Vague consultants and how-to articles are annoying

(cute but angry hulk face)
Image Credit: Mohammad Jobaed Adnan

This post is just a little rant of mine. Partially from my own experience in working with “outside help” and from my own personal fear of how I may come across to others sometimes.

I think it started when I read a link from a follow on Twitter, something about “4 tips for XYZ”, only to find the “tips” so boring and obvious that I am shocked that people get paid to write that sh*t for the web.

So often when “how-to” articles are written for the web, the suggestions sound good, but when they come down to it, are incredibly vague. Things like “a good leader communicates a strong vision” or “paying close attention to colour choices is important when designing your website”. Well, duh. But when it comes down to it, what does “communicating a strong vision” or “paying attention to colour” – when you are sitting down at your desk, or participating in a meeting – actually LOOK like? What do I need to DO? Literally DO.

On a past project I worked on, I had an outside consultant c0-leading the project. She, theoretically, had expertise in an important area of the project at a level much higher than my experience could muster. But when it came down to helping me out, divying up the work, and getting information – I got nothing. When I asked what her role in the project was, I got those annoying vague words that we all joke about when listing words we can throw into a work meeting to sound like we’re saying something important.

“OK,” I exhaled. “But when you’re sitting down at your computer, working on this project, what are you actually doing?”

I got nothing.

On this blog, I try to do one of two things. Either give specific examples of what I mean when I give tips, or I ask big picture questions that I don’t have the answers to but that I’d love to discuss.

Vague blog and web articles, I can deal with. I can tell within a few second that the read is a waste of my time. But consultants, that gets me peeved. Consultants are expensive. Consultants, whether you have to pay for them are not, cost money because they cost you time. More than a few seconds. And some start out sounding intelligent, so you hold on waiting for the moment when their “work” kicks in, only to realize too late that they are costing you way too much money to tell you stuff you could have found through Google on your lunch break.


What’s your experience with vague help? Have you experienced a nonprofit being taken advantage of by one of “those”?

Social movements, institutions and the Millennial generation: synthesis or breakdown?

In my afternoon MBA Leadership class today (prof: Anthony Yue), we watched a 2005 TED talk video featuring Clay Shirky about institutions vs. collaboration. This is really a mindblowing talk, considering social media was in its infancy and collaborative technologies such as Facebook and Twitter were just barely (or not at all) in the public conscious. (Note: Ideas from this post are drawn from classroom discussion).

The main messages of the talk focus on the shift from institutions to collaborative, unmanaged networks. The question is no longer “Is (s)he a good employee” but rather, “Do I want this idea/image/contribution?” Institutions don’t allow us to fully benefit from the valuable contributions of those that would contribute ONE idea. However, collaborative networks such as Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in general allow all contributions to have a chance to be valued.

Collaboration and Social Movements

So let’s say that you, as an individual, want to address an injustice. You want to alleviate poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, you want to protect fragile and rare habitats for species of the Haida Gwaii, you want to draw attention to wage disparity along gender and ethnic lines in the nonprofit sector.

You want to be a part of a social movement. You don’t have any money to build an institution, but you know you could contribute at least ONE idea, and there must be others out there like you.

This is the power of collaboration over the internet. Very little money (or none at all) is required. No institutions are required (save some sort of virtual space to collaborate). Some people may contribute the majority of the ideas, energy and talent, but the contributions from those that just have ONE can still add value.

Recent online activity re: #iranelection or #pman (Moldova) demonstrate the potential upswell of energy that can come from an unmanaged, online network. Granted, the actual impact of these loose networks can be and have been argued, but they still allow for potential valuation of ONE contribution.

Institutions vs. Collaboration and New Infrastructure Synthesis

Our society has recent, but strong history building institutions with hierarchies. Want to organize people? Group people according to task area/project/interest, throw in a manager, and voila – you’ve got yourself organized. Even community organizing can lead to creation of these hierarchies, thus mirroring the same institutions the group is likely organizing against. (Note: Even the phrase ‘community organizing‘ is shout out to institutional responses!)

Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED
Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED

Since we have grown up with hierarchical institutions as models for organizational structure, it’s hard to visualize another model. But this is where social media has come in. The development of technological features such as #hashtags has allowed people with like interests to find each other and organize around ideas outside a traditional institutional model.

Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis of Infrastructure

Credit: Tony Yue
Synthesis of new ways. Credit: Tony Yue

So we have an old way of viewing the organization of people (thesis: hierarchical institutions). Now there’s a new way of looking at things (antithesis: unmanaged cooperative collaboration). We (as a society) are still trying to figure out how to navigate this (synthesis) to produce results. Ivan Boothe’s (@rootwork) recent guest post on Beth Kanter’s blog about how social movements require more than social media provides great insight into the difficulty we find ourselves in.

Millennials and Structure

Now here’s the problem (maybe). The Millennial generation, generally, likes structure. They value authority. They grew up with uber-scheduled lives, their parents have been hyper-involved in their lives. So where do they fit in to this new, collaborative, unmanaged, loosely (if at all) structured infrastructure? One benefit of this new model for Millennials is the collaborative nature. Millennials went through the school system working in teams. But the lack of structure may be a barrier.

I suspect that Millennials will create their own ‘formal’ institutions as a solution. They may use informal, collaborative networks to find their peers, but then shift towards having more structure. Though current institutions may already exist, they don’t offer opportunities that they find meaningful and relevant. Again, Millennials will create their own institutions.


So how will this all play out? What will the new infrastructure facilitating social movements look like? I don’t think we know yet, but Clay Shirky predicts 50 years of chaos before it’s sorted out. If Millennials focus on creating institutions to facilitate social movements that come out of online collaboration – great. However, if these new Millennial institutions draw away from human and financial resources of the current nonprofit and social change sector, the current way of doing things is going to evolve (for a time) into chaos–struggles for sustainability and sector fragmentation will result.

Perhaps the calm out of chaos will come not from organizing people, but organizing institutions. Hierarchical institutions and collaborative, cooperative networks finding each other and working together towards common goals.

I really don’t know. Do you?

<end of murky personal academic musings>