Doing the Conventional, Unconventionally | Beth's Blog

Doing the Conventional, Unconventionally


Guest post by Anna Muoio

“Doing the Conventional, Unconventionally”

How Wikimedia tapped into the wisdom of its network of 100,000 global volunteers to write their strategic plan…and why


When Sue Gardner, Wikimedia’s Executive Director set out to draft her organization’s strategic plan, she didn’t do what most ED’s do: select a handpicked and “elite” team and sequester them in a room for a few days to think about the future of the organization and what needed to be done to get there. Instead, she turned to the 100,000 volunteer network of Wikimedians around the world and asked them: Hey, what would you do?


This started a year long (and well funded) effort to “crowdsource” a vision for Wikimedia’s future—a deep and wide think about the challenges and opportunities the Wikimedia movement faced and how they can position themselves to meet them.



(Much more detail outlining the process and the facilitation can be found here: “Wikimedia strategic planning wiki,” Wikimedia is the non profit that operates and manages all Wikimedia projects from Wikipedia to Wikibooks, Wikiversity to Wikispecies.)


In a fishbowl setting in the middle of the breakout room, Eugene Eric Kim, lead facilitator of the strategic planning process from Blue Oxen Associates and Sue, engaged with us all in a far-reaching conversation about the how and why of this effort: More than 1,000 people, speaking 50 different languages from around the world contributed to the process—sending in over 900 proposals outlining ways to deal with both challenges and opportunities. This was on top of the dozens of “expert interviews” conduced by the org, surveys of lapsed editors, conversations conducted around the world (via all different media) as well as commissioning droves of data by Bridgespan to support the effort.


What resulted was a strategic plan that filled 1,470 pages on a wiki and was then edited down to a bite-size, clear and compelling 20 page booklet.


But for all of the incredible thinking, process and facilitation that went into this, what was remarkable was to hear Eugene and Sue admit that this whole thing wasn’t about the WHAT—the plan itself—as much as it was about the HOW. “Most strategic planning processes organize around the plan,” said Sue. “For us, the process is as important as the plan itself. If we wanted to get real buy-in.” Beyond buy-in, another driving goal was to let this process be a way for the community to “hear itself think.” And ultimately, to develop a real (and distributed sense) of WHY the organization will do things going forward.


As Sue offered, on average, only 5% of people in any organization know what their strategic plan is. Essentially there is little understanding about why they’re doing the things they’re doing. After this process, however, 82% of  Wikimedia’s staff (out of a team of 90 people) understand their strategy. Shouldn’t this collective understanding be the real purpose of a plan anyway? And while 90 staff may work for the organization in headquarters, the organization really belongs to the 100,000 volunteers. They need to own the way forward as much as anyone in HQ.


Sue and Eric were refreshingly candid about the personal (mindset) difficulties of engaging in this process. No matter how ok you think you may be with releasing control and opening up a process to a global community—the manna of Wikimedia from the get go–the ambiguity of where they’d end up provoked a significant level of discomfort and anxiety. “I was anxious for a year,” is what Sue said repeatedly.


Whether they got a “better plan” from this process is not clear. But it’s also not really the point. They engaged in a bold experiment of “trusting the talent”—giving people a way to think and engage and create. And ultimately, got a whole lot of people thinking strategically about the future of their movement. So the question really isn’t did they create a better plan. It’s did they create better strategic thinkers who will continue to be the backbone of their organization?

I think the answer is yes.


Anna Muoio

Anna Muoio

Anna Muoio is a consultant with Monitor Institute.


4 Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Anna! I’m especially glad you highlighted the anxiety. Even for a group like Wikimedia, where transparency and openness is engrained in the culture, doing something like this is scary. It’s important not to sugarcoat this if you’re planning on trying something like this. However, I also can’t emphasize enough the benefits of doing it this way. The good news is, there are lots of baby steps that people can take to start exploring this kind of process.

  2. Anna, this is such a critical question: “It’s did they create better strategic thinkers who will continue to be the backbone of their organization?” The first foray into a process like this is naturally “messy” and because it’s so radically different, it needs a different measurement of success. You’ve pinpointed exactly that. Thanks from someone who doesn’t do strategic planning any more but remembers stressful closed door meetings where everyone is struggling to be brilliant and feeling overwhelmed.

  3. Wisely, Wikimedia created a large group of people who shared their insights. Many of the same groups will be listening to the results and be curious to learn how the strategy selected works– a lot more people than if they had kept the circle smaller. How might a smaller nonprofit use the same approach?

  4. One thing I constantly reminded the folks at Wikimedia when we were working on this was that if you get just one person who never otherwise would have had a chance to contribute and who ended up contributing in important ways, that’s a huge win.

    Regardless of the size of the organization, openness and emergence should be the focus over number of participants.

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