Looking back at my time in ICANN.
While updating my personal website I came across some old articles. One sparked a memory of a document I wrote a few months after starting my job at ICANN way back in February 2007.
It was a five-point gameplan, written after some thought and a moment of strategic clarity. It was just for my own use, as a document I could refer myself back to every now and again and it listed what I was going to focus on and what I would try to get done in my role as general manager of public participation.
The original plan was a one-pointer: gather information, write it a simple and accessible way and push it out to people. Gradually I’d build a system to make this occur naturally, embed it into the corporate culture and then leave. I suppose I saw myself almost as an outside consultant than a staff member.
Literally within days, that one-point plan fell apart. To my surprise, staff was actively hostile to the idea of providing information to those outside their immediate team. Clear and concise writing – something I had assumed everyone would naturally embrace – was almost universally disdained as being inaccurate, even dangerous. And as for getting the information out there: there was no functional outlet to people beyond those that already knew the details. In short, the situation was much, much worse than I could have imagined.
So after some time thinking about how to tackle this bigger issue, I came up with a list of five targets with some brief notes. This was my five-point plan, and it was:
I spent virtually all my time at ICANN – just under three years – working on one or other of these issues. It’s now seven years later, and it is with some sadness that I note only 1 out of the 5 has been realized (translation). Two were scaled back within months of my leaving, and the rest remain in keen need of improvement.
With an older and wiser head, I now realize I make a classic error of enthusiastic but inexperienced management: I tried to do five things simultaneously. What I should have done is picked two or three from this list and focused all my attention on them. A case of less is more.
So I spent an hour or so this Sunday morning contemplating what I should have done different. And then I figured I’d write it down for posterity. Maybe I’ll read it next time I am redoing my website.
Here’s what happened and what I should have done.
— Put almost all my focus on the website.
The website is the face, the meeting place and the storage space for the whole organization – not just staff but community and public too. Get that right and much more will follow.
The website was unbelievably bad when I started. Literally made of individual HTML pages that were downloaded, manually edited and uploaded by a single person who was completely overwhelmed but also fiercely protective of his ownership.
At the end of three years of effort, in real terms I’d achieved very little. The site was moving to a content management system, but painfully slowly. The site looked awful, even after I won the fight to allow pictures and different colors on it (no, honestly – you should have the fuss when the first video appeared). The site had extremely limited functionality and retained an extraordinary bottleneck in the webmaster. Even now, the site is well below standard.
We hired an outside consultant to fix things but he ended up making things worse. I should have kept a closer tab on progress. We hired a web design company to look at the site and they did a great job – but the plans were left to gather dust when I left and a new comms director appeared on the scene.
[Update: I’ve just noticed all the details of the website redesign have been expunged. See the blog post “Update on website revamp” and note the missing images and broken links to PDFs. I would love to say this is pure coincidence but none of the other posts from that year have suffered the same unusual loss of images and documents. Who knows what to make of that.]
On reflection, what I should have done is created an entirely new site on an entirely new domain with an entirely new team and then pulled information across from the old site. By offering what people want, it would have pulled the rest of the company and the community toward it.
Sometimes you have to work within the system; sometimes you have to step outside it. I made the wrong call and the organization still looks amateurish because of it. (Fortunately the new guy in charge – Chris Gift – has realized that he needs to create tools on the outside that pull in information from inside.)
— Public comment
This should have been the second focus of my attention. It required focused and persistent effort but that effort paid off each time.
I did make a lot of good changes. For instance, at the start, all public comments periods – open and closed – were listed on a huge, long single webpage and were nothing more than a link to a mailing list. No context, no surrounding information, no links to documents. It had been put in place very early on and no one had ever updated it.
I managed to get comment periods broken out into: new, upcoming, recently closed and closed. Each comment period “box” was given a summary, an explanation, a named staff member, and a clear deadline. And after a year of effort, staff finally started writing summaries of comment periods once they were closed. It started becoming possible for people to see what ICANN was working on.
Even so, the whole process still has huge room for improvement and much more could have been done with greater time and persistence. The software was handwritten code and horribly out of date. While trying to move to commercially produced software, I was forced into a compromise of running a trial of different types of potential replacements. And that made it the IT department’s territory; inter-departmental politics reared its ugly head soon after.
In fact, I had already found the best replacement but was pulled into including two others for comparison. One was prohibitively expensive for an organization that opens its comment periods to anyone on the Web and I didn’t recommend it but the large price tag was used as a way to undermine the whole project. The IT department wanted control of the website and played dirty politics to try to get it. It ended up killing a path forward and the organization still suffers with the old system.
— Information and meetings
I spent way too much time trying to make changes to information and meetings.
I had limited-to-no-control over either of them. Requests for additional budget or public participation staff were continually turned down so I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to persuade people to try different things, and then an inordinate amount of time explaining why that was better.
Other departments felt threatened by the effort to take “their” information and make it more accessible. They put up an enormous fight. I had expected resistance and suspicion, but nothing prepared me for being treated like an enemy within. It was out of control and should have been stamped on by senior management. But for many varied reasons, senior management ended up complicit in creating silos – reflecting and strengthening the same approach in the larger ICANN community.
As happened externally, all information was subjected to an overly complicated approval process and so it was very easy to keep sticking wrenches in the gears. And very time consuming to keep pulling them out.
Eventually, after years of trying and failing to get ICANN past its mental block of sharing clearly written material, I took the issue to the Board level. After about a year of effort, an entire policy was approved by the Board – the Document Publication Operational Policy.
It mandated that documents would be provided a decent time before a meeting and each document include a simple summary on the front. Jargon will be minimized and plain language used wherever possible. Now there was something that could be pointed to in making arguments for clearer and timely information.
Except the communications department was the only one truly pushing the effort (for obvious reasons). When we all either left or were fired when the new CEO turned up, the drive behind the policy was lost and the rest of the organization simply ignored it. And continues to ignore it.
It has become just one more document that people have forgotten about. I won the battle and lost the war. If only all that time and energy had been spent elsewhere…
Crossing egos at meetings
And the same is true of meetings. With an overly complex approval process for making any changes, all it takes is one person to say they don’t like something and things return to the status quo. Even when that status quo comprises of 20 people in a room talking to one another from 50 feet away over a booming sound system.
ICANN’s public forum was the one big meeting that I was nominally in charge of. It remains the most poorly designed meeting structure I have ever witnessed and I tried desperately hard to improve it only to see new ideas bent into horrible compromises over a single person’s comment.
What I had wrongly assumed was that people would connect how changes to size, style and format of a meeting contributed to an overall improvement. Except of course, people aren’t there to look at each session as a whole – they each form a personal perspective based solely on their individual experience.
If a format change means that those with the loudest voices, or the most influence, end up quieter – which is exactly what the public forum should achieve – well then, you very quickly find out about it.
As the big set-piece of the entire conference, the public forum plays a huge role in people’s heads and so on their egos. I tried to create the best session for the organization and all the participants. The two approaches were not compatible. It is no surprise then that ICANN continues to suffer the same format and every meeting tries to improve it, and fails.
The key to fixing the public forum is to recognize its importance to people to be seen and heard at a meeting of 1,500 people. Provide that and you can start rearranging the other aspects to actually get something valuable for the hours wasted every Thursday.
Meetings have improved remarkably – most thanks to Nick Tomasso and the team he brought in. Although I did have a significant hand in improving remote participation. That improvement even continued for a while after I left.
So translation and interpretation is the one thing I did manage to achieve. And boy was it difficult. The fact that the entire staff was English speaking (and often only English speaking) meant that any effort to have other languages included was like pushing a rock up a hill.
I firmly believed that the organization’s entire future rested on its ability to break out from the strongly American culture and let other voices in – particularly non-English speakers.
That drive helped get through seemingly endless efforts to kill translation off – everything from crazy approval processes to budget pressures to plain misinformation. It was surreal at times. Every aspect of translation and interpretation was attacked – from the headsets to space in the room, to the quality of translation, to procurement of services. The saving grace was finding and hiring Christina Rodriguez, who worked all the hours god sent and lived in Argentina – thousands of miles away from the politics and backbiting. It was not an accident.
But what was more important ultimately – and a valuable lesson for anyone that is hoping to make significant change within an organization – was that a huge chunk of my efforts went to giving other people credit for their work, letting others work within a broad framework, and putting others in the position to make decisions. The more people that bought into the effort, the harder it became to unravel. When I left, much of what I had introduced was not maintained or resourced but translation had enough people fighting its corner to continue.
Translation and interpretation is still very far from perfect at ICANN. But it has become a part of the organization and so should continue to improve.
So, what are my conclusions of reflecting on three years of hard work?
Less is more. Make your ideas, others’. Change what you can and be smart enough to know what you can’t. Know when to work within the system and when not. Never mess with people’s egos. And come out fighting only when you need to protect something; let the rest be a spectator sport.
If I’d have known all that then, I’d have managed 2 out of 3 instead of 1 out of 5.