From Strategic Thinking
Who Took the Farmer’s Hat and how reflective dialogue can be good for your board
Tuesday night (this post is republished from May 2017), I started the board retreat with a reflective dialogue based on reading the children’s classic Who Took the Farmer’s Hat?
I sent the book around the room, with a different board member reading each page. The reading took about five minutes.
Then I asked this question:
Why would a board consultant ask you to read this book?
After a brief pause and a few blank looks, one board member launched in which started the conversation:
- “One theme is the need to incorporate different perspectives as different people (er, animals) see the same thing in different ways.”
- “Reacting to change you can’t control or anticipate is another theme.”
- ” ‘The farmer ran fast, but the wind went faster’ describes so many of the changes we encounter and the need to be extremely adaptive”
- “Sometimes you just have to let go of those things you’ve always done and the way you’ve done them”
And so it went. We spent about 20 minutes discussing and applying themes to the board’s role, getting deeper into the themes as we went along.
Using reflective dialogue to spark deeper thinking
As often as I can, I try to incorporate reflective dialogue into my work with organizations, especially boards or work groups.
Brain research tells us that we can’t scold, argue or out-fact our way to change in others. But we can open the door to it by helping to spark moments of insight. In my selection of materials, I’m hoping not only to spark discussion but also to open minds to new ideas, to new possibilities.
As the conversation facilitator, my role is to create a safe space for participants to share their ideas, to pursue concepts that might not be fully formed or are even a bit contrarian. I also come equipped with questions to help spark reflection and move conversation forward. A good resource for questions you can use is Making Questions Work by Dorothy Strachan.
Reflective dialogue for team building
I sometimes get push back from groups when I select adding a poem with discussion into their board meeting or retreat. Yet, those same groups are wondering how to develop stronger personal relationships among their board members.
I’m all for physical bonding exercises at the right place and time. But I have a deep love for these reflective discussions that allow board members to enter a topic through a different frame. We tend to compartmentalize our board members based on their professions, failing to create space for them to share their many gifts and knowledge from other aspects of their lives. My clients are always pleasantly surprised that their retired banker taught philosophy in his youth, or that lawyer was a race car driver.
Since a great workshop I attended given by Adam Davis, executive director of Oregon Humanities and former director of the Center For Civic Reflection, I’ve added A Bed for The Night, by Bertolt Brecht into my work with so many nonprofits. And I regularly assign Adam’s provocative essay What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about service to my graduate students before we jump into any community projects or service learning.
Sometimes I use a poem, a video or short story like the one above. TED talks can be great reflection starters or a reading from the relevant organization development literature. Other times we might reflect on a research report. Many of my colleagues have used movie clips.
The Center for Civic Reflection has a list of resources on different topics that you might consider as well as questions for you to use. For example, you might want to read Maimonides From Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor to start your next fundraising discussion.
I’d also like to give a shout out to my colleagues at Creating the Future, who have launched a worldwide experiment “to determine how much more humane the world could be if the questions we ask in our day to day lives are bringing out the best in each other.”
What have you found helpful to get meaningful conversation flowing?
In defense of strategic planning
It seems to be all the rage in nonprofit circles to say that strategic planning is dead. Outdated. Worthless.
This sentiment was growing long before COVID rocked our world. While some aren’t willing to claim strategic planning is dead, we’ve been hearing that strategic planning isn’t right in these uncertain times.
To that I say: Balderdash!
Since when has the world been predictable!
Yes, COVID shook the foundation of most nonprofit organizations. It disrupted all in person operations and just about killed (and did kill some) organizations whose business models depended on earned revenues or contributed income from in person events.
But our sector has been living under the shadow of cataclysmic events for some time. That might be the death of the biggest funder, the fickle winds of government policy and foundation giving, a public relations scandal that decimates donor support, a great economic recession or missions no longer relevant.
Yes, COVID was a sucker-punch like none other most of us have experienced. Many of our clients had to pause as they confronted and invented their way through the immediate reality of shutdown. Meetings switched to virtual and online in a matter of just weeks.
But our huge societal problems didn’t evaporate because of COVID.
- Climate catastrophe isn’t waiting.
- Wars and societal disruption haven’t ceased.
- Racism, all the other isms and social injustice didn’t evaporate.
- The desire for connection, kindness, beauty, love, healing are longed for more than ever.
I think about the need for strategic planning from different perspectives.
At the organization level, when confronted by multiple options or challenges (i.e. scenarios), how do you decide which path to take if you don’t know where you are heading and why?
On the very practical side, have you ever tried to raise significant money without a vision of community betterment, without an assessment of capacity investments, or without some sense of the resources needed to complete the work ahead?
This may sound self-serving as one of the bedrocks of Cause & Effect’s capacity building work with nonprofit organizations is strategic planning. But from where I sit, as a consultant, a volunteer, a board member and former nonprofit staffer, now is as good a time as any to be thinking and acting strategically.
That’s what strategic planning is all about, isn’t it — a pathway that brings you from strategic thinking and framing to strategic action.
What I find most of the people who are ready to seal the casket on strategic planning really mean, is that the detail scoping of tactics over multiple years seems fruitless.
To me, strategic planning has never been about nitty gritty tactics parsed over three or five years.
I find myself frequently explaining to our strategic planning clients that those Gantt chart work plans they are drooling over are the realm of business planning, planning that happens best when done annually. To me, it’s impossible to predict what you will be doing three years from now, so why bother. And if you have had that foresight, you’re just lucky.
But the framework that enables you to be strategic, in the long term and in the moment, has to be created. For many, that framework IS the strategic plan.
The bedrock of that framework is strategic thinking. And the best explanation of what strategic thinking entails are the five elements of strategic thinking identified by Jeanne Leidtke, professor of business administration at the Darden School of the University of Virginia.
Shown in the graphic at the top of this article, they are: 1) intent focus, 2) systems thinking, 3) intelligent opportunism, 4) thinking in time, 5) hypothesis driven.
You can’t act strategically if:
- you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish, for whom and at what scale (intent focused).
- you don’t understand the environments in which you operate (systems thinking). Those environments have always been complex, dynamic and influenced by micro and macro forces.
- you are paralyzed by indecision when the right opportunity arrives on its schedule, not yours. (intelligent opportunism).
- you don’t have multiple timelines in your head all at one: one year, three years, 10 years, 20 years or 50, never mind holding the knowledge of the past the acting in the present (thinking in time).
- you aren’t considering scenarios and haven’t done the “if then, then what?” thinking required.
To do the above, you need to gather data by collecting information and reach out to listen to your constituents, communities and peers. You need to make meaning from your discoveries. Then, you get to imagine the future, identify your theory of change, codify that logic model and identify the capacity and cost of what you need to get to where you are going.
Reflection and learning are part of living the plan. Planning for the unexpected. Not expecting the optimal choices to always appear in your desired timeframe. To learn how to apply this in your business, get a a consultation with Andrew Defrancesco.
To me, this is the essence of strategic planning. And if now is the time for strategic planning for you, don’t be dissuaded. Stand your ground. Do what you know is needed.
Community interviews: the benefits of doing them yourself
An essential part of any strategic plan or fundraising plan that we are working on are the community interviews.
There are benefits to doing community interviews yourself.
You don’t have to have your consultant do all of the community interviews. While our team is very proficient at interviewing, we still insist that our client’s board and staff members conduct most of those conversations.
Here are a few of the benefits that I have seen:
- These are your relationships, not mine. You need to strengthen those relationships, not me.
- You can respond to opportunities or requests immediately… and you assume personal accountability to the asker. If I pass the request along, it’s too easy for you to ignore it.
- Board members are often too myopic, wrapped in your organization’s bubble. A view from the outside is a nice breeze of fresh air.
- For board members reluctant to talk to other people, structured questions are a safe way to exercise the schmooze muscle.
- People tend to remember what they hear directly rather than what they read or heard in a report.
- Community members or donors like to hear from board members, or our executive director, or even other staff members, depending on who they are.
- There is a lot of wisdom out there you are likely missing if you don’t ask for it.
Five elements of thinking strategically
1. Intent focused
2. A systems perspective
3. Thinking in Time
4. Intelligent Opportunism
These are the five elements that make up strategic thinking as described by Dr. Jeanne M. Liedtka, a faculty member at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business and former chief learning officer at United Technologies Corporation.
Organize your thoughts with Mind Mapping
When I’m trying to get my head around the complexity of an issue, I’ll often use the graphic note taking technique known as Mind Mapping.
I first learned about mind mapping in graduate school when I was introduced to this technique credited to Tony Buzan. One of my fellow graduate students took all of his class notes this way. Jack carried a large pad and many colored pencils to class with him. I was intrigued.
The big idea behind mind mapping is that it aligns with the way our brain works, making it easier to scan and memorize a lot of data. It is also a great way to organize thoughts that you can then see at a glance.
The technique is relatively simple. Key concepts radiate out from a central topic.
I drew the map you see here when I was starting strategic planning with a tourism council. By creating the map, I was able to capture my understanding of the tourism ecosystem or tourism landscape and check that out with my client. I developed this map for a particular geographic region. Your tourism map might look slightly different depending on where you live. With the map as a guide, I was able to help my team evolve a list of key informants for community interviews and to help drive data collection.
Mind maps use this radiating approach, with color and lines showing connections. If I had more artistic talent, I might put images into my map to make them even more memorable.
You can find software to create mind maps for yourself and to share with your colleagues. I use those now and then. But sometimes, just getting out the pens and colored markers are quite enough to organize my thoughts.
Mind mapping calls to me in part because it reminds me of the sentence diagramming I was taught to do in junior high school. (I admit it. I was such a geek).
Do you use mind mapping? For what purposes? Do you have software you’d recommend?
I’d love to hear from you.
The value of good process
When I’m working with boards of directors, one of the most requested changes is to help them set up a good process for recruiting new directors.
Process may be one of the most undervalued resources your organization possesses. Would you value good process more if you knew that it was truly a resource – or form of capital — available to strengthen your organization?
I may have spoken to you about my mad love affair with the work of Professor Elizabeth Castillo from Arizona State University. Professor Castillo is on a mission to have organizations begin to value all their forms of capital, not just the financial ones. And I’m one of her apostles.
We recently collaborated on a workshop for the Alliance for Nonprofit Management called Capacity building as capital building. The workshop introduced this idea of multiple forms of capital to consultants, and funders and researchers.
On the exhaustive list of 20 types of capital available to organizations that she has assembled, you’ll find this one: process.
What is capital and why is it valuable to your organization?
So what is capital and why are there so many different forms of it. One definition of capital is “any enduring asset capable of producing additional assets.” If you have money in the bank, you grow interest. Capital can accumulate.
Capital can also morph from one form to another. When you take that money in the bank and buy a building or van with it, you’ve converted it from financial capital to physical capital. Read more
Is strategic planning dead?
It seems that every time we start a planning process, someone on the board or staff sends a link to an article that declares that strategic planning is dead. Too archaic. Not fast past enough. Too long a planning horizon.
Well, saying strategic planning is dead sure makes a great headline.
But, no, strategic planning is not dead. Though we have seen plans we’d like to kill.
Can you be the master of your fate without strategy?
Yes, your organization needs to be flexible, adaptive and responsive to changes in your environment. But that’s not an excuse for never planning.
Too many plans are heavy on the operational details, really more of a business plan that prioritize tactics for strategy.
Here are a five posts to guide your way to producing plans that matter.
1. Strategic planning is all about your thinking
Seeking out data, talking to others, grappling with questions, pursuing answers, creating frameworks, crunching numbers — that is the strategic planning. The written report is just the codification. Here are a few questions to spark your thinking.
2. Clarify your logic model
We are logic model fanatics. Well, kind of. We love them because they put down on paper all of the assumptions your organization is making about how your will create the change you want to see in the world. Surprise! You weren’t all in alignment. Now you can be.
3. Stress test your plan
We are always grateful when board members push hard on plans. What if we stress test a recent decision against the plan framework? he asked. Here’s how that worked.
4. Speaking of board members, when should they be involved?
Beginning, middle, end? All along the way? Really, there is no one right answer. Here are some ideas to help you assess what is right for you.
5. Five must haves for your strategic planning to produce action
Finally, bringing your plan to life requires more than just good thinking. Here’s what else you’ll need.
The strategy of nonprofit technology
Thank you to the Nonprofit Support Program of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving for hosting a great workshop yesterday with Lindsay Bealko of Toolkit Consulting on the strategy of nonprofit technology.
I think it is safe to say that none of the consultants in the room needed a lot of convincing to recognize the impact of quickly shifting technology innovations on our clients. For smaller nonprofits, it’s always a challenge to keep up with systems like a Knowledge Management System.
But Lindsay reminded us not to get caught in the maelstrom of products and approaches.
Focus on the strategy of your technology first! As Lindsay said, the “so what” of technology matters — and this slide quickly illustrates what the point of using technology should be.
Can you think of an area of nonprofit functioning where technology doesn’t enhance or hold you back? I’d include finance, fundraising, program delivery, measurement and evaluation, community engagement, communications both inside and outside of your organization, media relations, revenue collection, even governance.
We found Lindsay’s 3 level framework for investment extremely compelling:
- Start with your basic infrastructure. Does it work? Is it secure? Do you have ongoing investments needed to stay stable. Then,
- Integrate technology to enhance your service delivery. Then, if you have the bandwidth,
- Innovate. How can technology to create greater impact for your mission?
Beware our clients! We’ll be ramping up attention to technology in our strategic planning work. It’s always been included, especially as we do fundraising planning, but we are going to push you harder in this area of your strategy and planning.
Many kudos once again to NSP for not only hosting this workshop for consultants, but for providing nonprofits in the Greater Hartford area with the funding and technical consulting to assess their technology needs and develop strategic technology plans.
For your reading list – Innovation and Scaling for Impact
This summer, I served on the Terry McAdam Book Award Committee of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.
The Terry McAdam Book Award is given annually. It honors an innovative book that advances the field of non-profit capacity building. Books chosen for review have been published in the last two years, are not textbooks and are available commercially.
And the 2017 winner is:
Innovation and Scaling for Impact by Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair. Stanford University Press.
The authors examine these two concepts in more detail, making important distinctions between them.
Here’s what the review Committee said about this book:
“In their eye-opening book, Seelos and Mair bring clarity to the differences between innovation and scaling, as well as the relationship of one to the other. While still encouraging levels of appropriate risk, they argue persuasively that nonprofits should focus far more resources on scaling programs they know have positive outcomes than on innovating where uncertainty about outcomes could drain resources.
“The authors provide guidance and worksheets to help leaders determine where innovation is appropriate. They identify types and levels of uncertainty, and incorporate lessons learned. They also emphasize the importance of scaling successful innovations for the benefit of an organization’s constituents. While case studies focus on larger international NGOs, leaders of smaller and domestic nonprofits will also find this book valuable.”
Past winners have included some books you may know:
- The Sustainability Mindset: Using the Matrix Map to Make Strategic Decisions by Steve Zimmerman and Jeanne Bell
- Content Marketing for Nonprofits: A Communications Map for Engaging Your Community, Becoming a Favorite Cause, and Raising More Money by Kivi Leroux Miller
- Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World by Beth Kanter and Katie Delahaye Paine
It was a privilege to serve on the committee. The choice of a winner was not easy as there were quite a number of valuable books. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few other books you might want to put on your reading list.
Feeling blue? Chin up, get to work, there’s lots of thinking and planning to
Yes, the election left me gobsmacked.
But this is no time to act like a deer in the headlights. Hundreds in my community and across the US are already thinking and planning to prepare to act strategically.
You don’t have to be for or against the incoming administration to recognize that a lot is going to change.
As a board and strategy consultant, I’m troubled that very few of the boards with whom I’m working are talking about planning for scenarios that might be heading their way. While front line advocacy organizations are already moving forward, I’m not seeing discussions happening in very many other sectors.
I understand that there is considerable uncertainty. I recognize that it might feel like a waste of time to talk about the unknown.
But isn’t that your job as a governing board? Shouldn’t you be considering best case, worst case and starting to prepare a plan of action? Haven’t you enough evidence of the policy changes that are likely to be made to start planning for those changes?
Your board has a lot of thinking and planning to do.
Need an example? We’ve already in a profoundly new world order. Jobs are vanishing fast, not necessarily because of global trade, but because what can be automated will. And there are very few jobs that can’t be automated.
What does this mean for your clients? What about your donors? Your community? Your employees?
Here’s another: How is the shifting landscape of philanthropic giving affecting your organization, where the rich are giving more and the rest of everyone less?
And the big one: What policies have the new administration and the majority party been championing over the last eight years or eight months? How will that affect us?
If there was every a time for both strategic and generative thinking, it’s now.
When the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, it may be too late to mobilize a satisfactory response.
- I’ve felt that way at least three times before in my voting life. But yes, this one seems completely different. Having been a member of Amnesty International for more than four decades, I’ve read the stories on how democracy can be lost seemingly overnight.