Another Voice in the Wind – Thoughts on Qualities of a Virtual Leader

Photo from SL10B

Over the last few days I've been reading the responses to the departure of Rod Humble, the CEO of Linden Lab – the company that owns and operates Second Life. Here are a few sites where you can find some in-depth and thoughtful discussion.

The Oracle of Pixels on Andromeda, written by William Burns

Rod Humble Leaves Second Life on NALATES' THINGS & STUFF, written by Nalates Urriah

Three in ten: a look back over Rod Humble’s tenure at LL on Living in a Modemworld, written by Inara Pey

An Open Letter to the Lindens on Hypergrid Business, written by Maria Korolov

What struck me in a few of these articles is once again the similarities between local governments and Second Life. In at least the first two of these posts, you could replace "Second Life" with "local agency" and most of the article would still apply. There are also many interesting points and suggestions made in each article related to leadership and management of a community and specifically Second Life's community. The comments in these posts got me thinking about what qualities I believe a good leader of a virtual community should have. So I am adding my own voice to the others now discussing the future of Second Life. The points presented below are merely observations I have made from working about 30 years in and for local government, being a member of the Second Life community since late 2006, and actively reading and listening to opinions, thoughts, and ideas from other Second Life members including those from the articles listed above.

 

1. A community leader needs to be confident enough in their abilities and skills to listen to new or opposing views and ideas

This is one of the suggestions I got out of reading the post written by Will Burns. In it he points out that companies can end up with a leader who does not allow any voices of opposition or criticism. And as you might expect, this can lead to poor decisions, mistakes, and failed ventures. This is exactly what can happen with a city – a poor leader who is put in place through either an election or through appointment who refuses to consider any suggestions or comments that do not agree with their own will eventually prevent their city from innovating and growing at best and at worst will diminish its appeal, stability, and sustainability. In some cities, like in some companies, the population will realize something is amiss and will replace their leadership through an election. Other times, the citizenry is left unaware of the actual cause of the community's decline and the leadership remains in power. While I don't have insight into the type of leadership at Linden Lab that Burns might have, I do agree the best type of leadership for any company or agency is one in which opposing views are not blocked or dismissed with absolutely no consideration.

I've also worked at cities where people like Will Burns regularly challenged us, and he is correct to conclude having someone questioning leadership can help motivate and compel an agency/company to improve as long as the leader is willing to listen. This doesn't mean leadership ends up always doing exactly what is suggested, but more times than not, the challenge forces the agency/company to do a better job at making and thinking through decisions.

Photo from SL10B

2. Advisory committees are helpful

Burns also suggests the establishment of an advisory board. To me this seems similar to the citizen advisory committees or commissions often set up by cities. These often provide needed insight and improvement to operations and policy. But for committees to provide the most value, it is critical that they are created and supported under certain guidance with careful regard for who serves in this capacity. Fortunately it looks like Linden Lab already has the Linden Endowment for the Arts – a working committee model from which they can build. Here are some more specific issues to keep in mind:

Decision makers are not obligated to, nor should they perhaps, always follow the recommendations made by an advisory committee. Yet they need to keep in mind that constantly choosing a path in opposition to a committee's recommendations will devalue the purpose of the committee and can risk alienation of its members. If that is happening, it is many times a sign of disconnect between the leaders and the community and both need to work on finding common ground.

These positions are typically held by volunteers from the community so that the committee members bring a more community-based viewpoint to the table. But consideration needs to be given in choosing these members so they are not those who will only use their position to improve their own interests at the expense of the community.  

Usually more than one committee or board is necessary, and for Second Life with its diverse and unique community needs, this seems even more true to ensure the majority of needs and aspects of the community are addressed. 

Committees and boards are supported in their efforts by the decision makers. If necessary this would include financial support in a manner similar to what is done with the Linden Endowment for the Arts.

Bay City at SL10B

3. The leader needs to be engaged

This is one area in which government typically excels over private business – probably because the leadership in a city is usually placed there by popular vote. And you don't get elected by being a diminuitive wallflower. While many companies can still succeed by ignoring this requirement because of the type of product they sell or service they deliver, a community-based company like Second Life cannot really do so and expect to provide anything more than average service. You can better understand the importance people in Second Life place on the engagement of the leadership at Linden Lab by reading the post by Nalates and Inara. Each discusses communication issues and accomplishments – both top issues upon which a citizenry places great focus and emphasis. Mayors and Village Presidents and other elected officials who understand this end up achieving much for their communities while still maintaining an overall positive reputation within the community. Sure they have some naysayers – after all they realize you aren't going to make everyone happy all the time, but they have somehow managed to figure out the secret sauce in pleasing enough people to make them the popular choice at each election. (This could be related to No. 5 below.)

This probably sounds crazy to most business people, but the critical need for this type of leader when the product involves community services makes me wonder if Linden Lab would do best to choose their next CEO from the pool of those who have served as popular and effective mayors. After all, they understand and have experience with leading and managing a community while effectively handling finances and still delivering projects and meeting needs of citizens. Some might suggest along this line of thought a city manager is better suited. But while a chief administrator of a local government might be able to manage a company, they normally lack the community engagement skills elected officials seem to naturally possess. 

SL10B Photo

4. Leaders need to convey passion and commitment to their community

The other critical skills needed by leaders are the ability to show great passion and belief in their community which is why leaders are best chosen from within. One of the primary reasons for this requirement in a leader is that communities, including Second Life, rely on financial investment and economic stability to succeed. Using a city as an example, if I own a major corporation and am looking for a community in which to build my headquarters or base of operation, which city would I pick?

In Strong City, I meet with the mayor – an outgoing, engaged person who makes me feel welcome throughout my entire visit. As the mayor describes their city and its benefits, I sense a strong passion and love for the place from this person. The mayor shares commitments and efforts made not only by the government, but by the private sector to improve, innovate, and grow the area. There is a care and dedication to the needs, assets, and future of the community and its members. The mayor also describes the involvement and engagement of the members of the community in many different areas. I leave with the idea this is a place that is focused on constant improvement and the needs and involvement of its members.

In Weak City, I meet with the mayor – a quiet person who makes me feel as if there is barely time in their day to accommodate our meeting by avoiding eye contact and glancing at the clock. The mayor's voice lacks concern or regard or passion for the place – instead I receive a canned description of what they can do for me and the requirements I must meet to set up shop there. It is all business with little to no discussion of the sense of place or community. The mayor rarely mentions the population or does so in a dismissive and annoyed manner.

If both places are competing for my investment, I am probably more likely to choose Strong City as the site for my new headquarters. Why would I want to invest in a community where even the leader does not seem to care? A positive leadership approach can also extend to attracting people and visitors to your community – not just businesses.

SL20B Photo

 

5. Leaders need to understand the bell curve concept

I've been meaning to write a whole post about this since over the last year, I've come to discover how much of a key the bell curve is to most things that happen to us. But to sum it up in a short paragraph specifically as it relates to a community, good leaders realize the bell curve can be applied to members of a community – those on the left side represent the negative people in the community. You will never win them to your side so quit trying. Those on the right represent community supporters and fans. There is nothing more you can do to win them to your side – they are already there and will always be the community cheerleaders. The key is with the middle or majority of the population. They can go either way and will based on what they hear and see or sometimes who gets to them first. That is the group upon which you focus your attention and resources. I will add here that when this concept was first presented to me, I thought it at first harsh, but since that time have had it explained to me from several unrelated angles. I now believe understanding the bell curve is a crucial part of managing or running anything, but will save the entire discussion for a full post because it is a fascinating yet potentially scary concept I really want to explore.

Photo from SL10B

Moving Forward

While people have questioned if Philip Rosedale was right for the job, I have always thought he made a good leader for the community because to me he displayed all of the aspects of a good community leader based on the requirements stated above. And while this seemed to be demonstrated somewhat in his reference as "Governor Linden" I wonder if Linden Lab never truly embraced the local government similarities or approach because people in general tend to portray and think of government in a negative light. (In mentioning my respect and admiration for Rosedale, I do not mean to imply I think he should return as CEO – he seems to be pursuing new opportunities, and a good leader understands a healthy cycle of new leadership, as long as it is still of a high quality, ensures the community will benefit from new ideas and energy.)

It is too bad these misconceptions about local government exist in people's minds because if Linden Lab would really look into how much they operate as a local government, they would find numerous resources in the local government sector to help them in their management and understanding of and service to the community. They would also find organizations, associations, and millions of other government employees who do understand exactly what they have on their hands and who would freely share tips and advice on managing it all.

Photo from SL10B


A side note and update on my own meager efforts to offer local government resources

For years I've been writing posts on this site about the parallels I've noticed between Second Life and local governments. So much so that I begin to think people are probably tired of reading about it. Those who aren't in Second Life or haven't visited a virtual world probably can't relate to the comparisons nor imagine how something like a virtual world can possibly function as a true community. As for those who are members of Second Life, I don't think many are local government employees and if they are like most people, at least those in the U.S., they don't pay a lot of attention to exactly how local government works. So the end result has been that I'm not sure I've done very well in convincing people of this overwhelming similarity. But I continue posting articles about this topic because the similarity is so glaringly obvious to anyone who has worked in local government right down to the problems and issues that arise because the company has not adopted good local government management practices.

 

A while back, my frustration built to a point at which I moved forward on the one action I felt I as a member of the community could take which was to initiate and help prepare a comprehensive plan for the community. While this started out well, I was forced to slow down the effort last year about this time when I accepted a job offer from a different government agency. If it had been a move to a similar type position, I don't think I would have had to suspend much of what I had been working on, but my new job involved performing in an entirely different function within a whole new framework. It was and continues to be a tremendous opportunity for me so I've been focusing most of my time and attention on getting up to speed and working hard to maximize the value of my work. Over the last year, I was able to complete a few of the other commitments I had already made prior to taking that job, but they were short and didn't involve as much time and effort as a comprehensive plan for a virtual community. Now, after spending almost a year getting familiar with my new job, I finally feel more comfortable getting back involved in developing the community plan. And with the recent loss of the CEO for the company that runs Second Life, I have even more reason to dedicate the time and effort to complete this project. If you want to follow its progress, you can visit the Virtual Vision 2020 website. A draft of the introduction section of the plan is under review and will be posted there in the near future for community review and comment.

(All photos in this post are from last year's Second Life Birthday Celebration – a community run event)

 
Photo from SL10B
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Edmonton Presents Complete Streets Guidelines

Edmonton will be presenting their Complete Streets Design Guidelines to their council on May 13, 2013. In addition to the Complete Streets document, Edmonton is also introducing the final draft of their Designing New Neighborhoods Guidelines. Both policies complement and support each other.

Major cities like Edmonton have developed guidelines like these to help develop roadways and transportation corridors to better serve users of all modes of travel. Sites like Complete Streets for Canada and National Complete Streets Coalition provide resources for agencies interested in developing and implementing their own Complete Streets policies and guidelines. The map below from the National Complete Streets Coalition illustrates how many cities in the United States have adopted some level of Complete Streets initiative.

A map of cities in Canada with Complete Streets initiatives can be found on the Complete Streets Canada website. And for an example of complete streets guidelines for a city outside of North America, check out the Abu Dhabi Urban Street Design Manual

 

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Modeling a City

Pegasus Global Holdings is planning to build a full-scale city somewhere in New Mexico "to test and evaluate technologies in conditions that most closely simulate real-world applications." According to the project's website, CITE-CITY, the company proposed building the model to overcome challenges related to access, long waits, and costs that they faced in carrying out testing of technologies in actual cities. Last August, Pegasus Global signed a  Memorandum of Understanding with the New Mexico Economic Development Department in which they indicated the model will be built with private funds and create 350 new jobs. The company and State of New Mexico hope to draw vendors, investors, partners, and users from six specific areas of interest: Energy, transmission systems, transport, economic development, resource development, and security.

The company planned to break ground by this summer, but based on a recent article in myDesert.com, the project has been placed on hold due to land acquisition issues. However, it appears development plans for the model community will continue while the company searches for a new location. 

The Frontier Project in Second Life

The use of full-scale models for training and simulation is not a new idea. Many police and fire departments use existing structures for training. And the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) provides emergency response training at Disaster City – a 52-acre full scale "mock community." But not everyone chooses to model cities in the physical world. Increased computing capabilities offer a more efficient and low cost method to run simulations and training. A couple years ago, IBM launched CityOne – an online game people can play to explore how technology can impact cities. And over the last several years, Crista Lopes has been involved in some amazing work involving simulations in a virtual setting. One of her blog posts, Simulating a City, describes a traffic simulation/visualization project she has been working on. There are also many other examples of virtual simulations throughout Second Life and other 3D immersive worlds. The image in this post is a photo of a simulation of a stormwater collection and groundwater recharge facility that was built in Second Life.

Because of the tremendous cost of building physical models (in the case of the Pegasus Global project costs have been reported anywhere from $200 million to $1 billion) it would be interesting to see a study comparing the benefits, costs, and effectiveness of both physical and virtual simulations. And based on that type of study, a guideline could be developed to assist people in choosing the best, most economical, and efficient model for their purpose.

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SL9B and Community Planning

SL9B

This month, the community in Second Life celebrates its 9th birthday, otherwise known as SL9B. This seems to be the first year that the celebration is not sponsored or hosted by Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life. Instead, this year, Linden Lab announced the theme of the birthday would be community and that the community should host their own individual celebrations. The reaction from many people at first seemed to be disappointment, but it quickly changed over to a determined effort to put together a central location similar to what was done in the past. This was thanks to the efforts of a group of organizers and sponsors who donated space and time and talent to get the land set up for the event and a website to support the activities. They quickly put out a call for exhibitors and volunteers that has been answered by hundreds of people. This is one of the many aspects of Second Life that fascinates and captures me – the ability of the people there to get something done in an organized and collaborative and efficient and quick manner. If only we had this capability in our offline communities.

Anyway, I had not participated in a Second Life birthday since I think SL5B. And I wasn't sure about participating this year until I saw how the community pulled together to organize this event and really thought about the community theme and where I might fit into all that. It seemed the perfect time to begin putting together a community plan!

If you've read my previous posts on this, you're probably aware I have thought for some time a community plan is exactly what we need at this point in our development. Normally in an offline community, this process would be started by city planners. But there's no virtual planners on staff at Linden Lab so there's no one to reach out and suggest we start the process. Over the last few months, I talked about the idea with some other members of Second Life who also thought it would be worthwhile. But I don't think any of us were sure it could be done without their involvement. 

But after watching SL9B unfold, I thought, if we can have our own birthday celebration, why can't we create our own plan? Something else that inspired and convinced me to apply and volunteer was a set of videos created by Crap Mariner. Dressed as "Death" he put together a series of videos to promote SL9B and explain what was going on. Glossing over these, someone might at first dismiss them as goofy fun, but I would encourage people to really watch them and think about their message. What he has accomplished with these deserves a whole other blog post by someone who is more adept at analyzing motivation, marketing, and promotion. Here's one of the first videos (so far he has created 18 videos):

Anyway, I ended up applying to exhibit and fortunately was accepted! Basically the community plan exhibit, which is named Virtual Vision 2020, explains and promotes the idea and development of a community plan for Second Life. I'm hoping people will stop by to share their thoughts and ideas about the community, where they'd like to see it go, and how they think we can get there. There's also a website set up to support development of the plan and to offer a place where people can leave feedback: Virtual Vision 2020 

I am also hoping that a friend of mine, Vanish Firecaster, will add more information to the exhibit that will help people explore what it means to be a citizen of a virtual world. He recently posted, World of Democracycraft, highlighting an essay by Cory Doctorow: "Why Online Games are Dictatorships." If you are a member of Second Life or any other virtual community, I'd suggest checking it out.

SL9B will be open from June 18-27. Make sure you stop by to visit the Virtual Vision 2020 Exhibit, share your thoughts and ideas, pick up a mini Avatar Birthday Fountain, or just say hi! And be sure to thank the sponsors and organizers – they have put together an amazing event!

SL9B Exhibit

 

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The Time for a Comprehensive Plan for Second Life is Now!?

Today I read a great article about digital citizenship, Digital Citizenship and the Forward Edge Transference, written by Mike Langlois, LICSW. In his post, Langlois discusses many similarities between online and offline behavior. This was interesting to me because as a local government employee, I've also recognized many similarities between offline communities and online spaces. But my focus usually tends to be more on how the community functions as a whole. Langlois is in the psychotherapy and social work fields, so his perspective seems to be more targeted at the individual and interpersonal level. But both of our observations meet at the same very important point in all this – people are viewing, approaching, and behaving in these online spaces as though they are in an actual place. They rely on and feel loyalty and obligation to the digital space where they hang out, and this sense of responsibility extends to the people there with whom they interact.

The significance of these observations to offline and online governance should not be underestimated. It will eventually have major impacts as digital populations increase. One example is the current sign of unrest among the population of the virtual world of Second Life. If this were occurring in an offline community, the solution would be to develop a comprehensive plan. And if we acknowlege that people in a digital space are behaving as they would in an offline space, there is no reason to believe we should not apply this same solution to Second Life. If we do not, past experience in the offline world has proven we risk diminishing the success of our community.

While a comprehensive plan is not a cure-all, the practice of going through it and the final document can go a long way in helping move a community forward. These plans are viewed by professionals to be so important that grants are commonly offered to help fund their development. Unfortunately at this time, grant providers have not yet come to the same awareness as some of us that digitial spaces also need these plans. So moving forward on a plan for a virtual community would have to be self-funded or be developed through volunteer efforts. 

Another challenge in developing a comprehensive plan for a virtual space like Second Life is that there are no models to follow. But due to the similarities between online and offline spaces, I believe it would not be too difficult to modify a typical plan to meet the needs of a virtual one. Because I feel so strongly about this, I went ahead and developed a proposal for implementing the comprehensive planning process in Second Life. And I went so far as to have it peer reviewed by an experienced planner. Then feeling confident it offered a well-thought out approach and reasonable solution, I emailed it to Rod Humble. Of course, in the back of my mind, I didn't really expect a response and never received one. I just don't think a private company wants to believe they have anything in common with government. And many private managers or CEOs probably aren't very familiar with how local government actually works and why.

The problem with Linden Lab not choosing to at least consider this solution is that in an offline space, I don't think development of a comprehensive plan is usually undertaken without the "city" being involved. So I am not sure if it would be possible or worthwhile to attempt this without the involvement of Linden Lab. But I do believe this type of exercise and plan would help  address many of the current concerns in that particular virtual world. And I think some group needs to provide the lead that many online communities might eventually have to follow. So I decided to post the proposal here and ask if anyone in the Second Life community sees value in this or believes it would be worth the time and effort or even a discussion or if it is even possible to implement on our own. If not, I suppose it will eventually be another online company that in the future forges this path.

Second Life Comprehensive Plan Proposal 2012

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