An agile community strategy — or how to use OKRs to say no and stay focused

In the first of our series of posts by the 2019 Community Engagement Fellowship cohort, Naomi Penfold walks us through her strategy for prioritizing her workflow and staying focused. As Associate Director of ASAPbio, Naomi is leading activities to engage the research community around the use of preprints for biology. She cares about improving transparency and inclusion in processes that affect how scientists do their work, from the evaluation of manuscripts to the design of everyday tools.

You look at your week ahead, and see a calendar jam-packed with meetings and not enough time to respond to community requests or even start to deal with your inbox. Some of these interruptions will be exciting opportunities, but will they help you stay focused on your current goals for the community? Will you ever be able to leave your desk and go home? Despite our best efforts to stay organised and in control, I suspect we all end up feeling overwhelmed at times, especially when community management requires you to be there for people and be reactive in the moment as well as keep the ball rolling with long-term projects and general community programming.

If this resonates, you’re not alone: 32% community managers reported ‘prioritizing number of tasks to do’ as the greatest challenge in their role in AAAS’s survey in 2016. Clearly something has to give, but who do you prioritise and why? How do you know which tasks are most likely to contribute to your overall mission? How can you say no and avoid becoming overwhelmed? In this post, I describe a method I’m trying to outline, use, and evaluate a community-based strategy. This method has helped me to say no and stay focused before, and now I’m trying to combine it with what we are learning about community strategy through the Community Engagement Fellowship Program.

Lay out your objectives to keep your community on track. Photo by Pille Kirsi from Pexels.
Lay out your objectives to keep your community on track. Photo by Pille Kirsi from Pexels.

When designing a strategy, I ask:

  1. What is the world we wish to see? What are we trying to achieve? Why? This is big picture thinking that should lead to your organisation’s or community’s vision and mission.
  2. How, who (with and for whom) and when (on what timescale)? These questions will define the overarching method you use to get to your big-picture vision, or your strategy.
  3. If your vision is your destination, and strategy is the road you’re taking to get there, what will help you move along this road? Which vehicle, how will you acquire it and how will you keep it running? A small number of goals that underpin your mission and strategy are your objectives.
  4. What does success look like for these objectives? Can you express success as a set of key results that are SMART? (SMART to me means Sensible, Measurable, Achievable (but still challenging), Realistic and Time-bound, but there are variants on this.)
  5. And finally, which are the activities and tasks — or programming, content and engagement mechanisms — that might help you achieve these key results, and in which order do you need to do them? This last step can help you align your short-term work with objectives (and say no) and then evaluate whether this has worked (has your key result become a reality?).

Drafting a community-based strategy for a halo organisation

At ASAPbio, our mission is to encourage the productive use of preprinting in biology. Our vision is a world in which dissemination, evaluation and curation of the latest life and biomedical science are individual, timely and transparent steps in a process, which requires a move away from the current single-step, often lengthy and opaque process of journal publication. Our community-based strategy is to support researchers to spark conversations with their peers about preprinting in order to raise awareness, identify and work to resolve any concerns, and ultimately increase adoption. The who are preprint-supportive researchers and their peers; the how is through conversations. The when is harder to define: for context, we’re working with a three-year grant right now and we aim to see a five-fold increase in preprinting (to 7.5% biomedical publications being preprinted) in that time.

So how can we support researchers to spark conversations with their peers that demonstrably leads to greater adoption of preprinting? Through a series of community member interviews, I’ve identified some common needs and realities:

  • Community members want to have effective conversations within their own contexts: this means we need to learn which methods of conversation and facilitation work best for each, as well as which information is engaging and useful for a particular audience, and how to measure whether these conversations lead to adoption.
  • The group is not homogeneous: community members differ in job role and position(s) of power, in research field and their community’s level of awareness of preprinting, and in regional and national context of research funding and evaluation. They need to know what would be the best tactic for them in their situation and with their opportunities and constraints.
  • Community members already have limited time and energy: the community members do not want these activities, which are in addition to full-time research, to cost an unnecessary amount of time, energy, or other resource. They need clarity in expectations, reminders about resources, and easy access to information and opportunities, via their preferred medium without having to engage on Slack.

This research led me to draft the following objectives around which to frame my work:

  1. Any community member is supported to spark effective conversations about preprinting — i.e. the program is adaptive and valuable to community members
  2. The community is diverse, inclusive, safe, welcoming and productive — i.e. the program is sustainable and useful across multiple contexts
  3. Managing the community is resource-efficient — i.e. the program is scalable (don’t forget to consider how you can help yourself as community manager to do your job well without asking too much of yourself!)

Putting it into practice

Now I can use these objectives when prioritising my day-to-day work.

“With any task, you should be able to answer — is this contributing to our mission, and how?” — Joe Hand

I highly recommend incorporating long-term strategy planning into your daily thinking (and avoid it gathering dust) by asking: how does this task align with my objectives? If it doesn’t move you towards those agreed objectives, can you scrap it, modify it or, if it has to happen, delegate it to someone else whose objectives it does align with? Even when an opportunity is aligned with one or more objectives, it might be one to pass on: following Serah Rono’s call to “empower community members”, I try to ask “do I bring value to this myself? Is there another community member who would be better for this? Could I support this in a different way?”

Next, as well as learning to say no to deviations from these objectives, I’m planning my short-term work towards achieving them: what are the key results I’d like to see in three to six months? What do I need to do to achieve these results?

For example, for the third objective, one key (and SMART) result I’ve drafted is “in six months’ time, it takes me [as community manager] less than 10 minutes to identify existing community members relevant to connect to new community members”. I know a key value of the community is in learning from each other within and across specific contexts. But when a community member asks me “are there any other ecologists in the group?”, I can’t quickly find them the answer because I don’t have the right information what I do know isn’t organised for quick retrieval. So I can’t currently fulfil these requests efficiently or at scale. Formulating this key result highlights some important tasks ahead, including a consent process for sharing contact information and storing personal information, a tool that makes it easy for me to securely store and quickly retrieve member information (e.g. a spreadsheet or a CRM), and a survey or other method to collect missing but relevant information. In six months time, I can measure whether I can and how long it takes me to find community members to connect to each other: can I declare victory on this key result? Has it made my work more efficient and scalable? You might note that improving how I connect the community members would also contribute to the other objectives.

Staying on track

As a one-person community management lead, I’m trying to find ways to achieve several key results with a single activity or series of programming. I’ve just started a monthly newsletter through which to provide a reminder of resources and opportunities, a digest of activity for members not on Slack, and a means to showcase member activities that are in line with our shared vision. As well as supporting community members in their activities, I plan to use it as a monthly record of community activity and a dipstick for measuring the level of community engagement: How much content is about shared learning (the unique value this community provides)? How many members are interacting with the content (and who is this not reaching)? What kinds of interactions and what does this tell me about the state of the community (are they early-stage ‘likes’ or mature-stage ‘open-ended exploration’)?

Once I’ve drafted this strategy, I can share it with the community (what have I missed? Does this resonate?) and with key stakeholders and funders (do they see the value in a community-based strategy?) and iterate.

In the longer term, I’ll ask: have these objectives supported the overall mission? And how? What have I learned that helps refine or replace objectives for the next phase? If an objective remains the same a year on, which are the key results to focus on now? For example, as the group I support moves closer to functioning as a community, a next step for connecting members might be to remove myself as a central node and provide a way for community members to maintain their own profile information and look each other up.

This is only one way to prioritise and evaluate your work: this CMX blogpost outlines several more questions you can ask yourself and methods you can apply. So, over to you, how do you clarify your objectives? What framework(s) do you use when prioritising work? How do you measure success and spot when to declare victory and when to change tack?

Resources

Here’s a template for the process I describe above. This template and my thinking draws heavily from the following resources:

  • I learned how to go from big mission to small task using Asana’s pyramid of clarity — this is one framework for designing ‘Objectives and Key Results’, a well-trodden organisational activity.
  • Danielle Robinson and Joe Hand, Code for Science and Society, first introduced me to the pyramid of clarity (above) and Joe has written about applying this framework to mission-driven community organisations in order to align your work with your values and mission.
  • Blueprint for Revolution by Srdja Popovic and Matthew Miller taught me principles of non-violent campaign strategy, including inverse sequence planning (look ahead and work backwards from there).
  • Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown gave me a framework to think about supporting a community instead of directing one.

Anna Hatch has inspired me to find ways to target several objectives at once with one pillar of programming: I think the interview/Q&A webinars she runs for DORA are a fine example of using programming to learn what the community is up to, share this with others, and encourage discussion around it as well as increase awareness of the program in general and track engagement.

2 thoughts on “An agile community strategy — or how to use OKRs to say no and stay focused

  1. Thanks Naomi. I’ve been testing the waters about a big project I’m hoping to take on soon. These are all very helpful tools as I think through how to get from mission to project!

    1. Hi Camille,
      I’m pleased to hear this might be useful for you too! I’d love to know how you use (or don’t use e.g. deviate or tweak) the above process. Good luck with breaking the big picture into achievable tasks!!
      Best,
      Naomi

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