Everyone talks about collaboration, but when collaboration fails, do we really analyze what happened? Or do we pretend we’re analyzing what happened, but are actually assigning blame?
I love this article. In this 2014 Harvard Business Review article by Nick Tasler, he points out two simple explanations for how things go wrong. Simple, of course, once you hear them.
First – do you all agree on what you’re trying to do?
You may think you all know what you’re collaborating for, but have you really stated it explicitly? I’ll take it further. Have you defined what success looks like? You may be saying, “we need to fix the student problem,” and everyone will nod and get to work. But what does a ‘fixed student problem’ look like? Unless you all agree on what it looks like, then you won’t be able to make decisions between multiple alternatives.
Second – how are you going to make a final decision?
Tasler’s article puts it in terms of who will make the decision, but the more universal way of looking at is how will you make a decision. With multiple collaborators, you need to decide that up front, before you get into the weeds.
To answer these two basic questions, your group may need an external person to guide the conversation – someone from another department, another organization, or a professional facilitator. You want to make sure everyone is heard and there’s a final agreement.
Nick Tasler wrote from the perspective of multiple teams in the same corporation. But what he says is valid within nonprofits, as well. And all the more so when you’re talking about collaborating with other organizations.
- Be explicit about what you’re collaborating about.
- Agree on how final decisions will be made.
Until you have both of those, expect a lot of time spent spinning wheels.
Interested in hearing how a facilitator can help smooth the way? Send me a note and we can have a conversation.
Do you have a board profile matrix? Good! Now throw it out.
Harsh? Maybe. Necessary? You decide.
Where did you get that matrix? Was it found somewhere in a template? Maybe it came from someone else’s board; it looked good, so you adopted it. Maybe it’s a legacy matrix that has been handed down for the last 10 years by the Governance Committee (or Executive Committee, or Nominating Committee).
The problem is,
If you didn’t develop that matrix AFTER you decided what you want to be doing in the next 5 years, there’s a chance your board won’t match your ambitions.
First, decide what you’re doing. Then figure out what passions, skills, attributes, connections, experiences need to be present on your board to make it possible to do it. THEN evaluate your current board against those attributes.
Otherwise, you may be using five year old hardware to run state-of-the-art software. And we know how well that works.
Planning your future includes planning what you need to create that future. Let me know if you want to talk about planning. Happy to have that conversation, or facilitate your group discussing its future.
You need more than empathy to make your case.
Many people tell you that successful persuasion is built on understanding the other person’s values and frame of reference. What they don’t tell you is that you also have to know what they know.
We usually know enough not to use jargon – the shortcut language that lives in a specific field. “targeted immunotherapy” “donor-centric fundraising” “UHMW polyethylene” “flux capacitor”[just kidding]
When we’re talking to people outside the field, we’re pretty good at spelling it out.
But even spelling it out assumes that our audience can connect the dots; it assumes they can understand why it’s important. We might say “boosting a patient’s own immune system,” but we forget to draw the line from that definition to its implications. We might ay, “the donor needs to feel important,” but we don’t draw the line to why that makes a difference to the organization. WHY is it important?
Dangerous Assumptions: Round One
Two recent conversations really showed me the hazards in making assumptions about someone’s knowledge base.
Actually, the first was pretty amusing. It was a late night conversation with my nephews. These are smart, intelligent men. One is a veteran and a lead machinist in the Army Corps of Engineers, returning to school for Engineering. The other just completed a law degree.
Late at night, we’re sitting on a couch in a rented flat. Somehow, as we caught up on each others’ lives, the conversation turned to nonprofits and fundraising and conflict of interest and controlling who raises funds in the name of an organization. I’m still not sure how we got there. It was a strictly hypothetical conversation (my nephews are nerdy cool like that) but I realized that these smart men, with considerable experience dealing with people and the world, had no clue about how nonprofit organizations work.
The idea that a nonprofit can end the year with a surplus to start the next year with, because nonprofit is a tax identity, not a business model. That you can’t let just anyone use your name in order to raise funds because one of the nonprofit’s greatest assets is its reputation – good will and donations are built on that reputation. That there’s a difference between numbers being served and the impact on those being served. That overhead is a slippery term and just like commercial enterprises, you have to invest in infrastructure to have a greater impact.
The hour got later and later as I found I had to keep backing up to explain the background of different concepts. It was like a midnight course in nonprofit governance, hitting all the highlights. Not having another frame of reference, their knowledge of how nonprofits run was based on limited personal experience and what they read in the media. A lot of fun, intellectually stimulating, and exhausting!
Dangerous Assumptions: Round Two
The second instance wasn’t hypothetical. It was working with a client whose frame of reference came from being part of the bureaucracy of a larger entity. He knows his specialization inside and out, and he’s a really great asset to my own understanding of the organization. But when it comes to community relations and nonprofit governance, he has no context. Fortunately, he has the confidence to stop me in mid-conversation and ask me to connect the dots – why is it important to hold off on accepting help from a potential donor right now; what’s the best way to maintain contact with them; what’s the role of a board in helping to break a legislative logjam to release additional funds and accelerate a process?
The naiveté of my nephews and my client’s willingness to ask for that tutorial made me wonder: How many times do we not even realize that our audience isn’t following us? How many people we talk to think they know what you’re talking about? Do your new board members – heck, do your returning board members — really understand what you’re saying? They’ve heard the terms before and have built an image in their heads of what the words mean. But how much context are they missing?
It’s not enough to avoid jargon. To really connect, you have to start by knowing what they already know.
You can reach me here for a conversation about where to start with your audience; or to ask about facilitating meetings and decisions. Let’s see how I can help.
credit: John Quidor
In Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle, old Rip goes off hunting to the mountains, encounters supernatural beings, drinks of their keg of brew, and falls asleep. Upon awakening, he returns home, only to find that 20 years have passed and the country is no longer beholden to King George III but is instead a republic with George Washington at the helm.
Imagine yourself, 20 years from now, returning to the nonprofit of which you are a part. Would you recognize it? Is the mission the same? Are its values the same? Would you still want to support it?
Organizations review their missions regularly; that’s a good thing. Nonprofits must evolve over time or risk irrelevance. But there is a difference between evolving to better serve the greater vision and doing a complete about-face on what that greater vision is.
This is the imperative of board recruitment:
Do your new directors aspire to the original vision of the institution?
If not, the organization may, in the words of Nonprofit Quarterly, be hijacked.
Consider the American Bible Society, which moved from a nonsectarian mission to distribute bibles to one that overtly espouses an evangelical point of view. As Ruth McCambridge relates, the move has been gradual, but appears caused by having individuals with a particular point of view on the board. These individuals in turn recruited like-minded other directors, until board level decisions began reflecting their particular view, affecting all their programs and policies.
This very clear example is a cautionary tale.
Whom your board recruits today affects what your organization looks like 20 years from now.
Each successive board moves the institution forward, and the tiny shifts build up over time.
Diversity of viewpoints keep the organization from shifting too far in one direction or another. The vibrant discussions that diversity leads to is one factor in ensuring that each decision is thoroughly examined.
Diversity of experience, viewpoints, skills and aptitudes keeps organizations relevant. It’s also a way to keep the vision front and center.
Recruitment is a fiduciary responsibility and a crucial investment in your future.
Sign up here for other hints about building a great board, or balancing growth and caution. Or if you want a no-obligation conversation about board relations, let me know.
Focus “means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are…innovation is saying no to 1000 things.” Steve Jobs, 1997
We are a naturally giving people. Those of us working in the nonprofit world, or volunteering on boards, are preconditioned to saying yes.
“Of course we can help with that.”
“That sounds like a great idea, how can I help?”
“They’re doing such great work, we should help them.”
“Can you do this? Yes.”
“We need more staff next week, can you send over some people? Of course.”
“The city needs more day care centers, can you put one in? Sure.”
Working in this arena such a pleasure – we are among people who, like us, are naturally giving. It is a joy to be surrounded by people whose first impulse is to say yes.
Unfortunately, it also means that we have to take care to not dissipate our own energy and resources, leaving less for the programs and work which we have declared to be OUR focus.
When Steve Jobs said that focus “means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are,” he was talking about his own company. When Brené Brown called focus her word of the year, she expanded the meaning to personal focus. What can we do if we set our own goals, and minimize the extraneous pulls on our attention? Inc. Magazine also expanded on these ideas, with specific guidance on ways to maximize focus.
What does this mean in the world of nonprofits? It means the same thing.
We naturally want to help the world; we naturally want to do everything that will contribute to our mission. But we can’t. At least not all at once.
The important thing is to decide what it is you – all of you – your board, staff, volunteers — will focus on right now. Then stay focused on doing that. Listen to other ideas, and be ready and willing to say ‘no.’ If you can’t say ‘no,’ say ‘not now.’
There’s a reason you decided on your course of action. Bolster your resolve by reminding yourself and others what those reasons are.
Focus – and success – means saying no to the rest.
Sign up here for other hints about successful decisionmaking, staying focused, or making that first decision. Or if you want a no-obligation conversation about board relations, let me know.
“A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be done.” Fred Allen
“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.” Milton Berle
Then there’s this rubber stamp I was given, that said,
“Great idea! Assign a committee to foul it up!”
There is an image of nonprofit board committees as the place where ideas go to die a slow and lingering death; where process overcomes inspiration; where group-think strangles innovation.
But if you’re running an organization, it’s really hard to get anything done if you can’t segment off a group of people to work on specific jobs. How do you get people to work on these jobs? You invite them. Nicely.
The problem with committees is that word: “commit”.
That’s especially true in today’s society. Sometimes I feel so rushed and overwhelmed, that the thought of taking on another commitment sends me screaming in the other direction –Noooooo!!!!! You mean, I have to come to meetings and be obligated for two whole years???
But if someone said to me, “Hey, Janay has this great idea; Jim and I are going to help her make it happen. Can you join us?” my answer is probably going to at least lead to a query for more information.
Asking someone to join the Finance Committee might be deadly. Asking someone to help figure out the best way to maximize the dollars we have available for our mission…? Well, that’s intriguing.
Being offered an idea for engaging new supporters and telling them to give the idea to a committee is disheartening. Being asked to explore the idea with others and generate ways to make it work is an invitation.
Committees aren’t inherently bad. It’s how we ask people to serve that creates the deadly atmosphere surrounding them.
Invite people to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN.
Let’s change the conversation.
This is based on a January 2014 post. It bears repeating!
For more ideas for inspiring boards, sign up at The Detwiler Group. Or contact me for a no-obligation conversation.