Wednesday, July 01, 2015

15 Questions to Liven Up Conference Learning

Conferences can help participants make connections and realize greater value from the learning experiences offered by inviting them to reflect and distill periodically during the event.  below are 15 questions that presenters, sessions moderators, or emcees could draw from to do so during one of your future conferences.

  1. What one thing, as a result of what you just heard, might make the most difference in your organization if it was successfully implemented?
  2. What’s your elevator speech, a headline, or a possible Tweet you could share that would highlight your core learning from this session?
  3. What ideas, practice, or thinking has provoked the strongest negative reaction from you so far? Why is that?  What learning might be waiting for you if you explore your strong reaction a bit more?
  4. Thinking about what was just shared in this session, what’s a small step forward you could easily take, one that would get you in action about a bigger idea or goal you want to pursue?
  5. How will you contribute/are you contributing to others’ learning during sessions? What more might you be able to do?
  6. Great sessions often inspire questions you need to explore further with others. What’s a question that the conference (or this session) has inspired for you so far?
  7. What is a common theme emerging from the sessions you’ve attended and the conversations you’re having? What might it mean for your efforts?
  8. What’s the most provocative perspective or idea you’ve heard so far at the conference? What do you make of it?
  9. How are others’ experiences you’ve heard similar/dissimilar to your own and those in/of your associations? What might that mean?
  10. What, if anything, might you be doing that is getting in the way of your own learning? How can you manage this so that it doesn’t happen?
  11. What’s the conversation you most came here to have with others?
  12. Just like a car needs major maintenance at certainly mileage thresholds, periodically so do are associations need some major work.  Based on what you’re learning at the conference, what major maintenance might your association most need to address?
  13. How are you capturing not only what you are learning, but who you most need to share it with during the conference or after it concludes?
  14. Leaders leave legacies.  Based on what you are learning, what might you now want to add to your legacy as a leader for your association?
  15. What do you still need to learn from the conference and how are you going to ensure you do so in the time remaining?

What are other questions you find helpful to facilitate learning during a conference?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What If Everyone Could Facilitate?

In far too many organizations, facilitation is still seen as something an external consultant or internal manager or leader does instead of a core capacity and contribution that everyone should be capable and confident of making.

I want to change that.

When more people see themselves as capable of being facilitative—whether they are the designated leader of a meeting or conference call or simply contributing as a participant—better results become possible.

I have been teaching others how to facilitate for most of my professional career.  But the number of groups who can bring me in to do such trainings has always been limited by both their budget and my time.  No more.

I've created a Facilitation Fundamentals Training Resource Kit that contains content outlines,
slides, and handout originals for 21 individual content segments.  You can mix and match them in any combination to create your own workshops and training sessions of various lengths.

The content I selected is essential to the work of facilitation.  The formats and exercises I outlined are ones I have honed in dozens of presentations with learners from diverse professions and industries.  In short, the content works and it is what people benefit from learning. 

If you want to enable more people in your organization to see themselves as facilitators and to take greater ownership over the quality of discussions and decisions, I invite you to examine this three-page PDF highlighting:
  1. the 21 content segments in the kit
  2. a sample outline for one segment
  3. sample segment combinations for workshops of various lengths
The complete kit, including a one-hour virtual consultation, is $695, less than the cost of what many organizations charge for a one-day facilitation skills workshop.  You can customize your order and add an additional consultation hour and/or have me present a half-day or full-day in person training using materials from the kit.

If you know you are ready to build the facilitation capacity in your organization, you can place your order here. You will be invoiced following purchase and the materials will be provided once payment is received.

P.S.  I detest blatant self-promotion and rarely use this blog to make offers like this.  Regular topical posts resume immediately.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Resisting the Instinct to Try to Overcome Resistance

How do you overcome resistance to change?

No matter the audience, the profession, or the industry, this has been one of the most common questions I've encountered this year.

Resources that offer insight are abundant.  My sampling of them finds that they tend to focus on how to overcome objections or conquer the resistance.  Anecdotally most, but not all, seem to frame the issue as a win-lose proposition and offer counsel on how to ensure your proposed changes win against those who oppose them.

I once drew heavily on these resources when responding to this frequent query, but lately I've found the framing less helpful and its possible answers too limiting.  A current home renovation has helped reshape my thinking.  Bear with me while I explain.  

I live in a late 1890s home in Chatham Arch (come visit!), a historic district in downtown Indianapolis.  A variety of municipal codes and historic covenants determine the appropriateness of both new construction and changes to the exteriors and ground of existing properties.

Historic district guidelines aren't intended to stop change from happening. They are meant to ensure that any changes implemented preserve what is considered to be essential or appropriate character of the neighborhood and its individual properties.  While many options are available for most changes, I don't have carte blanche to just do anything to the exterior of my home as it stands in relationship with the rest of the neighborhood.  What I do has an effect on my neighbors, as well as the overall character and appearance of our neighborhood, something which affords us a premium on our property values.

That's why my house seemingly has more than one front door.  The "front door" closest to the street is the original door, one that now would open into my master bedroom instead of the original living room.  That door can never be removed because it preserves the clear sense from the street of my home's history.  Subsequent entrance doors and the porch come from a 1950s addition. Would I like to replace the old unused front door with a wall? You bet.  But I live with it as it is because I respect what the guidelines intend to preserve.
How might your conversations change with those individuals you identify as change resistors if you instead thought of them as conservationists or preservationists, individuals with a commitment to preserving something they believe matters a great deal?  What might you learn if you inquired about the meaning they associate with whatever they don't want changed?  What are they concerned might be lost if the proposed changes are implemented?

When I have adopted this mindset in my conversations with "resistors," I've found the discussion feels more welcomed and far less adversarial.  I have heard stories about what people care about and what they don't want to see lost.  And in many cases, I've been able to separate the meaning of what they want to preserve from the form with which they associate it … offering alternatives to how we might incorporate their insights and improve on a proposed change.

Progress and preservation can be complementary if only we take the time to consider both perspectives.  Changing minds sometimes requires honoring hearts.

Additional resource
The language we use and the frames we adopt dramatically influence the choices we make.  I have found How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey useful in helping me think about alternative language and frames. PDF summary here.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Behind the Scenes: Designing an Interactive 60-minute Session

Yesterday, I presented a 60-minute session at ASAE's Marketing, Membership, and Communications Conference in Washington, DC.  After I finished, a participant asked about my session design process as she has to do a similar session in a few weeks.  I thought others might find a behind-the-sscenes look to be of interest.

  • Topic: Cultivating Engagement and Transforming Results Using Lean Principles. Download slides here.
  • Audience: association marketing, membership, and communication professionals; predominantly from associations with 31-50 staff; often in a director-level position; heavy on Millennials and Generation Xers. Some consultants and business partners also likely.
  • Audience size: Unknown in advance as participants select from five options, but my session was assigned to two ballroom sections set in crescent rounds with a capacity around 250. I ended up maxing out my seating with another 10-15 standing at any given time. I had expected 100-120 to attend.
  • Timing: 60-minute concurrent session (11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.) on first day of conference. The day opened with a general session and keynote (9-10 a.m.) followed by the first round of concurrent sessions (10:15-11:15 a.m.). Lunch in the exhibit hall followed my session.
  • Handouts: available online in advance, but I assumed most participants would not download.  I brought copies of my "lab" worksheet so each table would have a couple to work on during the practical application segment. 
  • I've spoken on cultivating engagement before, but never using this content or for this type of audience, so this was a new experience in many ways.
Some of my design thinking considerations and assumptions
  • Attendees will value practical more than theoretical given their organization size and job responsibilities, but will still want some new twist or fresh insight to stimulate new thinking. Conference mantra for education is: Shake up business-as-usual!
  • Because of the diversity of attendees, I should provide options in any practical application exercises so they can do work they find meaningful.
  • Since the session is late in the morning, include some "get up and move" early in the session and a hands-on component in the final third.
  • Create some sort of practical tool or template for participants to use with their colleagues to help inform their actual work after the conference.
  • 60-minutes is short, so my actual presentation segments need to be concise, and I need to plan for overall tighter clock management than usual.
  • Many attending will not know lean principles, so I need to introduce them, but really focus on their application to cultivating member engagement versus fostering a deep understanding of them overall.
 Basic flow for the session

These design thinking considerations and assumptions led me to the following flow and formats for the session:
  • Quick poll: is the session content "need to know" or "nice to know" for you and your organization?  I wanted to get a quick pulse of how serious the need was for people attending, as well as illustrate how insight from a simple question (a point I would stress later in the presentation) can be used immediately.
  • Framing the session: like plated appetizers at a reception where you won't always get the ones you'll like most and you're bound to leave a bit hungry.  I used this analogy to help shape expectations for what I could deliver in 60 minutes.
  • Three major content segments: (1) defining success for cultivating member engagement, (2) introducing lean principles with a practical association example for each, and (3) applying lean principles and our success definition to three association "defining moments" using a worksheet I created.
  • Very brief Q&A (time permitting) and/or me summarizing and reiterating my core thinking.

Learning formats

For content segment #1, I used my multi-stage Prospector approach even though I had never done so in such a short time block.  The format is simple: pose a critical or compelling question, let individuals form their own responses (1-2 minutes); invite them to stand, mix, and mingle one-on-one, sharing their respective responses (4 minutes); return to tables and each share one response or observation from their prospecting (5 minutes).  I like how this approach honors both introverted and extroverted learners, gets people up and moving, and quickly engages them with diverse perspectives.  Plus, since I knew the "lab work" would be done at their tables, I didn't want the opening interaction to only include talking to those same people.

I closed this segment with my own response to the original question posed, framing it as a premise that I believe holds great promise for cultivating member engagement.  Knowing that my assertion would likely differ from much of what was just shared, I invited participants to "try it on for size' during the subsequent work in our session, but to feel free to use their own success definition.

Content segment #2 introducing the five lean principles and a practical example of each was a short presentation segment followed by a couple of minutes of Q&A.  Total time elapsed was about 15 minutes. I chose to illustrate lean principles with actual MM&C conference examples since it would be one experience we would all share.

The third segment, the lab or practical application segment, was introduced as a 10-minute table exercise using my worksheet. Participants could choose both how they would do the work—individually, as one table, or in any combination—and which association defining moment to practice with: you just joined, you just registered for a conference, you just completed a volunteer interest form. Wanting this exercise to both have value and unfold quickly, I first offered (taking about 4 minutes) one possible set of responses to the worksheet categories for someone who just joined an association.  My hope was that this concrete example would accelerate the practical application conversations.

After reconvening people from their small group work, I had 8 minutes remaining, time for three questions and my closing.  Of the unaccounted minutes,  the initial polling and framing of the session used about 7 minutes.  Transitions between segments probably used the others.

What I Would Do Differently

After I get the evaluation feedback, I'll know best how I might modify the session if I ever was to present it again under very similar conditions, but here are my current observations:
  • I feel most of my designing thinking considerations and assumptions were fairly correct and that the general session design was successful in stimulating some fresh thinking and providing a useful tool for attendees to refresh their own efforts in the workplace.
  • I'd probably try to limit and tighten my presentation comments even more in order to sneak in a few more participant questions.
  • I can improve the worksheet based on watching people use it.  I'd add a bit more detail and revise some headings; include the exercise instructions I shared only on a slide; probably include on the worksheet the concrete example I shared verbally as doing so would support visual learners and be available as an ongoing reference; and I'd bring enough copies for every participant.
I hope the participants experienced the session as focused, hands-on, and fast-paced—but not rushed—as that's what all my design planning and prep was intended to create.  While I'd much rather have done this session in a 75- or 90-minute time block, I feel good about what we were able to do in only 60.

I'm happy to answer any questions you might have about this design or designing interactive sessions in general.  Tweet them at me or post them in the comments.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Building Community Takes Time

Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me.

—Anna in The King and I

Can we ever learn enough about our friends, work colleagues, or collaborators? Probably not. That's why so many organizations engage in retreats and other teambuilding sessions: to strengthen interpersonal relationships and effectiveness.

When we think about how much time to spend on icebreakers and other teambuilding, the answer should be tied to the nature of the work and the participants doing it as I've written about previously: Given the work we must do, the timeframe for doing it, and the relationships among the people doing the work, what, if any, ice needs to be broken?

But I increasingly worry we treat building community in working groups and teams as a one-time commitment, something we frontload and relegate to the first board meeting or a staff retreat. Then we immediately move on to the real work.  But ongoing work on the quality of relationships is what makes all of the other work possible.  As Daniel Kim so elegantly outlines in his model for organizational success: the quality of relationships is the base (and basis) for the quality of thinking, actions, and results that follow.

If you share my sentiment that learning more about each other needs to be an ongoing and sustained commitment, here are three practical suggestions.

Involve participants in the design and facilitation of any activities.

Too often, team members find icebreakers being done "to them" or "on them" instead of with them.  While it is natural for a CEO, department chair, board president, or external facilitator to lead community-building activities, it in no way is a responsibility they alone own.

Why not rotate the responsibility among all the participants … letting individuals, pairs, or small groups each design and facilitate a community-building activity?  To ensure appropriate continuity among these efforts, engage all participants upfront in a discussion of what they would define as a worthwhile exercise. The simple question found on the nametag at the start of this post is the one I often use to support this exploration.  You may also find it helpful to share a one- or two-page list of resources for icebreaker and teambuilding activities. The side benefit is this helps develop everyone's presentation and facilitation skills.

Leverage the power of one single question.

I frequently facilitate sessions where participants already have good working relationships and our time to deepen them with an intentional activity is limited.  What I have discovered is that one well-crafted question can unleash significant conversation and insight, as well as deepens interpersonal connections.  Building a short list of compelling questions you can turn to is a worthwhile endeavor.  A few that have worked well for me include:
  • Tell me about an experience that significantly shaped your idea of what it means to be a good professional and/or your work ethic.
  • When have you felt most completely in sync and engaged with a group of people? Why? What made that possible?
  • A year from now, after we have spent significant time together, what would I probably have learned about you that would be beneficial for me to know right now?  See this post on creating an owner's manual for yourself for a related, but more substantive activity.
  • What is a misperception or misunderstanding of you that others sometimes have? Why do you think this perception develops?
Ensure that discussions and activities honor both introverts and extroverts.

Even the most gregarious among us can sometimes perceive icebreakers as forced fun.  But trepidation about forced disclosure is often more common among more private or introverted individuals.  When designing a community-building moment, we need to ensure it will not cause any participants to automatically shut down (see this post about challenge and support for more info).

My tactics for doing so include: letting people reflect and write responses on their own before sharing with others; letting people "opt-in" to when they share rather than always going around the room in order; modeling the way with my own responses to show an acceptable level of self-disclosure; and using formats that allow multiple one-one interactions instead of one-many when individuals feel the glare of the spotlight more.

An example of the latter is one of my current favorite activities: Fishing for Feedback.  I deal people a hand of five Go Fish cards (you can use index cards), each affixed with a random adjective.  Participants mix and mingle for about five minutes following the instructions provided.

We then reconvene and individuals share their chosen adjectives, volunteering to do when they are ready.  A brief discussion about the importance of sharing perceptions and feedback often follows.

You can download a PDF of the 80 adjectives I use here.  Simply copy the page on to 80-count return address labels, affix to cards, and you are good to go. A variation I sometimes use is to distribute a full-page of adjective stickers to each participant and then give them a few minutes to affix appropriate adjectives to others' nameplates (on front or perhaps inside where they stay hidden).  Individuals are then invited to simply react to the feedback they just received.

I hope I've convinced you that a continued emphasis on increasing the quality of relationships with our colleagues and collaborators is paramount to long-term success. If you have other approaches you have found successful, please share them in the comments.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Great Opening Sessions Light a Fire

It's the opening general session of a major conference.
What does that session need to do for those in attendance? For the sponsoring organization?

I've been thinking a lot about this after delivering the keynote at a fair number of opening sessions this year.  Too often general sessions feel like generic sessions, defaulting to a very tired template: Welcome. Announcements. Parade of insider talking heads. Sponsor thanks. Some awards. Keynote speaker. Dismissal.

Great opening sessions require a far more strategic and intentional design, one that embraces their significant role in an event's rhythm and the attendees' experience of value.

I'd like to suggest that a great opening session is an accelerant. It takes the natural kindling of participants' desires—to connect, to learn, to conduct business, to find solutions, to celebrate—and turns it into a roaring bonfire.  Sponsoring organizations need to consider
  • this mix of potential participant needs and aspirations; 
  • if some are more valued by their attendees (hopefully, a data-driven insight); 
  • what general session formats and components can accelerate participants receiving real value for each of the desires being addressed in the session design; and
  • how every single component of the session design and logistics can be tweaked or reinvented to be a greater accelerant.
Every. Single. Component.
Every. Single. Decision.
Designed, not defaulted to standard practice.

A few examples:
  • Accelerate community-building by sectioning off seating (by geography, functional responsibilities, organizational size, et al) so people can opt to be near like-minded colleague.
  • Accelerate learning by having multiple speakers addressing core topics or critical issues in shorter formats (IGNITE, Pecha Kucha, TED, et al).
  • Accelerate both recognition and learning by honoring accomplishments in a way that both celebrates the award recipient, but also makes explicit what other attendees can learn and apply from their efforts.
  • Accelerate connections by facilitating introductions at the onset and having participants join with a few others to discuss a non-threatening, but compelling question. My current favorite:  What is an experience that has significantly influenced your idea of what it means to be a good professional?
  • Accelerate learning by having a reactor panel of industry pros who comment on and engage with the thinking of a traditional opening keynote speaker if you have one ... connecting the speakers ideas to specific practical application opportunities.
  • Accelerate solution-finding with a running slide deck as people arrive, one that spotlights common challenges and organizational resources or member solutions. Or post a common challenge and let people text or Tweet a solution with responses displayed in real-time.
The possibilities are endless if you take the time to apply a simple, but powerful principle: design your opening general session to be an accelerant for the value participants seek.

What are example have you seen that accelerate learning, connections, and celebration in an opening general session?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Help Your Presenters Embrace Diversity and Inclusion

Note: I wrote the following article for ASAE-The Center for Association Leadership, and it was published on April 6 in their Associations Now Plus members-only resource. It is used here with permission and ASAE retains the copyright.
 A full commitment to diversity and inclusion means that an association’s educational programming—and the speakers providing it—reflect the learning community. Here are some practical steps associations can take to help presenters prepare sessions that reject assumptions about the audience and meet diverse attendee needs.

Association resource materials for speakers traditionally include key dates and deadlines, room and AV logistics, and suggestions for slide and handout presentation. Some also include basic tips on adult learning and how to create more engaging and interactive sessions.

Yet additional guidance in a critical area too often is missing: designing for the composition and culture of your learning community. Although this may be particularly valuable to presenters from outside your organization, even internal subject-matter experts can benefit from more specific instruction on how to design and deliver a session that not only is inclusive of the diverse participants they will address, but also reflects a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusiveness as core values. Learners want to both see themselves and hear themselves reflected in session content and delivery. 

Here are a few examples of what associations are doing to help presenters prepare.

Guidance and Orientation

LeadingAge Illinois, like some associations, includes a brief statement in their speaker guidelines “to sensitize speakers to the potential diversity in the audience.” It urges speakers to review their course content and style for inclusive language, professional content versus personal beliefs, and potential sexist, discriminatory, or similarly insensitive language.

Presenter standards from the Promotional Products Association International also include advice on introducing panelists in a non-sexist manner and avoiding visual aids that show people in stereotypical roles. The latter echoes encouragement from the LeadingAge Illinois statement to “make no assumptions about those in the group other than a common interest in the content area delineated in the printed meeting materials.”

One way to prevent speakers from making assumptions about attendees is to provide them an accurate profile of their audience. No doubt you orient new employees to key elements of your profession or industry, demographic data about your membership, and some of the cultural norms that may be unique to your organization. Speakers would benefit from the same insights.

As a presenter, I find it useful to also receive detailed event or conference profiles that provide similar information for the specific conference community. Several years ago, I benefited from conversations with staff at the Foundation to Prevent Blindness about what types of visuals I could use effectively given the range of sightedness in the audience. Based on their guidance, I included more and differently designed visuals than I would otherwise have used.

Other orientation materials could include
  • a glossary of key terms and acronyms to use (as well as ones to avoid) and other tips on appropriate language.
  • insights about learner preferences that you have gleaned from previous evaluations.
  • a brief overview of the current environment for your profession or industry (trends, challenges, opportunities) to help presenters customize content with the most relevant examples for your current context.  
Speakers can be more inclusive of diverse attendee needs and interests when you provide specific information to help shape what to include and what to exclude in their content and delivery.

Broadening Participant Perspectives

To help its subject-matter experts and other presenters infuse equity and inclusion into their conference presentations, ACPA-College Student Educators International created a guide, 10 Steps for Designing and Facilitating Inclusive Presentations at Conventions/Conferences, and addressed the steps in speaker-prep webinars. Dr. Kathy Obear, a diversity educator and organizational development consultant who led the development team for the guidelines, describes them as a “proactive step to help presenters develop formats, curriculum, and facilitator techniques to better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse membership.” 

While the ACPA guidelines help prepare speakers to design more inclusive sessions, Obear says they also are intended to “help facilitators infuse issues and images in presentations that help participants deepen their multicultural competencies and challenge implicit, unconscious bias.” In other words, presenter preparation should include planning how to help learners broaden, deepen, and be more inclusive of the perspectives that they themselves consider.

Doing so is both art and science. Associations should engage speakers in sharing advice with each other about strategies they use to challenge the potentially limiting perspectives of participants on ways that facilitate growth and learning.

A Self-awareness Checklist

In my undergraduate coursework as an English major, one of my instructors taught my class to proof our work seven times, each time focusing on a specific variable: tone; spelling, grammar, and punctuation; cohesiveness of argument; and so on. Associations looking to help busy presenters design and deliver more inclusive presentations may be wise to create a similar checklist, one that includes such proofing criteria as inflammatory or unhelpful language, diversity of content sources referenced and examples offered, visual portrayal of people and groups in materials, and presenter confirmation bias. Until diversity in presentation design and delivery is your default, a checklist is a helpful tool to make sure you aren’t missing a critical program enhancement.

Other presenter support—such as webinars, online resource centers, and speaker coaching—can address these same opportunities but in more specific ways. To make tangible improvements in their programs, analytical and more detailed-oriented presenters will appreciate having “before and after” examples of infusing inclusion into a session design, a particular teaching technique, or even a slide. 

Finally, associations should consider including a speaker-prep workshop at their conferences to continually build the capabilities and confidence of their members to be better presenters and learning facilitators.

The Person Behind the Presenter

Statements, tips, and checklists can definitely enhance a speaker’s presentation mechanics so that sessions better exemplify an inclusive design. But every presenter is also a person, and for these mechanics to have authentic meaning presenters may need to do their own inner work related to diversity and inclusion. 

That work has value beyond the conference itself. As Obear aptly notes, “Most organizations are preparing members to serve increasingly diverse populations locally, nationally, and globally, so their members may want more knowledge and skills for better serving others across all group identities.” Evidence that an association is truly committed to equity and inclusion should include support and learning opportunities for the person, the professional, and the presenter.

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.