Sunday, January 26, 2014

That's Just the Way We've Done it Around Here

MAKING CHANGE IS TOUGH.  EVEN THE TINIEST OF CHANGES CAN OFTEN MEET THE LARGEST OF HURDLES. I recall meeting some serious resistance when I suggested that a nominating committee take an inventory of board member skills and attributes in an effort to help it think more holistically about filling existing gaps.  I thought that was a pretty easy one, but some members of the nominating committee didn't think it was a good idea at all and refused to participate.  

Or the time an organization decided not to seek external input for its planning because it didn't want to raise stakeholder expectations beyond what it felt it could deliver.  Or the many times the hard won work of a strategic planning process fell by the wayside as organizational attention was lured away by yet another new, shiny object.  

All of my examples of change have the potential to raise fear, mistrust, or anxiety about any new approach or philosophy.  And that's the typical reaction of many (myself included from time to time) to change. And that's OK, because most of the time those reactions can be anticipated and largely mitigated with deliberate forethought and effort.

What I just don't get are those nonprofit organizations that see inertia as the safe harbor or the all-they-can-muster.  The mantra of the inert -- it's the way we've always done it or if it ain't broke, don't fix it -- implies satisfaction with the status quo whether or not the status quo is terrific, satisfactory or just barely adequate.  That's what frustrates me the most, I suppose -- the stubborn lack of recognition that there is almost always room to improve and to grow.  At the very least, consider the potential!

Those of you in inert nonprofits know that you have to do twice the heavy lifting to make even the smallest change.  Even though I'm generally not an advocate of change for change sake, there are certainly reasons to do just that.  The inert organization may be one of those reasons, if for nothing more than to break the defeating cycle of that's just the way we've done it around here.

Start small and choose something to change that you know will have a positive impact right from the start.  Maybe it's the way people are greeted at the door or the way they're greeted on the phone.  Maybe it's a different choice of refreshments for a meeting or the paint color of the break room.  Maybe it's a breather in a board meeting to talk about an issue that's larger than the institution itself.

Remember, you're not just making operational change, you're trying to ultimately move the needle on people's perceptions of change.  Two different, but closely and often emotionally connected, things.

Got inertia?  Tell us what you might do to get unstuck.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Forward Guidance for Nonprofits: Where is it Taking You?


THE TERM 'FORWARD GUIDANCE' IS USED BY central banks to influence market expectations about the future levels of interest rates.  Banks do this by forecasting where markets will go and communicating their forecasts to businesses, governments, and the public.  I can see I've really grabbed your attention now.  But wait -- I'm going somewhere with this concept that has related, but not necessarily financial, applicability to the nonprofit sector.

I'm intrigued by the phrase, which I admit I hadn't heard until recently.  I'm also intrigued with the idea of 'forward guidance' -- of articulating how something will turn out or could turn out based upon agreed-upon indicators, is (or should be) one critical component of planning for a sector as much as for individual organizational planning. 

As the chart above from the banking industry illustrates, forward guidance is a combination of calendar-based indicators and trends and outcome-based indicators and trends.  Look where you get the greatest impact -- it's on the outcome-based side the of spectrum, which combines explicit evidence from past performance with forward looking information.

Forward guidance requires organizational leaders to look for and interpret trends and scan the landscape for potential opportunities and pitfalls in order to plot future directions.  It requires leaders to have their antennae up beyond the institution's walls, homing in on information and ideas that could be of practical use in thinking about the future. 

Forward guidance is about influence and impact.  As with the banks and interest rates, it's about shaping public perception and opinion that supports the need for the nonprofits in our lives.  It encourages people to get involved and to open their hearts and wallets.

Here's the snag: I think many nonprofit leaders are still more comfortable looking solely at past performance as the predictor of the future (the left side of the chart).  It's safe and, well, predictable.  We know the cast of variables and the vocabulary.  Our ability to forecast solely based on past performance has blindsided more than one nonprofit organization -- cultural organizations come immediately to mind, but I also wonder if education is stuck in this traditional approach despite all the talk about STEM, Common Core, and the electronic classroom.

We nonprofit leaders are woefully unskilled at forecasting using different vocabulary or trickier metrics that focus on consumer/community needs and wants.  We rarely receive that sort of training in a classroom; it's rarely demanded of us on the job.  Many of us haven't a clue about what to do with future trend information from across our own sectors or from other sectors, especially how to intelligently apply/adapt it in a timely, proactive way.  

We may read an article, listen to a TED talk, or attend a session at a professional conference that sheds some light on where our sector is/may be going, yet are many of us taking those perspectives and fashioning them into predictive tools for our boards and staffs to forecast the future?  Are many of us assembling forward guidance with the help of our nonprofit colleagues in our own communities or regions?

So, let's think about how we can move from the "least impact" side to the "greatest impact" side of the forward guidance spectrum.

Let me know how you're doing it.  I guarantee there are dozens of people anxious to learn from you.

Quick Update:  Just read this Nonprofit Quarterly article about 10 trends and 10 predictions for 2014 ---  a little forward guidance grist for the mill, perhaps?