If you are planning to work on a project with multiple people (this could be something like running an intro fellowship, or starting a x-risk initiative at your university), you should probably spend at least 5% of your time on finding your top level goal and thinking about any risks associated with your project.
What was seeded as a 3am thought last April has now turned into an organisation with 12 active organisers, plans for new programmes such as machine learning bootcamps, existential risks introductory crash courses, etc., and an amazing Summer Research Fellowship. Building up the Cambridge Existential Risks Initiative from scratch has taught me much about community building, and this post is an attempt to share some of those lessons.
I spent the first month of setting up CERI by just meeting with people and getting feedback from them on what I then believed might just be the most impactful project I could be working on at the time. CERI’s overarching meta strategy was predominantly written during its formation in May 2021. It has not been heavily updated since then.
CERI was set up at an incredibly fast pace, and there were various risks associated with doing that. This document served as a way for us to evaluate whether setting up CERI was valuable, and start thinking about CERI’s role in the existential risk ecosystem within Cambridge. Specifically, we were unsure about whether we should push for a Summer Research Fellowship in 2021, and this document helped us organise our thoughts in order to make the decision.
Being both entrepreneurial and ambitious is extremely valuable and rare. If you are just beginning to set up an organisation or a project, I strongly recommend that you recreate the above document for yourself. A quick summary of things to include:
- Our vision
- Concrete goals
- Failure conditions
- User journey
This type of strategising early on can be incredibly valuable to onboard new team members and to strategically evaluate the various risks associated with the project. It can also help you develop a vision to get some sense of where you would want the project/organisation to be further down the line.
By using CERI’s meta strategy as an example, the rest of this post gives more details on each of the points above from the “setting up an x-risk initiative perspective”.
This is a one-line crux of why the organisation should exist. “Reduce existential risk (x-risk) by raising awareness and promoting x-risk research.”.
The wording of the top level goal is far more nuanced, and it’s worth picking it apart, especially from a longevity perspective. If you want the organisation to survive long after you have left, it must be clear from the very beginning why it exists in the first place, but it’s okay for the top level goal to evolve over time.
What are some of the Key Performance Indicators for your organisation? What needs to happen in order to achieve your top level goal? What are your pathways to impact?
For CERI, the imminent pathway to impact at the time was “People pivot their careers towards x-risk mitigation”. We knew that this was something we could achieve via the summer research fellowship and somewhat measure the impact. It also directly contributed to our top level goal.
How can you further break down the KPIs? This is very much about expanding on the section above by listing concrete goals that you can achieve, e.g., “Increase awareness of and inclination towards existential risk reduction within the Cambridge community, i.e., 1,000 students at cambridge hear about our activities, 100 participate in our intro course and 25% continue to engage 6 months later”.
By this time in the strategy document, you might start getting some sense of the organisation culture: what are we trying to achieve and how can we best do it? The main themes which emerged for CERI were community, research opportunities, network and interdisciplinary connections.
This is inarguably the most important section of the meta strategy: what can go wrong? Here, you should outline any risks of community building which may be specific to your own context. You should also outline minor and major failure conditions, with their severity, estimated probability of failure, and mitigation strategies.
For CERI, this included things such as:
- Too much focus on issues that don’t have existential consequences.
- Being boring.
- Not noticing and pivoting if we’re producing little value.
- Being impenetrable.
It doesn't hurt to be slightly more pessimistic in this section: it's always better to be prepared for the worst but you can hope for the best.
Here, you can start listing the various ways in which you can actually achieve the top level goal, via activities such as speaker events, workshops, summer research fellowships, etc. This section should produce many actionables, and help recruit new team members who may be particularly excited to take on one of the projects listed here. At CERI, we considered things such as integrating with the local research community via research skills workshop, running a summer research fellowship programme, organising both internal and external speaker events, and providing ongoing opportunities to conduct x-risk research.
You should map out the user journey: how does one go from “I have heard of CERI” to being a part of the CERI community? Some considerations here can include:
- How do we get someone who is only vaguely interested to come regularly and become a member of the community?
- Once they’ve been attending for a while and become a regular member / someone you would call “in the community”, how do you help them to make x-risk part of their longer term considerations?
These questions will help you build a public face for the organisation and integrate with the community. How can we best have impact in social circles that already exist, and more importantly how can we create new ones? Thinking hard about this early on is especially important for retention and the longevity of the organisation.
This post referred to the very first meta strategy CERI has had, because I think it will be the most useful one for those looking to set up something similar elsewhere. This type of strategising has helped me build CERI into the organisation that it is today. As a team, we have thought hard about our theories of change and created a programme which we think will alleviate some of the biggest bottlenecks in the junior research career pipeline.
I will also be speaking about “CERI: A vision for the future” at the upcoming Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risks.
If you are looking to set up something similar, please feel free to reach out to me. I am always happy to help!