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We chatted with author Scott Allen about the responsibilities of networkers; balancing the needs of individual members of online communities with the needs of the community as a whole; and what's wrong with the Elevator Speech

Scott Allen on “Shifting the Burden”

I had seen several of Scott’s posts on online forums discussing concepts associated with networking responsibilities and the obligations of members of an online community. Scott has used the term Shifting the Burden to describe these ideas, and so we caught up with Scott today to learn more about what this Shifting the Burden idea is all about.
Here is Scott’s bio.

LR: Hi Scott, thanks for joining us today.

SA: My pleasure.

LR: Scott, while writing The Virtual Handshake, and in your networking endeavors in general, you have developed some very provocative views on networkers’ obligations to one another. I enjoy your posts on these topics and I wondered if you would share some of your ideas with our members today. For starters, you talk about this notion of Shifting the Burden. Can you expand on that a little for us?

SA: Sure… in any exchange, each person has certain responsibilities. Most of these aren’t usually spoken out loud or formalized, but we have certain implicit expectations as to whose responsibility some of those things are.

LR: Such as?

SA: For example, if I’m trying to reach you for a phone call — if I’m the one requesting the call, the burden is primarily on me to accommodate your schedule and talk when it’s convenient for you.

LR:: Yes! — and the same is true for lunch and coffee-type networking appointments?

SA: Absolutely. Generally speaking, anyone request anything of someone else should do as much as they can to shoulder as much of they burden as they can themselves.

LR: And Scott, something I have wondered about — when you reach out to someone for networking who doesn’t know you, don’t you bear a little extra burden – to explain your purpose, and perhaps also to know a little something about the person you’re contacting? It cracks me up and sort of irritates me at the same time when someone writes me begging to have coffee, because they heard I know a bunch of people, and then when we get together they ask “So, what do you do?”

SA: It’s not only a matter of simple courtesy, but also increases your odds of them agreeing to do what you’ve asked of them. So one of the things that these technology tools do for us is make it easier to reach out and manage our connections with other people. In some cases, I think it may make it TOO easy. Because what happens is they make it easy for people to make some kind of request of someone with minimal — even trivial — effort. What this does is “shift the burden” of evaluating the request entirely to the other person.

LR: And that other person, the recipient, can feel overwhelmed by that — if the request is vague, or comes without any context, etc.?

SA: Exactly. Now they have to spend time evaluating the request and deciding whether to act on it or not and how to act on it if they decide to. The person making the request has already spent some time getting to that point — it will only take a few more seconds of the requester’s time to provide some context, and it will save the recipient several minutes.

Shifting the burden is especially annoying when the person who’s doing the shifting can accomplish the same task with far less effort! So for example, if you want to connect with me on LinkedIn — or even just start a communication dialog with me — there is an implicit responsibility on you to at least tell me what you want to talk about — what you see as the common interest. But if you can send me just a generic LinkedIn connection invitation, or like in Ryze, just click the “Network With Me” button, now it “shifts the burden” to me. I’m expected to go look at your profile, read the whole thing, and figure out what we might talk about. And I’m starting at square one.

You’ve already read my profile and decided that there was some reason you wanted to talk to me — at least TELL ME WHAT IT IS!

LR: Now what about in a group setting, for example in an email group — how does the Shifting the Burden concept apply there?

SA: In a group setting, shifting the burden is a matter of asking the entire group to evaluate and help you solve something, when you know that only a very, very small number of people can actually help.

So, for example, asking an entire group of several thousand people — who aren’t there for the explicit purpose of helping recruiters find candidates — to help fill a particular position. That’s shifting the burden, when what you really should be doing is searching on LinkedIn, ZoomInfo, etc., finding potential candidates and contacting them yourself, or introduced by those people who can introduce you. Simply put, it doesn’t scale. One of the things that is so attractive about, say, LinkedIn and Plaxo is that it FIXES a problem of shifting the burden.

LR: How so?

SA: One of the biggest challenges that companies have faced when implementing a CRM system or contact management system is the matter of keeping contact information current.

Consider the problem… if 5,000 people and companies know me or have me in their database, that’s 5,000 entities that have to try to keep track of my current contact information.

Traditionally, even if I wanted to keep them all up-to-date, I’m the one who has to contact all of them to change my e-mail address, physical address, phone number, etc. — it’s a mess! But centralized directories like LinkedIn and Plaxo solve that problem. Now the burden is where it belongs — with the person whose data it is. In an ideal world, I should be able to just update my information in a couple of places and all of my contacts get the new updated information. That’s one of the hot trends for Web 3.0 — unified identity. LinkedIn and Plaxo help solve the problem for individual relationships, but in the future, this will be the case with customer relationships as well. Imagine if you just filed your change of address one time with the post office, including your new phone number, and everyone who sends you mail got automatically updated.

SA: Also, shifting the burden can lead to a condition called the Tragedy of the Commons.

LR: Can you explain that concept for us?

SA: We all intuitively understand the tragedy of the commons, even if we’ve never heard it called that. Basically, it occurs when there’s a limited, but replenishable, resource pool shared by a lot of people and someone decides to take more than their fair share.

Renewable resources work great so long as the consumption of the resources doesn’t exceed the supply. But what happens in the “tragedy of the commons” is that when one person (or company) uses more than their fair share, others get concerned that they’re not getting their “fair” share, so they increase their usage. This accelerates the depletion of the resource even more, rapidly drying up the resource. Classic examples of this include the bank collapse during the Great Depression, the 1970s oil crisis, etc.

LR: Thanks Scott — so how does this apply in, for instance, an online discussion, like an email group?

SA: In order to understand that, we have to realize what the renewable resource is: the collective attention and goodwill of the members. Make sense?

LR: yes, absolutely. And people can take advantage of that resource.

SA: Each person only has X number of hours per day/week that they’re willing to spend participating in a particular group. And quite literally, every post that someone makes to the group depletes that resource, even if it’s just for the second it takes them to read the subject line and hit delete.

LR: so when they feel that a particular person is misusing that goodwill…it’s not good for the community.

SA: Right… and when people participate in a group, they’re making a very simple economic (not financial — don’t confuse the two) decision: does the value I receive from my participation exceed the cost of my participation? And every single post that doesn’t create value for them creates a cost for them. Actually, even the ones that create value have a cost — usually an even higher cost — just that the value far exceeds the cost.

And as you and I and many others have probably seen countless times, there’s no surer way to drive a community into the ground than to have lots of off-topic posts or flame wars go unchecked. This is why, for example, I know you and I both don’t allow the announcement of local events on our global lists.

If 98% of the members aren’t served by a post, it simply shouldn’t be there. Of course, what’s “off topic” and what’s “valuable” varies widely from one community to the next. For example, your AskLizRyan list covers a FAR broader array of topics than my Entrepreneurs Network on Ryze.

And while you or I might prohibit “me too” and “attaboy/attagirl” posts, in other communities, that’s part of the group bonding process.

LR: Okay, here’s a specific situation that comes up for me as a moderator all the time. I have one global Ask Liz Ryan email group and a bunch of local ones called Ask! in NYC, Ask! in London, etc. Someone will want to post a local message on the global group and I’ll say “It’s a local query, we’ll post it locally on the local Ask! in group.” Then they don’t get a great response from the local group, and they’ll say ‘on my local group there are obviously people from my city, but I’ll bet there are even more of them on the Ask Liz Ryan global group who aren’t members of the local group — so let’s ask the global crew and grab those observations from the local people who didn’t join the local group.’ And that’s when I feel like, Okay, you’re willing to impose on thousands, actually tens of thousands of people who don’t live in your town, only to possibly capture the attention of and get advice from the very same people who’ve opted not to join a local discussion group? It just feels like a misuse of the community’s goodwill, to me…

SA: You’re exactly right — this is a perfect example of both shifting the burden and a potential tragedy of the commons in the group setting.

Of course, one request like that won’t kill the group. But if you allow one, you have to allow the next one, and the next one, and the next one.

And as you said, if people wanted local information, they’d join the local discussion group. The thing we have to keep in mind is that ultimately, attention is in control of the person who owns it. And we get better results when we get their attention willingly rather than forcing it on them.

This is what Seth Godin talks about with the idea of “permission-based marketing” vs. “interruption marketing”. And what we have here is the idea of “permission-based networking” vs. “interruption networking”. Which do you think is more effective?

LR: Permission, all the way.

SA: Right. And part of the role those of us who create and moderate these communities play is to be a representative of the community as far as what gets granted permission and what doesn’t. If we leave it entirely to the community, most people will “vote with their feet”, i.e., the way they will deny permission is to simply leave the group.

And regarding the moderator’s role… people who push the boundaries of the social norms of the group often accuse the moderator of censoring or being overly protective of the community — they say to let the community police itself. The problem with that is… how can the community police itself?

Like I said, all but the most committed participants will simply vote with their feet. But is it really better for the community for one person to post something off-topic or inappropriate and then have a half-dozen or a dozen people tell them it’s off-topic and inappropriate, or for one person to quietly, off-list, tell them, with the warning that future violations will have the consequence of removing them? It takes a very sophisticated system for the group to be able to do things like vote people out. None of the mainstream community/list tools I know of support that.

And it takes a whole lot of people telling someone they’re a jerk before they’ll leave on their own (voice of experience), but only one moderator.

The vast majority of the members don’t want to spend their time governing the group — that’s a low-value use of their time. It’s far more “economical” in terms of attention currency to have one moderator act as a representative of the group. It’s the same reason that in government we can’t put every single issue that Congress deals with to a popular vote — none of us have time for that. So while the idea of a purely democratic, self-policing community sounds great in theory, in practicality, it’s WAY more work than most of us want to take on. We’d only be able to participate in a fraction of the communities we do if we have to participate in the democratic governance of all of them.

So instead of democracy, we end up with a sort of free market capitalism of communities — we choose the communities based not only on the people that are there, but the behavior of the moderators. There’s certainly a place for purely democratic groups, but it’s in groups where the participants are more highly committed and deriving far more value from it than the typical Yahoo Group or group on a social networking site. That’s more appropriate for things like formal communities of practice or industry working groups.

LR: Now Scott, isn’t the traditional elevator speech really a form of burden-shifting? Giving the recipient way more information than they asked for, and specifically information about you and how your business makes money?

SA: I’d never thought of it that way, but I think you’re right. I’ve sometimes said that the elevator speech is a lazy substitute for real conversation.

Of course, as we discussed on ALR, some people need to at least develop the elevator pitch so that they know how to communicate clearly and concisely about their business.

LR: Yes — no argument there. You have to have an answer for the question “What do you do?”

SA: But to just regurgitate it by rote… yes, that’s putting the burden on the other person to try to figure out how you might be able to help them, rather than taking the time to listen to them, understand their current needs and challenges, and see if there’s a fit. Again, you’re more qualified than they are to know whether you can be of service to them.

LR: And yet, some networking courses teach you not only to spit out your elevator speech but also to add, “And these are the kinds of leads I’m looking for….”

SA: It’s funny, you know… David (my coauthor) and I take such a structured, systemic approach to networking that people sometimes think at first glance we’re “utilitarian” — maybe even cold/impersonal in our approach. Yet in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

The system is all about where and when and with whom and in what activities you choose to spend your time. In the moment, when you’re directly engaged with people, the best thing you can do is throw the formulas and systems out the window — be yourself, genuinely engage, have a real conversation — and above all, LISTEN! For me there’s nothing more of a turn-off than someone who feels formulaic in their conversation. I’d actually rather converse with someone who’s unskilled than who’s over-schooled. There are all kinds of things you can do to develop your conversational skills that aren’t formulaic. One exercise I *highly* recommend is the “100 things about me” list. Are you familiar with it?

LR: no – spill!

SA: Simply put, you make a list of 100 interesting things about yourself.

LR: like – I like to play bocce ball, I was born in Argentina, etc?

SA: I know, I know… the experts will tell you you’re not supposed to talk about yourself, but that’s a horrible over-simplification.

You’re not supposed to ramble about yourself disproportionately. Let’s say the other person is a “good networker” who also knows they’re “supposed” to listen to you and not talk about themselves. Now what? You have to be prepared to talk about yourself. Scott Allen says: What the “100 things about me” list does is two very important things:

1. It makes you realize that you’re a far more interesting person than you may think you are. What this does is give you something else to talk about besides just your work.

2. It gives you an idea of the kind of things that you can look for in the other person to discover commonalities — ANY common interest that you can discuss will likely strengthen the relationship.

LR: Scott, people who shift the burden in their networking might be thought of in two ways: as rude, or as unsophisticated networkers (or some combination).I’ve tended not to jump into an education mode because that itself would be rude — it’s not polite to give unsolicited advice, right? So do you walk away, decline the invitation, and so on? How do you avoided getting “shifted on” without being unhelpful or rude?

SA: You know, that’s hard. Anything you say runs the risk of offending the other person. But if you say nothing, you run the risk of having your time truly wasted. I value my time more than that. And honestly, I don’t want to network with people who don’t respect my time.

There are several million others out there who will… why waste it on people who will just drain you dry?

I think that what you do is simply explain yourself briefly, but without teaching/preaching. They’ll learn something — and if they’re open, they may want to learn more. If they’re not open, don’t let them waste your time.

For example, when someone asks about posting to your list, your response can be as simple as “It doesn’t scale. It’s a strain on the attention and the goodwill of the community. And if I let you do it, then I either have to let the next person do it too, and the next and the next and the next, or I have to explain to them why I let you and then didn’t let them.”

LR: Scott, this has been a blast and your observations are tremendous. Thanks so much.

SA: No problem. Here are some links to more information on the notions of Shifting the Burden and the Tragedy of the Commons:

There’s not an official “100 things about me” site, but you might just link to a Google search on it:

Reach Scott Allen at

— Liz Ryan
link to Ask Liz Ryan Yahoo!group

About Liz Ryan

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