Beyond the Comfort of What We Think We Know

Has an over-reliance on “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices struck a deathblow to our ability to think creatively and our courage to be experimental?

My mind is still mulling over my experience at the inaugural Collective Impact Summit last October in Toronto. No individual presenter had a greater impact on my thinking in that meeting than Brenda Zimmerman. Dr. Zimmerman, who died tragically on December 16 last year in an automobile accident, was a leading thinker in the application of complexity theory to both for profit and social profit (aka nonprofit) organizations and our understanding of change. She is widely known for her book, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, written with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton.

Dr. Zimmerman’s presentation and workshop at the Summit challenged, stirred, and animated my thinking in a number of ways. One that has been most Powerprofound has been pushing me to rediscover the value and validity of experimentation. I think of experimentation as the courage to ask “What if we tried…(fill in the blank)?” rather than rotely following the recipes, formulas, and checklists of “best practices” and “evidence-based” approaches.

I know better than most the safety of recipes, formulas, and checklists. The ability to apply or replicate evidence-based solutions to problems is often the surest course to achieving the measurable outcomes demanded by many funders. However, the unintended consequences of fidelity to our recipes, formulas, and checklists can be horrific.

For example, under pressure to meet some funders’ timetables to apply the best evidence-based solution to a complex social problem in our community, we ignore, in our haste, those who have genuine expertise with the problem and whose wisdom we need: those who live the problem every day.

Ignoring these, whom Dr. Zimmerman called “context experts,” can lead us, in turn, to an over-reliance on evidence-based solutions which appear to have demonstrated success in addressing similar complex community problems. As a result, we identify an evidence-based solution that worked for another community, but which does not really work for our community, or even at all. We assume the solution will work because the problem over there looks very similar to the one we are trying to solve right here. We even try to “tweak” the solution with various approved adaptations to make it fit better. In the end, we discover we have simply forced the proverbial “square peg into a round hole.” In our shame, we write-up carefully worded reports for the funder to make the evidence-based solution sound more successful than we know it was and, in some cases, our reports merely add to the myth of that particular evidence-based solution.

However, we are not the only ones who know that the evidence-based solution we selected to do to the community did not really work. Those context experts know it, too. Their secret knowledge of the solution’s poor fit and its failure significantly weakens the likelihood of sustaining the solution in the community. After all, the community might not have wanted or needed our solution in the first place and may be glad to see it now, finally, go away. Sustainability stems from successful solutions owned by the community; and ownership grows out of trust, respect, and meaningful participation of the context experts – which we did not demonstrate from the outset.

Nonetheless, we climb further into the “best practice” and “evidence-based” trap. We are confident the next time we will find the right fit if we just follow the formula a little more carefully.

What if the problem is the formula? What if the process is flawed? What if our assumptions about expertise, best practices, and evidence-based solutions are all wrong? What if we have allowed our blind trust in best practices and evidence-based solutions for complex social problems kill off our human capacity for genuine creativity, thoughtful experimentation, and the ability to simply ask, “What if….?”

I am going to leave you with these questions but I plan to continue this conversation soon. In the meantime, take a moment to complete the poll at the bottom. I would like to know what you think.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

T.W.K.

Driving the Rusty Spike – A Free Teleconference for Stuck Writers

On Thursday, September 18, 2014 from 7:30 to 8:30 PM (Eastern), I’m offering a free quickee teleconference titled, Driving the Rusty Spike: Lessons Learned in the True Life Adventures of Dissertating and Other Nasty Writing Projects.

This is a one-hour teleconference on how to make progress toward successful completion of a dissertation, thesis, or other weighty writing project that feels like it is stuck and just hanging around haunting your life. If you, or someone you know, is in the midst of one of those writing projects and would like a respite, mixed with a bit of witty encouragement, please join me. This is especially good for folks who have decided to inflict one of those graduate degrees on themselves that require a lot of writing.

Here’s a brief description:

You sailed through the course work, the comprehensive examination, and daily grind of pursuing a graduate degree or advanced study. Now it’s time to write that dissertation, thesis, or even book, that seemed a long way off when you started your program. Uh-oh. Brain freeze! Energy loss! Reactor core melt down! (“And don’t ask for any more warp 9 speeds, Mr. Spock. Our star drive is completely burned out. The only thing we have left is impulse power.”) How can you possibly find it within you to get over this last hurdle and sprint to the finish line?

In this teleworkshop you will receive:

  • At least 10 strategies for refueling your spirit, refocusing your mind, and reclaiming your drive to finish that dissertation, thesis or other major writing project
  • Inspiration to start moving forward again and to keep moving
  • Affirmation of your effort and support from others who are on a similar journey

I will be leading the teleconference. Here a little about my own experience that informs this presentation: Tom Klaus (Ph.D., Organizational Leadership) infamously described the doctoral journey with this appalling metaphor, that was nonetheless often quoted by others at the university whenever he was introduced: “It’s like tapping a rusty spike slowly through your forehead, into your brain, and yet finding it weirdly exhilarating.” Tom did finish driving the rusty spike and has been a prolific writer throughout his career, including books, articles, curriculum, and blogs. He is a nonprofit business and leadership development consultant based in Laurel, Maryland; an adjunct professor at Eastern University (Philadelphia) in the School of Leadership Development and Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership programs; a blogger for his own site, Non-Profit GP, and Tamarack, an institute for community engagement based in Canada; and a nonprofit leader with deep and wide experience.

There is no cost for this teleconference. You only pay the cost of long distance charges to call into the teleconference line. However, advance registration is required.

To Register: Click HERE to register (or cut and past into your browser this link: http://tinyurl.com/DrivingTheRustySpikeOR  you can use this contact form to register as well:

Between September 1 and September 12, you will receive confirmation of your registration and the conference call number and access code. Please note: Your registration information is confidential and will not be shared.

If you have questions, please contact me at info@nonprofitgp.com

Yes, please feel free to share this information with others you believe may be interested.

Be greater, do good, every day.

T.W.K.

Take a Ride on the Wild Side of Leadership

Not long ago my friend Mark Holmgren posted a blog titled Becoming a Learning Organization (Part One) that got me thinking about what it takes to provide leadership to a learning organization. As Mark points out in his post, learning organizations are more likely to address complex issues and challenges effectively. To be clear, the term “learning organization” does not refer to a specific size, configuration, purpose, or structure of a group. It can refer to a multinational corporation, public agency, small social sector or nonprofit organization, and even a project team. All of these can be learning organizations. The core idea is that it is an entity that has developed the capacity to learn, change, learn some more, and then change some more to respond effectively to its environment. Mark does a great job of explaining how this happens.

Some organizations learn and change only as much as their leaders learn and change. These groups tend to have autocratic leaders that are clearly in charge and who have the first and final say in everything. Autocratic leaders are no accident. They often arise because the organization has bought into some version of the “great man theory” of leadership. Though the “great man” theory was first challenged over 150 years ago, it remains a common approach to leadership among organizations of all kinds. British rocker Bonnie Tyler asked us “Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?” in her popular 1980’s hit that seemed to give voice to our need for “great men” to lead the way. However, “great men” rarely support the creation of a learning organization because it means they have to release power and control and admit they might not be so great at all. To be fair, when I began my own leadership journey, this was the first approach I learned and I have had to systematically unlearn it in order to more effectively provide leadership to organizations and groups addressing complex issues.

The decision to lead an organization that values group learning and develops the capacity to change is also a decision to move to the wild side of leadership. Part of the appeal of “great man” leadership approaches has to be that the leader’s grasp on power and control means predictability – at least for the leader. To lead a learning organization often means a willingness to embrace and endure the chaos that usually comes with complexity.

This difference can be illustrated using the metaphor of dance.[i] The “great man” approach is like being the leader of a line dance, in which the leader stands at the front of a group of people, usually all standing in straight rows, who are all facing her or him and mimicking the steps of the leader. In this situation only the leader knows what step is coming next and she/he usually executes it flawlessly while members of the group may make missteps and stumbles as they try to keep up. As a result, the leader almost always appears to be much more competent at the dance than the followers, thereby proving her/his worthiness to be the leader. Leading a learning organization, though, is more like being the lead in a ballroom dance, such as the waltz or fox trot, which moves around the floor among many other pairs of dancers. In this situation, the leader cannot see where all the other couples are or what figures (steps) they are performing nor can the leader know when another couple will abruptly cut into their line of dance. Floor craft, the art of moving gracefully about the ballroom without crashing into another couple, becomes a primary skill that ballroom couples need to learn and hone to maximize their dancing experience. In such ballroom dance, the leader often depends upon the follower to see what she/he cannot see and relinquishes control as the lead to become the follower in order to perform certain figures.

What does it take to lead a learning organization? To be certain, there are many competencies one needs to effectively lead any organization (or to lead on the ballroom dance floor) yet there are three I believe are core competencies for leading a learning organization.

The first, sharing, is the ability to step aside from the leadership role to allow others to step up to lead. Sharing asks a leader to lay down their authority, right, position, and maybe even their title, as a leader to create space for others to emerge with their own ideas, insights, authority, and leadership. Sharing means no one in the organization or group is seen as incapable of making a contribution. Sharing also asks leaders to trust that others are as committed to the organization as they are and want the same good to be accomplished, whether that is in the form of profit or mission achievement. Recently I was reminded of the power of sharing when a friend assumed a new position in a medical school that put her in charge of the clinics. The clinics had been suffering for some time with a lack of patients and none of the directors, doctors, or nurses seemed to know why or have a solution. My friend decided it was time to talk to the front desk personnel. What she learned was that the front desk personnel were aware of the problem, had creative ideas for incentivizing patients to keep appointments, and were quick to make the suggestion, even willing to adjust their own hours, to keep the clinic open in the evenings to accommodate patients’ work schedules. Most importantly, she also learned that the front desk personnel were intentionally dissuading patients from coming to the clinic on certain days when it was being supervised by a particular doctor they did not trust to provide good care. When leaders are not willing to step aside to let others step up (share), the organization cannot grow and change to meet the present challenges.

The second, reflection, is the ability to take in information (both new and old), turn off one’s “filters” (assumptions, judgments, critiques) about it, and to consider it again to glean the fresh understanding and insights it offers. Reflection is the antidote to the “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before” syndrome that afflicts so many organizations and groups. This ability, however, means nothing if a leader is not willing to consider information, whether new or old, with clear eyes and clean filters. In the case of my friend’s medical school, however, there was no information to reflect upon until someone was willing to seek it out. Sadly, you and I both know from experience that having information is no guarantee that it is going to change anything. The universe of file cabinets is populated with needs assessments, for example, that have provided reams of information on communities which have not really contributed to our understanding of the community because there has been too little reflection on the meaning of the information. Reflection is a powerful tool for any leader of a learning organization, and yet it is a tool that must be intentionally picked up and used.

The third, in my short list of competencies for leaders of learning organizations, is adaptability. Adaptability is quite simply, as the word itself suggests, the ability to adapt or change. Adaptability requires a bit of courage on the part of leaders because it often results in the disruption of systems, interruption of plans, and the introduction of chaos as the organization is pushed into change. Adaptive leaders are, therefore, courageous leaders who are willing to experiment by letting their organization or group members experiment with the ideas that emerge from the learning process. It is adaptability that can make the ride pretty wild for leaders, as well as their organizations. Other leaders in my friend’s medical school were not too sure about trying some of the ideas offered by the front desk staff. To their credit, they agreed to test some of the ideas. The experiment is still too new to know for certain how it will work but one thing is clear: if they were not willing to experiment, nothing would change and the learning would be lost.

It is more comfortable to be a “great man” leader who has control, power, and predictability but it is not always as much fun as stepping over to the wild side of leading a truly great learning organization. Let’s get wild, okay?

Be greater, do good, every day,

T.W.K.

[i] If you would like to learn more about dance as a leadership metaphor, join me on Sunday, November 2, 2014 at 1:00 PM (Pacific) in San Diego, CA at the 16th Annual International Leadership Association Global Conference where I’ll be co-leading the workshop “Teaching Collaborative Leadership in Complex Environments with Ballroom Dance.” For more information about the conference, visit http://www.ila-net.org/.

Leaders, State Fairs, and a One Man Band

I love the Iowa State Fair.  I’m an Iowa native and August always means the Iowa State Fair and a symphony of cicadas.  The cicadas have followed me to the East Coast so I still get to hear them each year.  My visits to the Iowa State Fair, though, are not annual events anymore.  If I’m lucky, I get back to the fair about every five years.  This was one of those years!

The 2013 Iowa State Fair Butter Cow
The 2013 Iowa State Fair Butter Cow

Even though I’ve been going to the Iowa State Fair since I was a small child, there are still things one must do every time one goes.  You’ve got to see the Butter Cow which unfortunately was damaged by vandals this year.  The picture seen here shows how the cow looked on the opening day of the fair when I was there.  You’ve also got to walk through the midway to let all the carnival barkers have a chance to take your money.  You’ve got see the Big Boar.  For the first time ever I got to see the Big Boar weigh-in competition.  Otis, weighing in at 1,103 pounds, was the winner though he was actually 232 pounds lighter than Reggie, the 2012 champion and record-setting Big Boar.  So, why didn’t Reggie come back to defend his title, you may ask?  One word:  sausage.  Otis is a one-time winner, too, but watch for him to appear in a deli section near you.

Otis - 1,103 lbs - Iowa State Fair Big Boar
Otis – 1,103 lbs – Iowa State Fair Big Boar

Speaking of food, you’ve also got to hit the myriad of food stands at the fair (I had two incredible monster cinnamon rolls and, to honor my heritage as an Iowa hog farmer, a pork tenderloin and a pulled pork sandwich).

Though there are things I have to do at the Iowa State Fair as part of the tradition there are always a few surprises.  This year it was The One and Only Bandaloni.  Bandaloni is a “one man band” but don’t let that phrase conjure up the wrong image for you.  Bandaloni is not some quasi-talented guy on a street corner trying to make a buck by playing a ukulele, harmonica, and cymbals strapped to his knees.  (He’s actually got a nearly full drum set on his back.)  He’s a talented pro who sings and plays up to 12 instruments at the same time all the while strolling about and interacting with the large crowds he draws.  A local television station in Des Moines did a feature on Bandaloni’s appearance at the Iowa State Fair that is worth a look.

My ingrained Iowa farm kid work ethic makes it virtually impossible for me to simply have fun watching someone like Bandaloni without finding a good reason for enjoying myself so much.  The lesson I learned from Bandaloni that justified the fun I had watching him was this:  Bandaloni exemplifies much of what it takes to be a good, effective leader today.

Iowa State Fair Concessions
Iowa State Fair Concessions

First, leaders need to multitask seamlessly.  Leaders usually don’t have the luxury of doing just one thing at a time.  They have to continuously juggle and balance responsibilities, expectations, and priorities.  Even when they go a little off-key or miss a beat, they need to recover and keep going.

Second, leaders need to focus.  Though it may seem counter intuitive, effective multitasking requires intense focus to make sure everything is being addressed with high quality.  Sure, some busy leaders who are moving about wildly and without apparent reason are truly unfocused.  But others, and I believe these are the most effective leaders, if you look more closely, are like Bandaloni who have no wasted effort and they make amazing music.  This only happens when they are genuinely focused despite the 12 different simultaneous tasks they have to perform which may make them look a little wild and uncontrolled at times.

The One and Only Bandaloni
The One and Only Bandaloni

Third, leaders need to adapt to changing conditions.  If Bandaloni had been sitting on a chair performing his act on a stage, it would have been far less impressive.  Instead, he moves through the audience interacting with individuals even as he performs.  To do this Bandaloni has to be able to quickly and intuitively adapt his act for any possible situation (and when you perform at state fairs you get a wide variety of situations).  Leaders in the 21st century can no longer sit as the authority on the stage making pronouncements to their follows.  Instead they have to be engaged and able to adapt to the different individuals, situations, and contexts they encounter.

Finally, leaders need to have fun.  Bandaloni is having fun even as he is helping others have fun.  This is what makes it everything work so well.  The fun a leader has in doing the work of leadership conveys the sense of joy, excitement, passion, and committment she or he has.  Think about it.  I bet anyone you know who has those four things going for them mostly have a lot of fun doing their work…and their spirit is contagious to others.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got.  After all, I was on vacation.  In one last homage to summer vacation, join me in laughing, smiling, and singing along again with Bandaloni at the Iowa State Fair on August 8, 2013.  Enjoy!

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

Mike, Jeff and Other Imagineers

How do you get to be an imagineer?  Imagineering is most closely associated with the Walt Disney Company though, according to the Source of All Wisdom and Knowledge (Wikipedia), the term was first used by aluminum giant Alcoa in the 1940s.  I was first introduced to the term and concept by a guy who had been a Disney Imagineer through a creativity workshop he led for professional speakers and trainers.  Imagineering is the blending of imagination and engineering to create new ideas or expand on existing ones.  The usage has expanded a little bit beyond traditional engineering to include other fields as well.

Since then I’ve gotten to know two other imagineers that I think you should know as well.  Though neither ever worked for Disney or Alcoa, both are imagineers in that they have become expert in tapping, developing, and sharing their creativity for development of ideas that serve greater good.

Mike Wagner is a friend from my home state of Iowa.  His company, White Rabbit Group, helps organizations and companies develop a “Strategic Brand Compass” that aligns and guides decision-making.  Mike has become an imagineer by being strange.  That’s a self description, by the way, because I don’t really see anything strange about Mike.  (Uh oh.  Does this mean I’m blind to Mike’s strangeness because I’m strange as well?  Probably, but that’s not such a bad thing.)  Recently Mike sent me a link to his TEDx talk, “The Positive Power of Being Strange.”  It is well worth the 17+ minutes of your time it will take to watch it on YouTube or from the link on Mike’s website.

Jeff Logan is another friend whom I first got to know in 2009 when we worked together in the first of many team projects to be thrust upon us in a PhD program at Eastern University.  Jeff is a guy that just oozes creativity, even when he isn’t trying.  I knew Jeff and I had connected on a deep level when he showed up at one of our residencies with a gift for me – a pop-up book featuring the cartooning of MAD magazine on the subject of American politics.  Jeff is linguist, researcher, teacher, and a former political cartoonist.  We are both working on our dissertations and his, not surprisingly to anyone who knows him, is on the role of humor in leadership.  Jeff has been featuring a number of his cartoons and commentaries on his blog, Leadership of Fools.  It is well worth checking out and following.

So, what can Mike and Jeff teach us about becoming an imagineer?

  • First, you don’t need a contract or title from Disney to be an imagineer.
  • Second, you don’t have to be the brightest bulb in the pack – see Mike’s TEDx talk for more on this.
  • Third, don’t take yourself so seriously – in his other life, Jeff is a Baptist minister and it would be oh-so-easy to take everything very seriously.

One last thought I’d like to throw in about being an imagineer.  For me it begins with taking the risk to do something different from the routine.  I’m a person who really likes routines.  But I also know that routine can be lethal for a person like me who works in the world of ideas.  I’ve found simply doing something different from the way I usually do it can often fuel my own creativity by tapping into my own strangeness and shaking me out of the routine.

Here’s to the imagineers among us and the imagineer within each of us!

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus