When asked what should be included in an Executive Director’s report to the board, I responded with this model of “OARS” to help the board be aware of the steering environment:

  • 
O = Opportunities . . . that the organization can (and perhaps should) pursue
  • 
A = Accomplishments . . . both little and big successes
  • 
R = Risk factors . . . things that look like they might go wrong, including action taken to 
mitigate these.
  • 
S = Surprises . . . that the ED encountered. Yes — even in a well run organization, with 
very professional staff, there are surprises

This model was inspired by the “Significant events” report I had file each week when I was a mid-level manager at General Electric. Each of my staff had to write such a report to me, and I distilled and condensed these, along with my own list, in my report to senior management.  Our “significant events” were named differently, but functioned in the same way to alert our managers about situations that would likely develop — either into more mature problems, or into inspiring successes.

The underlying value here is truth telling.  I knew it was easy for my staff to report great successes, or opportunities that seemed to be developing.  It was much harder to report those out of control situations that could get worse, those stakeholders whose dismay was escalating, those situations that seemed only to work against us.  But my job was to know of such situations, and to organize appropriate responses.  Were I kept in the dark, I couldn’t really do my job.

We need professional partners, and not just fee for service providers.  And we need to be invested in the relationships, and active in providing information, helping to define problems, evaluating proposed solutions, etc.

This post began in response to a question about choosing an attorney for a new business or non-profit organization.  Several other people had offered advice about paying attention to the attorney’s specialities, about the size and responsiveness of their organization, etc.  I agreed with all of this, but suggested looking not just at the provider, but about the kind of relationship required.

Here’s what I wrote in that post:

I believe there’s more. Your relationship with your attorneys (there may be more than one!) must be a partnership. It’s not just a fee for service. Setting up the corporation, protecting trademarks, etc. is not that complex. But finding the right guidance moving forward, managing risk, defining business relationships . . . these can be complex and interesting.

I’d ask each potential attorney (or firm), “What will you want from me? What’s going to be my role in making this relationship work?” Listen carefully, to see if their response sounds like the foundation of a helpful and productive partnership.

I might note that the same questions are very relevant in interviewing potential consultants, advertising agencies, web developers . . . all your business partners.

Are you willing to nourish and value that relationship?  Can you hear the guidance and advice that will be offered, and still remain an active partner in deciding how to proceed.  Can you stake responsibility for steering your ship, even as you gather information and ideas from all of your “crew”?

 

Tell me a story, about …

September 11, 2013

The best way to shares our lives. or visions, our dreams, our fears . . . is by telling stories.  And one of the best ways to do the same things about our organizations (profit or non-profit) is to tell stories.  Opening ourselves to a story telling mindset is very adaptive.

Recently I was mentoring somebody who was very conflicted about whether to proceed on a certain path.  He wasn’t clear that he wanted to reach that destination, and was equally unclear whether the words associated with the celebration of that path were words he could say with integrity.

I was in no position to offer advice.  I couldn’t know which direction was preferable, and, besides, i was his “mentor” but not his guide.  it would have been appropriate for me to even try to chart his course.

But I could offer the following process:

  • Tell me  a story about following that path and where it takes you.
  • Then, tell me another story about standing back, and not following that path.  Where does that leave you?

Note that neither of these were requests to analyze, measure, or weigh.  He’d done that a lot already, and that process only added to the inner conflict.  Instead, I was asking him to let stories flow — and, indeed, they did.

It quickly became clear that the words associated with the certification were a crucial concern.  The destination might have been right, but the words were an obstacle.

Again, story telling was the way forward.  I asked him to create a story of a certification process that had resonance, with words he could easily say and stand behind.  Then, I suggested, he might explore how much freedom he would have to use his words and his process.

I never heard that story, and don’t know exactly what pathway opened up.  But he was able to follow a solid path to that destination, and I do know that he found the clarity he sought.

Did it matter that I never heard the inward part of this story?  Not at all!  Some stories are meant to guide us, and not to inform the rest of the world.

The same kinds of stories can guide non-profit organization and even for-profit corporations as they plan program, product lines, service offerings, etc.  I recall vividly one occasion where I was asked to help re-design some software — following guidelines that intuitively seemed quite wrong to me.  I spent several days watching their staff using the current software as they talked on the phone with their customers or clients, and listening to both sides of each phone call.  Finally I was able to blurt out a very simple version of what seemed like the iconic story behind each interaction.  The staff was thrilled to hear it stated so simply, and found that the story we had exposed led directly to a greatly improved and simplified version of the software.

As I look forward to each dialog with a client or prospect, with a non-profit board member or concerned stakeholder, with a troubled director or an engaged staff member, the five words that are almost always at the tip of my tongue are, “Tell me a story, about . . .”

Recently I was asked to comment about how best to engage donors to a nonprofit.

My answer — Ask the right questions.  Decide what conversation you’d like to have, and figure out what QUESTIONS will start that off.  Donors like to be listened to, like to be heard, and like to be treated as important.  Asking the right questions, and then listening carefully will make a huge difference.

Is there a story that you’d like to tell. Don’t just blurt it out. Wait for the question, to which your story is a wonderful answer.

An example: “Why have you been so generous with us . . . with three very significant contributions in just the past year?”  That’s not a question many fundraisers would ask. But prompting the key donor to review his or her satisfaction in supporting your work may be more effective than any words you might provide about why your work matters.

One caveat, however:  You must care about the answer you will receive.  Asking questions just for effect won’t work at all.  The donor or prospect may surprise you, may confirm your understanding or expectations, may challenge you.  But, whatever its effect, the answer will be important.

The importance of the answer – That’s a major part of what makes a great question.

One caveat

I didn’t have to look far to find these “scripts”.  I’ve played each of them many times before in conversations with friends and colleagues, and expect that I’m in good company.  Most of these are not scripts that nourish relationships, cultivate friendships, build self-image, or free up our positive creative energy.  And yet how often do these scripts guide our behavior?

My suggestion — Try playing each of these scripts for a day.  Rehearse your lines, and be prepared to deliver them with passion and energy.  But stop short of speaking.  Think twice, and experience how the “real” you can best come forward.

Have I left out one of your favorite — or least favorite — scripts.  I’d love to hear from you.  Post on this blog, or e-mail me.

  • Woe is me — Let me tell you all that has befallen me this week, the people who have been so mean or thoughtless, those who I thought were my friends, but finally showed their true (selfish) colors.
  • Gratitude — I’m so thankful for you as my good friend, and you’re part of a community surrounding me.  Stuff keeps happening, but I’m glad that I’m not alone.
  • Entertainment — I’m an entertaining speaker, and I’ve lots of new stories and jokes, so — hold on to your seat — let me sound off.
  • Compassionate curiosity — It’s been quite a while since we’ve really talked, and I’d love to hear what’s happening with you.  What’s happening with you now?  What’s important?  I’d like to know.
  • Interview — I want to hear about you, but let me take control of the conversation.  Are you ready for my first question (of twenty!)?
  • Flirting time — I’d like to offer you much gratuitous praise — not that I really mean it, but can’t we enjoy flattering each other?
  • Far from the personal — Let’s talk about politicians abroad, or movie stars, or scandals . . . anything that keeps us from revealing much about ourselves today.
  • Not so hidden disinterest — I asked you how you are, and about your family, but please don’t say anything too challenging.  Running into you has been a diversion from how I really wanted to spend my time.
  • Saving the world — I know you’re compassionate about world hunger, torture, and other such tragic issues, but are you feeling enough guilt?  Let me offer some concrete things that you can do, and a big dose of guilt for you to absorb if you’re not willing to take these on.
  • Please set the pace — Glad to run into you.  I’ll be relatively quiet, just wanting to hear from you.
  • Our fortune is overwhelming — Let me tell you about my promotion, the fantastic job our daughter just got, the contest we won.  I’ve so much good news to share with you that I really don’t have time to listen to your story today.  Oh, yes, and I was sorry to hear your bad news.
  • False pretense — Let me pretend I didn’t see you.  I won’t say a word, but trust you won’t be offended.

I recently met with the organizer of a fledgling non-profit, that will help “new Americans” find best place in our society, offering mutual support, and drawing wisely upon existing resources.

Then, after some reflection, I wrote the following summary of our discussion (slightly edited here for publication).  I share it here not for the specifics regarding this new organization, but as a possible model of the kind of thinking needed to give birth to a vital and well purposed group.

Vision — A world in which the phrase “new Americans” is not even necessary, as all are treated with such dignity and respect, and receive assistance fulfilling their potential, in an open society that values differences as well as strength, that supports varied cultural forms, and that is open to growth and change.  [I’ve just listed my thoughts here, probably not in the most refined, and final, wording]

Mission — New Americans helping each other take their full place in the economic and cultural life of this society, sharing their strengths, receiving help and support, and maintaining their dignity and sense of self worth.  In particular, supporting new Americans who have experienced torture and other trauma, as well as abuses from the systems in place that should have offered support and welcome.

Support committee — An informal group offering you (the presumed director) counsel and support, but that has no decision-making power or formal organizational role.  This group could be a group that can be a sounding bound for you, a source of advise, a place to test out ideas without making them visible to the whole community.

Executive Board — The formal group holding the “vessel” that is your organization.  This is a point of organizational grounding, financial accountability, legal integrity.  But it’s not the place where program originates.  Largely consisting of new Americans, it may also draw upon others who can offer expertise in law, finance, non-profit grants, publicity, development, and other such areas.  With good fiscal sponsorship, this group may not be needed right away to handle the organizations’ grant income, etc.  Still, the structure of self-government is important, and experiencing this mechanism of self-determination right away can be an important experience and inspiration.

Community Board — A representative group, that ideally has members from all the ethnic groups being served.  This is the group that identifies and then evaluates program, insuring that it really meets the needs of the communities it is supposed to serve.  You will need to find clarity about how this group should function, how decisions are to be made, etc.

We spent time discussing the names of these last three groups.  I still support my original comments, but believe you could call them anything — as long as you define clear and appropriate roles for each group.

These words are clearly not definitive.  And that’s precisely why I’m sharing them here.  If I’m incorrectly reporting what was shared and generally agreed upon, or if in retrospect some of these ideas are questionable, this is a great time to correct and move forward.

I’d read about Three Buoys — the new fish restaurant that recently opened up a few blocks from my office.  It sounded like a wonderful place for simple fish sandwiches, and for more sophisticated seafood preparations as well.  So, I thought this morning, why not try it for lunch today.

I was warmly welcomed, but then presented with a dense page of typewritten text, that must have contained at least 100 different menu items.  All were priced well above what I wanted to spend for lunch, and most were not seafood.

Yes — I could have scanned the menu, checking out the seafood items.  There probably were some that would have interested me, and at a price not too much above what I expected to spend on lunch.  But the very fact that there were so many items on the menu was proof positive to me that this place couldn’t be doing anything very well.

My “proof positive” may have been completely wrong.  I might have missed a taste thrill for lunch today.  But that’s not the point.  What’s interesting is that I entered the restaurant wanting to buy something, and I left feeling upset that this mission was so hard.  They might have lost not just my one purchase today, but a loyal customers for years to come.

What might have helped turn me into a real customer?

  • A menu sorted by kind of item — Perhaps fried seafood, broiled seafood, soups, salads, meat, poultry, etc.
  • A menu that was just shorter.
  • A server who has offered to help me pick out something on the long menu for this new place.
  • A page of lunch specials — perhaps only slightly cheaper than the full menu, but much more approachable.

Also, as I left, somebody might have asked, “We’re sorry you’re leaving . . . What were you looking for that you didn’t see on the menu?”

I want this little place to succeed, and may go back to offer my feedback — for what it’s worth.  But if they are not querying their customers (or would-be customers), there’s not a lot of hope that they will get it right.

I’ll be offering this week long workshop at the week long “Friends General Conference” gathering this summer.  But I’d love to work with anybody about how Quaker-ish process might work in any secular setting.

“We’ll explore ways in which something akin to a Quakerlike process can be used for secular decision making, and how it brings clarity and community to the life of non-profit organizations and even to for-profit companies. What’s left of Quaker process without it’s emphasis on spiritual discernment? Come and find out!”

I’ve been aware of much work on personal communication styles — how we each can best receive support, advice, criticism, support, validation, etc. And, of course, there are various personality models that help us understand all these things.

But I’m aware of much less work characterizing organizations.  Thus I set about to put together this simple model.  I present it here as something in process, for discussion and validation only. Please add your commentary.  And if you’rereading this through another blog or medium (such as a LinkedIn group discussion), please make sure that you post here any comments that you post there as well .Image

I characterize organizations along two dimensions:

Traditional  . . . Visionary

Weighty . . . Agile

And the, for each quadrant, I’ve assigned a name:

A traditional organization, that has some agility but not vision, is Awkward.

A traditional organization, that is more weighty than agile, ia probably Stuck.

A visionary organization, that remains weighty, is truly Reaching.

And, finally, an organization that is both visionary and truly agile is truly Creative.

Although I suggest that this characterization is for organizations, it may better fit organizational segments, perhaps a department or work group.

How helpful is this model?  Are the quadrant names appropriate and helpful?  And how useful is this picture to you?  Please comment.

What’s the real problem?

October 12, 2012

How often we try to solve a problem in the terms first presented to us.  Occasionally this works.  But very often the statement of the problem is self-limiting, and tends to steer us away from finding a real solution.  Or — and this is just as problematic — we may re–phrase a problem in limiting and perhaps misleading terms.

Not long ago I changed the e-mail address at which I receive notices from what had been a very active mailing list.  Instantly, I noticed that incoming mail from that list had stopped.  What was going on?  Was there a spam filter?  I realized that I’d changed the list settings before creating my new email account.  Had the list sent mail to the momentarily non-existent email address, and then turned me off?  What other scenarios could lead to such an email blockage.  I worked diligently on this problem, sought the assistance of the list owner and of several list participants, but got nowhere.  A whole weekend went by, but no solution appeared.

And then the email I wanted started to flow.  It turned out that this once-active list had experienced a significant decline in traffic, and there had been absolutely no messages during the whole weekend.  Come Monday there was a trickle of emails on the list — and they all came through to me just as they were supposed to.

In fact I had originally seen the problem as, “No emails coming through”.  But then I had quickly rephrased it into a question that I thought would be more helpful — “What is blocking my emails?”  And holding on to that paradigm had blinded me to the very simple solution — “There were no emails for anybody”.

Recently a colleague shared with me her concerns about the board of the small nonprofit that she directs.  We immediately began talking about various training programs or board retreats that might make the board a more functional support for this nonprofit and for its director.  It felt appropriate for us to talk about the possible agenda for such training, whether it should be for all board members or just those on the executive committee, etc.  Our unspoken paradigm was that the board didn’t understand its best role, and so wasn’t behaving in the most productive manner.  Bring about the required understanding or attitude and the problem would be fixed, we believed.

It took quite a while for us to step back and reformulate the problem, into the simple statement, that “The board is not serving the role needed by the organization and its director”.  And with this understanding we could ask whether, in fact, the right people were serving on the board, whether the personal benefits they sought from board service were consistent with the organization’s situation, and whether there were any positive models of board service within the board’s recent history.  Board training (in the conventional sense) remained one possible option, but not the only option.

Another organization that I’ve worked with found that they weren’t taken seriously when seeking large contributions.  They struggled to produce clearer descriptions of their programs, that they were sure would excite potential major donors.  The new materials were better, and did attract more small donations.  But they didn’t solve the problem — major donors were still holding back.  It turned out that the public financial statements were unclear and inadequate. This didn’t bother small contributors, but were a real concern to major donors.  A new treasurer was able to produce much clearer financial reports, and larger contributions began to flow.

In each of these cases the relevant people heard a statement of the visible problem, but made assumptions as they translated it into a limiting reformulation.  Letting go of those assumptions and asking anew what was the real problem turned out to be the key.

The moral here is simple:  Our first question should always be, “What is the problem?”.  And we need to answer that in the most primitive way, trying to state the problem as seen or experienced, rather than as transformed by some suggestive but often inaccurate assumptions or deductions.

Centering

October 4, 2012

M. C. Richards in her book, “Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person” draws on the metaphor of the potter centering a piece of clay.  The potter pushes against the clay but leaves space for it to move, until it is well centered on the wheel.  At that point the potter can touch one point of the pot and the whole moving piece of clay will respond.

The potter must be careful — for if the clay gets off center a strong touch might pull it apart.  Instead, the potter will carefully lead the pot back on center, and then continue working it.  Of course there are limits to the strength of the clay, especially when it is wet and heavy. An understanding of this reality must moderate the potter’s touch.

Similarly, we need to re-center ourselves as we begin any meeting, or even any task.  Left unchecked, we may drift or get pulled away from where we need to be.  We may find that we’ve taken a wrong turn, or gotten off the trail and need to find it again.  This is not a sign that we are imperfect or inexperienced, but simply that we are human.  And when we are on center — everything is possible.

Things don’t always go well.  Sometimes “centering down” seems impossible, as laundry lists of tasks and issues keep running through our minds.   Undone tasks, complex relationships, or other matters may loom large, and not let themselves be pushed aside even for an hour.   Withhold judgment, be prepared to let go, and wait.  Let the center find you.

 

There are lots of tests to ensure that web sites have readable type, clearly delineated links, reasonable numbers of elements per page, etc. Web sites can be assessed according to various standards of accessibility, such as for people with motor or visual handicaps. All the information gathered from such tests can be useful – but doesn’t by itself answer the important question, “Does the web site work?”

A web site works when users feel comfortable navigating it, find themselves engaged in the experience, are able to find the information or understanding that they want. It works when users are spared those moments of fear during which they are not sure how to proceed, and are afraid that they will lose their place in some way. It works when the users’ experience is enjoyable, and doesn’t end when the most immediate goal is reached.

But – perhaps most important – a web site “works” when the user is engaged in the virtual conversation that the site owner has tried to create. This might be “Let us help you find the software you need to get your printer working”, or “. . . find the car you need, and can afford”, or “. . . sign up for the education program that will help you meet your life goals.” Of course, a specific client’s goal may be quite different than these examples.

What connects all of these conversations is that they have to do with more than just information – although information is important. They are about a user experience, that promotes engagement, that cements a relationship with the vendor or provider, that instills confidence, and, often, that results in continued sales. A colleague of mine once said, “If you want to use social media, you need to be social”, and I find this dictum a very helpful guiding principle for all web development and evaluation.

Imagine a web page for the car manufacturer, that offers three choices:
• Daisy models
• Tulip models
• Amaryllis models
While these names may be perfectly clear to those very familiar with this carmaker’s line, their presence would probably be intimidating to many users. “How do I know where to begin?”, they would ask themselves, and would then feel that they are just making a guess on one of these three.
Now consider an improvement on this:
• Our basic line – the Daisy series
• Adding features and elegance – our Tulip series
• The car you’ve dreamed of owning – the fine Amaryllis series

This removes the ambiguity for users not familiar with the car models. In that sense it’s probably “correct”. But what kind of relationship does it establish with the user? What’s the conversation? It’s simply, “We have these cars. You can learn about them here.” That’s not the conversation that will create eager buyers, or will sell many cars.

So, lets imagine a stronger approach, designed to really engage the user:
• Configure your Daisy model – a basic car, for any budget.
• Configure your Tulip – offering you more comfort, style, and class.
• Configure your Amaryllis – and be so proud of the car you’ll be driving.

Here we have a strong invitation to the website user to really try out one of these cars, start looking at colors, options, etc. The language here may not be exactly right, but I expect most of us would still find this third option the most likely one to win friends and initiate sales. It invites a relationship that must, of course, be continued in the rest of the web site interaction.

In the examples above we can see at least three aspects of web site usability:
• Users can proceed with clarity and confidence (not made to feel foolish).
• Users learn relevant information about product or service.
• User are drawn in to a conversation, engaging with the vendor.

How can we assess these in a systematic way? As a skilled practitioner, I can certainly review a web site, and offer much constructive feedback. Indeed, much of my role is in offering such expert critique or suggestion.

But such one-person theoretical review has strong limitations. The real test is how the web site works when actually used by typical users. (I may resemble the “typical” printer user or car buyer, but I’m certainly not the typical prospect for a vocational college.) My method is simple to understand, but logistically can be quite complex.

  1. Clearly identify the persona to be used in testing. (This should have happened during web site design, but often it does not.)
  2. Define a test script, which the subjects will be asked to perform. (This may be finding some information, assessing several institutions, learning a skill, etc.)
  3. Determine a performance test, that will be used after the test to see what the subject has learned, their inclination to proceed with the content, their inclination to consider a purchase if there is a sales objective.
  4. Find the test subjects, using the criteria identified in (1) above. Typically subject will be paid for their time.
  5.  Conduct the test, simply watching each subject, but with no intervention. Sometimes we will video the test as well.
  6. Conduct the test again, but asking the subjects to annotate their behavior – at each step, say what they are doing, why, and what kind of response they are seeking.

Note that we are never correcting or guiding the subjects – with one exception: If they appear to be lost, we may inquire what they are seeking. We will not answer their question, but will record in detail the dilemma the user reported.

On occasion, we’re called upon to review not just a web site in isolation, but its performance relative to the sites of competing vendors. This might involve simply repeating the test on several sites, or we may devise particular performance tests that measure how subjects rate the various vendors based on the web site experiences.

What I’ve described here may seem quite different from the more analytical evaluation processes often used by other usability consultants. I prefer this holistic approach, in which web sites are evaluated primarily by their performance rather than by an enumeration of characteristics.

Only after going through the testing process might I want to review the statistical data offered by such tools as Google Analytics. These tools are particularly helpful for identifying how users arrive at the site and where on the web site they tend to go. But the tools offer little guidance about the user experience, motivation, relative ease or frustration, etc.

In summary, I recommend, and I practice a holistic evaluation of web sites, in which behavioral goals are clearly identified, and in which silent observers watch users during real interactions with the web site, or in which the observers interact with the users only to identify more completely the user’s experience. Web sites work when they create and engage users in a productive conversation.

Postscript: Usability review is not design review. I’m a very visual person, and appreciate fine typography, uncluttered layout, elegant design. I’d like to believe that these are an important part of web site success. But data suggests that they may not be as important as I would like. In any case, the tests that I’m describing here evaluate how users behave when working with the site, and not how the site appears to its designers or critics.

I’m just beginning to design two new “Skillbuilders” (workshops) for the Maine Association of nonprofits. Workshop design comes easy to me, and I’ve a track record of considerable success. Still, I’m expecting to learn significant lessons as we first experience these workshops being presented to live audiences. How can I maximize my learning from these pilot runs?  And how can I organize my initial work so that these questions are clear?

My first rule is to always list the goals, and design the evaluation process, before completing the workshop design itself. Just the titles, in this case “Asking Great Questions” and “Crafting Your Elevator Speech”, are not enough.

For example, digging deeper into my “Asking Great Questions” agenda, I began to see such questions as:

• Who should be learning what about the process of creating, editing, and asking questions? (Who is our target audience?)

• What key ideas or understanding do we believe participants in the skillbuilder should take away? (What are we aiming to teach?)

• What experiences (not what lessons) will have make this happen?

• Are there important things that participants may need to un-learn? (What habits, or what blindness, are we trying to overcome?)

Working with such questions early in the workshop conception stage, I began to see that the kinds of questions that might fit into an employment interview are very different from those that we might want to ask of other stakeholders in our organization, of lawmakers or regulatory officials, of teachers or of researchers and guides whom we trust.

With each clarification of the goals comes new clarity about how to observe and measure whether we have achieved those goals. And, so, the evaluation process is built as the workshop is designed. Even more important, the questioning process informs the whole conception of the workshop.

In fact, I needed to create another set of questions, to evaluate my initial description of the Skillbuilder, before even developing the main workshop agenda:

• Who will the description attract, and are these the people I want in this skillbuilder?

• What expectations will the description create, and is this an expectation that I can and want to fulfill?

• The skillbuilder will be require very active participation, and will include little content that can be received passively.  Will that be clear and a positive aspect of participant’s experience (or will there be comments about the lack of Powerpoint slides with detailed text guides)?

Thinking about this process led me to look back at the first outline I wrote for an earlier Skillbuilder I had developed with Deb Nelson. Along with my first rough draft outline, I had sent her a memo with a heading “Questions for Us”, and the following content:

• Our goals for the workshop

• What we have to tell or teach vs. participants learning from each other

• How we will know we have succeeded — Key evaluation question

• Possible pitfalls — What should not happen?

• Personal goals — Why we are doing this

Ask yourself these and similar questions as you prepare your presentations, your lectures, your workshops.  Even when the answers seem to be obvious and so clear, write them down. Revise that draft copy. And let your questions be your guide.

What makes a great story?

September 7, 2012

Deb Nelson and I have been teaching a Skillbuilder (workshop) for the Maine Association of Nonprofits entitled “Finding and telling our stories:  Bringing our mission and method to life”.  It’s about helping people identify stories about their organization that are compelling, illustrative, and can be told in just a few words.

As part of this workshop, we ask participants, “What makes a great story?”.  These are some of the answers that we hope to hear (and we usually do):

  • The story has a compelling narrative
  • It’s not obvious (e.g. you must keep listening)
  • It’s accurate, true, really happened
  • It can be told with authenticity and authority
  • The imagery is vivid.
  • It’s culturally relevant for the audience
  • It fulfills the right goals for its audience
  • It has a real beginning, middle, and end
  • It’s suitably short

These are the kinds of stories that we want to tell in describing the work of our organizations — whether in fundraising for a non-profit, marketing a commercial service, or offering an innovative product.  Compelling true short stories draw people in, create interest, and communicate most effectively.

My best mistake (!)

September 6, 2012

Does something sound wrong with this title? Most of us want to trumpet our successes, and hide our mistakes. And yet it’s through important mistakes that we can learn the most important lessons.

With this thought in mind, here’s my “best” mistake. Mark (no, not his real name) had hired me before, as a consultant with two of his companies. And now he was CEO of an interesting multi-division firm, with lots of appeal. He brought me in first to rework systems in a smaller division, and then to work on the major corporate systems. I was doing a great job (or so I thought), even though I was running into resistance. Projects that create change always incite some resistance, so this was not a concern. But then Mark left the firm.

All of the sudden, I was alone, really reporting to nobody. Nobody owned the project that Mark had created. And, not surprisingly, I was asked to leave as well. It wasn’t because of my work, or my results. I was just an orphan, and nobody was a stakeholder in my success there.

What did I learn from this? Well, no longer after he left, Mark referred me to another firm, whose CEO, Peter, was a friend of his. Again, it was the CEO who wanted to hire me, and I was instrumental in his plans to bring the organization to another level. But I didn’t want to repeat the same boom and bust scenario again. So, this is what I set in place:

I insisted that Peter form a management team, to take supervisory responsibility for my work.

Each month, before I arrived for a week of week, they would set the agenda, identify goals, and develop detailed plans to insure that I was given the needed resources.

Then, after I finished my week of work, they would meet and review the results.

My work was valued, and so there were often conflicts about which projects were given to me. I could deflect all of these, pointing to the management team that was setting the agenda.

In short, I created a place for Arthur Fink the consultant in their management chart — even though I was never a full time (or even part time) employee. And even when Peter became the target of criticism for some of his decisions (or lack of decisions), I was well insulated from this political stuff.

Business, and the work of non-profit organizations, is all about relationships. But when your position of tied to one possibly frail connection based on one relationshp, everything is at risk. By creating groups or communities, and establishing relationships with them, one can be better informed and much better protected.

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