Heyyy so there was a pretty big announcement: the OTW Board will be expanded to 9 people and the bylaws amended. In case it is not immediately obvious from the length: yes, I had my hands all over this post, with a base outline provided by excellent Elections Officer [personal profile] jennyst and revisions and input from Board, the Elections Workgroup, and Comms. (I also did the graphics; it was a nightmare.)

So there's a lot going on here. I was Elections Officer last term, so I have a pretty keen interest in elections goings-on. I never really posted about my election works much: near the start of elections, I went on leave for a family illness, during elections it was necessary for me to remain neutral (which was simplest by staying quiet), and afterwards, I was, frankly, too exhausted and demoralized. Until recently, I was also too sick. Basically I have a backlog of elections feels thoughts.

The things I want to cover include:
  • What are you thinking with this adding seats business?

  • How did we get into this mess with the seats?

  • What happened last year?

  • How will elections work this year?

But then I realized this would be very tl;dr. I do know I have a problem. So I'm saving the last three items for later; today is going to be all about:



Adding Board Seats, Burnout, and Taking Care of Our People



Just to be clear from the start, the idea of adding Board seats does not spring solely from a need to fix the elections issue. (This is another reason I want to cover the more electiony stuff separately: it is a separate issue.) As the OTW news post linked above demonstrates, it certainly helps. But the Board does honestly struggle with workload in ways that would be ameliorated by being able to spread the work around a little. Our committees are growing; the number of committees is growing; the number, reach, and scope of our projects are growing — and that's all awesome, but it's also simply too much for seven people to cover.

However! Not all of the workload stems from this. A large part of Board's problem is that we are currently still too involved in micromanagement and/or management on a level that causes conflicts of interest. As an example, when some kind of staffing or work gap appears (say, due to a sudden retirement), we often feel like we have to be the ones to step up, either first or as backup. And in the case of filling chair positions, I think it also creates conflicts of interest. We do not do this to hog positions or work, but because we often feel like there is no one else — we are some of the most experienced people in the org with a wide range of skills. But this also gives short shrift to everyone else in the org and robs people of opportunities to grow.

There's not really a simple answer like "well Board should just stop filling these gaps themselves". A lot of the time these positions are pretty key and there is work that needs to be done urgently: we don't have time to wait for someone to train up or to recruit someone. The real issue here is a lack of personnel management and succession planning, not just for chairs — something we've been keenly aware of this year — but for key positions at every level. If we were consistently training people up and had a framework in place whereby anyone doing load-bearing work had an understudy, we wouldn't be having this problem. But one huge obstacle is that the org is collectively often too busy doing its project-based work to also do its people-based work (ETA 01): we're too busy building our projects to also build the builders. And I think that's a real loss and a true tragedy in terms of the org culture. Given the way things are, I'm not sure there is a solution besides just slowing down on projects for a while in order to build up our people. That's a hard thing to accept, both for us and, I think, for our audience: why should the users and beneficiaries of our various projects have to wait because we can't manage to keep our house in order? However, I am, have been, and am increasingly of the opinion that this is what we will have to do.

[ETA 01]: After reading [personal profile] bookshop's comment, I think this (from my response to her) would be a more precise and accurate statement: The org is collectively more concerned with producing popular and/or acceptable output (often in the form of projects) than with doing the personnel support and management necessary to make that work happen in a healthy way. Apologies for the suboptimal initial wording! [/ETA]

And it's not fair. I know it's not fair. It's not fair to our staff and volunteers, who do this work because they love it and believe in it. It's not fair to our audience, who have to wait on things that matter to them. It's not fair because in the end, we collectively screwed up and now everyone, whether part of the problem or not, has to pay for it. We made a collection of mistakes that put us in this position. There is no one person or group of people to blame; the issue is too endemic.

But the status quo, letting it continue— I think that would be even more unfair. It undermines our work. It undermines our people. People leave the org feeling sick and used. Even if people simply leave feeling tired and nothing more, their legacy is tarnished by our poor ability to preserve it: the work they left suffers from the lack of structure, because the people left to continue it don't have enough support, in one way or another, to do the work proud.

Our Volunteers & Recruiting committee does not have the resources right now to handle a huge influx of people at any level, from volunteers to high-up staff, though I know they are working their asses off to strengthen the personnel management aspects of the org (read [personal profile] renay's posts; she is Volcom chair and does mind-boggling amounts of work). But even if Volcom could handle an influx, the rest of the org, for the most part, still can't: almost everyone is already overwhelmed by project-based work, way too much to do the mentoring and nurturing necessary to handle incoming volunteers. This is one huge reason behind the endemic burnout: there's no one there to catch you.

We cannot afford to keep growing our projects without growing our people.

So what does this have to do with increasing the number of Board seats? I mean, reducing Board workload is nice, but — given everything else — so what?

I think an increase in Board seats has to be part and parcel of a movement to decrease Board micromanagement and increase Board's role in (temporarily) slowing down project growth while focusing instead of growing the core of the org: its people. Resource allocation is our call and our calling. And we need more resources in our people. Yesterday. We need Board members who can focus solely on this tremendous task, on shaping us into a more reasonable, professional space. With the number of directors we have now, we simply cannot do that.

Increasing the number of seats does not come without a cost. It'll be harder for us to meet, and all the other possible communication problems that come with any increase in number of people with their hands in the pot. If we're serious about decreasing the trend in Board members also filling other key org positions — and from Board discussions throughout the term, this is the direction we're headed — this means that whoever we draw into Board will leave behind gaps, the very problem we're already having.

But the change has to start somewhere, and I think there is no way around the need for slowdown. Slowdown would make the gaps in coverage a little less dire, as the work will perforce be less urgent. There's no way around the fact that it will still suck. If there is a pain-free solution to this problem, I cannot think of it. The pain is already here. It already hurts. If we do this, it will at least be pain that's paid towards something other than perpetuating the same system we already have.

The bottom line, for me, is this: We need this increase because we are failing our people right now. Board needs these resources so that we, in turn, can give the rest of the org the resources it needs.

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ira_gladkova

September 2012

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