Archive for February, 2011

The Best Combination

February 28, 2011

How can nonprofit organizations best provide responsive charitable services and simultaneously create social change?

A two-part answer helps significantly: improved governance and management. Strength in both these areas is essential to organization performance.

Great Governance
Trustees of nonprofit organizations play a critical role via tenacious, thoughtful leadership that insists on choices which yield measureable progress. Their governance role is specifically designed to review management competencies and associated organizational performance. Their function, in trust, to multiple publics is as a watchguard for the organization’s mission. It could be high quality education, hunger relief, women’s independence or children’s safety. As the “guard,” trustees are not necessarily cozy protectors of staff. Trustees don’t seek self-interest, they seek the common good.

These roles can put volunteers in a tough position. Regardless, their first duty isn’t as social support for each other or staff but to ensure that the community is well-served. This is their principal accountability. They should guide, question, provoke, measure, encourage and demand organization performance. Trustees must be willing to be unpopular in order to tackle tough decisions. It is both necessary and fair for trustees to set explicit, high expectations. As demands on time mount, doing a great job in governance isn’t easy.

Capable Management
When talented management does their work well they lead organization priorities and plans. They interact responsibly with both trustees and their peers in allied organizations. Capable non-profit managers have a long list of critical responsibilities. While surveilling and interpreting the external environment, managers also gather resources, develop staff competencies, communicate effectively, skillfully design and implement appropriate programs for those in need and pursue a change agenda (to erode the conditions that disable people). Some nonprofits provide charitable services, others exist to create social change and some have a mix of both agendas.

The requisite talent for this work include both attributes as well as knowledge and skills. A commitment to transparency, integrity, equity, empathy, learning, candor, others, and passion are all on my must-have list. Professionals believe and act on these values or they don’t. Critical knowledge and skills include a broad repertoire of design, planning, analysis, evaluation, facilitation, applied research, political acuity, policy, change/project management, marketing, communications, coalition–building and distinct subject matter expertise (in education, health, youth, seniors and other areas). Capable management can lead and be team members. They have enough wisdom and experience to coach others.

Strong : Strong
The best combination of governance and management is when both are strong. A strong executive can take advantage of a weak board or engage them in inappropriate roles. Similarly, a weak executive will never deliver what’s needed for an organization to perform. The relative proficiency of the nonprofit sector to process change is an essential, adaptive reflex. It could mean fewer organizations. It should mean a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo and new ways of working.

We all need talent in both functions that will take strategic, progressive action. The “exempt” reference that precludes tax payments isn’t a free pass at accountability – whether in governance or management.

-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow.Contact her

Human Bias Sways Strategy

February 10, 2011

Do you and your colleagues routinely test strategy quality?

It’s worth doing. The better the strategy, the more likely results.

I recently read about “Powerpoint Engineering” and laughed out loud. The authors describe it as a proclamation something will occur – and (the presumption) it does. It quickly skips past any viability test. In effect, general constructs of plausibility, feasibility and choice are overlooked for an aspirational declaration. This kind of engineering means the thinking and practices associated with great strategy are obscured or unattended.

Sometimes leaders substitute belief in their “noble cause“ for strategy. Unnecessarily, this lags the performance management knowledge we have from experience and research in all sectors. Identifying what works under what conditions can often be accomplished through a relatively easy Internet search. Be sure you understand the implications of application transfer. Then, and always, kick the strategy tires!

Biases Are Common
The influences of human bias can be a substantial challenge in strategy development. Although mostly unintended, be conscious of what people bring to the table. What can be great strengths outside of decisions in our work can be hazards inside your organization. Common attitudes and behaviors that can derail your best intentions for strategies that yield results include these six offenses.
Overoptimism: the tendency to exaggerate reasons to hope and believe our own marketing.
Anchoring: the connection of what we value to an arbitrary choice.
Risk aversion: a failure to stretch far enough and avoiding downside loss.
Confirmation bias: too much emphasis and reliance on our own opinions.
Herding: finding support and comfort in group-think.
Hero Bias: giving merit based only on who proposes an idea or option.

Inference can be another feature of bias in both attribution errors and in what is known as survivorship bias. Attribution errors assign success to the wrong factors. So, if cheese melts too fast when you’re cooking don’t conclude the cheese is at fault. (An overheated grill may be the culprit.)Survivorship bias is about history. It means that the storyteller has a version…and there are other versions. Those not present or who died have one, too. Listening to just survivors means you miss parts of the story.

Culture, Practices & Tools
Minimizing bias should be on your checklist for strategy quality. Routinely developing multiple hypotheses about your work and a variety of solutions is good practice. Typically, people identify strategy and gather facts to support the choice. Fostering an environment with colleagues who feel free to critique and even oppose these choices can be a really valuable part of a learning culture. It can be tackled by employing objective criteria and by a nimble mind that counters the choices made with the possibility of being wrong.

Another way to improve your strategy is to consider the frameworks, tools and approaches that generate strategies. What are yours? Which work best and why in your sector and marketplace? Proficiency with these tools can be an important part of your internal organization development. Simply shared understanding and language about their use is important action step. Knowing their features, limitations and strengths matters a lot.

Vision not Declaration
Aspirations are a critical part of creating change. Reaching high and far to cite a vision can be an important part of helping others see possibilities. It is essential to leading. Creating ways to secure a “new possible” is central to managing. And, testing strategy is an essential management task. Be sure you and those you work with avoid Powerpoint Engineering.

Beware, in strategy development, human bias can be a Trojan Horse.

-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more, see :

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