Organize the group around outcomes

I’m called by an executive director who wants to conduct a general planning process that is “really participatory” and engages board, staff, and stakeholders. I ask whether the executive director will be bringing vision, strategy, and proposed direction to the table. I need to know whether the director’s own thinking is coming together about where the organization should go.

The executive director responds, “At this point I’m open. I just want to have a good process. I really want to engage others and their ideas. I just want to get people involved.”

Further discussion reveals that the organization is in good financial shape, relatively stable, and is not being forced into a planning process by dramatic external conditions.

There are conditions under which the most appropriate leadership action is to engage a group around fully open questions pertaining to broad strategic direction. This section describes elements of a process to use a group to identify and narrow what is important.

This situation is to be distinguished from others in which leadership’s most appropriate role is in proposing of alternatives and recommendations.

First, though, a major caution must be addressed.

Don’t front load your process with complex data and analyses

Participants in planning efforts mistakenly assume that elaborate processes of data gathering and environmental scanning will reveal
A) the greatest need
B) the most appropriate services and
C) strategic direction itself.

A general assessment of the environment within which the organization operates is important. Yet, the “environmental scan” – a benchmark of current planning – can become a nightmare. Planning committee members quickly find themselves in an endless quest for information. Members become consumed by data that they don’t know how to use.

I remember a recent situation in which a human service organization had spent eight, two-hour meetings gathering needs assessments, government reports, presentation materials, key informant interviews, and surveys. But all these data became incomprehensible to members. And when asked, “How did all of this affect your original sense of where the organization needed to go?”, people had little to say.

I think of another case of an organization that packed six planning meetings with list-making. The group spent hours brainstorming current and desired values, indicators of need or feasibility, past performance, future trends, organizational strengths and weaknesses. When they were finished they had a lot of paper. But what did it mean? How were all these words to be distilled a short list of crucial strategies for the future that had the commitment of those close to the organization?

This is not to argue that there are not types of information critical to organizations considering program changes and modification. The problem is that current planning models tend not to look critically at the role and value of information, and tacitly assume that more is better. Participants have come to be uncomfortable making decisions until they have “all” the information. This, of course, will never happen.

Be forceful in pushing the value of a different kind of data

More powerful, and more easily accessed data exist. This is the stuff found in the heads of the participants.

Why not assume that knowledgeable people close to the organization bring good, creative, and feasible ideas, strategies, and outcomes on how to serve the community in the future? Why not start by accessing this information?

These more impressionistic ideas – drawn from the heads of the social entrepreneurs around the table – constitute the most powerful “data” that needs to be accessed early in the planning process. In short, mobilize the commitment, experience, and knowledge of those close to the organization who are willing to lead.

The best processes get people almost immediately to the following questions:

  • What do you want?
  • Where do you want to be in the future?
  • What is your single most important priority?

These are the “data” that should be identified at the beginning of a general planning process. More linear research comes later and should function in service of the outcomes developed by the group.

An exercise to identify outcomes

An outcome can be both an end and a means to something more abstract. Outcomes range from the broad and conceptual to the narrow and highly specific. Let people articulate what is important at any level. Certain outcomes can speak simply to preserving current stable programs. And all outcomes do not have to be about change.

Try this approach with your board or staff. Ask each person to craft a statement, 25 words or fewer, that you will present to your peers.

“Imagine it is three years from now. What has happened that demonstrates success in your mind? What is your main, personal agenda for success/improvement in the coming three years? Think broadly – populations served, geographic areas, technology, governance, etc. “

This is a challenge to participants, because it demands that they move into the future and clearly articulate what is important.

Statements might begin:

  • “We have completed….”
  • “We now have….”
  • “We have resolved….”
  • “We have begun to….”

People should write their statements, post them on butcher paper in large type, and read them. They should not interpret them or add language. Readers are the advocates in this exercise, and listeners are the inquirers who seek to find out what others mean by their words.

Following are some phrases and concepts pulled from outcome statements. Taken in total, they reveal one element of early strategy-making: the competition for resources and the very different places people go when thinking about personal priorities. Note that people speak to very different domains of organizational attention when talking about change and improvement.

  • Values better maximized: “better access”, “higher academic standards”, “a focus on the three Rs”, “greater diversity”, “better preparation of students for work life”
  • Programs added or modified: “a new literacy program”, “more family counseling”
  • A specific population better served: “Southeast Asians”, “12 – 17 year-olds”, “South County residents”
  • Resources created: “an endowment”, “community visibility”, “advocacy”, “more corporate support”
  • Governance enhanced: “better recruitment”, “a new policy framework”, “new orientation materials”, “new types of board members”, “more sense of connection”
  • Management systems enhanced: “Staff salaries upgraded”, “building reserves”, “a new building”, “computer system upgrades”, “better morale”

Most people are not sufficiently specific with their proposals. To help them, create a clarification process through the use of questions. For example, I was recently involved in an organization whose outcome-identification process led to general agreement regarding the following statement:

We need to develop a new centralized image and identity for the organization that both a) enhances the ability to promote the agency in the community yet, b) preserves the identity of the individual programs.

Everyone felt successful as they reached this consensus. But the thrill of success quickly diminished as the wide range of interpretations regarding what the statement meant emerged. Did it mean standardized stationary? A standardized press release process? Central donor files? The words people use to talk about the organization?

People must learn how to articulate publicly their expected results in terms that are as specific as possible. And they must move discussion so that individuals are proposing directions and solutions, and not just re-describing the problem.

Clarifying with questions

After each of the original advocacy statements, solicit no more than three responses from other participants. These responses must be in the form of questions. Following are some questions that lead to well-formed managerial outcomes.

  • So you are concluding that…?
  • Do you mean that we have been…?
  • I hear you concluding that _____________. What [data or experience] led to that conclusion?
  • What is your reasoning that connects your experiences with your conclusions?
  • What do you mean by the words…? Can you be more specific?
  • If we did what you’re imagining, what would it look like?
  • What do you think is stopping us from getting there?
  • How would you know you had it?
  • So you are assuming that….?

When this exercise is complete, you should have:

  • A beginning inventory of the points of view in the room about broad outcomes, and
  • A method through which members are immediately participating and interacting with each other.

We have already modeled an important aspect of an efficient planning process: the assumption that people themselves bring the needed ideas and judgments about what is best for the organization. And at the same time, we have inserted a value into the proceedings-that individuals have got to be interested in the ideas and needs of their peers.

Review with the group the distinctions between key roles that will shift around during the course of meetings. Individuals serve as:

  • Advocates for certain ideas, investment, and definitions of problems
  • Inquirers who suspend their own positions to question and understand the words/ and positions of others, and
  • Synthesizers who think thematically about the group’s apparent directions and needs.

Moving discussion from personal advocacy to collective thinking

The key to generating collective agreement is to push individuals within the group to identify themes and areas of emphasis that emerged for them as they listened to their peers. They now begin attempting to speak for the group. Members may make statements such as the following:

“I hear us all saying that we need to expand the attention we’re giving to single women. Am I accurate?”

Certain items will emerge as particularly important as people shift back and forth from advocating for certain items and speaking to themes and group needs. Points of consensus will emerge. The facilitator will not know how much agenda-narrowing and collective agreement will come from any particular investment of time.

Whatever the process of discussion, it should quickly lead to more specific discussion. Otherwise, participants may differ later in interpretation of goals. If the work is done well, deliberations will create the political will to begin work on the issues that emerge for immediate action and attention.

With this level of agreement and specificity, more rationalized forms of analysis and data gathering can take place. The core outcomes-emerging from the minds of social entrepreneurs-now drive the strategy process.

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