Managing March Madness

Last Thursday, I felt blasted by the fire hose of experiences and information that has become the new normal for me and for many I know. Every day, there seems to be shocking news to juggle and personal interactions to navigate, filled with fiery differences of opinions and values.

I’m not going to bore you with the details of my day—I trust you have your own well-planned days that go off the track with surprising information, additional commitments, and personal misunderstandings.

My Thursday was filled with joys and challenges. All in all, it wasn’t a bad day, just a full one. It’s not a day that I want to forget, as it was an important and meaningful day. I find myself having more and more of these kinds of days, and I think that the lessons I re-discovered on March 14, 2019 might be useful in the future. I’m going to keep them front and center in this bursting season of Spring and thought you might find them helpful as well.

Stay in the heat of the moment.

Change and transformation do not happen in the midst of the mundane. Crucible moments, and even the mild moments of change, are all about the heat, both the joy and the challenge. There were moments in my Thursday that I needed to hold the tangled emotions of a situation, as the feelings were what made the moment meaningful and significant. My role was to witness the emotion and be present with it. I listened and absorbed and tried not distract others from the moment.

Be open to multiple interpretations.

As humans, we are quick to interpret the meaning of the events around us. Our first interpretations are often the familiar ones that make us look good or feel a bit more comfortable. After listening and absorbing the heat of the moment, I gently offered additional interpretations of the situation that helped myself and others see new possibilities. I listened to the ways that others in the same moment were interpreting the meaning of the words and actions. Widening the range of interpretations widened the frame of action.

Use small moments to return to center.

I can’t stay in the heat of the moment or offer meaningful interpretations, unless I am very present in the moment. I need to be grounded and centered to be present. Over the course of the day, I found quick moments to breathe, let go, and re-center: walking in the sunshine, noticing each bite of lunch, laughing with a colleague. I used the transitions between meetings, tasks, and interactions as quick moments to return to center.

Remembering these lessons helped me navigate a challenging full day. They helped me show up as a reasonably effective version of my best self. I was able to take what have could have been an off-the-rails crazy day and make it a meaningful day with moments of learning, connection, and joy. I’m going to keep returning to these three strategies—they work for me and I suspect that in these days of uncertainty and intensity, they will continue to be useful.

What works for you? I’m always open to new ideas to incorporate in to my repertoire.

- Meredith

Unlock Your Persistent Problems

In last month’s newsletter, I shared the beginnings of my exploration into better understanding power and how nonprofits might gain and use power. On this quest, I’ve realized that thinking about how to use power to create change was just that—a how question. Before I get to how, I need to focus on better understanding the what. What is it that we are trying to change?

I discovered some new concepts and a framework to aid in my exploration of the what of change on a recent webinar about the Six Conditions of System Change. The content of the webinar was derived from a recent article called “The Water of System Change,” written by John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Peter Senge.

I’ve followed Senge’s work on learning organizations and system thinking for years; you can find of many of his books on my shelves. John Kania and Mark Kramer wrote the first pieces on collective impact (another framework that I find useful, though often too simplistic). “The Water of System Change” is written for a philanthropic audience yet is useful for anyone who wants to make progress on deep and troublesome social and environmental problems.

Here are a few takeaways from the webinar and the article:

Systems change is about shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place. Though simple in expression, this is a big idea. Before we think about power and strategy, we have to understand what’s keeping the thing we want to change in place.

There are six conditions that hold most social or environmental problems in place. These conditions exist with varying degrees of visibility to the actors in the system. All six of the conditions are deeply intertwined and connected.

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Most funders—and frankly, most nonprofits—focus their attention on the top level of structural change, working to shift policies, practices, and resource flows.

When coalitions and collaboratives build and deepen relationships between actors in a system, they are shifting the condition of relationships/connections. Sometimes they even shift power dynamics.

Generating shifts in mental models generates lasting change. But this work can be hard to do without making changes at other levels. There’s an iterative connection between narrative and mental models: when we change the stories that we tell about a problem and the people it impacts, we can shift mental models; and when we shift mental models, we change our narratives.

Racial equity work is systems change. We can all be better at applying a racial equity lens as we look at each of the six conditions.

There’s a lot to unpack in this framework, and a lot of potential to use it to better understand the complex systems that we are attempting to change with our strategies, programs, and power.

— Meredith

Ask the juicy questions.

Have you ever found yourself thinking: I wish my board would get out of the weeds! Or: Why are board members so quiet during meetings? Or even: I really wish the board would help me think about the big picture for our organization.

You, my friend, might find the three modes of governance helpful.

The concept of the three modes is simple – effective boards perform three functions:

  1. Fiduciary: oversight of the financial, legal, programmatic realms. For example, reviewing outcomes measurements or monthly financials to make sure the organization is on track to meet goals.

  2. Strategic: planning for the future. For example, creating a fundraising or marketing plan.

  3. Generative: creative framing of the issues the organization and/or board needs to tackle. See below for examples.

In our opinion, the generative mode is where the good stuff happens. It’s where board members get engaged in the meaningful work, where they can share their view of the big picture, and where they can dream for the organization.

Generative thinking is driven by what we often describe as ‘juicy questions’. These questions help the board get out of the programmatic, financial, and management details of the organization and have a different, more expansive conversation.

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Some of our favorite generative questions for the board:

  • In five years, what do you want this organization to be known for?

  • If you were standing in the year 2030, telling the story of our organization’s wild success, what is that story?

  • If we were suddenly given $5 million, what do you think we should do with it?

  • When thinking about our work and our organization, what keeps you up at night?

  • What are the trends or driving forces with the greatest potential to impact our work (positively or negatively)? Why did you say yes to joining the board?

These questions help board members build their generative muscles, get to know each other better, and generate good ideas that help frame the organization’s strategic planning, marketing, or other work.

You may be wondering how your board would ever have time for this. Many organizations pack their board meeting with staff, committee, and financial reports and don’t carve out time for generative discussions. One proven way to find the space for generative thinking is to use a consent agenda. We hope these tips might help.

— Heather

Mix It Up.

In October, we had the incredible opportunity to lead 100 of North Carolina’s nonprofit leaders through a program we designed, BlueCross BlueShield of NC Foundation’s Nonprofit Leadership Academy Reconnect. Over three days, we helped board and staff members from communities around the state strengthen their strategic thinking skills, add to their leadership toolbox, build relationships with their colleagues, and take care of themselves.

We wish we could give all of you the experience of Academy Reconnect (complete with a poetry-writing fox!), but in absence of that, we want to share a few of the core concepts woven through the program. We believe that there’s no one way to understand the work of leadership and strategy, and so we combined three of our favorite concepts to build Academy Reconnect: adaptive leadership, the “big question”, and failure and improvisation.

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Adaptive Leadership

Readers of our newsletter know that we are big fans of adaptive leadership, a term coined by Ron Heifetz. The concept is simple: the work of helping people change their mindsets and habits (adaptive challenges) requires curiosity, experimentation, and patience. The practice, however, is not simple. At Academy Reconnect, we focused on helping leaders identify and understand the adaptive challenges they face every day. We also shared a few of the tools to lead through these challenges, such as raising and lowering the heat and stretching outside their comfort zone.

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Big Question

Focusing the efforts of a team, board, or organization around a single “big question” is a powerful tool to mobilize stakeholders. A good big question:

  • Has a significant impact on the organization and the mission. If it doesn’t have a big impact, it’s not a big question.

  • Is answerable, but not easy. You should feel like you are able to make progress on the question, and if it is too unwieldy, you might need more focus.

  • Fits the wits and resources of the team assembled to do the work. Your big question should need the input of those around the table and be answerable with the resources you currently have or are able to find.

In the Academy Reconnect context, we create space for teams to reflect on past work, scan internally and externally, and wrestle with the best version of their organization’s big question to tackle in the coming months.

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Failure and Improvisation

Tackling big questions and adaptive challenges requires leaders to try strategies that are different from their normal ways of leading. A fear of failure often holds people back from this kind of experimentation. We believe in giving people the permission to fail – and practice actually failing – are key ways to shift our own perceptions around failure. At Academy Reconnect, we provided participants with an opportunity to practice failure through improvisation training led by a local comedy troupe. And we celebrated failure through a fanciful storytelling event we called Cirque de Fail.

We encourage you to look for inspiration and tools from a variety of sources. There’s no one book on leadership, strategy, or innovation that has all the answers. The most effective leaders build their toolkit with resources collected over time through trainings, colleagues, and their own curiosity.

- Heather

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No Change Without Learning

We are in the midst of assembling the final report for a learning experience that we offered to executive directors earlier this year. In the final survey, many of the participants commented on how good it was to step back from the everyday for learning and reflection. Their responses got me thinking about the value—and challenge—and of investing time, energy, and sometimes money in the acts of learning and reflection.

Yes, one piece of learning and reflection is formal training and professional development. Heather wrote about the importance of training back in 2017.

We believe in professional development at Third Space Studio and we invest our time and resources in that belief. We wish more nonprofit boards would ask questions about the investments in professional development during the annual budget review.

I want to share a bit here about the more informal forms of learning and reflection. We live in a world with a constant flood of information and perspective. How do we make sense of it all? How do we decide what deserves our attention and what is frivolous? How do we figure out if what we are actually doing is contributing to our mission and goals?

Like many things from wellness to productivity, it comes down to habits. Here are a few related habits that I have learned from colleagues. Some I practice, some I ought to practice:

  • Take five minutes at the end of every day to ask yourself a few questions: When was I uncomfortable today? Why? When was I at my best today? Why? What happened today that piqued my curiosity?

  • Wrap up the week with a reflection: What did I learn this week? What needs my attention next week? And I’m not talking about a to-do list in this last question!

  • Regularly dedicate a short amount of time at staff meetings to sharing learnings: What did you learn last week that might be relevant and useful to your colleagues?

  • Regularly read articles and books from your field – and from outside your field. When you finish the piece, jot down a few thoughts on what you learned and how it might be useful.

  • Wrap up or begin the year with some solitude. Reflect on the high points and low points of the past year. Explore what you learned and what you might need to learn in the coming year.

I believe that we cannot change our ourselves, our organizations, our communities, our world without learning. It’s an essential skill and practice. What learning and reflection habits are you practicing? Let us know!

Good Strategies Fail

The words arrived in the mail on a 2x2 post-it note. It was sent to me by The Carrack, an art gallery here in Durham. The gallery was sharing pieces from a recent post-it art show with their sustainers. Y’all know that I love post-its—I was especially thrilled to receive this one.

At Third Space Studio, our days are filled with strategic thinking as we partner with nonprofit leaders to make progress on complex challenges. We value failure. We even host an annual Fail Fest to celebrate it! “Good Strategies Fail” felt just right for me and I immediately hung the post-it on the wall in my home office/studio.

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The note speaks to me every time I walk by and I’ve come to recognize it as my new mantra.

Here’s why I think it’s an important mindset to adopt right now. We face some of the most complex challenges that our communities and planet have ever faced: global flows of information and people; accelerated technology that is reshaping work, communication, commerce, and culture; income inequality; white supremacy; climate change; and more. 
These problems and challenges require new thinking and new action. We don’t know how to fix them. We don't even know how to talk about them. But I believe we must start trying.

I believe that we need to have different kinds of conversations. We need to experiment and test daring new ideas. We have to acknowledge that many of our tried and true programs and practices are not actually delivering our intended impact. And as we grow bolder and more courageous with our strategies, we will encounter failures.  

Research shows that only 30% of organizational transformation efforts succeed. After years and billions, we have yet to solve our social and environmental ills. Let’s not kid ourselves that we will be 100% (or even 80%!) successful.

To live into a world where good strategies fail—and where we make progress on all those big complex challenges—we can start by shifting our mindsets and behaviors. Here are some of the shifts that I am trying out: 

  • Separate performance from impact. A well-executed and well-funded strategy might not deliver the intended results. Let go of what is not working even when it is core to who you are as an individual and as an organization. Accept that the strategy is a failure and move on. 
  • Acknowledge the impact of our efforts and our failures on those that are less privileged. It is a privilege to be a nonprofit leader. When our efforts do not succeed, there are impacts on the lives of people. Listen to understand those impacts. Listen to better understand why the strategy failed. Listen for what to try next.
  • Be an intentional learner. Know the hypothesis and assumptions behind every strategy. Identify the data that you need to collect to test that hypothesis. Analyze the data with an open and humble mind.
  • Share the failures and talk about them openly and honestly so that others can learn from them.

I’m sure that there are others to add to this list. I’m even sure that some of these are the wrong ideas – and that I will fail in my effort to adopt them. What I do know is that it is incumbent upon us to be more courageous in our efforts. 

Let’s keep this conversation going. Share your thoughts and your failures. You can reach me at meredith@thirdspacestudio.com.  

Strategic Planning – It’s a New World

We often get calls from nonprofits asking them if we can help them with a strategic plan. The typical calls starts with something like this: “Our last strategic plan is about to run out and we need to update it. Can you help us? Three years ago when we did this we held a board retreat and a special staff meeting and came up with our goals and objectives. We think that process will work again.” 

As we talk further about current realities, more complexity emerges:

  • Our founding executive director plans to retire in 2 years.
  • Our decades-old service organization is being pushed by some of our funders and board members to consider the long-time structural barriers that have kept our clients in poverty.
  • We see value in being involved in partnerships yet our current funding sources don't allow us to dedicate time to multiple meetings with no clear outcomes.
  • Our revenues are shrinking because the organizations that once paid membership dues to demonstrate support for our mission now demand more tangible value.
  • Given our visible role in recent policy battles, national funders are more interested in our work. We don’t know what work to prioritize.

When we hear these types of statements, our ears perk up and we move to the edge of our seat. The work that we are being asked to do is not the typical technical work of creating a strategic plan. It’s not about a small group of leaders gathering in a room to conduct a SWOT analysis and articulate goals and objectives.

The Latest Trends in Nonprofit Fundraising, Uncovered

“Does this sound like my organization?” 

That’s the first question you should ask yourself when reading the 2016 Individual Donor Benchmark Data Brief (this year, as an easy-to-read infographic). From there, you can evaluate your donor potential, enhance your strategy, and raise more money from individual donors!

Presented by Third Space Studio and BC/DC Ideas, the Individual Donor Benchmark (IDB) Project collects fundraising data from organizations with budgets under $2 million, seeking to identify trends nonprofits can use to evaluate their own fundraising success. In this, our fifth year, we surveyed over 150 nonprofits to find answers to questions like: 

Taking Time for Training

I'm guilty of it - and I bet you are, too. Neglecting my own professional development, even while I preach the importance of training to others. Whether the challenge is priorities, costs, or just not enough hours in the day, I often find it hard to make time for training.

Last month I broke my pattern and spent two and half days in a great workshop on designing learning experiences. I was reminded of the true value of taking time for my own training, even on a topic I consider one of my core competencies. In particular, I was reminded that trainings can:

  • Give me the time and space to reflect on a topic. Simply having the opportunity to pause and thinking about one topic at a time, with no (or fewer) distractions, is a gift. Whether it is one hour at a conference or two and half days for an immersive workshop, the time to reflect is an important benefit of training.

Meetings Are Expensive

Those of us work in organizations spend a lot of our time in meetings. They compete for time on our calendar.

Sometimes the time is well spent. We leave the meeting energized with a clear sense of direction or new understanding. We appreciate our teammates and feel a part of a dynamic organizational culture.

More often that not, the investment of our time and energy in a meeting is frittered away. The meeting is unproductive and we leave with our energy drained and our relationships frayed.

Movement Building Lessons from the Couch

We think a lot about leadership at Third Space Studio: the kind of leadership that’s about mobilizing other people to tackle the tough challenges, the challenges that require our willingness to change our own mindsets and behaviors if we are to find a solution. We’ve noticed that there are lots of opportunities to learn about leadership from the experiences all around us.  

The essay below is Meredith’s reflections from her observations of the Women’s March. When we agree with the content of an experience – and certainly when we disagree – there are opportunities to deepen our own leadership abilities and take the lessons to our own venues.

On January 21, 2017, I sat on my couch as millions of people around the world marched in the streets to proclaim women’s rights are human rights to the new President of the United States. I had intended to march in the streets of Raleigh, the capital of my home state, but was deterred by a strained ligament in my knee. The knee injury a result of an attempted split when I slid on a pencil left on the floor while I worked on my poster to proclaim “our power is love”.

Leading With a Question

In the last month, I’ve spoken with multiple nonprofit leaders who see a lot of uncertainty on the horizon and are feeling a bit paralyzed by it all. As I coach, converse, and commiserate, I’ve wanted to help them find a touchstone, something reliable in the midst of the unknown.

It finally came to me the other day when I was reading something about the power of questions ­– we love a good question at Third Space Studio. For generations, philosophers and religious leaders have reminded us that asking and welcoming questions provides us with guidance and direction. Ranier Maria Rilke implored us to “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”