Sunday, January 04, 2015

Why "It's OK to Fail" Doesn't Work

Failure has become a fetish you can't avoid. Media profiles focus on what entrepreneurs and other leaders have learned from their failures.  Conference panels regularly feature thought leaders discussing the importance of failure. Here in Indianapolis last year, we celebrated failure with an entire day devoted to the topic: Fail Fest.

That all of this is happening is not surprising. As the desire to innovate has taken hold in institutions of all forms (education, government, nonprofit, and corporate), the admonishment that "It's OK to fail" has increased in both volume and frequency.  In my role as a facilitator and speaker, I've been present when executives and innovators delivered this message from the stage, as well as committee chairs or staff liaisons in the conference room.

Here's what I am noticing in many cases: it's not working.  Despite permission being granted more often by more people in more ways, I don't think it is having the intended effect.  Of the many possible reasons why, let me focus on two that I believe are fundamental.

Reason #1: 
How OK failure looks and feels depends on your standing in the organization.

Large hiring bonuses are given to executives who often also receive huge parachute payouts when their failures or disappointing performance get them fired.  When the worst thing that can happen is you get fired and walk out the door with a six or seven-figure check, it is indeed very OK to fail.

Employees or volunteers can be forgiven for not jumping at the chance to fail when invited by individuals with significant organizational security (whether it be tied to contract terms, title, tenure, skill, networks, or otherwise).  Failure looks different through the lens of insecurity.

Before telling everyone that it's OK to fail, at minimum spend more time (1) thinking about how this advice/request sounds to those possessing less privilege within the organization and perhaps framing your message differently, and (2) ensuring that the organization's key systems (performance reviews, compensation, et al) are aligned with the acceptance of failure you envision.

Be mindful that failure is a very powerful term, one which evokes strong reactions from many people depending on their past experiences and the consequences they faced. Some individuals feel an intense pressure not to fail, one often associated with cultural considerations like race, gender, ethnicity, or age. And finally, the potential consequences of failing run counter to some of what research has shown human beings to value in relationships, most notably in the work of Chris Argyris.

The gravitational pull of the values Argyris identified may be compounded in organizations representing risk-averse professions or disciplines, as well as charities and other nonprofits with volunteer leaders serving in brief terms of office.  Few appointed or elected leaders want their legacy to be the year that XYZ program failed spectacularly because they tried a major innovation.  Yet, the cost of avoiding any setbacks or failures in the short-term may be the increasing likelihood of more damaging failures in the future. Both avoiding and embracing failure have associated risk and costs to consider.

Bottom line? It's OK to fail often fails to persuade because its evangelists do not adequately consider the very human dynamics associated with their message. Effective leadership appropriately surfaces, explores, and addresses them.

How might you do that?  Here is a simple survey I used as part of retreat preparation for a very large national nonprofit media company looking to foster a more innovative culture.  Employees were invited to anonymously respond to the following questions:
  1. When you think of the current culture, what changes would need to occur to foster greater support of innovation and collaboration?
  2. What behaviors, communication practices, etc. would senior managers need to model in order to illustrate a commitment to innovation and collaboration?  In other words, if senior managers "walked the talk", what would that look like?
  3. What skills might you need to develop or what support might you need to maximize your potential contribution to a more innovative and collaborative culture?
The dozens of thoughtful employee responses gave the senior management team more than enough information and insight to immediately initiate a variety of strategic and tactical shifts.

Reason #2: 
What is meant by failure is not commonly understood.

Have you or someone else in your organization told others that it's OK to fail? If so, let me ask you to conduct a little experiment.  Ask a sufficient sample of folks what they think the statement means and what it gives them permission to do. When I've done this in sessions I've facilitated the range of responses suggest more communication is required than a nice four-word mantra.

Some respondents focus on failure as an end state. They believe that if they "give it their best shot" and final results fall short, they won't suffer negative consequences.  Others focus on failure as embodied in the IDEO mantra: fail faster in order to succeed sooner. For them failure is more about experiencing little setbacks in an iterative product or program development process, not the final verdict.

It's OK to fail is a wonderful principle, but individuals need more detail and guidance about what it looks like in practice ... how it should show up both individually and collectively. In other words, people need to hear the story of It's OK to fail in action.  It is the job of leadership to craft and communicate this story, appropriately contrasting differences in how things may get done now with how they should be done in the future: "instead of doing this, try this ... " And in some cases, the story that need to be told is less about "it's OK to fail" and more about "we expect you to experiment, iterate, learn, and improve over and over again."

Regardless, we need to take individuals on a detailed journey through how the principle will behaviorally unfold at all levels: organization, department, project team, and ultimately, personal and individual. Entities with volunteers must share a story that also includes the board, chapters or other components, and committees and task forces. What are the various thresholds of/for failure?

Doing so helps people begin to let go of the past and try on new beginnings and behaviors ... two of the stages of transition William Bridges so effectively addresses in his work. Even if you can let go of any fear of failure that you may have and even if you are ready to embrace contributing to a culture where it is OK to fail, doing so is difficult without adequate specifics.

Bottom line? We can't expect people to be contributing characters to a story they do not understand.


A few years ago, I tested my own acceptance of It's OK to Fail when I decided to do an IGNITE talk on innovation and failure in a priest's robe and in the style of a sermon. This IGNITE program was ASAE's inaugural effort, and we did our talks first at a public session in DC (at Busboys and Poets) prior to presenting them at ASAE's Great Ideas Conference. You can judge the results here in this five-minute video.

Friday, January 02, 2015

The More Appealing Appeal

I am always thankful to get past December 31 of any year. It's not because I hate New Year's celebrations or all the talk about a clean slate, making resolutions, or starting a diet.

January 1 means we have 360 days or so until charities and other nonprofits send out their well-intentioned, but often underwhelming last minute year-end solicitations.

If you want to make a new year's resolution that may help with your friend-raising or fundraising, let me suggest a simple one: stop using mass messaging that treats all recipients the same.

Say what?

In a four-hour span on December 30, I received emails from four organizations I support asking me to make a donation before year's end.  Earlier in the year, I had already made contributions ranging from $100-$250 and I have given annually to three of the groups for multiple years.
  • Two emails were completely generic in their pitch, saying little except please make a gift and stressing the year-end deadline for tax-deductible contributions.
  • One was tailored to the organization's announcement of just receiving a major grant. Always a good strategy to link a solicitation to noteworthy and very timely news.
  • One was deeply heartfelt in reflecting on all the good that the organization had accomplished and what more might be possible in 2015.
So of these four, two were what I call fundraising spam: generic, impersonal, reflecting little thought.  I dismissed them outright. Two were strong examples of fundraising storytelling.  But those two excellent examples were undermined a bit by a simple mistake they shared with the two weak appeals. And it is a mistake that occurs all too regularly throughout the year, not just at crunch time.

What was it?  They failed to treat current year existing donors with any more personalization or attention than everyone else on the distribution list.  While not a fundraising felony, it certainly falls into the category of an avoidable error.

Here's what I'm talking about: in three of the four emails after the ask was actually made, a comment along the lines of "thanks to those of you who have already made a gift" was then noted.  The fourth email didn't even bother to do that.

At its most basic, when we do this we treat current supporters and their contributions as an afterthought: Oh yeah, thanks for that gift earlier in the year.  Don't ever make donors an afterthought if you want them to keep thinking about you.

So here's the oh-so simple way to avoid doing this again in 2015.  It's Fundraising 101 that often doesn't occur because of lack of staff time, training, or advance planning of donor communications.
  • Segment major solicitations and communications into two categories at minimum: (1) current year contributors and (2) current year non-contributors.  If you don't know how to do this with whatever list management program you use, stop reading immediately and go learn that first. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built.
  • At minimum craft separate communications for those two lists. Start your pitch to current year supporters with a re-acknowledgement of that contribution and what it has enabled the organization to do. Then launch into telling the story of your future plans and what an additional gift might make possible.  In short: thanks again for the past gift, here's what it has helped us do in the present, and listen to our plans for the future.  We'd love for you to be an even greater part of what we have planned.
That's it. That simple shift requires about 30 minutes to make, a minor investment in your major goal of increasing the support of existing contributors.  You don't want to treat all recipients of your message the same if their current level of interest and support is different ... differentiate your message to make them more meaningful.

Once this is mastered (or perhaps at the same time) do additional segmentation of current contributors based on level of support and engagement and create additional messaging and communications (both in content and form) that match appropriately.

And don't just make this a staff responsibility. While we often draw board members into making the ask, we less frequently involve them in "making the thanks." One of the most fulfilling 15 minutes I've had as a nonprofit board member was when we took time at a board meeting to each do a handwritten thank you note to a donor who had been especially supportive of our current efforts.

So the strategic question if you want 2015 to be a year of greater friend-raising and fundraising is this: how might we make our appeals more appealing and what systems and processes must we create to do so with a consistent level of quality and timeliness?

Now go get to work. Those 360 days will go by quickly.

P.S. Some of you might be asking yourself if this is really such a big deal: don't donors support the cause/organization and not their communication practices? Absolutely, and if you weren't competing for time, interest, attention, and money any list management or communication issues might be more easily overlooked.  But you're not. You're one of many. And more importantly, segmenting lists and messages suggests a level of operational intention and attention that may inspire donor confidence.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The One Way to Deliver Unwelcome News

Imagine you are leaders of an important community institution, one some might even describe as beloved.  You have a difficult policy change to announce, one presumably driven by relevant data and reflecting the best option from among many that were thoughtfully considered. Despite the case you can make for it, the decision is not going to be popular with many. How would you share it?


Did you answer "never really come right out and say it in an obtuse two-page press release"?  Because that was the approach the Indianapolis Museum of Art (and presumably the PR firm that advises it) opted for in announcing the elimination of free general admission, a practice in place from 1941 to 2005 and 2007-present (according to this article in the Indianapolis Business Journal.  An admission fee ($7) was charged in 2006, but was eliminated when attendance declined.

My focus here is not on the potential merits of the policy change, but on how it was communicated. At some point we all have to share decisions that our stakeholders won't like. Knowing how to do so is a critical leadership competency. I'm using the IMA examples as a case study from which other community institutions and professional associations might learn.

All of my professional experiences and formal training in media relations and crisis management suggest there is one way to deliver unwelcome news: honestly, clearly, and transparently.  That's not to say this prevents negative reactions. What it means is that you spend your time in conversation about the merits of your decision and the concerns people have rather than the process you used and the cloaked language you used to spin the ultimate decision.

I don't have a degree in journalism or public relations, so maybe I'm revealing ignorance as to why the IMA approach is a better one.  To me, the press release avoids stating the reality of the major change, tries to turn the liabilities of its decision into an unqualified asset, and sounds like something a major corporation fearing criticism or lacking faith in its decision might create.  Here's how my layman mind would have approached the same release. My opening:
For 70 years the IMA has offered free general admission.  After much study, we have regretfully determined that continuing to do so simply is not sustainable. 
That's the conclusion that the leadership reached, so why not put it on the table succinctly. It's the Band-Aid approach. It hurts to rip it off in one swoop (ouch!), but it hurts more to gingerly peel it back a little at a time (ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch)!

Once the bottom line decision has been communicated, you can now address the array of questions people will have.  That the IMA did not create a FAQ for this announcement is a huge unforced error in my mind. Don't make it yourself the next time you share a significant shift in policy.  What might a FAQ include? Well, in this instance:
  1. Relevant financial data that illustrates the need
  2. Highlights of other options that were considered
  3. Rationale for the new policy and admission charge
  4. How the IMA matches up to other comparable institutions and why they may have different admission practices
  5. Accommodations for people who value the IMA's offerings, but can't afford membership or admission fees
  6. What new benefits and opportunities are being offered
It's easy to focus on better mechanics of the decision roll-out.  But that avoids what I believe is a more important issue: just as members rightly feel they "own" their professional association, so do the arts and horticulture-loving residents of Indianapolis feel that they "own" the IMA. This sense of ownership (something most marketers dream of cultivating), of a strong affinity for an institution, means that we want to be treated like an owner: when a major policy decision is made, but even more importantly, when one is even being considered. 

If the IMA held public conversations with stakeholders around this difficult decision, I certainly never heard about them.  Did they have to?  Absolutely not.  But the IMA is an institution that cares enough about community engagement to now have a staff member with designated responsibility for cultivating it.

Institutions are shortsighted to think of cultivation only in obvious metrics like program attendees or memberships.  What any professional association or community institution also cultivates is a place of importance, meaning, and identity in the lives of its stakeholders.  We are active characters in the institution's story, not just passive consumers of its content. The reason nonprofits use the term stakeholders is because those they serve have a stake in what the institution does.

One of my mentors about what it means to serve as the leader (volunteer or staff) of a nonprofit institution is a gentleman named Frank Ruck. Frank indelibly drilled into my brain the real meaning behind the title of Trustee: we hold "in trust" the trust of those we serve and their faith in the institution.  Diminishing or dismissing this vital bond is demeaning for all involved and potentially destructive for the institution.

Honesty. Clarity. Transparency. That is how we deliver unwelcome news.

We treat our stakeholders as owners and demonstrate to them through the decisions we make, the process for making them, and the manner with which we communicate them that their trust in us and the institution is not misplaced. Never is that more important than when difficult decisions have to be made.

I can pay the cost of membership and I can pay admission for out-of-town guests, so I'm holding a position of privilege in relation to the new IMA fees. For me, the decision itself is a question of strategy: how does an important community institution create revenue streams to sustain its long-term future while also ensuring reasonably frequent access to those who are unable to afford its admission or membership fees? I'm not sure free general admission only one night a month for five hours is inclusive enough a commitment for a flagship community institution.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Speaking from Experience: How to Be a More Confident and Competent Presenter

18-year-old me getting a bit choked up as I deliver my final address as state president of the 
Illinois Association of Student Councils to about 1000 people at the convention closing banquet.

What have you learned from your more than 30 years of keynote speaking and workshop facilitation?

That was the question a graduate student recently asked when interviewing me for one of his classes. Poor guy. That one question became the basis of our entire interview.

After it concluded, I reflected a bit more and decided that sharing my key responses might be of value to others looking to be a more effective presenter. Not a week goes by that someone doesn't publish a post on this topic, so ample advice is available online if what I share below doesn't speak to you.

I believe the greatest gift we bring to a keynote, workshop, or webinar is our complete presence. To me, preparing to present is all about preparing to be present, a topic I've written about before. Each of us has different requirements in order to feel we can be 100% present during a speaking engagement. For me it begins with only accepting opportunities to speak on topics for which I have both content expertise and personal passion.  Doing so increases the likelihood I won't feel handcuffed to my notes, outline, or slides during the actual talk, and it also minimizes the potential need I may feel to script my comments in too detailed a fashion.

Participants' time is valuable. Selecting sessions from the long list at a conference can be daunting. While it may provide a temporary ego boost to see your workshop room fill to capacity, no one wins if you've written sexy marketing copy that attracts people to hear a presentation that ultimately doesn't quite match what was promoted. When we write a session description, we enter into a contract with those who attend based on it.  We must provide information to help people decide "yes, this is for me." We need to deliver what was promised, not pull a bait and switch.

It might be my theatre background that causes me to think in smaller increments (think scenes, acts, etc.) but I have always designed keynote speeches and workshops as bundles of intentionally sequenced short content segments.  Doing so means reducing all the things you could address into the most compelling and concentrated content.  The right key points will be catalysts for lively participant conversations ... with themselves and with each other.

Short bursts of concentrated content mean you can spend less time on your soapbox and more time involving participants in the sandbox of exploring your content and how they might apply it. Think lecturette, not lecture.  For every 5-10 minutes of me talking, I try to build in 10-20 minutes of peer-peer exchange. Those who prefer to passively sit and listen for an entire 90-minute session block won't be happy.  But if you were clear in your original session description about the program design, they hopefully have self-selected to attend another workshop.
Part of our role as speakers is to be the wayfinding system for participants as they move through these various short content segments that collectively form the longer presentation. We can intentionally provide signals that help people enter into and exit from any particular segment of a presentation, as well as thoughtfully weave individual portions together to create a seamless and coherent whole.  We must offer sufficient comments that can serve as a "content GPS" for participants' learning.

As presenters we deliver to (or help surface from) participants a lot of content. We can help them make the most powerful connections and application of the content by ensuring we address (and involve them in addressing) the so what? and now what?  questions for key points: Why is this important? What relevance might it have for specific situations? What actions might people now want to take? Content won't lead to any meaningful change if participants can't clearly understand and see the connections to themselves and/or their work.

When you have (1) command of your content and (2) the format options for each section of your presentation, you can more capably adjust both in real-time based on the ever-changing conditions of time available, learner needs and interests, and audience size. Preparing to be present means being ready to deliver both more and less content that you originally envision, slightly different content based on participants' knowledge level and interests, and alternative teaching techniques or interactive formats based on the size of your audience.

Yowsa!  That is a lot of preparation. Yes, it is, so that's why it is even more critical to only accept the chance to talk on content for which you already have pretty strong expertise and familiarity: it lets you spend more time anticipating and preparing for these real-time adjustments that enhance the quality and value of the learning experience you are delivering. You can't do that comfortably when you are most concerned about the content you are covering.

No matter how much you prepare, at some point you will encounter a situation which rattles you:  a fixed seat auditorium when you were expecting full rounds, 40 minutes for your keynote when you were told you'd have 60, an audience of 20 when you had designed for 100, and many, many more.  In general, I try not to inflict my angst on the audience as I don't want them being anxious about the session that is going to unfold.   But in some cases, making them collaborators in a potential redesign of your content and/or format may be the best way to create comfort for all involved.  Either way, no one benefits from a presenter who spends a lot of time complaining about what he could have done in more perfect conditions. Our job is to create the most compelling learning experience we can in the conditions we find ourselves.

My second year in graduate school I attended a conference on values and ethics where one of the keynote speakers sat during her entire 60-minute talk, read the entire time from prepared remarks, made little eye contact with the audience, and did not engage us at all.  It was one of the most powerful learning experiences I have ever had.  While technically she did so much wrong in terms of delivery and technique, she did everything right in terms of crafting amazing content into a compelling narrative featuring precise and carefully chosen language that she delivered with 100% presence and complete confidence and comfort.

So-called speaking "rules" are meant to be broken when they don't work for you: the right number of words to have on your slides, the right way to engage an audience, the right way to command the room for a keynote, et al. That doesn't mean we should dismiss them without consideration. The general concept behind much of this advice is sound.

But the days when I have received the most heartfelt responses to a keynote or a workshop presentation almost always have been when me, my faults, my fears, my soul, and 100% of my authenticity at that moment showed up on full display.  As one of my favorite authors, Parker Palmer, so eloquently said long ago: "Good teaching comes not from technique, but from the integrity of the teacher."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

15 Books to Jumpstart Your Creative Mojo

She leaned across the table and whispered to me in the most conspiratorial tone, "I'm suffering from a bit of creative ennui." She pulled back and let out a simultaneous guttural laugh and moan that caused others in the coffeehouse to look our way, "Oh who am I kidding, I am fresh out of both ideas and inspiration."

"What am I to do?" wailed my generally stalwart companion.  As I am wont to do in these moments, I reached below the table, grabbed my messenger bag, and pulled out a stack of 15 books, each of which I knew might be part of the creative cure she sought.  I kid. I don't carry ready-made resource kits around with me at random.But here are 15 resources I value to refresh my own creative thinking and doing.

Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
This is not a book that many would normally associate with creativity.  "Is the life I am living the same life that wants to live in me?" is the core question explored in this slender tome. So why am I including it?  Because a creative crisis may be the symptom not the problem. Palmer takes us deeper into listening to the voice of vocation, our vocation. And in that journey he often helps me reclaim my identity as a creative in ways more powerful than any technique ever could.

difference by Bernadette Jiwa
Another slim book (79 pages), Jiwa frames her work as "the one-page method for reimagining your business and reinventing your marketing." While she no doubt helps you do exactly that, Jiwa also helps us think more broadly about what we create and for whom we do so: "If we want to survive in a world with unlimited choices, we've no option but to work harder to make sure that the right people care more."  So perhaps your creative block is tied less to the act of creating and more to losing touch with the audience (or Tribes to use Seth Godin's term; video) who most care about what you care about and how you exemplify that caring in what you create.

Serious Creativity by Edward de Bono
Enough with this search for inner meaning you might be saying. Just give me some tools. Coming right up then. A toolbook I refer to regularly is this de Bono classic offering the core principles and dozens of techniques for what he calls lateral thinking: "With lateral thinking, we move 'sideways' to try different perceptions, different concepts, different points of entry. We can use various methods, including provocations, to get us out of the usual line of thought."  I regularly draw on de Bono's techniques individually in my own work, as well as draw on them to help stimulate fresh thinking in the group sessions I facilitate. A favorite? The Concept Fan. While a bit stilted in tone, the book belongs in your library.

A Whole New Mindmap by Austin Kleon
A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink
Another book chock-full of useful exercises and techniques, Pink's AWNM addresses six "senses" he suggests are required in an era when the value associated with left-brain thinking can so easily be replicated: (1) Design, (2) Storytelling, (3) Symphony, (4) Empathy, (5) Play, and (6) Meaning.  Pink brings each of these sense to life with his characteristic humor and approachable stories and also offers numerous exercises to help you apply them. I wrote a discussion guide about the book's application for associations. Download that free PDF here.

Full disclosure: I was compensated to contribute some of the exercises that appear in the paperback edition of the book.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Embedding isolated techniques into our routines until they become habits is an underlying premise of this interesting book from famed choreographer Twyla Tharp. "In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare yourself to be creative."  And prepare us is what Tharp does using a compelling narrative that weaves together personal example, stories from her choreographic work, and exercises to adopt.  Much of the book illustrates the paradox between the preparedness and the openness that creativity seems to require.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work edited by Mason Curry
If you like to gain insight into the mind and practices of an artist like Twyla Tharp, you may love this book. It's a catalog of the daily routines of about 100 writers, thinkers, and other creatives. As you skim the listings (each is only a page or two) you may find specific ideas to adopt or adapt. You most definitely will find yourself thinking more about your daily routine and how to modify it to better incorporate creative habits.

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace
It's one thing for individuals to develop creative routines, but how do organizations institutionalize creative habits so that they support a culture of innovation? Answers for this critical question abound throughout this really enjoyable read that uses the creative folks at Pixar as its cast of characters. What I most appreciate about this book is the recurring emphasis on tearing down impediments to creativity that commonly grow over time in an organization.

Creative Intelligence by Bruce Nussbaum
Pixar?  Seriously?  You want me to be creative like the wizards of Pixar?  If that dialogue is running through your mind then this closing assertion from Bruce Nussbaum calls for your attention: "... we have been brought up to believe that creativity is rare, the special gift of a few individual geniuses, the magical quality that we don't have and can't share. This destructive myth of creativity has crippled us as individuals and as a nation."

Like many before him, Nussbaum tries to dismiss creativity as the domain of a limited number of individuals and reframe it as a form of literacy or intelligence that far more people can develop.  To do so, he examines how individuals and organizations learn to be creative, highlighting five competencies: (1) Knowledge Mining, (2) Framing, (3) Playing, (4) Making, and (5) Pivoting.  Instead of a book of exercises, Creative Intelligence is a book introducing us to core principles that should inform our creative habits.

Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley
The Kelley Brothers, of IDEO fame,have written what may very well become the classic book illustrating a very real truth: without confidence we are unlikely to create or innovate. It's an enjoyable read offering the classic business book blend of stories, examples, and exercise, but in a more approachable tone that what often is offered. At the end you'll understand why they believe that: "Creative confidence is like a muscle—it can be strengthened and nurtured through effort and experience."

The Laws of Subtraction by Matthew E. May
Embracing a focus on changing the way we think AND changing the way we do is the space May owns in this useful book that extols the value of (and need for) subtraction in our current age of excess : "Subtraction is defined simply as the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly ... or the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place."  The discipline to subtract is a critical creative habit to develop, both in mindset and in specific skill (as in de Bono's negation technique). May offers six laws for doing so, each brought to life with numerous examples. In doing so, he bolsters our creative confidence that less is more and that subtraction can be the path to great gain.

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod
Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination by Hugh MacLeod

I suppose it is a bit unfair to bundle four books by two authors into one description. My doing so should in no way make you think these books don't stand alone or that they are any less useful than those previously mentioned. Collectively they are similar in spirit and form in a way that I think makes it appropriate to talk about them together.

Kleon and MacLeod are both artists who write ... or maybe writers who create art ... or maybe hybrid creatives that cannot easily be categorized.  Kleon's art are "blackout" prints in which the few revealed words remaining send an interesting message.  MacLeod's art originally took the form of drawings and pithy sayings on the back of business cards.  All four of their books are what I consider great plane reads, the prefect length and form for a long plane fight.  Short chapters, punchy writing, practical points, inspiring admonishments, quotable concepts ... you'll find that and more in each book.

The Gift; Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
Sometimes we just need reassurance that what we do as creatives matters, that we do important work not just for ourselves but for society.  Hyde offers us this support. "The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible.”

Bonus Resources:

Friday, November 21, 2014

Advancing More from Retreating: Eight Tips

It's been fashionable for some to rename staff or board retreats as advances, presumably to signal the gathering's intention and desired impact.  I'm a firm believer in the power of language, but am a bit skeptical that a new name alone changes outcomes.

What does increase the odds of advancing more from any retreating you do are better design principles for the actual event.  Here are eight tips gleaned from my experiences designing and facilitating dozens of retreats for various stakeholder groups.

1. Design the retreat in the context of a larger menu of ongoing activity.
Too often, retreats are designed as isolated events. They need to be seen as a part of the larger context of how things get done in an organization: other professional development gatherings, planning calls and conversations, staff or team meetings, et al. How does/will the retreat honor the past, engage with and build on the present, as well as explore and create the foundation for the future?

2. Build desired follow-up and action planning components into the overall design.
Instead of asking at the end of the retreat for a few people to volunteer, review what happened, and plan next steps, be more intentional about weaving action planning into the planning and pre-work. If you have clarity about the context for your retreat and the output you want to produce, you can then back into what needs to happen during the event and any pre-work in order to produce it.  At minimum, keep an emphasis on answering so what, now what? throughout the retreat.

3. Involve a cross-section of the org in its planning and execution and everyone in contributing their ideas.
While particularly true if using an external facilitator, this principle also is relevant for retreats that internal team members may lead. A retreat should not feel like something inflicted on its participants, an intervention done to them. The experience should be co-created to build ownership for the outcomes, and the entire experience should be one that is done with the participants and in support of them.

Beyond the representative team convened to design the event, everyone attending or having a stake in its outcome should be surveyed to help frame the content of the gathering. Finally, whenever possible, involve participants in the actual presentation and management of the event … from coordinating meals and breaks to facilitating exercises and discussions. And be intentional about reaching out beyond the "usual suspects" to invite individuals to do so.

4. Focus on doing what is more difficult to accomplish in the workplace/typical workday.
The idea of the retreat is to step back from the daily demands and do what otherwise is unlikely to be done as efficiently or effectively. Honor this purpose by not making the retreat agenda a laundry list of unrelated backburner issues and action itemsReally hone in on an answer to this design question: what, if accomplished during the retreat, would dramatically accelerate the individual and organizational progress we need to achieve and enable us to be/do with each other more effectively?

5. Spend time digging deeper and thinking more about systems.
While it's fine to talk about tactics and micro-issues at a retreat, the special nature of the gathering begs that you dig deeper.  Drawing on the iceberg model, make sure your conversations don't merely remain at the results or events level. Look for patterns and organizing systems or mental models that really need attention if desirable forward movement is to be institutionalized and sustained as a result of the retreat.

6. Invest in the power of peer relationships and conversations.
As part of your initial design, consider what percentage of retreat time would ideally consist of individuals talking with each other (in pairs, small groups, the large group as a whole) instead of being talked at by other individuals, particularly those in charge. This simple metric is a good accountability check for the various content segments and formats you build into the retreat agenda. Simply having relaxed time to converse with colleagues and get to understand them more (both as people and professionals) is almost always mentioned on retreat evaluations as a highlight.

7. Have everyone take a task or get on a team.
It's tempting to involve only a small portion of retreat participants (maybe your initial planning team) in managing the output, but that limits the potential and pace of what will occur.  Instead, identify meaningful action items and tasks and have every individual opt-in and claim ownership for at least one of them.  Everyone needs to own the whole of helping the organization/entity get better, so make sure your action planning and follow-up involves them in doing so.

8. Don't make it more than it can be.
If I had to assert the #1 reason why retreats sometimes turn out to be ineffective or unsatisfying it is that those involved expect them to be more and do more than is realistic for any one block of time. This is why the first design principle matters so much: successful retreats never begin as "one-offs" into which disproportionate energy, attention, and resources are poured.  The best retreats are ones intentionally designed and utilized as part of a much more comprehensive framework for enhancing individual and organizational relationships and efforts.

Planning a retreat and need more insight?
  • Here's an article I wrote on planning memorable staff retreats.
  • Get format or activity ideas from Gamestorming or Thiagi's newsletter.
  • For more personal support, I'm happy to do a one-hour "think out loud with you" consult on your retreat design in exchange for a $200 Amazon gift card to further my professional reading.
  • I also can design and facilitate your retreat, but am doing a very limited number while on book-writing sabbatical in 2015.

Friday, October 17, 2014

10 Favorite Facilitation Quotes

"A facilitative leader brings discipline into maintaining and deepening their capacity—whatever that may be —to be engaged. Engagement is easy when there are no distractions, nothing else demanding your attention, and none of the internal anchors prevent us from committing. Of course, it is precisely in those moments of distraction and difficulty that the discipline is required."
The Nine Disciplines of a Facilitator by Jon C. Jenkins and Maureen R. Jenkins.

"The main aim of the facilitative leader is to leverage the resources of group members."
Facilitating to Lead! by Ingrid Bens

"The facilitator's job is to support everyone to do their best thinking. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding, and cultivates shared responsibility."
Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, et al

"When people who attend experience that their presence is truly wanted and valuable, and that their unique gifts is necessary for the best outcome of the gathering, the possibility for authentic engagement, leading to success, is greatly enhanced."

The Art of Convening, by Craig and Patricia Neal with Cynthia Wold

"But the essence of Humble Inquiry goes beyond just overt questioning. The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity. It implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and, thereby, arouses positive helping behavior in the other person."
Humble Inquiry by Edgar H. Schein

"Perhaps one of the most difficult things for a facilitator to do is to allow someone to struggle. To rescue people from the struggle immediately shuts off an opportunity for them to learn and grow. Supporting and encouraging them through the struggle is much more rewarding for everyone involved."
Facilitation by Trevor Bentley

"The more present we are as individuals and as organizations, the more choices we create. As awareness increases, we can engage with more possibilities. We are no longer held prisoner by habits, unexamined thoughts, or information we refuse to look at."
—a simpler way by Margaret Wheatley & Myron Kellner-Rogers 

"It is a misuse of our power to take responsibility for solving problems that belong to others."
Stewardship by Peter Block 

"Any thoughts about the future that do not strengthen our capacity to be in service to the group are harmful. When we get ahead of ourselves, predicting what might occur, we take ourselves out of the present—the only place where we can have a positive influence."
Standing in the Fire by Larry Dressler 

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Investing in Better Discussions to Produce Better Results

Take a moment and think about your days at work so far this month.
  • How many formal meetings do you think you've attended?
  • How many conference calls have been on you schedule?
  • How many informal discussions have you encountered?
If you calculated the total number of minutes you've spent in either informal or formal meetings, calls, and discussions, what would be your best guess?

No doubt it is hundreds and hundreds of minutes totaling many, many hours and reflecting a sizeable percentage of the work hours you clocked.

Now, the really important question: how much time do you and your colleagues spend on getting better at those discussions, working on making better decisions, becoming more efficient and effective in your work with each other?

Typically organizations invest little to no time in the professional development that would help their team members get better at something that consumes a sizable percentage of their working hours. True at the staff level.  True at the board or committee level.  True at the chapter or component level.

If you do nothing else this month, take 10-15 minutes with colleagues to collaboratively explore one very critical question: what are small changes that we could make in how we meet and make decisions that would better leverage individuals' time and contributions?

Trust me.  People already have answers for that question and already think about it on their own or talk about it with other workers.

And if you want to make a one-time professional development investment that will enhance the quality of discussions, decisions, and results in your organization forever, join 15 other association and corporate professionals at a one-time Art of Facilitation Train-the-Trainer event in Washington DC on October 22, from 9-3:30 p.m.

Participants will receive all the materials (content outlines, slides, and handouts) to teach facilitation skills to their colleagues at work and to volunteers in your association.  We'll spend the day experiencing sample content first-hand and discussing how to teach and facilitate it in your own future efforts.  You can register here:  I highly recommend sending a pair of participants if you can so that you have more than one individual equipped to do future training.

Can't make it to DC on October 22?  Thinking you might like to offer this type of program for your chapter leaders, board members, or maybe just your staff?  Interested in hosting a similar train-the-trainer opportunity and helping market it to other associations and organizations in your immediate area?  If you said yes to any of these future options, contact me about your interests.  While on sabbatical in 2015 writing, Say Yes Less, conducting facilitation trainings is one of the few programs I will be presenting along with a limited number of keynotes.

P.S.  It's easy to collaborate with another association or two and jointly bring me in for a facilitation workshop and share the costs.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Behind the Scenes: Calibrating Content for Different Session Lengths

Same topic; different session lengths: 10 minutes, 60 minutes, 20 (then 25) minutes.

That's the situation I have experienced for my keynote presentation on lifelong learning, Life's A Great Teacher: Are You A Great Student?
How do you calibrate content and format to fill containers of such different sizes? I thought you might enjoy a behind the scenes tour of what I did and what I learned.

Always prepare various content bundles regardless of session length
If you don't speak often, this may seem particularly challenging, but I always prepare several different bundles of content no matter how much time I have been given.  Why?  Because things happen: lunches run late, the speaker before you eats into your time, participants get really engaged in a discussion and use more time than you had planned, you move through a content segment faster than you had anticipated, etc. Case in point, ACPA HEd talks were planned as 20 minutes, but shortly before taking the stage I was told I could take longer because another speaker was running late.

So I always prepare content outlines for (1) the time I've been assigned, (2) about 10-15% less time, and (3) about 10-15% more time. I identify content milestones for where I want to be on the clock at certain points in my presentation and then make real-time refinements based on how time is unfolding: i.e., shorten or expand a segment, skip a few slides, change the reporting out from an exercise to use less time. Because I outline both more and less content, making adjustments on the fly is less stressful than it otherwise would be.

This only works if you prioritize the content most important to participants, plan alternative presentation formats should you need to use them, and create a slide deck with alternative slides you can skip to as needed.  The latter is particularly challenging in keynotes if your deck is being run from a central AV station away from the stage instead of your laptop.  In this case I won't be able to punch in a new slide number and skip around. So I spend time with the AV staff to prepare them to do so should I call out "could we go to slide 53 please"?

Use more time for application and exploration, not just more presentation
Some people see longer session lengths and think "Great I can talk more."  You could, but the time might be better spent involving participants in their own exploration of the most critical content you share.

When taking content from a 10-minute TEDx talk to a 60-minute general session keynote, I first carved out the key conversations I thought participants would value and then crafted some participant interaction formats that honored both introverted and extroverted learners. I also reflected on how the TEDx talk was delivered at a quick pace that I wanted to slow down. These changes produced an initial content outline that clocked in around 40 minutes.

What to do with the gift of 20 extra minutes? Now I reviewed the core content delivered in the TEDx talk and looked for potential enhancements to add into my longer presentation. While 10 minutes let me sufficiently raise awareness of what people need to think about as lifelong learners, it didn't let me get very specific about what they need to do about it. So I used my remaining extra 20 minutes at AFA to introduce a new presentation segment offering specific habits for people to try on in pursuit of lifelong learning.

Use the visual to sustain the value
Participants in all three of these conferences were fairly heavy social media users, so I turned to Twitter to see what people most commonly shared as takeaways.  At TEDx, the Edward deBono quote about a box of 64 crayons was shared very frequently. At AFA, not so much. Preparing for ACPA, this troubled me a bit because as Mary Catherine Bateson says, "Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories."

Reflecting on why something would stand out at one conference and get lost at another, the answer became obvious.  The deBono quote was used at about the 3-minute point in both the 10-minute and 60-minute presentations, but in the longer version it is followed by 57 minutes of content instead of 7.  No wonder it got lost.

deBono's box of crayons/one blue pen metaphor tells a great story about the practice of lifelong learning, so I wanted it to be a core takeaway from my ACPA HEd talk. And because I wanted to include the additional AFA content focused on practical application, I now had a shorter talk that was going to cover a lot of ground in a less interactive format.  Yikes!  Of course, the longer exercises I used at AFA had to go, but I also had to leave people with a strong roadmap of the broader range of content I was covering.

My solution was to distill the core points of my talk into a final slide, add in the box of crayons and blue pen visuals from the 3-minute mark slide, and frame it with a T to remind people of the example I shared about how IDEO draws on T-shaped professionals in their highly collaborative culture.

When that slide went on the screen and I saw smartphones fly into the air to capture it, I knew this was a winner. Reviewing the Twitter feed after the event confirmed it was the most frequently Tweeted point from my talk.

Bottom line?

Honing content is an interative process, one that requires preparing for multiple presentation scenarios. As I've said before, it's important to prepare to present, but make sure you also prepare to be present.  Our 100% presence is the greatest gift we can offer as a session unfolds.

Life's a Great Teacher, Are you a Great Student? is one of the keynotes I will continue to deliver (In varying lengths of course) during my extended sabbatical in 2015. If you'd like to bring it to your conference, let me know.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Management Misdemeanors: 10 Crimes Against Increased Volunteer Engagement

Unfortunately, you don't have to look too far to find organizations regularly committing management misdemeanors that get in the way of them engaging the volunteers they say are so important to them. Keep yourself out of jail by making sure your group isn't caught doing any of these common 10 crimes.

1.  Not asking at the onset
Hard to believe, but not being asked is still one of most common reasons people say they don't volunteer. I've long believed that membership applications for any organization should also ask "Check all of the following ways in which you would be interested in contributing to our efforts." Make it clear that when you join you are welcomed (expected) to contribute in some way that is consistent with your interests and availability.

2.  Asking only once a year
While some volunteer responsibilities probably do require a specific application and review timeframe, many do not, yet they are still swept up in the same volunteer ask.  My interest in contributing doesn't only come alive once a year, so neither should your ask. If there isn't a prominent "Volunteer Now" button on your organization's home page, you may be missing out.

3.  Not responding
 What's worse than not asking or asking only once a year? Not responding to people who say they want to contribute.  Shame on organizations who essentially smack down the hands of volunteers who have raised them. This is even more critical for organizations having chapters or components as other volunteers may be the ones tasked with responding to expressions of interest.

Before making the ask, make sure you have the necessary response infrastructure in place. In addition, invite a few prospects to beta test your process and offer you feedback.

4.  Weak online resources
Yes, please do spend an hour explaining how to fill out the travel expense reimbursement form after you made me give up a weekend to fly across the country for volunteer orientation ... not!

 It is neither affordable or preferable for every volunteer to come to an in-person training. Micro-volunteers in particular want easily accessed online training and support, but it also is valuable for anyone taking on more significant leadership positions in your organization.

Create a simple resource center organization by "how to" categories that reflect volunteer responsibilities and then provide short text narratives and accompanying slide decks or videos. Look to eHow or other similar sites as an example.

5.  No metrics for success
Hopefully your organization has qualified and quantified its goals for employee recruitment, development, and retention.  Are volunteers an integral part of your workforce? If so, you had better do the same for them.  Without clear success metrics for volunteer engagement, you can't develop tactics to achieve specific results. So obvious, but still so absent in so many organizations.

6.  Inadequate evaluation
Try this on for size: anyone who volunteers should evaluate their experience. How novel ... get feedback from those doing the work.  This should be the norm, not the exception, with the type and amount of feedback solicited scaled appropriately for the type of volunteer involvement individuals experienced.

Do include a few common questions/ratings across all evaluations, ones tied to the success metrics you've established. A generic one to include would be the NetPromoter question: would you recommend volunteering in our organization to others?

7.  No tracking of interests or contributions
I don't care if it is as simple as the old school technique of having my name on an index card with all of my volunteer contributions noted in pencil, you've got to track individual efforts. If your organization has a sophisticated association management system or customer relationship management software that you aren't also using to record volunteer contributions, you're actually committing a felony on this one.  Tracking should not only include what I've done, but also information I've shared with you that could be useful for future volunteer engagement invitations: my interests, my availability, my knowledge and experiences, my resource networks, et al.

8.  Insufficient feedback, appreciation, or recognition
If all you can afford to offer is a standard thank you email and a certificate at least make them the best damn generic feedback and appreciation I get all year, OK?  But you'll cultivate more individual commitment and loyalty by offering priase and recognitin that is unique and specific whenever you can.

I've written before about an excellent American Society of Associations note sent to volunteers that combined shared appreciation (look what all of you helped us do) along with individual praise. Being able to do both is the gold standard to which we should all aspire.  The Leadership Challenge by Barry Posner and Kouzes lists "encouraging the heart" as one of the five practices of extraordinary leadership, so let's make sure we are doing more of it for more people and in more meaningful ways.

9.  Limited or limiting opportunities
Not every potential volunteer contribution in your organization rises to the level of serving on your profession's journal advisory board or a comparable responsibility that requires a limited number of individuals carefully screened to ensure the highest levels of knowledge and integrity. Be careful to not arbitrarily limit the number of people contributing to the success of your organization or the number of pathways they can take to being engaged. Some people probably want to ascend to your board of directors while others want to be involved as often as their hectic schedule can manage. We need both.

10.  Requiring membership before volunteering
I know this has long been the accepted path in so many organizations: join, then get involved. Much of the research on Millennials suggests that the gateway to their membership may first come through a meaningful volunteer/service experience with your organization. Why not try that approach for anyone, regardless of their generational cohort: "bait" us by connecting us to other professionals and involving us in some work we find meaningful.  Doing so might "hook" us so that we want to hang around for more as a member.


To help keep you and your colleagues out of jail, I've created a group exercise and simple one-page self-assessment of these 10 crimes. Download it in PDF form here.

Looking for more ideas on volunteer engagement?
Check out The Mission Driven Volunteer by Peggy Hoffman, CAE and Elizabeth Engel, or two series of blog posts I wrote previously: (1) volunteer involvement resources, or (2) questions to help you cultivate volunteer engagement.