April, 2012

Quick Tip #2: How to Get Traction on an Issue

A problem comes up.  A work group gets formed.  The work group meets and talks about the problem.  The work group adjourns and returns the next week and starts over. Again and again, the work group gathers, chats, adjourns, and returns until someone has the temerity to say, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere here

How many dozens of times have you been in a work group like this where a) you can’t afford not to attend because there is an off chance something important may happen; and b) the meetings are the ultimate Ground Hog Day experience with no progress and no product.

How to stop this complete waste of everyone’s time?

1.  Make a list of decisions that need to be made.  The quickest way to do this is with a traditional brainstorming/issue voting process:  Each person makes his/her own list of three major decisions.  Those are posted or written on large sheets of paper (sticky notes can be very helpful here). The list is discussed by the group.  Then each person gets three votes (not all three can be used on the same item) to select priorities.  The vote is tallied.  Voila!  Your list of decisions to be made magically appears!

2. Stick to the decision list.  Treat the decision list as if it is a holy document.  The list becomes your agenda for your next meeting. “At our next meeting, we will tackle decision items #3, 4, and 5 so be prepared to resolve those items at that time.”  Use the decision list as the organizing framework for the work group’s efforts, measure progress against the list, and organizing reports to the sponsoring entity using the list.

3.  Prohibit backward motionWe’ve all seen it happen.  A work group labors for months to make progress and then someone new comes to a meeting and wants to start at Point A.  Very often, because people are basically nice and want to be inclusive, a work group will allow itself to be taken back to the train station.  To avoid that, practice saying, “We’ve discussed that.  This was our decision and we’re now working on decision items #3, 4, and 5.  In other words, there is no going backward, only going forward.  Of course, if there is something alarmingly wrong with the first decision, the group ought to revisit it but barring that, full steam ahead at all times.

 4.  Write everything down.  There is great power in the written document.  Having agreed-upon decisions written down and distributed at the next meeting reminds people that those discussion on those items is done and no longer open to debate.  I call this consolidation of gains.  This is how traction occurs:  by consolidating the gains (decisions made) at the last meeting and pulling people’s attention to the next set of decisions.

 This approach requires that someone in the group is able to take charge.  If there is an appointed chairperson who can’t seem to lead the group toward progress, then some of the members might have to gently offer to create a work group charge using the decision list model.  Often, the chairperson will be grateful for the assistance. 

This method has worked for me many times.  Let me know if it’s helpful for you.

Ask the Consultant: Evaluating a Program You Don’t Like

What do you do as an evaluator when you really don’t like or support the program approach you are evaluating; say, it’s something contrary to your principles or beliefs?

This was a question asked by an Alverno University student of me and several evaluation colleagues who were speaking to her class last week. One colleague recounted a major evaluation focused on a teen pregnancy prevention approach he couldn’t endorse.  I recalled instances where, in the course of an evaluation, I encounted agency practices with clients that made me uncomfortable, even angry.  We all agreed that this problem comes up a lot for evaluators since, being human beings, we have often have very strong personal beliefs.

When this happens, though, there is an enormous risk of one’s personal beliefs influencing the objectivity of the evaluation.  This can happen in such subtle ways that even the evaluator isn’t aware that his/her biases are shading everything – the construction/selection of evaluation instruments, the content of interviews, and the interpretation of observed activity. While it is far better and a lot more fun for an evaluator to evaluate an approach he/she fundamentally endorses, the opposite is often true.  When in this situation, a couple of possible strategies might be useful.

First, one of the evaluators on the panel reminded us all that every program deserves a decent evaluation, sort of on the order of everyone accused of a crime is entitled to legal counsel.  Good thing to keep in mind.  Every program approach benefits from a thorough, well-conceived and implemented process and outcome evaluation.

Second, when an evaluator is put in a position of having to fairly evaluate a program approach he/she doesn’t like, the bottom line is sticking with the process.  This means evaluating a program based on its program design/logic model.  Period.  This means not letting alternative or more philosophically attractive approaches enter into the analysis as implicit or explicit points of comparison.  This is tough, but essential.

Third, the evaluator simply must keep her/his biases in check and be extra vigilant about avoiding any opportunities to go looking for evidence to support those biases.  Because an evaluator often has a lot of control over how success is defined and measured, this can be extremely challenging.  Basically, to do right by the evaluation, the evaluator has to put on and keep wearing the mantle of objectivity even when it chafes.

 These are some ideas about handling this thorny situation.  In future blog posts, I’ll be tackling other questions that have been posed to me about planning, grantwriting, collaboration, and professional ethics.  If you have a question, let me know.  Be glad to take a crack at answering!

Ham Up!

Ask not what you can do for your country. 

Ask what’s for lunch

 — Orson Welles

If you are an up and comer, a bright little nova about to burst in the sky, one of next year’s Forty Under Forty, then you’re making a big mistake if you work through lunch.  Oh, I hear you.  You have tons of work to do.  You like working through lunch because everyone else in the office is gone and it’s really nice and quiet.  You don’t want a reputation for taking long lunch hours.

Yes, I hear you, but you’ve got this one wrong. 

When I worked for Milwaukee County as their first Grants Coordinator, I’d just come from an agency where lunch was an art form.  However, in the County Courthouse, lunch meant going down the elevator to the Homicide: Life on the Streets cafeteria, eating a tuna sandwich and hotfooting upstairs before your minutes were up.  So when I headed for the elevator and got off on the 1st Floor to walk outside into the sunshine and the vast array of eateries around 9th and Wells, people piped up real quick, “Where are you going?”

Well, I’m going to lunch.  Why was I going to lunch?

Because I needed to make connections in order to get some big grants going and the place that connections could get made was LUNCH.

Yes, I could have had meetings with the same people.  But a meeting isn’t like lunch.  A meeting is about the agenda, getting things done, leaving with assignments, and feeling super efficient.  Lunch is about having a relationship with someone that is bigger than a single project, a connection that is more enduring, more intimate, and more fruitful over the long term. It’s talking about your kids, it’s knowing that someone actually has kids, it’s sharing information about new developments, it’s cracking a joke and having a decent laugh, it’s building a business friendship for the long haul.  Valuable stuff.

Like many of you, I tend to work through lunch (and I actually had a tuna sandwich today) but I know about the value of lunch and intend to recommit myself to this essential business practice.  So – get on the phone and make a date for lunch!  And I’ll do the same.

And, oh, kudos to the County’s old dungeon of a cafeteria – because it used to open at 5:00 a.m. which let folks like me who’d spent their working hours at lunch come in early to get their work done.



Women and Leadership: We’re Still Not There

Women are better leaders but poor self-promotors.  That’s the conclusion of a study of 7,280 leaders done in 2011 and discussed in a recent Forbes article. They’re better than men at taking initiative and driving for results.  I think this is a hoot since those are characteristics that have been perceived as so exclusively male.  At last, research confirms what I know from watching powerful women handle tough groups and challenging projects.

Women know how to get things done.  They know how to push a project to completion and usually know how to keep a team intact and focused.  What they haven’t figured out and what the author of this piece points out is how to play the ‘getting ahead’ game within an organization. 

Two things are at play here.  First, I think women are very performance-based and they tend to think that rewards will follow good performance.  Second, I think most women are blind to the enduring influence of male social networks (using the term Old Boys Club would be inflammatory).  The going out for drinks after work, playing golf, being in the same softball league, hey, even the constant talking about sports – these are the ties that bind for men.  So when a man in a position to promote thinks about who to promote, he thinks about his friend.  He’s not necessarily discounting the woman’s experience and skill, he just knows the guy better and feels in his gut that he can trust him.

Meanwhile, the unpromoted woman is counting up all the extra projects and hours, the accolades, and the recognition and she is wondering what happened here?  She is discounting the male bonding that’s been going on while she’s scrambling to pick up the kids at day care (yes, I know, men also pick up kids from day care) but worrying about kids, dinner, grocery-shopping, all of that end of the day business is still mostly  in the mom’s job description. 

For a long time, I think women figured that if they could get in the door, they could rise to the top through great performance.  That is sometimes true, but it isn’t the norm, otherwise, we wouldn’t think a female executive of a major corporation is all that noteworthy.  However, we are still seeing headlines about someone being the first woman to run a large corporation.  This morning’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinal ran an article on the business page about Pat Kampling, the first woman to run a Wisconsin utility corporation and, as the paper said, one of a handful of female top executives in the State. 

So much has changed for women in the last thirty years. It’s easy to lose sight of that.  But so much is the same.  The in-group, the clique, the network — it loves its own and marginalizes outsiders.  That’s a sociological fact from the ages.  How to bust open that closed, subtle, amorphous web is the big question.  Or, better yet, how can we replace the old network with a new one that has a lot of doors and windows – an airy, transparent place  where everyone can hang out.  That’d be great.


Here’s the link to the Forbes article:

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal article: