I was at a three-day training last week for the Standards of Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for Nonprofit Sector. One of our trainers, Justin Pollock of Orgforward helped us dig into both the why and the how of each of the major areas of the code.
He posed two provocative questions set up our conversations – When XYZ is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? And for people to achieve these results, what are the favorable conditions that need to be in place?
Getting caught up in the "thing"
Too often organizations and the consultants that support them get too caught up in doing the “thing” – whether that is strategic planning, clarifying the mission and vision or program evaluation – without stepping back and thinking what they are hoping to get from this work – or what they are hoping will be different.
By asking “when strategy and mission is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? What does it enable staff, board and volunteers to be able to do better? What are the benefits?” first, you get at the hopes, aspirations and motivations for the strategy or mission work. And further by asking, “what do they need to know, have access to, be able to do and believe?” – in other words – identifying the favorable conditions for making progress in this area.
Putting it into action
What does this look like in practice? With strategic planning for example – what will be different when you engage in strategic planning? Too often people complain about an involved process that just resulted in a plan that sat on a shelf. When does strategic planning have real benefits for the organization? This could be in terms of the process itself – having time and space to dig into why the organization does what it does. This could uncover misalignment between stakeholders – whether board, staff, clients – on expectations. By uncovering these, they can then be worked through to bring people closer together in their understanding of the organization’s goals. When done well, the process helps the organization focus its resources, letting go of activity that is no longer serving the mission. It can serve to enable the organization to work on reducing the “friction” and “static” within the organization.
What are the favorable conditions to make these positive results possible? Favorable conditions would include having an inclusive and participatory process. If people feel like they are simply being told what the goals and priorities are by a few people within the organization, they may or may not be ‘bought in’ to the desired outcomes. Even if they are included in the process from the outset unless they feel like they can speak openly and honestly, they will just be going through the motions. A second condition that supports success is to have a clear pathway to translate large organizational level goals into team work plans and individual goals for the year. This will facilitate action.
Uncovering the why and the how
So the next time you launch into a large project, takes some time to consider these two questions – when we are successful with our project, what will it make possible for people in the organization? – to get clear on the “why” behind your work. Then consider “what are the conditions required to make our work go well?” – to think about the “how” of your project and set yourself up for success.
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Every organization development and strategic consulting project begins with a discovery stage. A time to research and hear from stakeholders and constituents. A time to hear stories about the past, assessments of the present and aspirations for the future. Depending on the project the exact focus will differ.
How effectively is the group working together?
Organization development projects focus on how people are working with each other – what is going well and what are the rubs that are getting in the way of the group being effective in achieving its purpose. The consultant engages in an action research project which could involve observation, interviewing key stakeholders, running focus groups and surveying wider audiences.
Capturing the current state
In the case of strategic planning, the consultant also digs into past work – past strategic plans, other research, basic organizational documents such as by laws, financials, organizational charts, board minutes, work plans, etc. The goal is to begin to get a sense of the current state of the organization. With this grounding in what the organization has documented, the consultant will then dive into talking with stakeholders – through interviews, focus groups and surveys.
Sifting for Nuggets
The next step is to synthesize all this data. This step can be overwhelming when you are sifting through piles of interview and focus group notes to look for the significant nuggets. But once it comes together in the form of themes the gold starts to shine through.
Gift of Listening
One of the real powerful aspects of all this work comes through the interactions with the people you interview, listen to in a focus group, ask for feedback in a survey. Too rarely in organizational life are people asked to reflect on and talk about their experience within the organization. Each interview is an opportunity to be a gift of true listening.
The sigh of recognition
Sharing the synthesis of the research is the point of truth. When you succeed in accurately capturing what you heard and your highlights resonate with the people whom you gathered it from – you can often hear an audible sigh of relief and recognition. “You really heard us,” is music to my ears. The act of being truly heard and seen empowers people to stand in their lived experience and then take action. This could be to face a difficult challenge or have a difficult conversation. This could be to dream bigger for their organization and start envisioning how to take action towards it.
Conversely, when you share the themes with the group and they do not want to hear some of the feedback, lots of different reactions can happen. Denial and dismissing the information. Questions and challenges about your methodology. Getting stuck on one point and spending lots of time arguing about it. Sometimes a project then gets shut down. This is unfortunate for a couple reasons. The organization expended resources gathering information with which they are not ready or willing to deal. More importantly gathering data often raises the expectations of those involved in the input process. They may then be more discouraged after the process than they were before if they see no action taking place.
The Power of Data Gathering
Either way – whether the information prompts the relaxation that comes with – “oh I am not alone – lots of other people think like I do but we just have not been discussing it,” or “no way, you are wrong – that is not how our team functions…” Something powerful happens. The group will not be the same afterwards. Be ready for change when you ask for input.
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I am a big reader and will occasionally share reflections on the books I have recently read.
“Fire is often the best indicator that people care about the issue with which they are struggling” (Dressler, 2010, p. 10). Meeting leaders often shy away from conflict, controversy, emotion or other human items that are not on their neatly organized agenda. Dressler describes how all of these messy parts of human interaction can add to a greater whole if a meeting leader has developed the capacity to hold the moment in order to be able to facilitate the group finding common ground. His book, Standing in the Fire: Leading High-Heat Meetings with Calm, Clarity and Courage, describes how meeting leaders, facilitators and conveners can cultivate greater capacity to regain their balance when surprises knock them off their equilibrium.
Six Ways of Standing
Dressler describes six “ways of standing” that are key to leading high-heat meetings. These include standing with self-awareness; standing in the here and now; standing with an open mind; knowing what you stand for; dancing with surprises; standing with compassion. He then describes ongoing practices to help cultivate one’s capacity to embody these “ways of standing.” These include physical centering, mindfulness meditation, compassion journaling and breathing, affirmations. He describes practices for day of readiness, in the moment practices and culminating practices to leave the meeting behind and harvest the learning from it.
Increasing Your Capacity to Choose Your Reaction
By using mindfulness and reflective practices regularly, meeting conveners can increase their capacity to choose their own reaction to high heat situations during the meetings they lead and participate in. Dressler describes in useful detail the essential elements of being a “nonanxious presence” for a group and how to cultivate that aptitude within yourself. He does not shy away from describing times from his own personal experience when he was emotionally “hooked” or handled a situation with less than grace. He also makes it clear that you do not simply come to the state of being able to embody these “stands” and stay there but rather continue to grow into you capacity to stand in the fire this way. He provides tools for analyzing instances where you are triggered emotionally and to learn from these instances; describes how the brain habitually reacts to stressful situations by escaping into worries about the past or future and how to use attention and stillness to bring yourself back into the here and now; how increasing your open-mindedness includes embodying humility, suspending judgment, and inviting curiosity.
Accessible and Straightforward
The book is very accessible, provides useful examples and lays out in a very thorough and logical fashion how to enhance one’s capacity to create and hold the emotional space for a high-heat meeting. By describing both the ideal and “how we burn ourselves,” Dressler makes the concepts he is discussing straightforward. Dressler’s reflective exercises help bring what he is writing about to life. I would recommend this book to anyone who regularly convenes meetings where important issues are being discussed.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.