Become an Altruistic Mischief-Maker
by Jason Schneider – www.civicpossible.com
Original post – https://magazine.thestriveproject.com/issue/jan-mar-2023/become-an-altruistic-mischief-maker/
While being heavily reprimanded by my department head, my internal voice reminded me that I did good work, even if getting in trouble was the result. An organization’s immune system will fight like hell to protect the way it operates, even if that hinders achieving its stated goals or vision. This isn’t the first time I’ve been singled out as the cause of friction because I identified and solved a problem outside of traditional channels. It won’t be the last. Accept it. Learn from it.
I’ve experienced this type of tension my entire life, and until recently I thought it was a bug in the way I operated. Only in the last few years have I realized it’s a feature that I have to offer. I can now look back to see a throughline of positive outcomes despite the reactions I’ve experienced. As a mentor told me years ago, “There is such a thing as good trouble.” In learning to embrace what some might call my quirky skill set of challenging the status quo in short periods within various roles, I finally found a title that feels right: Altruistic Mischief-Maker.
By coming to terms with this role, regardless of my formal position, title, job description, or project’s scope of work, I’ve come across a few insights worth sharing with those who have found themselves in similar challenging scenarios. These core lessons are that informal structures matter the most, pain and damage are not the same, and self-reflection is valuable.
Lessons from the Past
In 2021, a fire ripped through the North Santiam canyon in Oregon. It burned 400,000 acres and 1,500 structures and killed five people. It grew from a few hundred acres to more than 200,000 in a matter of hours and was one of the most destructive fires in Oregon’s history.
Rebuilding from a disaster is as complex as the fire is tragic. The immediate scenario required an all-hands-on-deck crisis response. At the time I was the economic development manager for Marion County, but my job description and labor laws were on hold while I spent twenty-hour hours at the fairgrounds setting up and caring for evacuated animals. After the initial response, volunteers from neighboring cities were pulled in, allowing me to focus on my regular duties, but what does that look like when 25 percent of the cities you support just burned?
Understandably, all chains of command, traditional communication channels, and routines broke down as leadership focused on caring for a few thousand evacuees and putting out the fire. But what about the rebuilding process? Where does that fall? Who’s responsibility is it? And, when do we start the work? Leaving messages for my department head, who disappeared for two weeks in crisis response, I took on the work of preparing for recovery.
I called a meeting and invited more than fifty people representing each county, city, and state department that in some way dealt with permits, inspections, and infrastructure. I started the meeting with one question: in your role, what are your biggest concerns for the rebuilding process? In a three-hour conversation, we identified six pages of bullet points to address and built relationships that hadn’t existed previously that would prove vital to the rebuilding effort.
Government systems are challenging to begin with without crises, and our situation was more complicated because the five cities affected by the fire spanned a county border. The same border was a dividing line for state department representation. Bureaucracy is a challenge at the best of times, and this scenario is a perfect storm of complications creating a quagmire for any resident or property owner to rebuild.
Together, we produced a report for our respective elected officials and executives that went where most reports go: on the proverbial shelf. As for the real work, we continued to meet weekly to coordinate efforts across silos and across organizations untangling as much red tape as possible. Besides the new relationships and communication channels, the best thing to come out of it was a public-facing map that would allow every resident and property owner to easily learn where their property was in the multi-stage federal and state clean-up process, what assistance they had access to based on federal and state assessments, and most importantly, their pathway to rebuilding through the multi-layered bureaucracy. One resource, built collaboratively by all entities to be embedded in each entity’s website. In my fifteen years in government, it’s the most user-friendly tool I’ve ever seen.
Fear Stymies Change
The day before the map went public, it was squashed by leadership. Not only squashed, but the work had to be erased so it could not be rebuilt, and all staff from Marion County (my organization) were barred from attending any further coordinating meetings. The reasons given were that the coordinating meetings were operating outside of the chain of command, and the map was sharing proprietary information.
The map only made publicly available information easily navigable. And each participant did work within their job descriptions and with the permission of their supervisor. The ideation and solutions came from nontraditional cooperation and open communication across traditional silos and organizations. I wasn’t in the chain of command for anyone on the call. My role? Facilitator, catalyst, or fall guy depending on one’s point of view.
Not only was I in a lot of trouble, ultimately leading to me leaving the position, but the residents impacted by the fire were never able to access a tool that would have helped them navigate a rebuilding process. Regardless of the unfortunate outcomes, there were some key successes: those that attended the meetings built relationships and collaboration skills that have far outlived the ill-fated project to help not only with the recovery process but all future work. The dividends of these successes are not immediately measurable; they pay out over the years of work each participant will engage in over their career.
The internal challenge we altruistic mischief-makers face is focusing on the right goal and the right ways of understanding our impact. Often the important things are bigger, deeper, and more fundamental in terms of social change than any specific job or project requires. Society, and the way we operate, face an urgency to rethink the way we work together to meet rapidly evolving needs. It requires more collaboration, creativity, and agility than tradition is ready to accept. This type of work will often generate a lot of friction that we must learn to manage.
Color Outside the Lines
Circumstances and scenarios will differ, but there are common throughlines of challenging traditional roles, leaning into new collaborative efforts, and seeing discomfort as an opportunity to learn.
- The informal structures matter the most.
Meaningful change doesn’t come from mission, vision, or values. It can’t be directed by leadership, put into a job description, or assigned to a team. It comes from a shift in the way participants feel, work, and relate to one another. This type of change doesn’t come from formal or traditional structures. While there may be a formula for doing this, it would only be a superficial explanation of the deeper phenomenon of listening deeply and nurturing the latent desire and capacity of people you are working with. Change that, and everything else will shift.
- Pain and damage are not the same.
Pain is a signal. Damage is real. While they are often connected, they do not have to be. We can learn to discern between the two with deliberate attention and practice. Every athlete pushing themselves understands this challenge. I’m not saying to ignore pain, but learn to discern between pain and damage so that you can walk the line between them when needed. This is important because change will create discomfort, often crossing into pain, and it takes practice and discernment to walk that line even when others are uncomfortable. This is true for organizations and oneself.
- Self-reflection is valuable.
Embracing and encouraging systemic change will be ambiguous, precarious, and painful. This brings up strong emotions for everyone involved, and those emotions often get aimed at the perceived source of friction. Self-reflection is essential to evaluate the cost-benefit of the change versus the discomfort in a compassionate way. Self-reflection is also important to keep questioning yourself to avoid getting caught up in self-righteousness supported by your own confirmation bias. When emotions are high, it’s critical to use as many tools as you can to maintain your bearings and adjust your course as needed.
When I started writing this article, my intent was to focus on the tangible work of making structural shifts to meet society’s exponentially evolving needs. However, once I started writing, I kept returning to the root of change: oneself. We face many challenges in our work as change makers, but little of it will be lasting unless we learn to change ourselves, then help others learn how to navigate this change for themselves. I spent two decades feeling the failure before I started seeing the throughline of successes in my work. I share it here in hopes of helping others caught in the hard feelings of making change, so they can navigate their way to seeing and valuing their own skill set and use it to make the world a bit better.
Jason Schneider is an altruistic mischief-maker, hell-bent on helping communities and organizations become more collaborative and agile in meeting rapidly changing demands. He’s facilitated meaningful change in a broad range of roles throughout two decades, including as a Marquette city councilor, Alaska’s innovation officer, Marion County’s economic development manager, executive director of the Marquette Chamber of Commerce, and business/organizational coach in Michigan, Tonga, Vietnam, and Australia. Through these experiences, he’s developed a deep curiosity and skill set around civic ecosystems and a passion not only for sharing these lessons but also for helping others create meaningful change.