Why It’s Important: Irrational Wisdom

Why It’s Important: Irrational Wisdom

This really short article by colleague Rebecca Sutherns makes an important point. No matter how much time you take to come to a decision, the decision may still not feel right. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision, though.

Look deeper

That ‘wrong feeling’ is occasion for a deeper look at why it feels wrong. Is it because there’s something you forgot to take into account? Some aspect your gut recognizes but your head doesn’t?  Or is it because of your own assumptions? Does the decision grate against childhood beliefs? Are you succumbing to personal, unacknowledged biases? Is your team looking at it only from one point of view?

Don’t shortchange the time it takes to make a good decision.

If you scheduled a day for a retreat, and the results feel wrong, schedule time to figure out why. You may find out that your gut is right, and you need to side-step the work you just did. You still might go with the ‘gut feeling,’ and be glad of it.

BUT!   Just because the conclusion you came to doesn’t feel right doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  It means it’s time to look again.

If a recent decision your team has made still feels wrong, or if you want help making decisions that feel right, please let me know.

Watch for more posts about important articles. If you see an article you think everyone should read, please send it on. Or if you want to talk about facilitation, governance or planning for your organization, I’d love to have that conversation.

More eyes – more articles – more wisdom!

Susan Detwiler

Why It’s Important: Planning or Improv?

Why It’s Important: Planning or Improv?

The Sensemaking Mindset: Improvisation over Strategy

Why is this article important?

The title of this Nonprofit Quarterly article, The Sensemaking Mindset: Improvisation over Strategy, implies an either/or relationship between improvisation and strategy. But buried in this Nonprofit Quarterly article is the caveat that structure is necessary for improvisation to work. There needs to be a framework. Using Karl Weick’s jazz as a metaphor, you can interpret, embellish, do a variation, or improvise from a basic melody. But you still need that basic melody.

Looked at this way, you might consider crafting a strategic framework, rather than a formal, step-by-step plan. This gives your organization – and the talented people in it – the latitude to respond to opportunities that come your way.

It takes courage to give people this kind of latitude. They need to know the ultimate vision you are all working toward. They need buy-in. And they need to trust that YOU trust THEM.

Can you build flexibility into your strategic planning? Do you allow improv?

If this article has started some conversations, or even caused some deep thinking about planning, please let me know.

And watch for more curated articles. If you see an article you think everyone should read, please send it on. Or if you want to talk about facilitation or planning for your organization, I’d love to have that conversation.

More eyes – more articles – more wisdom!

-Susan Detwiler

Throw Out Your Board Matrix

Throw Out Your Board Matrix

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.

The One Thing Strategic Plans Forget

The One Thing Strategic Plans Forget

Working on strategic planning with several organizations, I was reminded of the importance of execution – and this post from 2014.  Here’s an updated version.

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 months. 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, said:

“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 2014, they stated that by the year 2017 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community.
  • In 2016, they determine that by 2019 we’ll have a stronger board, representative of the community.
  • In 2018, are they going to say that by 2021 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, 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 experienced. 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 a request that will 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 the 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 sdetwiler@detwiler.com.

Choose Your Own Adventure: 5 Steps to a Sustainable Strategic Plan

Choose Your Own Adventure: 5 Steps to a Sustainable Strategic Plan

Photo Credit: Credit to Sharon Fullerton Photography.

Life is like a “choose your own adventure” book.

With each choice we make, our adventure changes. With one big difference. In a “choose your own adventure” book, we don’t know where the decisions will lead us (unless we look at the end). But in real life, we’re pretty good at anticipating consequences – if we think of it. It’s one of the things that makes us human.

Consider – if you look backward, you can probably describe the path that led you to live where you live, work where you work, love whom you love. Hindsight makes the path easy to see.  Moment after moment you made choices – consciously or unconsciously – and each choice created the possibility of making the next choice.

Each moment is the result of all the moments that came before. As Hildy Gottlieb wrote in The Pollyanna Principles: Each and every one of us is creating the future, every day, whether we do so consciously or not.

We can choose our own adventure when we plan for the future.

Not only can we anticipate the consequences of a particular choice, we can reverse engineer the future we want, imagine the steps that led us there, and consciously use those steps to build a path to that desired future. We can imagine we are standing in that future, and use imaginary hindsight to recount how it happened.

What about Strategic Planning?

In an organization, reverse engineering is tailor made for strategic planning. Here are the five steps:

  1. Gather all the people who have a stake in your future – board, staff, volunteers, clients, supporters, funders, government – and envision the future.
  • If we are 100% successful in whatever it is we decide to do, what will be different?
  • For whom? What does that future look like? Who will be affected?

THIS is the inspiration. By envisioning the future, you inspire each member of the board, staff and community to make it a reality. What will be different because YOU exist?

Asking many people who will be affected reminds us that whatever we do is being done by – and affecting – people: clients, frontline staff, administration, community, donors, board, neighbors. This is key to the success of the plan. Think about how difficult change is for some people. It’s often because the people who were planning didn’t include and get buy-in from the different people who would be affected.

  1. Consider what needs to be in place for that future to be a reality.
  • What do each of these ‘whoms’ need to know, believe, have, for you to achieve this success?
  • What needs to be in place for this plan to be successful?

Some of these are beliefs, e.g., staff and board need to believe this vision is possible. It might be knowledge, for example, staff need to know how to do the job – which itself leads to realizing that the staff will need training. It might be feelings, for example, the board needs to feel engaged in the process and willing to step out of their comfort zone — which leads to a need for board guidance. It may be legislation, like appropriate laws or appropriations, which may mean the board needs to advocate. It may be tangible things, like a building in which to work, or updated technology.

  1. Assess the resources you already have access to, and identify the resources that you don’t yet have.

Unlike traditional strategic planning, where you start by considering whether what you have are strengths or weaknesses, when you start with a vision of the future, you have something to measure your resources against. You can evaluate whether your assets are really strengths. Just because you have a great music department, if you’re trying to become a STEM resource center, it’s not necessarily an asset. Framing the question about needed resources this way, you can think of missing resources as just one more step to take on the way to the end result.

Based on our previous examples, needed resources might be time, people, faciliaties. Time for staff to be trained; time and locations for staff meetings; activists or lobbyists to advocate the legislature; a building, funds for a building, or relationships with commercial property owners.

  1. What actions do we need to take to make sure the resources are available; to ensure the things we need are in place?

Now that we know what we need, and what we have, we can figure out what we need to do. When we start with the vision, identify what needs to be in place, and assess what we already have, then it becomes obvious what actions you need to take.

For example, if legislation needs to change, then we know we need to research our legislators’ positions so we can effectively speak with them; we need to train our board members to be advocates; our staff needs to create materials to support our advocates’ work and a calendar that correlates with the legislative calendar.


  1. Individuals accept responsibility for making sure each item gets done.

Plans without accountability – knowing who is doing what, by when – are the kinds of plans that get put on a shelf. Nice ideas, elaborate wish lists, but not truly actionable. As Tom Peters is reported to have said, What gets measured gets managed.

Complexity and Success

These five simple steps become more complex – and far more successful – as we identify more affected stakeholders. Including all the people who will be affected makes it far more likely that the needs of each will be taken into account, and no steps will be missed. You’ve looked at both external and internal conditions for success, with an emphasis on the people, rather than the things.

Congratulations! You can choose your own adventure!

What will YOUR future be?

For more tips and thoughts on nonprofit board governance, planning and facilitation, sign up at The Detwiler Group, or email Susan Detwiler directly.

Originally posted at Bloomerang.co

Confession of a Control-Freak Consultant

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?”

and then,

“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.