any project also call for modulated principles. There are times when maintaining fervency requires rose-colored glasses, and maybe putting realism aside for a minute.

They mean that sometimes, we ruffle feathers.

“To be uncowed is central to our existence. We are constantly challenging entrenched systems, but that is a difficult stance to pull off, especially in a world where interests often flourish by conforming.”
— Nonso Jideofor, Program Manager

We are working to change the power dynamics of a major international field, where structures have been shaped over decades and with the support of governments. That is especially true when we find ourselves at major conferences and convenings. We work in a unique corner of the market, with clients who are open to change and innovation, but we also engage with communities where the push for change is not always as strong. We are known for speaking up when we disagree.

They mean that sometimes we walk away from projects.

“The question of being ‘moral’ is hard, because we know ‘development’ itself is an imperfect enterprise. The larger system that we work within needs change and reform. We try to ‘do good’ in the face of seeing so many things that are wrong.” — Panthea Lee, Principal

Our principles are not just about idealism; they are central to the approach that we believe gets the best results. That means that on the rare occasion when a project runs counter to these values, we have to walk away, even if it’s a “great business opportunity.” In these moments, we are transparent and uncowed, explaining why we believe in our approach. But when a project has been stuck on a counterproductive track, we have ended contracts.

They mean that sometimes, we burn out.

“I recently watched two colleagues preparing for a workshop forgetting to fulfill basic personal human needs—such as eating and sleeping—as they were so focused on improving the experience of those around them.” — Adam Talsma, Senior Designer

Reboot attracts a certain kind of staff member: Someone who is driven by many of these same principles naturally. Fervency is one of the most common; we’re idealistic, passionate, and we work hard because of it. But we need to remember not to let our fervor come before our own human needs. Nearly everyone on staff had an example to share of seeing others work too hard. We are all committed to them and driven, but we are working harder to push each other to take breaks.

They mean that our work is always fresh to us.

“Everyone just has this attitude towards getting the job done, even when things don’t work out as expected. I’ve never seen a Reboot team member throw up their hands and say, ‘This isn’t what we signed up for, we’re out of here.’ Everyone wants to make a project work, even if it turns out be a totally different beast than what was initially discussed and planned for.” — Kerry Brennan, Associate Director of Programs

Projects regularly surprise us. In all of our proposals, we are clear about the fact that our process subordinates predictions and assumptions to actual research and engagement. We can’t know the best solution until we have done the research. This, as well as shifting client priorities and needs, mean that many of our projects end up in a different place than where they started.

Looking ahead

We make no claim that our principles are perfect. They can adapt and evolve, both in the way we put them into practice and the way we articulate them with each other and our partners. As the examples above show, we’re adapting them to suit our work every day. But what is vital is that we follow a set of shared principles, because what we believe shapes how we act. That’s the best advice I have to offer, both to business school students and our colleagues at large: Principle-driven work takes adaptation, empathy, and humility. Find colleagues and collaborators who share those characteristics, and I believe you’ll find an environment where a commitment to social progress can thrive.

I recently spoke about our principles, and the story behind them, at my Slush 2015 talk on building a social enterprise. Watch that video here.

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