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Meet them where they are, not where you want them to be.

With all apologies to Heinlein, being a Californian in summertime Manhattan is sort of like being a stranger in a strange land.  The heat doesn’t slow the pace everyone is fast-walking and fast-talking, all in high humidity.  It’s loud, chaotic and messy.  It’s also vibrant, beautiful and liberating.  I was in NYC June 13-19 to represent the Community Building Team at the Content Services Work Week. We were between twenty forty people in 1,000 square feet of co-working space that had a broken air conditioner.  It should have been terrible, it was the opposite.

Darren Herman and LaraFischer-Zernin made the week amazing.  The agenda showcased the projects the Team is trying out, worked collaboratively to surface new ideas, and managed to educate us about the shadowy world of online advertising without once lecturing anyone in the room.  I was impressed with the intelligence and passion of the team.  Darren clearly put deep thought into the design of work week.   He understands that people need to be brought along, not dictated to.   He and Lara did everything they could  make us welcome, comfortable and help us learn.

Despite Jishnu's expression, the ice cream really helped us stay cool.

Despite Jishnu’s expression, the ice cream really helped us stay cool.

They made New York manageable so that we could see the vibrant, the beautiful and the liberating.  They made the content manageable, so we could see past the fear of ads and understand the possibilities for disruption.  Content Services is a small but mighty team, and I’m excited to help them begin to build an open source community around their work.

I was also nervous.  The Content Services team had some rocky press when they started sharing their work, and the online advertising world is the antithesis of everything “open”. I  attended to help them take the first steps in working in the open.  Watching Darren understand the needs to his team, work tirelessly to make sure we were comfortable, and keep everyone focused, I saw a model of service leadership that helped allay my nerves.

I’ve felt like a stranger in a strange land before.  It happened the first time I had a large-scale interaction with the community a few years ago.  I realized that everything that I knew was wrong, and that I just didn’t get it.  I was lucky enough to have a tour guide in David Boswell,  so my journey to learning why we do what we do was pretty painless.   I joined David’s team to provide that same experience to others.   The Community Building Team is here to help Mozilla work effectively with the community at scale.  For groups like the Content Services Team that means we’re there to help members on the team learn about Open Source, and connect to the idea of why people do this.   We cannot assume that newer team members will just magically “get it”.

In designing my one-hour session for the team, I focused on the idea that much of the team was in a brand new culture  with a ton of expectations but limited explanations.  I knew that I couldn’t lecture them.  I had to get them to understand the why, and they had to connect with that on personal level, not just because it was their job.

I got the room warmed up by playing a game called Fortunately/Unfortunately, which is designed as a fun way to get people to share possibilities and concerns without pressuring them.   We moved to some discussion about why the team might want to work with a community.   Dia Bondi made me a funny video showcasing her first community experience at scale.

When people started to see the benefits of working in an open way with a global community,  I sent them off to be creative.  If my presentation was working they would start to create lists of opportunities where they could encourage the community to engage.

This team had a lot of ideas, and enthusiasm.

This team had a lot of ideas, and enthusiasm.

Group Brainstorm

Luckily, it was working.  They came back full of ideas and created a six page list of possibilities for opening the work up!

My strategy was this: meet them where they are, not where you want them to be .  We all started in Open Source at some point.  Not a single person working within the project at Mozilla was born knowing how to work the way we do.   We forget that, the same way New Yorkers expect everyone to walk and talk fast and woe to the person lost on the sidewalk.  When you have someone showing you where to go, and how to do it, things are better.  That was true as Darren made New York fun.  It was true for me when David patiently helped me learn.   I hope it will continue to be true for Content Services as I partner with them.

Excerpts from Darren:

“I honestly did not know what to expect with your presentation.  I didn’t think it was going to bomb, but I didn’t know how “good” it could be – also wasn’t sure how receptive most of the room was going to be towards community…

I heard some very positive feedback from the attendees.  They enjoyed the stimulation, the exercise and your energy…

What am I excited about as result of the session?

Three things:

1.  Knowing that someone like you exists in the org – not just Dia 🙂  Full of energy.

2.  Our entire team now has a baseline understanding of community.  Not all are experts, and neither am I , but we at least all heard the same thing at the same time… so the baseline is there.

3.  The opportunity of having community members help us in our quest towards building a great group within Mozilla…. now exactly what those community members do, say, act, participate, I’m not 100% sure… but we’ll get there.”

What’s Next?

I plan to spend July teaching them some basic concepts of openness.  We are going to work on active transparency, communication channels, the language of Mozilla and open planning.  Each week, starting July 7th the whole team will receive a short article on one of the above concepts to read then I’ll hold an open call at the end of each week where we discuss how to implement the concept in their work.

I cannot do this alone, I am looking for some people who want to act as community mentors for the group to attend the open calls and help the team design for future participation.   We will all be stronger and better from more perspective.  You can always connect with me directly, my contact info is on  Reach out if you are interested.

Once that is done we can start piloting a few areas of participation in the projects as they get off the ground.  The best part of working with this team is that it is all new, so contributors to this part of the project will be able to make an impact immediately.  I’ll be back in this space with open calls for participation.

Are you interested in learning more about the Community Building Team?

The Community Building Team is here to help! Contact us at  We are here to support your work and your team, from nascent groups like this, through the work of scale and transformation that can happen with some our more established communities.


2 comments on “Meet them where they are, not where you want them to be.”

  1. Sean Bolton wrote on

    I really like this post Michelle!
    I think “meet them where they are, not where you want them to be” is going to be a guiding light for the Community Building Team moving forward and it’s also how I’ve been approaching my work before reading this so it’s nice to know others see the same 🙂
    Some of the research I did around other community organizations also spoke of a similar ‘help people do what they want to do not what you want them to do’ philosophy so I think there is still more exciting stuff to discover here!

  2. Amanda Rogers wrote on

    Hi Michelle,
    The first time I used the phrase “meet him where he is and not where you want him to be.” was in reference to my then 7 year old son who has Aspergers. Interesting then that It has become my mantra for all people. Really, where else can people hear what you have to say?
    We all need to be met where we are and brought along to see a new POV or learn a new way of doing our jobs.
    I really liked your post, I’m new as the Community Builder at 7CTOs, in fact, I thought they made the title up… apparently not!
    What is the Fortunately/Unfortunately Game?
    All my Best,