Ahh, the glorious feeling of looking at the month after next on your calendar and seeing whole empty days. How easy it is to be magnanimous and say “yes” when asked to take on a job that isn’t due for two m
onths. So we say “yes,” and put it on the calendar. When another someone asks us to do something in the future, we again check our calendar, see that it’s still pretty empty, and again say “yes.” This happens a few more times, and all of a sudden, the 1st week in December starts looking pretty full.
Then as December 1 approaches, all the things we want to accomplish – long term projects, researching new programs, reading for professional development – have to get squeezed into the unscheduled times, alongside putting out the inevitable fires that weren’t anticipated, calling our parents, and taking our kid to the doctor.
If we’d scheduled the projects, research and professional development, then that week wouldn’t have looked so free. We might have more carefully evaluated the request, and said ‘no’ to some of them, in order to have time to accomplish our own long term goals.
Almost everyone experiences this phenomenon. Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist who wrote Predictably Irrational, found it so common that he created the mobile app Timeful to help manage making time for the important things in life and work. In Ariely’s words,
“Because of the ways calendars are created, people actually take more meetings than they should… We have this satisfaction of having our calendar seem busy. We have the satisfaction of not saying ‘no’ to things. But at the same time, we’re chasing away things that are important to us for things that are unimportant.”
When you add together the many individuals on a board or in a department, the problem gets compounded. We all know whole departments and companies that fill their time with tasks and meetings, leaving all the workers wondering if they’ve actually accomplished anything. Similarly, nonprofit boards of directors are often left wondering why their strategic plans are never accomplished.
A strategic plan without concrete, timed, scheduled milestones is a wish list.
Several organizations I’ve worked with want to build a stronger board. The sequence goes like this:
In 2012, they stated that by the year 2015 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community.
In 2014, they determine that by 2017 we’ll have a stronger board, representative of the community.
In 2016, are they going to say that by 2019 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community?
Probably. Unless they schedule the time to think through what it will take to make that shift. Then schedule the time to execute each step on that newly planned path.
We all have the best intentions in the world to accomplish our strategic plans. Yet without putting them on the calendar, those planned goals are going to get squeezed out by the so-easily scheduled meetings, the inevitable fires, and the daily tasks that we take for granted and therefore forget that they take time.
Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence is famous for the dictum, “What’s measured gets done.” Back in business school, I learned this phrase as a component of Managing by Objective or MBO, which requires that these critical questions be answered:
What are you planning to do?
Who will be in charge?
By when will it be accomplished?
The problem is that MBO leaves out the step of scheduling the time to actually work on it. There is still room for procrastination. Even if the objective is accomplished, nothing keeps it from being done at the last minute or squeezed into inconvenient half-hour chunks of time around scheduled meetings. The result is frenetic or burned-out workers and volunteers.
After a recent strategic planning session, a participant approached me and said that it was one of the most intense sessions she’d ever been part of. She really felt that they had the path forward. She said the biggest difference was that they actually set completion dates for every activity, and scheduled when they would work on it.
On the two hour drive home, I remembered Ariely’s column about personal planning. In an aha moment, I realized that while setting milestones may get activities accomplished, it’s:
acknowledging that those milestones exist,
keeping them in front us, and
scheduling the time to accomplish them,
that makes the plan realistic.
Scheduling the time in which to accomplish the milestones forces you to acknowledge that accomplishing these goals will take time. It makes it a lot easier to say ‘no’ to another idea that would divert your time away from the agreed upon goal.
What gets measured gets done. True. What gets scheduled gets done more sanely.
If we don’t plan our own future with things that matter to us, then we relinquish our future to the obligations of others.
Will your plan be accomplished on time? Will your board and staff stay sane in the process? Let me know what you think! Post them here or you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the start of school, education gets a lot of attention. Keeping up with the sector means perusing the legislative, governance and financial news. It also means listening to the people on the frontlines.
While scanning an education site, I was struck by how closely classroom management lessons match the latest in governance wisdom. Those values we learned in grade school have a great impact on the way our boards work together – if we actually bring those values to our nonprofit.
On the first day of school, this grade school teacher* introduced to her class “Six things sixth graders say:”
I don’t know….YET. In the context of nonprofit board work, are we able to recognize that we don’t know everything, and there is much we can learn? How does that recognition affect our interaction with staff, clients, the community, our peers?
I’ll give it a try. Even if things are going well, perhaps doing something new will be even better. Innovation is key to avoiding stagnation. Are the members of our board open to trying something we’ve never tried before?
Oooh! A Challenge! When things are difficult, do we fall back or step forward? Do we cocoon, or is our board willing to explore the limits of our abilities? Do we reach out to others who may have the resources to help?
Let’s figure this out together. Science has shown that cooperation and trust among team members foster better results. On a board, cooperation allows each person to contribute his or her particular expertise. Do our trustees cooperate and collaborate?
Of course, I’ll help! Sometimes extraordinary times require extraordinary effort from staff, board and volunteers. Do our trustees see themselves as integral to the success of the mission, and personally take steps to ensure that success?
Thank you. Quality of life is proven to improve if we recognize that we have something to be grateful for. Of all the reasons to serve on a board, the opportunity to say thank you by helping others is one of the most powerful. Do we each come to our board work with an attitude of gratitude for the work of others and the opportunity to fulfill the mission?
These are simple statements, but science has proven each to be important components to success. I’ve seen innovation, gratitude, and cooperation create successful teams in organizations as diverse as arts, education and social sciences. I’ve also seen the price paid when trustees forgot them.
Think future! Building these attitudes into regular board meetings fuels dynamic discussions that focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t.
*Special thanks to Aliza Chanales of Yeshivat Noam, for permission to repost her “Six Things Sixth Graders Say” in the context of nonprofit governance.
What are your experiences in building the right attitudes among your board members? Pass them on! Post them here or you can reach me at email@example.com.
I have mixed thoughts about innovation. As much as I tell boards and organizations to be open to innovation, there are risks.
Henry Ford is famous for saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” There’s no evidence that he really said that, but the message is clear and was reiterated by Steve Jobs. Jobs actually did say: “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
The lesson is that innovation comes from an isolated genius; that people don’t know what they want.
But this father knows best attitude flies directly in the face of so much else we get through received wisdom: build relationships; engage the people to find out who they are, what they like, and what they want; build consensus to agree on a vision and work together to achieve it.
Are these actually in conflict?
No. Sometimes you need one. Sometimes you need the other. As Patrick Vlaskovits says in the 2011 Harvard Business Review post, Henry Ford may have innovated, but then he continued to ignore his customers. By not listening to them, he lost out on the market as others, who did listen, built an incremental market beyond Ford’s initial dominance.
Innovation isn’t only the province of the commercial market. If you see a way to radically address a problem in society, go for it. But the paternalism of Ford and Jobs isn’t going to cut it. People may not be able to ‘blue-sky’ what they want – they may still ask for faster horses – but they almost certainly can tell you how your great innovation will work in the real world.
If you want to envision a radically different world – or figure out how to react to the changes you’re already encountering – let’s talk. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Big Hairy Audacious Goal
I’m a really big advocate for starting any project with a Vision.
Where’s your horizon?
What do you need to get there?
What steps do you have to take?
Sometimes, though, even the steps to get there require a lot of little steps first. This is especially true when the people involved haven’t experienced much success.
That’s a pitfall of focusing on the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. As proposed by Jim Collins, et al, the BHAG is important for inspiring the troops. I agree, our BHAG – our Vision – is the horizon to which we are pointing all our efforts.
However, when the troops are downtrodden or haven’t worked together in the past, they may not have the self-confidence or a level of trust to focus on an audacious goal. In this case, small successes pave the way.
I watched this in action at a private school with an aging, authoritarian founder. The board of this school is hand selected by the founder and will not take a step without his approval. This founder does not let anyone but himself meet with those he considers major donors. The school is viewed as his school; a cult of personality.
The obvious question is whether the school will continue much beyond the founder’s life. Or rather, the question was obvious to everyone except, it seemed, the founder.
I met with a handful of lay leaders who knew they had to find a way to build supporters with a loyalty to the school, not just to the founder. They also knew the founder would resist every step of the way.
A Big Hairy Audacious Goal for this group would be for the school to have a true governing board, with a succession plan for the founder, deep and broad relationships with existing donors, and plans for growing the image of the school distinct from the founder.
That’s quite a BHAG. But the initial need was to inspire the confidence needed to act without the founder’s permission.
We began with just meeting to discuss the issues. It may have seemed like nothing happened, but the mere fact that the meetings were being held began the process of instilling confidence in the actors and a trust in each other. Having meetings about board and school issues without the founder was a huge step.
Discussions revolved around ways to engage prospective supporters and advocates without relying on the founder. They knew that trying to wrestle existing supporters from his stewardship would cause a head-on collision. Instead, they sought ways to expand the circle. It took six months to get to the point of reaching out to potential supporters, yet those six months of meeting for a shared purpose served to build confidence.
Although certain the new ideas were unnecessary, the founder was willing to let the lay group reach prospective supporters outside his circle. After persevering, they reached one high-profile but previously unappreciated individual who became convinced of the group’s sincerity, the value of the school, and ultimately, the value of their BHAG. Together, he and the lay leaders crafted a process that used his influence to approach the founder and reinforce the goals of the group.
As I write this, there are still many steps to take. The culture is slowly changing. The founder is still reluctant to release the reins, but he has accepted that change is needed.
I don’t know if this school will be able to make all the necessary changes. However, I do know that without first building self-confidence in the lay leaders, they would not be in a position to make any changes at all.
Have you encountered boards reluctant to take on Big Hairy Audacious Goals? Try building confidence with small successes.
And let me know if you have other examples! You can reach me at: email@example.com.
I had occasion to do my first self-video this week. It was a one-minute spot to introduce a program I’m presenting at an upcoming nonprofit conference.
No problem, right? Go into my Macbook Pro. Fire up the Photo Booth program, and record my introduction.
Then reality set in.
I needed to be sure of what I was going to say, so I didn’t stumble.
My computer is generally below my direct line of sight, but I didn’t want to be looking down at the camera.
How do I look at the camera and still read my notes? How does my hair look? Is my office tidy?
After a little manipulation, I raised my computer so it was directly in front of me. I typed my notes into a document so I could see them on the screen as I looked at the camera. I stacked the books behind me, combed my hair and put on lipstick.
I recorded the spot. Then I recorded it again – apparently I tend to swivel in my desk chair when I talk. Then I recorded it again – I also tend to bite my lip during pauses. Then I recorded it again – I stumbled over a few words.
In all, it took a full hour and 10 takes before I was satisfied. The DonorPerfect conference organizer laughed and said that was on the low end for all his staff who were recording videos.
Wow. Way to internalize a lesson I’ve been telling nonprofit boards about for the past few years!
When you see organizations with great social media presence, they make it look easy. This very small episode is a reminder that it’s not easy. It takes work to have a great presence. It takes planning and it takes forethought.
The idea for video promos came from a smart, full-time communications professional, who is coordinating the video uploads for all the conference facilitators. It’s part of a comprehensive marketing campaign that integrates with the organization’s educational goals. It’s not scatter-shot. It’s planned and strategic, with specific objectives and accountability.
When Directors and Trustees suggest you get a college or high school student to “do the social media,” feel free to show them this post. If you want a consistent message, and a fully integrated consistent presence in front of your clients, supporters, members, volunteers and staff, it takes planning and it takes time.
Once upon a time we told people to “learn computer programming.” We don’t anymore. Computers are now just a tool we all use to get our work done. That time has come for social media. Social media is now just another tool in a well-rounded marketing plan.
Have you had an experience that reinforces a lesson in nonprofit planning and governance? Let me know! Perhaps we can share it so others can learn, too! You can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moving your board toward diversity is tough. Everyone knows it has to be done; yet, as Newton’s first law of motion states, a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Inertia, the tendency of a body to resist change, is the norm. Similarly, without a push or a pull, we continue to look to our usual sources for new board members. Or worse, to satisfy ‘best practice’ requirements, we collect tokens.
But what if the incentive is big enough to disrupt the inertia? If your board foresaw a financial crisis, all of a sudden the trustees would start looking for funds. But what external force would push a board to focus on diversity? Is there a compelling reason to really embrace diversity on a board?
Yes. The future.
As reported by David Feitler in Harvard Business Review, two different studies show that diverse groups are more likely to foster innovation. Prof. Lee Fleming and his colleagues at Stanford University found that “higher-valued industrial innovation…is more likely to arise when diverse teams are assembled of people with deep subject matter expertise in their areas.” Prof. Ben Jones and colleagues at Kellogg Business School of Northwestern University found that “the most influential [research] papers…exhibited an intrusion of interdisciplinary information” and “groups were more likely to foster these intrusions than solo researchers.”
Surprisingly, it’s not a great leap to go from research and industrial innovation to nonprofit boards; even in the nonprofit sector, research supports the idea that greater diversity promotes greater organization success.
Of course, research is great, but if you want to hear a real world example, I can attest to the excitement that comes from having a diverse board. Meeting with the board of a regional theater group, I showed them a headline from five years in the future. “Exclusive interview: Theatre Group tells how they did it!”
Their assignment? For the next ten minutes, write down what amazing things the organization had accomplished that prompted this headline. What activities or initiatives did you take that made it possible? How did you do it? Whom did you collaborate with? What did it do for the community?
When we regrouped, the stories started emerging. But instead of centering on what the organization was currently doing, each individual brought her own vision of what the organization could become. One focused on the what the competed capital campaign would make possible. One added the idea that their education programs became a template for programs across the country. Another focused on building the writers’ workshops. Another focused on collaboration with a number of other community arts organizations. As each idea was presented, conversation grew more animated, as each added details from their own backgrounds.
Because of the diversity in age, experience, life stage, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, they built a rich picture of the future that no single one of them could have imagined. The stories they created together are forming the basis for a vision toward which they’ll work.
This same exercise, in a much less diverse group, produced stories that were less visionary. Group members were almost all of the same ethnicity, age range and socio-economic level. They built on each others’ ideas, but with incremental steps in the same direction. The difference between the two groups was evident.
We tell people to think outside the box, but it’s not easy. We are bound by our own experience. Yet when your board is filled with people who naturally come from other backgrounds, the scope of imagination is enlarged by this rich diversity.
Diversity isn’t a box to check on a grant application, or an ‘ought to have. Diversity of experience and thought is vital to the future of your organization.
What do you think? How have you seen diversity add to visioning the future? I’d love to hear your experiences; or, if you’d like to bring these ideas – or this exercise – to your organization, let me know. You can reach me at: email@example.com.