Things fall through the cracks. They just do. Not often. But they do.
Sometimes it’s because we have too much on our plates. Sometimes, an emergency or a rush job came up, and our mind is focused on that. But sometimes, everything is going along smoothly, and things still fall through the cracks, because everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.
As a recovering control freak, I used to be the one who made sure that everything got done. To me, the path of least resistance was for me to do it.
But as a consultant, that’s the very worst thing I could do. My job is to let YOU do it; it’s YOUR job to take responsibility and figure out how to do it yourself, so eventually, you don’t need me.
So what do I do? I make sure you end your meetings affirming who is doing what, by when.
Whether it’s a nine month long strategic planning project, a one day planning retreat, or any meeting in which a decision is made, they all end the same way:
Who is doing what? By when? How will you know it’s done?
I was working with one multi-faceted organization whose executive director had announced he was retiring in two years. Despite general dismay, after four months the board had not yet formulated a plan for finding his successor. I was asked to get them started.
At a full day retreat, we spent the morning envisioning the future of the organization and the CEO qualities that would help that future become reality. Then, over lunch, I let it ‘slip’ about being a recovering control freak. Through general laughter, I told them that the way I managed it was by making sure THEY knew what they were going to do, and how they were going to do it.
That afternoon, we mapped out how they would go about finding a successor: what research they would need, what data they would want, what the board, staff, and other constituents would need. Then, about an hour before adjourning, I reminded them of my ‘recovering control freak’ statement, and asked:
“Now that you’ve decided what you’re going to do, who is going to be responsible for making sure it gets done?
“You don’t have to be the one that does it, but you’re the one who stays on top of it, and makes sure it’s accomplished.
“Who’s job is it?”
Then, when that person self-identified, the next question was,
“Great! By when? When will this goal be completed?”
“When will you have that first committee meeting? When will you have the first progress report to the board?”
Those milestones were entered into the plan, and the Board Chair keeps track of who is doing what. The milestones give the entire board an opportunity to reflect on whether the progress needs to be speeded up or the goals amended.
By coaching the Board and Staff on building their own accountability into their plans, I satisfy my control freak tendencies, and enable the excellent members of the leadership team to step up.
A win-win result all around.
“Sometimes in life, we have a really full plate of things that we’re focusing on and need to deal with. And it’s at that moment, that something happens that demands that we switch focus, so that we need to move things around. From this we learn that the items on the plate are always movable–we just need to realize that we can move them.” Rabbi Elisa Koppel
Although Rabbi Koppel was writing about life events, the lesson is also pretty valid for work. The lesson is even valid for things we view as solidly in place for the next 3 years, like a strategic plan. Circumstances change as the world changes, and we have to rearrange the things on our plate to accommodate these changes.
A lot of talk right now focuses on how a single election can change the trajectory of the country. But changes abound in the world regardless of whether it’s an election year. We see it in the rapidly changing social media landscape, which transforms how people take in information and make decisions. We see it in the swiftly changing transportation industry, in which car ownership is no longer a non-negotiable rite of passage, and people share rides with strangers instead of warning against hitchhiking. We see it in the gig economy becoming the norm for a generation.
The cascade effect of all these changes is real.
What does that mean for your organization? That’s up to you. The world may have changed, but that doesn’t mean that your vision has changed.
Your vision remains how you want the world to be because you exist.
But the world moves too quickly, and things change too rapidly, for a five year strategic plan to be viable. Even 3 years may be too long.
That’s why we build expansion joints into the plans; specific times to reevaluate. Circumstances change all the time, but we don’t always pay attention. Or our plates are so full of the ‘stuff’ that has to get done, that we don’t pick up our heads to look around at what might be different now.
Putting calculated milestones into our plans make us stop and reevaluate the progress. These are specified times when we check to see whether the plans and assumptions are still valid.
Yet even with the calculated milestones, it may feel as if you’re in a groove and you just want to keep going, despite the new information.
That’s when it’s important to remember that “the items on the plate are always movable – we just need to realize that we can move them.”
5 Questions for making decisions
How do you get out of the groove? Here are five questions to ask yourself and the others around the table.
- “What is our vision? Do we all still agree on the vision of where we’re heading?”
Now that we have new circumstances:
- “What does staying in our current groove make possible, in our quest toward that vision?
- “What does changing our direction make possible, in our quest toward that vision?”
- “What is the downside if we stay in our groove, relative to our vision?”
- “What is the downside if we change our direction, relative to our vision?”
These five questions are the beginning of looking objectively at the effect of new circumstances on our current plans. Instead of appealing to legacy or history or prior investments or a single person’s passion, these questions allow you to evaluate the proposals relative to the same point—the vision you are aiming for.
And isn’t your vision really why you exist?
The things on your plate are movable. All you need is the will to move them.
Ever notice how your tires seem to have a rhythmic thump when you drive across a bridge? Those are the spaces engineers deliberately put between the steel plates – the expansion joints. Expansion joints on a bridge accommodate the stresses that come with different loads and changing weather conditions. The spaces between plates shrink and grow as the temperature, wind, and pressures change.
Without expansion joints, stress fractures would start as the solid plates shrink and grow without relief. Unattended, stress fractures lead to failure.
Good strategic plans have expansion joints.
Strategic plans usually incorporate milestones and accountability as a way to ensure that a plan gets executed. But they also serve another purpose. Milestones are opportunities to notice stresses on the plan, and make changes if necessary.
In a strategic plan, the expansion joints are the times you set up to check-in on its progress. Good plans have accountability, milestones and regular check-ins built in. They not only ensure execution, they are a built-in mechanism that lets you notice and relieve the stresses on the plan’s execution. They provide regular times to review the plan, to see if it’s still viable, valid and relevant.
In my work, I’ve seen organizations that create beautiful plans – without accountability. The visions are magnificent. The goals are lofty. But they never get off the ground because they never set regular check-ins. A year later they look at the plan and wonder why the plan has failed.
A plan without milestones is like a rigid bridge without expansion joints. There are no breathing spaces to see if the execution needs tweaking, or to see if changing circumstances might affect what you want to do. In the case of the beautiful plan, regular check-ins would have told them where the bottle-neck was, and given them an opportunity to revise.
We all need expansion joints in our lives. Spaces in our calendar that relieve the stresses we encounter. And that’s a post for another day.
Right now, consider whether your strategic plan, your marketing plan, your communications plan, your financial plan – every plan, has expansion joints built in. They all need periodic looks to check on their progress and their needs.
If you take the time to read this or other nonprofit board governance blogs, then there’s a good chance you have a strategic plan. In a lot of my previous posts, I’ve talked about keeping your organization on track with the strategic plan and how to keep your board focused on the plan. But I’ve never considered pointing out the necessity of having a plan at all.
Then along came this report from the Concord Leadership Group that just blew me away.
According to the Nonprofit Sector Leadership Report 2016, out of more than 1000 respondents in the nonprofit sector, 49% indicated they “are operating without any knowledge of or access to a strategic plan.” They either didn’t have a plan (29%), didn’t know if they had a plan (4%), or the plan wasn’t written down (19%).
If that’s the case, maybe it’s time to talk about why a plan is important.
Nonprofits with a written strategic plan tend to be bigger. You can’t meaningfully grow without knowing where you are going and how you are going to get there. Of the respondents in this study, 80% of those with budgets of >$5 million have a strategic plan.
Strategic plans help in employee evaluations. With a strategic plan in place and disseminated widely in the organization, employees know how their work fits into the larger picture. Their evaluations can then be based on how the work that they are doing is furthering the mission.
Strategic plans help communicate your vision to funders. Taking the time to articulate your vision and how you will accomplish it gives board members and staff practice in articulating that vision to potential funders. Developing it together keeps the message to all stakeholders consistent across the organization. According to the study, 77% of organizations with a strategic plan “agreed that a unifying shared vision existed,” versus 47% of those without a plan.
Strategic plans build sustainability into the daily life of the organization. By planning for the future, you are thinking about what it will take to achieve that future. As Sheila Bravo, CEO of Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement points out, that also means determining what is needed for your nonprofit to be sustainable in the future.
What would having a strategic plan make possible for your organization?
What would make it possible for you to HAVE a strategic plan, and to successfully execute it?
Exploring the answers to those questions is itself an exercise toward your future. I’m happy to have that conversation with you.
Follow me at The Detwiler Group for more about nonprofit governance, education and strategic planning, or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You probably spent time and money developing a strategic plan. Your board voted to approve it. Perhaps a board committee created it; maybe your executive director and senior staff.
Where is it now? That big report sitting on the shelf isn’t going to do your organization any good if it’s not a living document.
When did you last pull out the strategic plan and track your progress toward your goals? When was the last time the board spent more than 10 minutes discussing that progress?
It’s a lovely plan, but…..
A plan without discrete steps, a timeline and accountability isn’t a plan. It’s a wish list. Here are a few tips for maintaining your progress, so that 3 years from now you can look back and say, “We did this!”
- Make sure you have the will to accomplish the plan. This may seem obvious, but it’s often the first pitfall. “It’s a lovely plan, and really, this is what we want to accomplish. But…..we don’t have the money; the time; the people; the skills”…..whatever. If you truly commit to the plan, then you find the money, the time, the people, the skills. It may not happen immediately, but it will never happen without making that commitment.
- Make sure that someone is accountable for each step of the plan. They may not be the person who actually, physically does the work, but someone has to be on top of whether it happens or not. Otherwise, everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.
- Have those accountable people regularly report to the board. The entire board voted to move ahead with the plan; the entire board should be invested in whether the plan is being accomplished. If you have to report regularly, then you get it done. If it’s not done, then here’s your opportunity to talk about how to get back on track.
“If anything is certain, it is that change is certain. The world we are planning for today will not exist in this form tomorrow.” Phil Crosby
- Regularly set aside time to discuss the overall progress, not just individual steps. Is the plan still relevant? Do new circumstances warrant changes? No matter how good your plan is, you can’t foresee everything that might happen in the course of three years. The government may cut funding. You may receive a huge bequest. Some new research may come to light.
- Celebrate the milestones. It took a lot of work to craft the plan. It takes even more work to execute it. Recognize that work and what you accomplish. Tell your stakeholders about your progress. Let these celebrations create momentum to lead you to even higher heights.
Engage your board in keeping the strategic plan a living document. It may sit on a shelf, but it won’t get dusty. You’ll regularly reference it in board meetings, and watch the progress toward your goals. Potential board members will see your commitment, and want to be a part of your growth.
Theodor Herzl wrote,
“If you will it, it is no dream. And if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay.”
The first step is commitment. If you have the will, you can accomplish the rest.
Doesn’t it seem like the main reason we go to sleep is to give our email boxes time to refill? Overnight, they fill with advice and articles about time management.
Whether it’s Harvard Business Review or NonProfit Times or any of a myriad of consultants and software companies, tips and tricks show up by the bucketsful in our Outlook and LinkedIn feeds. A Google search on the term “time management tips” turns up approximately 535,000 hits! The sheer number of electrons spent on the topic tells us just how out of control we feel. As a self-professed control freak, I empathize.
But aren’t they false promises? We can’t manage time. Time just is. We all have the same amount of time.
What we can manage is our attention. What do we pay attention to? What do we consider important enough to do first? In strategic planning, of course, that means setting milestones and holding people accountable. It’s incredibly helpful in getting our board and staff to focus on goals.
But we still have to spend some time keeping up with new developments. Otherwise, we risk falling behind in our field.
- How do we know the latest best practice?
- What are thought leaders saying?
- Which blogs are most relevant to nonprofit governance?
- Which writers have the best insights on board <–> CEO partnership?
Sometimes it seems like just more stuff to worry about and take our attention away from our goals.
One way I gain control is to let others do it for me. I follow a few people whom I know have their fingers on the pulse of what’s important to me. I don’t have to follow all the blogs they follow, because they separate the wheat from the chaff and only repost what they think is relevant. Colleague Beth Kanter says that
“Content curators provide a customized, vetted selection of the best and most relevant resources on a very specific topic or theme.”
By relying on others, I know I miss a few good articles. But that loss is far outweighed by the time I gain by not scanning absolutely everything – not to mention the sanity I’ve kept by not trying to.
How do you find your curators? Ask your peers.
In fact, let’s ask each other – right now. Let’s crowdsource the best sources so we each don’t have to wade through everything to find the gems.
If you tell me the most important resources you use for keeping up in nonprofit board and management issues, I’ll compile a list and post it so you can see what your peers are following.
Here’s two to start:
What should I add? Tell me what you follow and why. No one person can follow it all, so let’s learn from the ‘wisdom in the room.’
To contribute to the list, for more about board governance and nonprofit management, or to sign up for updates email me at Susan Detwiler, or go to www.detwiler.com.