Get to the Point FAST!

Jan 2013 Portrait BW

How much is too much?

This morning I was asked to talk to a governing board about scores on a federal funding application. I’d prepared a briefing memo because I NEVER speak to a group without paper. I was also ready to speak at much greater length and provide more detail than what I’d included in the memo. I really know the topic so I was, as per usual, ready to rock.

The chairperson of the group started off the day’s agenda with this caution: “When people have reports or presentations to make, let’s keep those brief, just the major points. Especially when we have a written document,” he said, looking over at me. “We can all read.”

He repeated this a couple of times and it occurred to me that the caution might have been the direct result of my presentation at last month’s meeting of the same governing board. I’d presented the results of a program evaluation. Members seemed very attentive and interested and that was all the encouragement I needed to delve into the topic chapter and verse. I thought they had appreciated the level of detail and the discussion but maybe it had been too much.

I pride myself on being able to speak without constantly referring to notes and to highlight the things that need special attention rather than hiding those things in a long list. But I have to say the chairperson’s caution to me this morning hit home.

What are three most important things this group needs to know, I asked myself. Just talk about those. And do it clearly and forcefully. It will keep the time short and convey a needed sense of urgency.

This was a good reminder for me. Decide what’s really important and zero in on that.

Even if you are in love with the topic and know a huge amount about it, prioritize.  More can always be added later when people have had a chance to see what’s most important.

It occurred to me this morning that people aren’t paying me as a consultant to walk them through a long report like they were first-graders. They wanted me to tell them where to focus their resources and energy, recognizing that both are in limited supply.

Are you a practitioner of the detailed report? Maybe it’s time to rethink your approach.

Spruce Up Your Look!

There is a school of thought that says PowerPoint presentations are passé. Today’s audiences need more dynamic presentation media. I agree with that in the abstract. But in the day to day world where I do most of my work, PowerPoint still has a function – a big function.

A PowerPoint presentation:

1. Keeps me as the speaker on track.

2. Keeps the audience focused on the most important content.

3. Allows discussions to revolve around something everyone is seeing at the same time.

So for those reasons, I still like PowerPoint presentations. And because I’m not a genius at organizing and manipulating new, more dynamic media, I’s sticking with PowerPoint presentations for when I have to convey complex information to a diverse audience.

That doesn’t mean that presentations have to be boring.

Let’s not talk about content right now. That can be a topic for another blog. Today, let’s just talk about the look, namely, customized slide formats.

For several years, I have been working with Tessera Design on virtually every product that leaves my office – proposals, reports, and PowerPoint presentations. I find that Tessera’s customized designs elevate my presentations. Through the artwork and formatting, a consistent theme and message are created and conveyed. It’s a big plus.

This format helped me present a potentially touchy analysis of Milwaukee’s shelter system. Created by Tessera in 2010, the design had the effect of conveying that the system was itself embarking on a path of self-improvement.

At the front door1The theme was repeated with the presentations slides, reinforcing the notion that the purpose of the analysis was to drive process improvements rather than criticize.

At the front door2One of my favorite slide formats was put together for a presentation to WISCAP (2012) on developing Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area (NRSA) Plans. The NRSA designation is a creation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that enables a local government to use federal funding much more flexibly in accordance with a plan developed collaboratively with neighborhood residents, business, and other stakeholders. It sounds like a dry, boring process but it’s actually terrific fun. A good NRSA has a lot of community involvement, a lot of people who love their neighborhood come together to make it better.

What better than a beautiful fall scene to make people see the promise of a NRSA?


Can’t you just see the neighbors out raking leaves and hear kids playing basketball in the background? The companion format for this gave just a thread of the same feel.


These are just two examples of many customized looks created by Tessera Design. They are offered here just to spark your thinking about what extra could be added to your PowerPoint. How can you make your PowerPoint pop? How can you separate yourself and your important project from the ‘ho-hum’ of PowerPoint presentations.

This is one way. No singing ducks or interactive surveys. Just good, clear information presented in a new, interesting way.

Treachery at Work

As a consultant, I need to tune in to organizational dynamics fast. Why? Because I need to be able to maneuver the relationships and politics in order to get my job done.

That sounds cold and it is. My #1 priority, though, whenever a group hires me for something important, is to make sure my product is as good as it can possibly be. Getting it tangled up in an organization’s peculiar toxic environment is a negative. It will impede my progress and affect quality.

So in my travels and in my own employment history (yes, there was life before consulting), I’ve seen many organizations with very dysfunctional internal cultures, many of which would meet anyone’s criteria for toxic workplace.

What does treachery at work look like? It looks like this: unreasonable and changing expectations, poor or no communication, blatant favoritism, high school style cliques, blindsiding, blaming, dismissing, marginalizing, taking credit for other people’s work, gossip, the silent treatment. Shall I stop there?

What is a person to do in this type of environment?

Here’s the most important thing, the absolute must for a person who finds him/herself in a poisonous organizational stew. Don’t be a victim. Give yourself the same advice you would give your son or daughter about coping with bullies on the playground. The bully wins if you act afraid. Or if you begin to believe the bully’s taunts.

Stick with the process. A key element of a treacherous workplace is that so much of what goes on is out of the public eye. Deals are made, understandings reached, plots hatched with only some people in the know and everyone else wondering.  Sticking with the process means always forcing deliberation and decisions to the public venue and, once there, advocating for an open, honest discussion, and insisting on this over and over again until colleagues comply.

Remember you are a professional person with top-notch skills and great experience. That’s your mantra. If you then take your mantra to the high road and stay there, you will be in good shape. Is that difficult to do? Absolutely.

By being the person who sticks to the high road, you offer an example to others who wish they had your courage. Sometimes this can begin to change the culture, sometimes not. It’s very wearing to be a principled person in an environment where others seem to have lost their moral compass. But even if you end up leaving an organization because it is simply too toxic to continue, you will carry your professional integrity and self-respect with you. Those are qualities you truly can take to the bank!

Organizations that allow treachery at work limit their own success. Don’t let treachery at work limit your success!


A very helpful overview of toxic workplace issues and strategies is provided by Amy Scholten, M.P.H. in “10 Signs That Your Workplace is Toxic and What You should Do About It.”

Five Workshop Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Janice Wilberg, Ph.D.

Janice Wilberg, Ph.D.

Your workshop proposal has been accepted and you’re going to present at an important state or national conference. You’re excited because you know you have a lot of knowledge to share and doing workshops is excellent professional development. You see this as an opportunity to step up a bit in your career.

So how do you make the most out of the experience? By avoiding these five presentation mistakes:

1. Thinking you have to tell everything you know. Your workshop participants don’t want to know everything you know, they want to know the most important things. This workshop won’t be your only chance in life to share your knowledge with others. Be focused in your topic and selective in what you say.

2. Not putting your audience’s needs first. People come to a workshop with expectations. Do you know what they are? Have you thought about what you would want to know if you were in your audience? What will make people feel like your workshop was time well-spent?

3. Mistaking your workshop for amateur hour. Your presentation materials need to look sharp and be useful. This means your PowerPoint is clear and well-composed and that your handouts are keepers, that is, they are organized, attractive, and very, very helpful.

4. Getting too cute. A workshop that uses too much irrelevant technology or that asks participants to engage in little exercises that might be fun but aren’t germane to the topic will use up time at the expense of content. Generally, folks in a short workshop don’t need to get to know each other; they need to zero in on the topic. This means as crisp presentation and plenty of time for questions and answers.

5. Letting yourself get hijacked. There’s a fine line between taking questions and hearing people out and losing control of your workshop. As much as you want to seriously respond to each question, you also have an obligation to consider the needs of the entire group of participants. Practice artful ways to bring the discussion back to what the group needs. How the workshop will benefit the whole group is your biggest priority.

At the end of a successful workshop, you want to see people heading toward you and not the door. You want them to come asking for extra clarification, wanting to know how to get more information, and looking to share their own stories. That’s your aim: to engage your colleagues in really thinking and reflecting on a topic you believe is very important. Avoiding this very common mistakes will help you reach that goal.



The Beauty of Meeting Facilitation

Good meeting facilitation techniques will make almost any important discussion better and more productive.

What facilitation does is make sure that everyone is heard in an equitable way, that is, facilitation will usually prevent a meeting being dominated by a few very strong and persistent speakers. Facilitation also organizes people’s responses and thoughts in such a way that next steps are possible. This means that participants leave the meeting knowing what they have agreed on and how to proceed in the weeks and months to come.

Facilitation techniques break down meeting topics into workable parts. Then facilitation employs different strategies to both engage participants (make sure they don’t spend the entire meeting looking at their phones) and get the best out of them, their sharpest thoughts, and their real investment.

Training in meeting facilitation is available through the Institute for Cultural Affairs and the International Association for Public Participation. Critical ingredients to a successful facilitation include:

A well-prepared facilitator: A good facilitator is respected by the group, able to manage a discussion without tamping down participation, and able to mix seat of the pants adaptation and much thinking on one’s feet in order to consolidate the discussion and move things forward.

Sensible and diverse methods: If there are 3 or 4 different discussion topics, the facilitation method for each should be different. People get bored quickly unless there is a combination of individual and group thinking, three-word answers, and longer lists, on their feet and sitting down. But there’s a caution here: facilitation that are too fancy or too wacky will put people off. Only employ a technique that you, as a participant, would like.

Visual: Good facilitation is all about VISUAL. This means drawing circles on the board to ask people to come up with ‘spokes on the wheel,’ using big post-it notes to write short ideas that can then be stuck on the wall and arranged into categories, even drawing  pictures or using TinkerToys to illustrate a concept or plan.

Wilberg Community Planning recently designed the Facilitation Plan for the Milwaukee County Mental Health Redesign Working Forum held on March 5, 2014; and several facilitation techniques were used by four trained community volunteers Not only did the forum generate really good products that will move the Redesign effort forward, people enjoyed themselves and felt that their time was well-spent.

Take a look at the summary that was produced for the Working Forum. As you read through, you’ll get a sense of the facilitation methods that were used by each discussion leader. It might get you thinking about how to manage your next important meeting. If you’re interested in learning more about meeting facilitation or need help designing a plan, email me at

Mental Health Redesign Working Forum




The Difference between a Discussion and a Facilitated Discussion: Part 1

The nonprofit world loves meetings. An issue comes up. We need a meeting. A plan needs to be developed. We need a meeting.

We move as a group.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Most projects will be made better if more people participate in the discussion.

But the key word is participate.

How many group discussions have you attended this month where two or three people do all the talking and the rest of the folks might as well be potted plants? It’s more than one, isn’t it? Two, three, dozens?

Generally a group discussion will follow an agenda. Most people think that an agenda is enough to keep a discussion ‘on track’ and keep participants from wandering off or circling back. An agenda may accomplish that goal but it won’t produce the type of results possible with a facilitated discussion.

Among the shortcomings of a regular group discussion is that a few people will dominate and others will coast. Unless an issue is of critical importance to a participant, he/she will wait for someone else to speak up and lead. That someone else invariably becomes the opinion leader for the group. If there are a couple of folks who speak up, they steer the discussion. In the absence of countervailing forces (other points of view), they set the group’s direction. But because not all were heard from and not all ideas put on the table, enthusiasm for next steps is weak, ownership is shallow, and progress is negligible.

Another problem with agenda-driven, non-facilitated group discussions is that they are topic-focused and not outcome-focused. When the group decides that an agenda topic has been covered (usually because no one has anything else to say), the next topic is tackled until each agenda item has gathered its share of opinions. “Does anyone have anything else to add?” is a question usually met with silence. “Ok, then, let’s go to the next item.”

People will leave a group discussion like this one feeling as if they have done their duty. They attended the meeting and maybe put in their two cents. Scratch that one off the calendar and go to the next gathering of the potted plants.

They probably won’t feel like they’ve made progress, built something, laid the foundation for a larger effort. That’s what would come from a facilitated discussion.

More about facilitated discussions in Part Two of this series.





Ten Things I’ve Learned from Being in Business 19 Years

This month marks the 19th anniversary of Wilberg Community Planning, an independent, mostly solo, consulting practice working with nonprofit organizations and government.

So what have I learned in 19 years of consulting? Naturally, there’s a list of 10 things:

1. You need to be willing to wash windows. Especially when starting out, it’s a big mistake to turn down any work.

2. Every job is important. If prospective clients think you only pull out the stops for one or two clients, they’ll go elsewhere.

3. Die trying. Going for the extra yard is fundamental.

4. Connect with all kinds of people. The junior staffer today could hold the checkbook tomorrow.

5. Align with people with skills. Make the people who really, really know how to do things right your best friends.

6. Carry your own power. If you work alone, you need to be mega-kilowatt.

7. Charge what you would pay. Be honest. How much would you pay you?

8. Teach to get smarter. Nothing makes you sharper than teaching what you know.

9. Keep your moral compass in your pocket at all times. Come to terms with what you will and won’t do for money.

10. Be joyful. Do the work that you love and you will never go wrong.

That’s it — what I’ve learned in 19 years. Stay tuned for next year’s list – 2015. 20 years of Wilberg Community Planning!

It’s a NEW Year!

Doing business in the nonprofit world isn’t all sunshine and roses. It takes a lot of scrambling to stay alive. Funders need to be kept happy. Performance must meet high standards. Staff and boards of directors have to be aware, involved and supportive.  Running a nonprofit is a job at least as hard as running any business, probably harder.

All these pressures mean that it can get wicked out there in the nonprofit sector. At the end of the year, there can be a lot of nonprofit directors picking themselves up and dusting themselves off after having gotten flattened by competitors, funders’ disfavor, or the unhappiness of their constituents.

Looking ahead to 2014, there are three suggestions I want to make to nonprofit directors, the ones who are on top of the world at the moment as well as those wondering if they’ll still have jobs come spring.

1. How you do business is as important as how successful you are doing it.

Being devious, manipulative, and divisive is not a sustainable strategy for nonprofit success. The funding world and the public favor collaborative enterprises. Collaboration evolves from trust, reliability, and transparency. Note here that collaboration is not just an interagency concept; it’s an interpersonal one as well. When you think of it that way, you start to see how some organization directors are so good at moving their organizations forward.

2. Don’t be stuck in what was.

Steve Mahan, director of the City’s Community Development Grants Administration, used this phrase to encourage agencies to think of new ways to address homelessness. It applies in many areas. What was good enough five years ago isn’t anymore. The techniques proven to work by decades of application that seem to be weakening around the edges, maybe it’s time to re-tool them. Every day is a new one. Be new, too.

3. Get out.

The world won’t come to you while you are sitting at your desk pondering your next move. The partnerships, deals, collaborations that work start with getting to know people as people, having lunch for the sake of having lunch, showing up at other organization’s events. If there was to be a resolution to come out of this, it would be – make one date a week. That’s it. Just one. A date where you are talking to someone to get to know them and their organization, not because you want something from them.

2014 is going to be an extraordinary year for nonprofit organizations. It’s a time ripe for new ideas and bigger impact. Think about how you are approaching 2014. Let me know how it goes.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to clients and friends of Wilberg Community Planning!

This year’s clients included the City of Milwaukee/Milwaukee Continuum of Care, Repairers of the Breach, Milwaukee Public Theatre, Milwaukee County Mental Health Redesign, Family Drug Treatment Court, Legal Action of Wisconsin, La Causa, Inc., and JusticePoint.

Homelessness, mental health, child welfare, offender re-entry, childhood trauma, and nonprofit sustainability were the topics this year.

One thing my clients share is a deep commitment to the people they serve, a tirelessness about doing a really good job. I admire that about people who work in these really difficult areas. They really have ‘no quit in them’ as my father would say.

It’s exciting and endlessly interesting to be involved with people who keep trying to make their organizations better and more effective.

A great year – 2013!




Cold Case: Having to Construct an Evaluation after the Fact

Cold case detectives aren’t just on TV. Some of them are also called evaluators, experts called in to help a project complete an outcome evaluation after a program has been designed and implemented. In the worst situation,  a cold case evaluator is called in to complete an evaluation with no data or bad data. Frequently, time is short, a funding source is demanding a final evaluation report, and program staff are disinterested and maybe even antagonistic about having an evaluator look at their outcomes.

As a consultant who has been in this situation more than once, I have this to say: You would be amazed at what passes for data collection in many programs – hand-signed attendance sheets, ginned-up pre and post tests, and anecdotes galore. Interesting material, often, but not the stuff of decent evaluations.

What to do when you’re asked to evaluate a program that is nearing the end of its funding period and has had no solid evaluation system put into place? Here are some ideas gleaned from my own experience as a cold case evaluator.

#1: Enlist program staff in your cause.

A quick way to guarantee that you will never get any data with which to evaluate the program is to alienate the program staff. If they feel you are judging them or taking a superior attitude because you’re in the evaluator position, they will make your job harder. Instead of tsk-tsking your way around, make program staff your partners in telling the program’s story in the most accurate way possible.

#2: Use what you have.

Is there any program data? Separate the wheat from the chaff and use it. Are program participants still engaged? Develop a retrospective survey instrument to gather their insights about program impact. Is there a staff person who has been involved with the program from the beginning? Ask her/him a thousand questions. You may find out there’s more data laying around than anyone knew. They didn’t tell you because they didn’t think it was important. Moreover, an evaluation encumbered by lack of decent data can be greatly enhanced by attention to good process evaluation. In that case, telling the program’s story through the views of informed observers can also give insight into the difficulty in establishing an outcome evaluation.

#3: Create a beautiful product.

Present whatever data you have in a clear, readable format. Use graphs and charts whenever you can. Compare the program’s results to the results of other similar programs. Bulk up the content with the insights of program staff and vignettes about representative participants. Include a carefully crafted and objectively stated list of ‘areas to consider for further development.’ In this list, be sure to include the need to design the outcome evaluation when the program is designed and to establish good data collection protocols from the beginning. Say this as a going forward recommendation, not as a criticism. By now, program staff know they missed the boat on designing an outcome evaluation, no need to rub it in. Last, make sure the evaluation report looks good. I work with a professional graphic designer on all my products; it’s money well-spent.

There are important things to be learned from every program’s implementation. Sometimes, we can’t measure all of them but often we can know more than we think if we are patient, professional, and persistent, just like a good cold case detective.