A running guide of what NOT to do. The first iteration of Tim's Ta-Don't List was a goodbye gift from Foresight's summer staff person Rachel Young, left behind on my whiteboard. Now, I'm keeping it going with weekly updates, in the spirit of better, more impactful change-making.
1. DON’T conflate systems change with large scale. Transforming complex systems requires building capacity at all levels—from the grassroots on up. To forget this can lead to top-heavy, inaccessible processes.
2. DON’T miss an opportunity to color curate your jellybeans. Consider this a motto: Design in all things!
3. DON’T just give your time and money to the usual (largest, most visible) suspects. Dig deeper, and discover the organizations whose fights began long before our current crises, and with much less access to resources.
4. DON’T be afraid to pet a puppy, if you see one on the street that needs petting. These are the self care strategies that sustain our work over the long haul.
5. DON’T rush to resolve your cognitive dissonance. We all feel the disjuncture between our actions, and who we believe ourselves to be. Inhabit this discomfort–it’s fertile ground for transformation, and our eagerness to leave it behind us often inflicts harm.
6. DON'T waste energy on avoidance. It takes significant work (mental and emotional) to keep our worries at bay. Instead, externalize your deepest fears by writing them down, or sharing them with friends and colleagues. Then they can no longer control you.
7. DON'T miss out on opportunities to make change with style. For example: An eye-catching reusable bag draws attention and starts conversations—transforming your individual consumer choice into a potentially more catalytic culture shift.
8. DON'T fetishize your tools. Whether a technical device like GIS systems, or a framework like collective impact, a resource is not a methodology, and the most impactful methodologies incorporate others' fresh insights, and evolve to meet the needs of each unique challenge.
9. DON'T hesitate to eavesdrop. As an intern (or even as an established professional), remaining attentive to your environment and your colleagues' (public!) conversations is the most efficient and effective way to learn about a new workplace and broader field.
10. DON'T delay responding simply because you don't know what to say. Most of the time, the people waiting to hear from you will prefer an imperfect message to silence.
11. DON'T forget to make a "car agenda." Long drives can be considered a gift of time and, if undertaken with colleagues, attention. Come prepared to make the most of it, by floating that idea you've been meaning to share, initiating a brainstorm, or working your way through your call list.
12. DON'T speak. Not immediately, or at least not always. Working with the high school student participants of the Foresight Prep @ Oberlin College summer program, I have learned that if I curb my urge to fill every silence, young people will rise to the occasion with unexpected insights.
13. DON'T extinguish young people's fire. Revolutionary dreams require direction (& methods, tools, resources...), not derailment.
14. DON'T use your dry erase markers on chart paper. It will ruin them.
15. DON'T withhold your own vision and values when collaborating with people who possess less power. Silence is the flipside of domination, and can be equally patronizing. Whether working with youth or community residents, building authentic relationships includes both listening and sharing.
16. DON'T neglect community care in the pursuit of self care. Breaks, vacations and sabbaticals are essential, but if we want social and environmental change work to be about more than just the grind, we need to create mechanisms to support one another, not just ourselves, with ongoing healing, celebration and restoration.
17. DON'T mistake passion for meaningful content. My Foresight Prep @ Oberlin students frequently speak highly of guest speakers that they experience as "passionate." But I believe that what they're actually reacting to is the authority that comes from lived experience. Some who exhibit passion have deep credibility, while others have very little. I tell my students: DO develop the judgment to distinguish between the two.
18. DON'T propagate the narrative that there are "two sides to every story." Appreciating complexity means recognizing there are multiple stories, some of which should not be granted legitimacy.
19. DON'T seek to solve the cluster of crescents in the lattice of your fingers. The slack-jawed Pac-man becoming banana becoming nail clipping, tiny yellow tear in the black. The black portal, haloed by glow. Let the mystery be. Let yourself be small.
20. DON'T neglect insights from the past while innovating toward a more sustainable future. In light of the current crisis in Texas, Ta-Don't Number 3 remains especially relevant.
21. DON'T show up without doing your homework, but don't spend so long on your homework that you fail to show up.
22. DON'T look to numbers to tell you what to do. Define your vision, then determine the numbers that will tell you whether you've achieved it.
23. DON'T resist opportunities to learn and grow through critique, but do not grant one person's perspective the power to determine your impact and worth.
24. DON'T miss your last chance to get ice cream before the end of the season.
25. DON'T insist on continuing to pursue a strategy that has proven a poor fit for the challenge at hand.
26. DON'T mistake gear for preparation. The capacity to effectively respond to problems requires mental discipline, emotional intelligence, resilience, and accountability.
27. DON'T feel compelled to solve a conflict you are only just beginning to understand. Value the contributions of the individuals and organizations building capacity for immediate and future transformation, at every scale.
28. DON'T miss opportunities to mine the news for instructive illustrations of complex concepts, especially if you're an educator. When teaching systems analysis to our Foresight Prep @ Oberlin students next summer, I fully intend to reference the "Weinstein effect" as an example of a positive reinforcing feedback loop.
29. DON'T neglect to manage your audience's expectations. When topics are complex, clarity of process enables successful communication.
30. DON'T seek gratitude for your actions that seek positive transformation. If you are expecting to be thanked, reconsider your fundamental motivations.
31. DON'T accept the logic of scarcity, where "giving" means competing with peers and comrades for attention and resources.
32. DON'T miss out on the CTA Christmas train. It is literally the best thing about Christmas in Chicago.
33. DON'T schedule all your important meetings the same week (as though you can help it).
34. DON'T assume your audience needs to be convinced of your vision, if a better strategy would be to assume their support, and focus on how to make it real.
35. DON'T let your attachment to meaningful relationships prevent you from recognizing how they may need to evolve.
36. DON'T fail to recognize opportunities for creativity spurred by constraints. Last night, I unexpectedly leveraged leftovers for a delicious stir fry, avoiding grocery shopping in the bitter cold.
37. DON'T assume your desired outcome—whether equity, escape, or a "win,"—is the only meaningful transformation that will result from its pursuit. Changes in relationships, insights on process, and the development of new skills and capacities may be equally impactful.
38. DON'T ignore the forces that opposed or counteract your efforts, especially if they represent the greater portion of a system.
39. DON'T make assumptions about the narratives that driving others' questions about, or resistance to, your undertakings. Ask questions that will reveal the root of their concern, rather than responding based upon your conjectures about the source of their resistance.
40. DON'T let concepts that should be fundamental values and commitments—equity, sustainability, etc.—become passing trends.
41. DON'T wait for the right thing to say, when there isn't one. In certain situations of crisis, the only wrong choice is to not show up.
42. DON'T overcomplicate the structures and processes you use to respond to complexity, or mistake busyness with progress.
43. DON’T skip the most beautiful path just because it’s covered in snow.
44. DON'T put off until tomorrow what is going to poop on you.
45. DON’T issue armchair assessments of others’ actions and interventions, if you have not participated in their decision-making and learned the context for their chosen directions.
46. DON'T neglect subtle, beautiful ecologies close to home under the assumption that only the most dramatic vistas are worthy of attention. I spent a lovely Sunday walking from Chicago to Gold Road along the North Branch trail, and appreciating Forest Preserves of Cook County's critical stewardship of this land.
47. DON'T lie.
48. DON’T listen for people’s positions. Listen for their underlying needs, concerns and motivations.
49. DON'T buy smelly office plants that make people sneeze.
50. A milestone—our 50th ta-don't!: DON'T be afraid to repeat yourself. When you feel your message is exhausted, others may just be starting to hear it.
With that in mind: DON'T conflate systems change with large scale. Transforming complex systems requires building capacity at all levels—from the grassroots on up. To forget this can lead to top-heavy, inaccessible processes.
51. DON’T mistake breakthroughs for the end of your journey. Like lifting a log to reveal a cluster of scurrying insects, significant realizations may only reveal additional, more specific challenges.
52. DON'T add so many columns to your matrix that you can no longer efficiently scroll.
53. DON'T expect true capacity to result from a one-time workshop or consulting engagement. Capacity-building is an ongoing discipline. Think about your hours spent with a therapist or personal trainer—then multiply these to the scale of an organization, institution, or collaborative undertaking.
54. DON'T underestimate the power / Of a lifetime ahead. This lyric from Debbie Gibson's 1988 hit "Electric Youth" is on my mind as I prepare for this summer's Foresight Prep @ Oberlin program, reflect upon the youth-led movements of the past year, and consider the transformative potential of young people.
55. DON'T go wasting my precious time—So sang one of the most successful girl groups of my high school years (the late 90s). Yesterday, Foresight's summer interns facilitated a dynamic discussion about time management, based upon their week's research into effective practices, a reminder that capacity-building can happen across generations, and at multiple stages of professional development.
56. DON'T walk away, boy. Keeping with my recent theme of song lyrics, this refrain from the 1992 hit by R & B girl group Jade reminds me to stay present and engaged through potentially generative tensions and conflict.
57. DON'T make me over—So goes the belted refrain of the Bacharach-David classic, a plea to a lover for acceptance rather than judgment. When consulting, helping our clients' change and improve their work is often part of our explicit role. But as in any meaningful partnership, we strive to proceed from a mutual vision of what we can become.
58. DON'T rush me, sang Taylor Dayne. (And for any Tig Notaro fans, I just have to tell you, I really love her voice). Innovation projects require adept judgement when managing time—knowing when to respond with urgency, and when to take the time required for a fuller understanding.
59. DON'T miss the deadline.
60. DON'T ask the clarifying question only once, and assume this will be enough. When project partners are still discovering and clarifying their needs, a series of questions over time may be required to clarify objectives.
61. DON'T opt for the bark when a biscuit would be more effective.
62. DON'T make a proclamation when a question would be more effective.
63. DON'T feel compelled to contribute to every debate, if you've nothing to offer.
64. DON'T neglect the "how," not just the "what," when putting forth collaboration as a desirable outcome (as opposed to solely a vehicle). Bring intentionality to everything — from a collaboration's structure, to meeting design, to how you go about developing shared strategies based upon a common understanding of the system.
65. DON'T neglect the body that fuels the brain.
66. DON’T stick to the script at the expense of opportunities to discover and connect.
67. DON'T paper over gaps between values, interests and agendas. Name them explicitly, while seeking spaces of overlap toward identified outcomes.
68. DON'T pose challenges to others that stress them beyond their capacity to cope, but also ensure that each challenge stretches and expands that capacity.
69. DON’T say pratfall when what you meant was pitfall. Remember that time we hosted a multi-stakeholder convening and you slipped on a banana peel?