Of polls and preconceived notions

In 1990 I bought a brand new white Mitsubishi Galant. Everywhere I drove I saw other versions of my car. The car won awards and I smugly congratulated myself on making such a wise choice of vehicles. If there were any trips to the mechanic, I considered them “flukes” and simply part of regular car maintenance. Every time I saw another ’90 Galant on the road, I patted myself on the back.

This is a perfect example of what I have since learned is a phenomena called “confirmation bias”. Confirmation bias is “… the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs.”

Which explains the anxiety over the polls that were an integral (and extremely annoying) part of the most recent election cycle.

We ignore those things which don’t fit our pre-determined conclusions. It is an age old problem. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.” [In a letter to Charles Thompson, September 20, 1787]

This is why there is so much hand wringing and obsessing over the polling data of the Romney campaign. They wanted to believe they ran an inclusive campaign that had all the bases covered. They didn’t (witness the electoral college results or the popular vote outcome), but that’s what they wanted to believe.

Unfortunately, it is a common metrics failing.


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Resources for working with Boards

Consulting on strategy is not a “one size fits all” event. It is not even “one size fits most”. Each organization is different, with unique sets of customers, stakeholders, issues and players. That said, there are three different levels in an organization I have helped with strategy. They are:
(1)  Senior leadership. In some organizations they are called the “C-Suite”. Elsewhere I have seen them called “The Board”. Regardless of nomenclature, they are responsible for the strategic level of the organization.
(2)  “Middle management”. This also has different names in different organizations. They may be called managers or directors. They are responsible for the day-to-day execution of initiatives – the operational level of the organization.
(3)  “Front line workers”. They are responsible for the tactical activities of the organization.
This is an annotated list of books that have been valuable resources as I work with boards of NGOs and ministries. It is a group that is considered “Senior Leadership” in the above list. I include my recommendation of where each book would be most helpful.
Boardroom Confidence by Bobb Biehl and Ted Engstrom (available at his web site bobbbiehl.com)
I have used Bobb Biehl’s Boardroom Confidence – worn out several copies actually – since I first read it nearly 25 years ago. It is in its 8th printing and full of adaptable examples. It is familiar to me and reinforces key principles that I emphasize.
Use it when… you want to train the board.
Nonprofit Board Answer Book by Robert Andringa and Ted W. Engstrom.
Andringa has done a lot of VERY good work in this area. He wrote an article in “Christian Management Review” several years ago and I adapted it for use in consulting with churches and NGOs. That made me search out other things he authored and this book is exceptional. It is “FAQs” on all aspects of a board. I found it useful in thinking through the roles and responsibilities in a conflicted board. The questions helped me clarify the issues.
Use it when… you want to diagnose issues a board is wrestling with regularly.
Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations by John Carver.
This is a Jossey-Bass publication and has a little more “academic” flavor but definitely a worthwhile read. If you have a large organization with a mature board model, this is the one I would recommend.
Use it when… you want to move the board to the next level.
Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard P. Chalt, William P. Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor.
Use it when… your board is prone to micromanagement.
Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board by Max DePree.
I have to admit to a Max DePree bias. I was hooked after reading his first book, Leadership Is an Art.
Use it when… your board is all-volunteer.
If you cannot find the Andringa article email me (pastordude49@hotmail.com) and I will send you a copy of the “Board Best Practices Checklist” I adapted from the Andringa article. It is a great place to start the discussion. Every time I consult with a board, I am grateful for the practicality of his work.
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Strategy Guardrails – “Best Practices” learned the hard way

Because I make my living as a strategy consultant, I have many opportunities to “talk shop” with others who do strategy. I find it both a great way to learn about some of the interesting things happening in the industry as well as an excellent opportunity to meet new colleagues.

Not long ago one of my colleagues was looking for best practices in strategy management/strategic planning. I realized it was something that might be useful to many of you, so I’m using my response as a blog entry. Here is my response:

In my practice I have found success as I observe the following as “guardrails”. I have two assumptions in my answer:

     1)  There are two parts to strategy, the development phase and the implementation
          (which includes management) phase.

     2)  Between the two phases there is an implementation dip – a term from Kotter,
          among others. (This is a great topic for another blog post).

These are the “guardrails” as I facilitate strategy development in an organization. I consider these to be “Best Practices”. They’re important because they were all learned (or in some cases reinforced)  the hard way.

• Strategy development is best done through facilitation. I am fortunate to work with a team who are all experienced facilitators, knowledgeable about group dynamics, adept at managing them  and familiar with stages of team development.

• The development phase sets the stage for implementation and management. In this stage it is critical to keep the strategic communicators informed (vs. involved) so that they can begin identifying stakeholders and crafting key messages. It is important that facilitators work hand in glove with strategic communicators during this phase, back briefing them regularly.

• Development is best done by those closest to the work (usually mid-management) and validated through input from the senior leadership. There is a “science” to choosing the development team, and wisdom in selecting participants in this can go a long way toward winning over Late Adopters (See Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation) in the Implementation Phase.

• The implementation phase must include (at a minimum) both a strategic communications plan and a change management plan based on the completed strategy.

• The Strategic Management Meeting (SMM) is vital to the implementation phase of the strategy. Strategic Management Meetings need to take place at a minimum of quarterly and progress against the strategy is the sole focus of this meeting. I use a dashboard (an Excel based visibility tool) to assist clients in setting the strategic agenda for this meeting. The agenda is composed of no more than 4 items (1) under-performing elements of the strategy and (2) initiatives related to the strategy. Initiatives are usually processes (internal) identified during the development phase that do not currently exist.

• Performance Metrics for the strategy are key to objective, fact based decision making for senior leaders. These are what is displayed on the strategy dashboard, a key tool for senior leadership to manage the strategy.

I’ll make the same offer to you that I made to my colleague: I am free (I’ll even buy coffee if you’re in the vicinity of the nation’s capital!) to talk with you at length if you’d like more information about this development framework, performance metrics or guiding senior leaders as they select the development team and manage the strategy. The value for you is that strategy developed in this way provides a virtual “map” of your organization’s white space. The value for me is I get to “talk shop”, which for a certified strategy geek like me is all the incentive I need.

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A Dog’s Dinner

I grew up in the days before PetSmart. Pets were not as pampered or catered to as they are today. Unless you had a purebred dog that competed for ribbons and championships, it just wasn’t high on the list to feed a dog anything other than “table scraps”. The reasoning at the time was that if it was good enough for humans it was good enough for the dog.
“Scraps” was an elastic term. It is difficult for me to like asparagus to this day because the dogs we had all liked asparagus more than I did. This wasn’t hard because asparagus was “good for you” and like most stuff that is “good for you” it didn’t have enough flavor to be really enjoyable. Every dog I remember as a pet was more than happy to help me get rid of the asparagus, a happy symbiotic relationship. I’m not sure it even hit their taste buds because it disappeared so fast. You could lose a digit or two feeding table scraps to some of the dogs that were pets over the years of my growing up.
Asparagus wasn’t the only thing in the diet of our pet dogs. Other family members saved choice pieces of meat or portions of their favorite meal like the mashed potatoes, which was a favorite with the entire family, including the dog. Who knew mac and cheese is a comfort food to both humans and dogs?!  Burgers, hot dogs, cold cuts and all manner of breakfast foods disappeared into these canine garbage disposals.
There were times when we were “in between” dogs. That was not a problem. There were always neighborhood dogs – not only was this before PetSmart, it was also before leash laws. There was always a dog willing to help. Who needed garbage disposals when Spot or Chief or Sparky would be along making their rounds of the neighborhood. Just put it in the dish out back and it would disappear in short order.
This brings me to Blacky. Blacky was a stray of uncertain parentage that found my grandfather and for reasons I still cannot fathom, they bonded. He (Blacky, not my grandfather) was a few pounds short of lean and stringy when he found my grandfather, a condition which soon changed. Whatever his lineage, Blacky almost certainly had “chowhound” in the mix. Blacky loved food. Table scraps were plentiful. Canned dog food was also part of the diet. Blacky had a skill that he plied throughout the neighborhood – he could beg. And his way of begging made him a neighborhood favorite. Blacky began to waddle but he wouldn’t change his ways.
Many people approach life like Blacky approached dinner, accepting things that were nutritious for other people. Their lives are bloated and they “waddle” through life, carrying weight they don’t need to – if only they had their own life plan.
It is ALWAYS easier to take leftovers and call it a life plan or a winning strategy. Some of what they call strategy is rich – hand-picked originally for someone else. A good strategy is never a “dog’s dinner”. Like the special food from PetSmart it is tailored to the breed and the age and takes several factors into consideration.
Now I’m curious. Have you seen people living out any “dog’s dinner” kind of strategies or life plans?  What was the result of this approach? Remember, Blacky went from agile to waddling just by not controlling his habits. It’s a matter of asking the right questions and making the right strategic choices.
Is your strategyor life plan tailored for your unique “breed”?
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In the beginning…

It all begins with strategy. Every leader that ever led started with a strategy. And this blog is dedicated to strategy – the development, implementation, measurement and discussion of strategy. Whether personal as in a life plan – or organizational as in a business strategy – we’ll meet here to “cuss and discuss” strategy and all it’s related elements. I look forward to the conversation.

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