Little changes can make a big difference
Through my work I interview a lot of people. Most projects include some interviews or focus groups as part of the discovery process. I used to end my interviews with the question, “Is there anything else I need to know for this project/process?”
Most of the time the answer would be, “no, nothing else.”
Then one time I said, “What else do I need to know for this project/process?” And a whole lot more spilled out from the person I was talking with.
“Is there anything else…?” “What else…?” doesn’t seem on surface to be very different.
Yet it shifts the focus from a finite yes/no answer to the more open ended, “what else…?” And embedded in the question is the assumption that there is something else. Something else that I could not have anticipated in the questions I have already asked.
Small tweaks can make a difference
It seems like a little bit of a throw away. Yet often the most interesting and revealing answers are to that question.
So small tweaks can have a big impact. What small tweaks have you made recently in your work that had an impact?
When I get caught up in an anxiety spiral, my thoughts quickly go worse case scenario. Something has happened, I get triggered and I run straight up the ladder of inference, jumping to all sorts of conclusions. Too often I am not even conscious that I have leapt from an incident – something someone did or did not do, something someone said, even a facial expression – to all sorts of beliefs about that, and most critically -- accepting those beliefs as fact.
The ladder of inference created by Chris Argyris breaks down what our brains do so naturally and so quickly. We jump from the observable data to the data we pay attention. We then assign meaning to it, make assumptions, jump to conclusions based on our beliefs and then often take action based on this chain of thought. All this can happen in a split second.
I have found that the ABC framework is a useful tool for slowing myself down and examining the validity of my thoughts and conclusions. Originating in cognitive psychology and the work of Aaron Beck, the acronym stands for Adversity, Belief and Consequences
The tool is useful because it gives you a framework to break down what just happened. Here is an example of how you would use the tool:
This first step captures what just happened. The next step is to examine those thoughts and beliefs.
Then one step further takes each of the worse case scenario beliefs, examines their likelihood and helps you play out alternative scenarios as well as make sounder decisions about next steps.
Adversity: A colleague yawns during my presentation.
The next time you find yourself caught in an unhelpful thought loop try this out for yourself. Learn more in the book The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich, PhD and Andrew Shatte, PhD.
2019: My Year in Learning
I consider myself a life-long learner. In fact ‘learner’ is one of my top five strengths in both the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment as well as Via values assessment. I spent some time in December looking back at the year and one of the things that I thought about my year in terms of learning.
Learning shows up in a couple different ways for me. I love to read and have shared short summaries of a few of the books I have read this year in these posts – summer book reviews – winter book reviews. I also ask myself the question, “what did I learn?” each week when I do my weekly reflection. Thus I capture the informal learning that emerges as I work.
Designing learning experiences
I design learning experiences for others as well. This year that included speaking engagements including workshops and sessions on a variety of topics:
I also created more in depth learning experiences for others. I led day-long workshops on building partnership and board development for a network of nonprofits as part of a longer series of trainings on strengthening organizational sustainability. One of the highlights of the past year was partnering with a colleague and 14 (relatively) new executive directors to facilitate a program designed to meet their specific needs. Through content and peer coaching, the group evolved over the course of eight months from a collection of individuals to a group who trusted each other with their most pressing challenges. It was so rewarding to support and help cultivate that shift.
I participated in formal learning experiences offered by others. When I do, I practice my novice sketch-noting skills. A few highlights included:
Nonprofit Quarterly’s webinar series on evaluative practice led by Jara Dean-Coffey and Jeanne Bell. The series stretched my conception of program evaluation and building learning organizations. My biggest take-away was the caution to be mindful of the purpose of any research. Part of this means making explicit the recognition that evaluation is always inherently subjective, even though it is often perceived as objective and the arbiter of worth and value. Too many evaluation and other research efforts for programs that serve marginalized communities have been designed with the organization or researcher’s needs in mind, leaving the impact on the community out of the picture. The impact of this approach may be unintended or unintentional yet is extractive nonetheless. Learning and evaluation needs to be in service of the mission and mindful of impact, not just because one is curious.
Learning with the brain in mind
A session at ASAE’s Annual Conference in August focused on the basics of neuroscience and learning. Scientists now know that as adults we have neuroplasticity. So old dogs can learn new tricks! Designing learning with the brain in mind includes connecting the new information/content emotionally to the person’s previous experience, working with the material actively and repetition. It was good to hear that keeping my brain healthy includes all the habits we all have heard are healthy generally – staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, moving regularly, eating healthy, cultivating mindfulness and stimulating our brain on a regular basis. The last few years I have managed to make all of those regular practices, especially by reminding myself – something is better than nothing.
An exciting intensive training that I participated in focused on Collaborative Innovation. It centered on how to build collaborative networks intentionally to bring together organizations and groups of people. Networks have the potential to solve wicked problems beyond the capacity of one organization. Yet collaboration can be challenging and time intensive. By incorporating aspects of human centered design with iteration, rapid prototyping and testing, the network can move to action and not get bogged down in analysis paralysis. When started with intention they include both the power brokers in a system and those impacted by the system at the grassroots level, starting with the friendlies and then spiraling out.
An important skill in facilitating is harvesting -- designing a meeting, a convening, a retreat with a set of intentions and outcomes in mind that will be harvested from the conversation. The degree of stickiness of the outcomes from a process is dependent on the level of engagement of those participating. When people talk about buy in, they need to remember that buy in is built not bought. Just telling people about a vision or a direction is not enough.
Dewey contended that there is no real learning without reflection. “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” What are you reflecting on as the new year launches?
No Martyrs for the Cause!
Many of the leaders I work with say they want more work-life balance and to integrate greater self-care into their routine. Yet they struggle to make it happen. They preach it for their staff. Yet they laugh when it comes to making it a reality for themselves.
It’s way more than mani-pedis
The dominant culture in the US does not actually value self-care. While the phrase has gotten a lot of attention in the media recently, too often it is seen as an indulgence and somewhat frivolous. The protestant work ethic measures your worth in terms of your productivity. White culture – our dominant culture – values urgency and deadlines, perfectionism and individuality. None of these things are really the friend of self-care. The focus on the individual can favor “heros” who try to do it all themselves without help from others.
It's a marathon
So I advocate for no martyrs to the cause. Yes your ‘to do’ list is probably too long yet managing your work as if it is one sprint after another will most likely only lead to burnout. Trying to see change in the world is often challenging and sometimes demoralizing work. We need you for the long haul! Remember the long game, build in self-care basics for yourself and let go of the guilt about it.
As Audre Lord said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Sleep on it
As I am learning from Matt Walker, author of Why We Sleep, sleep is the foundation of wellness. Not an “optional life style luxury” that we too often consider it. Per his and others research, sleep is not something that you can choose not to do today and catch up on later. Sleep deprivation (even a regular one hour less than optimal) has severe health impacts. Sleep is more like breathing – you wouldn’t say you’ll breathe a lot on Saturday to catch up! So give yourself a non-negotiable opportunity for eight hours each night
Basic Building Blocks
Exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness and connecting with the important people in your life are all core pieces to wellness. I appreciate this list created by University of Buffalo’s School of Social Work for encompassing holistic look at all the elements of self care. Generally self care is something that needs routines – it is about frequency and consistency rather than intensity. Very similar to how healthy organizational cultures are built.
Building it into your organizational culture
This resource developed by the National Center on Family Homelessness covers the topic from both an individual point of view as well as taking it to the organizational level. The strategies could be implemented by people working in a variety of settings, pursuing different missions.
Do as I do and I say
As a leader, if you are not modeling these behaviors, your staff are not likely to feel comfortable incorporating good self-care into their routines. This is not an instance when ‘do as I say, not as I do’ (and is there ever?) works very well. For yourself, for your mission and for those you work with, invest in consistent self-care. Remember you don't need to do it all right all the time. Take the assessment above and identify a few small steps to start taking better care of yourself. Good luck!
PS -- I write this to have handy as a daily reminder to myself!
Make your own learning a priority
If you are like me, the end of the year includes some time to look back and see what you have accomplished. You likely set some goals at the beginning of the year. How much progress did you make them? And further and probably more important– what did you learn from the experience? I use four tools to help me prioritize taking the time to reflect on what I have learned from my experiences.
At the end of each day, I take a few minutes to consider the day and write down what I accomplished – my daily wins. Some days those wins are big – and sometimes they are really small – like cleaning out my email! But even after a day that did not feel super productive I can always come up with items to note that I got done. It helps me see the progress I am making. One small step after another – moving forward.
First I take 30-45 minutes at the end of each week to do a weekly reflection. My daily wins journal helps remind me what I did over the course of the week. The weekly reflection is centered around seven topics and I answer the same questions each week. I focus on vision, awareness, needs, feedback, core skills, action and results. I begin each reflection by looking at the intentions I set for the week and think about how things went. Did it go as I imagined? What was different and why? Often times I am setting intentions around how I will feel during a piece of work – confident in a presentation or centered while facilitating a session. You can download my weekly reflection worksheet here.
At the half-year mark, I take a few hours to review my weekly reflection notebook. What happened? What were the ups and the downs? What patterns do I notice over the course of months? What did I take away from the experience? I use this worksheet to capture my notes as I review my weekly entries.
Yearly professional learning plan
To take this six-month review one step further I create a professional learning plan for the year. What do I want to learn over this coming year? I start by taking stock of where I am. What have I learned this past year? What does my current situation require of me? What do I currently contribute to my field?
Then I think about where I want to be in a year. What is the next year going to bring for me? What challenges am I facing? What skills and knowledge do I need to do my job more effectively? Will an upcoming project push me in a new direction? What does the field demand from a successful professional? When I look back on this coming year, what do I want to have achieved?
How will I learn the skills I am aiming for? This may include formal professional development opportunities – yet it likely also includes taking advantage of informal learning. By setting intentions about what I want to learn in the next year, I am ready when opportunity presents itself. Here is a template for creating your own professional learning plan.
For example, a couple years ago I wanted to learn how to sketchnote. I bought a book, read about it, watched some videos. Now when I attend conferences, I go with a sketchbook and a couple colors of pens and I sketchnote each session I attend. My notes may not be super pretty or incredibly well illustrated but they help me remember the session. – They are also a great conversation starter for those at my table!
Give yourself the gift of reflection
In our go-go culture, it can be difficult to find the time to reflect when there are so many urgent things going on in the present. Yet the benefits are great when you take some time to capture your learning as you go. Make an investment in yourself by giving a broader view at the six month and end of year point. Give yourself the gift of some reflective time to support your learning!
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, as well as the Mission: Impact blog with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.