037: Growing Change @Greenpeace with the MobLab

podcast whale The Mobilisation Lab (aka MobLab or “Digital Mobilisation Lab”) provides the global Greenpeace organization and its allies a dynamic, forward-looking space to envision, test, and roll out creative new means of inspiring larger networks of leaders and people around the world to break through and win on threats to people and the planet. Our conversation with Michael Silberman, the Global Director at the Mobilisation Lab discusses their approach and what has worked in their efforts to make change within a massive institution.


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Episode 37


This is Using the Whole Whale, Podcast that brings you stories of data and technology in the nonprofit world. My name is George Weiner, your host and the chief Whaler of Whole Whale.com. Thanks for joining us.


Speaker 1: As a listener of the podcast by now you’re pretty familiar with our obsession with the idea of data culture. The concept that inside an organization we need to understand the data that is associated with our performance, with our impact. And then we actually we need to bring it into the way the organization runs, the way people think, and the way people work and that’s the word culture there.

We have a tremendous opportunity today to talk with a guy name Michael Silberman who is at the Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace. Now, that’s exciting especially because it’s different, right? When you’re at a larger organization, you know, it’s all fine and well to like, read some new technology and new approach, but you’re like, well, you know not at my organization. We’ve been around forever and we’re stuck in our ways and it’s just not gonna happen.

Well this is an interesting conversation, because we get to hear directly from Michael about how this Mobilisation Lab inside of Greenpeace, a very large and venerable organization in 55 countries, how they are changing things from the inside and a lot of that goes to data culture here of how they’re helping them adopt different types of technologies and the strategies they’re doing that actually work and how they’re measuring change. So hopefully, this gives you some ideas as you listen to Michael’s approach.


Speaker 1: I’m here with Michael Silberman from Greenpeace. Michael, how you doing? Tell us, who are you and what do you do?


Speaker 2: Hello George. Yeah, I’m here with the Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace. We are a  small and mighty team of four and five people who work with the entire global organization here, almost 55 countries working to help Greenpeace transition to a new era of campaigning. So we’re working to help the organization rewire itself for a modern campaigning landscape.


Speaker 1: Yeah. I was gonna go into that. What is a Mobilisation lab do?


Speaker 2: Some people have called it a mobiles lab, where it’s much more than I guess what you’d think of as just kind of a traditional or it’s different from what you might think of as a traditional lab or innovation lab, if where at the point where labs and innovation labs can be traditional. We, we’re pretty deeply embedded with the organization to help facilitate massive organizational change.


Speaker 1: Gotcha. And definitely there’s like no animal testing in this lab. Correct?


Speaker 2: Well, you know, I mean at Greenpeace, it’s pretty safe to say that, no, not even baby seals, no.


Speaker 1: Alright. So we’re getting an idea of this. Maybe you can talk through a specific initiative that you led within the organization and how that went to give us a better idea of what you’re doing.


Speaker 2: Sure. Yeah, I’ll tell you about one of the very first things we worked on was helping to catalyze a strong network of Mobilisation staff and campaigners and people who were focused on engagement to start working together across departments. And so I think like many organizations, who were around before the internet, we grew up with different departments and teams, like fundraising and communications. We had volunteer departments and teams. There’s folks who lead the actions. And all these teams are doing great work around the organization.


And what we found though was that in putting campaigns together we weren’t always getting the best out of everyone. So one of the things we’ve been working on lately is building a facilitation network where project leaders and staff across all the different anyone who is involved in a project, which is almost everyone at some point, had the skills they need to get the best ideas and the best results out of everyone internally, but then increasingly supporters and activists and folks externally, as well. So that’s been an exciting series of workshops that are now turning into self-sustaining network inside the organization of staff supporting one another in figuring out how we can, kind of break down a lot of kind of old, certain older bureaucratic approaches to campaign planning. Start continuing to innovate when we design campaigns, so they’re more people powered and more participatory.


Speaker 1: So this is sort of silo-busting activity to increase communication to increase creativity. Can you talk us through some of the tactics and maybe some of the tools that you’re using inside of a large organization?


Speaker 2: Sure. Lots of post-it-notes. That’s first. That’s our big technology. Yeah, I mean we’re pulling from a few different practice areas like design thinking and kind of open source technology principles and some of the some of what we see when we work with folks on this is like, lots of idea generation. So you know, I think we found that lots of, that many meetings you go to here, but in many other organizations are either partially scripted or there’s not enough room. There’s not enough time for people to contribute their best thinking or people organization meetings don’t know how to facilitate that or get the or create the space for people to generate many ideas or approaches to something. So part of what we’re starting to see now through these creative leadership processes, workshops are people from across the organization who wouldn’t normally maybe even participate, think that they have the ability to participate in that core business of campaigning able to contribute ideas and fresh perspectives that didn’t otherwise get counted.


Speaker 1: Interesting. So it’s as much an approach in training as it is necessarily like a quick trick. It may be hard I guess for you to measure progress for cultural change as it sounds like. What are some of the leading indicators that you’re looking for, the signs? You mentioned meeting structure. How are you measuring success as you move forward through this project?


Speaker 2: Sure. This has been a tricky question for us from the beginning. And we talked a bunch of folks about how they do, you know, there’s a whole monitoring and evaluation world of practicum that I discovered especially strong in the international development spaces, but the measuring organizational change is tricky we discovered. So what we’re looking at and it’s not or it’s not very scientific or people just haven’t figured out the silver bullet to doing that. We’re good at measuring campaign outcomes, but less of the evolution of an organization.


And so what we’re focused on is seeing where the seeds that we’ve planted, different practices that we’ve introduced, the ways of working that we’ve introduced, to see where those are sticking. So where we’re seeing to stick with some environmental analogies cause we’re here at Greenpeace. You know, where are seeds taking root? Where are things becoming mainstream in the organization?


I’ll give you one example of that, which is, you know we started as a team of again, four to five people, a of couple years ago doing a lot of capacity building, training, supporting this global network of staff who work with supporters and are working on engaging supporters. And now as a result of some various restructuring at the international organization we’re looking at a team of nearly 40 people internationally who are going to, with the international body the coordinating body, who will be supporting staff globally now. So that’s the kind of stuff that we track that identifies, okay, we now have a more permanent thing. We’ve piloted a bunch of things to support staff, now we have a permanent body at the international coordinating level to support this network.


Speaker 1: So as you’re looking at the ripple effect of your work, what are some of the things that could be seen potentially on the ground in the day to day activities where Greenpeacers are working on, let’s say on campaigns or fundraising, what does your work look like once it reaches the implementation stage for teams that are in the field?


Speaker 2: Sure. I can think of a couple of examples now where we have campaigns at the planning stage which are inviting supporters into the process, which are testing their campaign plans with folks. Not just, I don’t mean just kind of polling or seeing you know do you like this or not, but actually co-creating plans and talking with people who are going to be most directly impacted, who are mostly directly impacted by certain issues that we might be tackling. Bringing them into the campaigning process, there’s some in the Detox Campaign, in the Oceans Campaigns globally where we’re starting to see a very different approach to campaign planning as well as to implementation.


So on the planning side, a lot more openness, a lot more interest in figuring out how we get more people’s ideas into the mix. On implementation, we’re seeing more and more campaigns rolling out. We could talk about some where we have more roles for more people to participate in the work or to skill and grow the work. So whether it’s using citizen science people, you know contributing their own Intel to a campaign to make it stronger or their own time or expertise on the ground to organize campaign and basically accelerate a campaign’s ability to win.


Speaker 1: Sounds like a before and after would look like, you know, more leveraging of the wisdom of crowds, internally tapping into more creative sources. That I’m sure, relieves to greater impact. I’m going to do really quickly just backtrack,  and you were saying that it seemed like one of the successes was changing a meeting structure. Now, that seems like kind of boring, but also having myself sat through a lot of incredibly dull, sometimes way too long non-profit meetings, but like help me. What are your cheat sheets for making a meeting suck less?


Speaker 2: Yeah. Well, I’ll give you the example or our, the bigger meeting we organize. We have spent each of the past few years, we’ve organized a big skill share. This year we just organized an open campaigning camp a couple weeks ago in Berlin. We have another one coming up on mobiles for Mobilisation and we almost always partner with our colleagues at Aspiration, who are real kind of world pioneers in the participatory events model.


And so it all comes back to figuring out, like I said, how do we get the most out of everyone, right? So, I think what happens with most of the meetings that we, the meetings that we all leave and say, “wow, that was boring,”or “that was terrible,” and I didn’t do anything useful in that or all I did was email the whole thing. I traveled around the world just to do a bunch of emails. I think that’s the result of in most cases that’s meeting design. Right? Not knowing how to figure out how do we get everyone’s brains active and so what we do with the meetings that we organize is and the skill shares and increasingly this is the case across Greenpeace, is that we minimize a small group of talking heads that may have everything figured out and just need a platform to communicate because there’s lots of other mediums to do that. Right?


We can you can email those things around. You can do a webinar. You can have people, you can record yourself, and you can have people-you can do the broadcast thing in a lot of different ways. But when you have a group of people together, that’s an incredible amount of potential energy and potential intelligence that I think is you know is almost a crime or malpractice for someone to not harness that. And so with more participatory events like the one we just had in Berlin, this open campaigns camp you’re looking at events that where the majority of the time you have sessions and discussions organized by the participants themselves.


So you can even go as far as to source the agenda from participants to figure out what’s going to be, rather than a small group of individuals saying here’s what’s going to be important for this much larger group. You have an entire 80 people or however big your meeting is surfacing the priorities and leaning into design content sessions and outcomes oriented discussions that they get you, that move the discussion forward for everyone, not just based on a limited view of what a couple people may think is most important for everyone else.


Speaker 1: Gosh. An 80 person meeting sounds more like a mini-conference to me than a meeting.


Speaker 2: Yeah, but you know it works man. It’s a, yeah. It’s great.


Speaker 1: Fair enough.


Speaker 2: It’s great. A lot of fun.


Speaker 1: Alright. So how long have you been …


Speaker 2: And sorry. The key thing there is that you’re not you’re limiting you actually don’t want it’s rare that you would want 80 people ever all together in the same room because I think that’s where and so there is something about meeting size when you ask about tips and tricks. You know, a meeting of 12.  Anytime you have more than, you know, five people around a table you want to get people into smaller groups. So that’s what I mean by all those sessions are happening concurrently. You might have ten or twelve different sessions happening with a group of eight, but I think it’s the same principle. If you’re organizing a meeting with 20 people in the room, for a campaign plan, you’re not going to get you know, you can waste a lot of time either having one person talk or having trying to get 20 different going around in circles and having a UN style meeting where each person gives a mini speech and instead I think what we found is there’s many better tools and techniques for getting people to individually or in smaller groups work together to generate ideas, concepts, or questions.


Speaker 1: Yeah, the meeting size seems like a critical ingredient. You know every person you add after seven, as like you know the Microsoft generation labs and other people saying, every new person that you add literally brings down the productivity and efficacy of the working group. So good to hear that you’re not running 80 person meetings.


Speaker 2: No. God, no.


Speaker 1: I feel like you’d have negative return on that.


Speaker 2: That would be scary.


Speaker 1: So how long have you been in this role at Greenpeace?


Speaker 2: Funny you ask. I just realized on my way to work today that I have passed my four-year anniversary as of August 1.


Speaker 1: Happy Anniversary!


Speaker 2: Well, thank you!


Speaker 1: You did it. All right. So let’s say we can jump in the hot tub time machine because we’re celebrating your four-year anniversary and bring the wiser sharper more brilliant Michael back and speak to that guy four years ago that was starting this job. What is something that you would do differently or advise yourself to do differently as you approach the role?


Speaker 2: Gosh. Killer question. Yeah, I think, you know, I think going into this we were fortunate that it was understood from the outset that there was not a perfect recipe for how this  for success here. We were  one of the benefits of the design of this model here, this lab, or the Center for Excellence as it was termed internally was that it was gonna have the freedom to experiment and innovate. I don’t think I one of the lessons we learned as a team when we reflected at the end of last year about what we learned, we realized there’s not there’s not a direct correlation between the time we spend on things and the direct impact it has.


So for example, we can spend four months planning a boot camp or a training with a specific office going deep, while it may have had some great impact, we may have seen even better results from someone who came to skill share or an event and you know was part of a session for fifteen minutes that we were in or something and they went home and transformed their office. And you know that one hour fifteen minutes had as much or more impact on that office than the entire four months and the blood, sweat, and tears we spent developing at boot camp. So, all that to say I think I would place an even greater emphasis on having multiple pots cooking and at the same time because you just don’t know which of the stews is going to turn into something that bears fruit. So we’ve planted lots of different seeds and some have, you know, some have grown into blossoming trees faster and others have taken more time, despite what we would’ve predicted. So, I think if I went back and did it again I would create even more ways to have to allow more things to grow.


Speaker 1: So it seems like when you’re looking back retrospectively, you know your highest yield wins come from when you find an internal champion change their mind or inform them and have them go back and then change it from within the inside as opposed to you know, sitting everyone down and talking over their heads. That internal change maker seems critical to some of the faster changes you’ve seen. Is that a safe analysis?


Speaker 2: Yeah. Our work relies on change agents that exist internally or that we can support and build. We are enablers. We are not- it is impossible I think to do the kind of working we’re doing and expect that we can do that stuff ourselves. So I think you’re absolutely right and that’s baked into our design base. Initially it was that the leadership of the organization was smart and saying we’re not just gonna hire one or two people to sit at our international body and just generate new things and challenge us and push us. Instead they said, we need to create a space that’s going to be able to sit at the edges and work with the innovators that already exist in the organization. Support them, amplify them, build them up, and so we took more of that organizing approach that you’re describing. In terms of building a community of practice, enabling people who are already on the leading edge of change internally, but aren’t being acknowledged for that, but giving them a platform, a space to continue doing that and to help them, you know, make their work become the norm.


Speaker 1: So I’m gonna tap into some of your broader knowledge, which you’ve been modest about sharing, but you know, you’ve had entire other lives where you founded pretty impressive technology companies. You’re running you know, helping run the Weather to Change conference back when it first started. I’m curious about your advice to other non-profits tackling digital impact. What are some of your advice to those folks that know they need to make some internal change before you know they can start using periscope?


Speaker 2: My advice is for organizations to really step back and figure out why their people matter to what they’re doing. What’s so exciting about digital now is that it’s enabling participation in at scales we’ve never seen before. Right? The access, the cost, so low for anyone to be able to lead and drive change and initiate change and raise money and organize. And we’re seeing that in these emergent social movements everywhere.


For organizations whether it’s Greenpeace or anyone else, I think the you know, we have some clarity here about why people matter, but it’s even for an organization that is focused on Mobilisation and engaging more and more people to participate in these giant campaigns that we can’t win on our own. I think it’s the same question for many other groups and if you’re trying to dive into digital, you know, you can find, you can chase many balls and get distracted. You know, all kinds of shiny things that are exciting and periscope is exciting and it is transformative in lots of different ways, but until you know why people matter and at the deepest level why you should spend all that extra time and energy and find that expertise to the engaging and empowering people in deeper, deeper, ways, I think it’s really hard for organizations to go the distance. Right? To go the distance to become effective until they have the religion, so to speak of people power, if that’s where they’re going.


Speaker 1: To summarize it seems like you’re saying, start with why are we doing this, why will it matter and have that internal conversation.


Speaker 2: Yeah. I think that’s right. Yeah. The people who seem to struggle you know I think the people who are kind of frustrated because all they’re doing is building and all they can do is find themselves building big email lists or doing, you know petition based activism alone. You know that has its place, but if that’s where the train ends I can I think those are the organizations and the digital directors are getting frustrated because they’re still having that discussion with the rest of their staff about why digital and the people they’re engaging to digital are more than just fundraising leads or more than just a vanity metric that they can put up on the website.


Speaker 1: I really appreciate the sort of larger advice and the reflection you’ve done here. Final question here for you. What is something you think you or your organization should stop doing? You know we’re always so busy with well, let’s do more, let’s do more and now you’re like, oh yeah, I remember Periscope and I got to go sign up or screw with that, but what is something that you know that is on your list and maybe that is on your organization’s list to stop doing?


Speaker 2: I think I think we need to stop letting the tools define our strategy. And I don’t think that anyone would explicitly say that’s what they’re doing, but I think what’s increasingly happening is as all the databases and website tools and action tools get more sophisticated and commoditized and staff get really good at using them all and comfortable using those, it gets harder and harder to think about strategies from a blank slate and to think about how do we use the consolation of technology and tools that are out there to do something clever, do something new, do something that’s going to be remarkable or really engaging, or exciting or powerful and impactful for the campaign we’re doing.


And I remember having a conversation very recently with one of the early guys from at MoveOn would say, you know when they were talking about event tools, they weren’t talking about event tools, they just thought about, what would be most effective in the next step in the campaign and had a bunch of people who they thought they wanted to invite to participate in something locally and so they built themselves in 24 hours, the technology they needed to get people out or to invite people to take action locally.


And I think often we’re missing that moment in our campaign planning, where we say, what if we do this or let’s do that because it could be the most creative strategic thing we can do. And instead are saying well, we can either send the letter to the we can ask to do a letter to the editor or we can do a petition because that’s the tool or donation ask because those three things my tool set allows me to do. So I think we need to stop limiting ourselves, limiting the potential of our organizations and our creativity by the available tools and technology that’s out there.


Speaker 1: I love that as a sort of take away and it’s also good to hear that you didn’t just run into your job and say, all right everybody we’re all using Yammer now or we’re all using Slack now. I’ve solved it. I can move on. Are you guys using either of those?


Speaker 2: Yes. Slack is getting hot right now amongst some communities here. Skype remains very big. No big signs of life on Yammer right.


Speaker 1: Well, Slack is much cooler. Is that high on your list of like, hey, this is interesting and taking a look at it?


Speaker 2: Yeah. Well, yes. We’ve been playing with it as the Mob. led Team and some of the technologist around the organization as you can imagine have been more have jumped to it more quickly and see the benefits and efficiencies, but man we’re an email, you know, email still works really well, especially, for those people who are in far flung places with limited internet connections and it’s an interesting question when you have a real diverse set of users and people what’s gonna work. How do we not isolate subgroups of people who are the people that are privileged by high speed internet access and in front of their desks all day or those organizers who are in the field who are with patchy internet connections and even if they have a smart phone the thing that’s come in best for them is a text message or email.


Speaker 1: Yeah. But it’s important to note like who and the diversity of who you’re talking with and the mediums that work for them. Right? So one size rarely fits all. And you know, I think you have a good balance on how to do that and certainly Greenpeace is a massive organization that’s helping you see that. As we move to a close here, Michael, thanks for joining us. How do people find you and how might someone help you?


Speaker 2: Yeah. Great question. Thanks for the opportunity to plug. Yeah, MobilisationLab.org and that is the British or international spelling of Mobilisation. So that is with an S instead of Z or a Zed depending on where you’re listening from. And we are constantly on the lookout for innovations in people, power, campaigning, best practice well, I shouldn’t say best practices, I should say case studies, just real stories of things people have tried, tried and worked didn’t work, organizational transformation or ways to engage more people in our work. And those are things that we are trying to cover and share as best we can. And if folks have those stories that need to get told, we would love to hear about them and help get those shared and told.


Speaker 1: Awesome. And then on Twitter, how do people get you?


Speaker 2: Yeah. Personally, I am Silbertron on Twitter and we are Mobilisation Lab on Twitter as well.


Speaker 1: Well, great. Thank you for your time. I’m sure you’ve got a lot more to get back to work on so take care and good luck.


Speaker 2: Thanks George. Appreciate it.


Speaker 1: Michael was super generous to share his experience in changing things inside of Greenpeace and now you know all the secrets. We’re done. We can go home. Well, they may not, but at least you can get an idea of you know it’s not easy for everybody. Here’s an organization that certainly has the resources, but this is their approach. They’re going one by one. They’re trying meeting structures and trainings and changing things internally can be hard, but there are some seeds there to once again grow that analogy, burying some seeds you can play with.


We talked about some technical platforms that you may not have been familiar with. So if you’re scratching your head about Periscope that is the live streaming sort of mobile focused service that Twitter launched recently. You can try it out. Don’t waste too much time on it though. And Slack is kind of like the anti-email and more effective chat, but it allows you to organize things better and allows you to have conversations inside of your organization internally. Again, play with it be careful though because sometimes it can be bigger detriment. I think it’s more effective for decentralized teams that are maybe working across different offices. We haven’t adopted Slack for Whole Whale, but you know hope springs eternal maybe we’ll go for it.


As a final take away, you know we’ll be listing some of these resources as always on wholewhale.com/podcast. Take care.


This has been, Using the Whole Whale. For more research that’s on today’s show, please visit Whole Whale.com/podcast and consider following us on Twitter at Whole Whale and thanks for joining us.


As always our intro and outro music by the debonair, Greg Thomas Band and the music you heard in the middle of the cast was by a band called, Silence Is Sexy. Check them out.