Why Are We Solving the Wrong Problem?



What if you’re trying to solve the wrong problem?

Think about it.

Your organization could be hammering away every day, working hard on projects, spending down grants and newer even come close to solving the real problem.

It’s a horrifying thought, isn’t it? But it’s more common than we’d like to think.

Here are some reflections about this curious phenomenon:

All organizations are geared to protect the status quo. Funding, staffing, public relations all align to support the status quo. That makes sense (except when it doesn’t).

Boards of directors worry about change. Maintaining fidelity to the core mission often becomes the responsibility of the board of directors. And they take that job seriously.

Sometimes we don’t know how to do what is needed. So we do what we know. Change in human services or community development isn’t as simple as swapping out one machine for a new one. Mindsets and skill sets have to be changed and that is often very daunting.

The accountability connection is stronger between the organization and its funding sources than between the organization and its customers. Meaning what? Meaning that an organization will generally pay more attention to funders’ interests.

Funders increasingly drive the solution train. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Both. Funders have a macro view; they have access to broader data and deeper thinking. That’s good. They also have distance; they are a long way from problems as they exist on the ground (that’s where you and your organization live). That’s not so good. It means that while they might be seeing a problem, they aren’t feeling it. There’s a difference.

Community input is hard to get and, often, hard to take. It’s a sturdy organization that can handle regular exposure to community evaluation and input. It is so much easier to believe that you represent the community than to frequently go back and check. Few organizations are this brave.

Any of this hit home with you? Ever think that maybe you’re doing good work but still missing the mark? Maybe if the problem you are trying to solve continues; if you don’t see significant changes from your efforts, you ought to rethink your approach. Maybe it’s time to rethink everything, from the ground up.




Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Bless the Can-Do Folks!

Heroes and villains. Saints and sinners. In my work, I run into all of those folks but today’s topic concerns another dichotomy: the can-doers and the ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks.

As a consultant, my work is about change. No one hires a consultant to maintain the status quo. They can do that on their own. So my mission always has to do with doing something new or doing something better.  This makes for exciting and very interesting work but it’s not without its difficulties.

Because I am a consultant on a temporary mission, I have to engage other people in the task at hand. Often this means suggesting to people who have done things in a particular way for a long time or those who’ve never done it but have an opinion none the less that they do something new or better.

Here’s where we meet two kinds of people. The can-doers are the ones who were waiting for someone to bring the secret code to unlocking the door to new ideas and they are ready to rock. They’re the ones in a meeting who are totally focused, intent on the topic, nodding and taking notes. They’re the students every instructor loves to have in class. All in and ready to one up the instructor. When that happens, when you’re the consultant and someone comes up with an even better idea because you created the environment for change, that’s even better than having the great idea yourself.

The flip side are the ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks. These folks are death to a dynamic group. Everything suggested has been tried before, is too expensive, would never be approved by management, is too much work, will take too much time, and, my favorite, will require hiring another consultant. The ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks, also known as YCGTFR’rs, can deflate and depress a group beyond recognition, leaving the consultant the only person in the room with new ideas.

So are these two dichotomous groups born or made? A topic for another blog.

Let me know what you think — ever run into these folks in your work?

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

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




Print pagePDF pageEmail page

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.





Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Do You REALLY Want Consumer Participation? Five Ways to Make It Happen


The lack of consumer participation is very high on the group hand-wringing index. Everyone knows they should have consumers involved in planning and decision-making but it’s just so ‘gosh-darn’ hard. No argument there, consumer participation is very difficult but it can be done and done well. It just takes time, commitment, and some serious, sustained creativity.

Here are five ways to increase the involvement of consumers in your planning and decision-making:

#1: Take the time to establish consumer participation as a shared value in your group.

It’s easy to announce an effort to involve consumers; easier still to say that the funding source requires consumers to be at the table. It’s one more box to be checked off. However, commitment to consumer participation among group members will be weak if there isn’t an informed and solid consensus about its value. How to accomplish this? Form a study group to examine different models of involvement. Talk to consumers about what it would take to get their enthusiastic involvement. Honestly assess barriers that may exist to participation and gauge the group’s willingness to overcome those barriers. This might mean changing the way business is done. Is the group willing to do that?

 #2: Determine what you want from consumer participation.

If you only want to fulfill a funder requirement or your own vague sense of the need for inclusion, consumers will see right through you. No one wants to attend meetings or participate in functions where they are just filling a chair with a big sign on it – CONSUMER. They want to have a genuine function and be important to the group’s planning, decision-making and community impact. One way to address this is to hammer out a consumer participation job description. Best to do this with consumers at the table to avoid the inevitable mistakes that will occur if the professionals go it alone.

#3: Be prepared to change how you do business.

First and foremost on this list is the need to look at WHEN meetings are held. It is generally not going to be possible to involve consumers in meetings that are held during the business day. Bottom line: many consumers are working and their work does not afford them the opportunity to attend meetings during the day. Conversely, professional folks are basically paid to attend meetings. That’s what they do during the day. At night and on weekends, they have family responsibilities, recreation, maybe education to fill their time. Are you willing to hold meetings in the evening or on weekend mornings? A big shock to the group system, that’s for sure, but important to think about. One way to address this may be to alternate weekday meetings with meetings held in the evenings or weekends.

#4: Find a way to pay consumers.

So often, every member of a coalition is being paid to attend meetings but we expect consumers to VOLUNTEER. Consumers quickly discern that they are the only ones expected to show their altruistic selves and it engenders resentment. It is not easy to find funding to support paying consumer stipends because not all funders understand the value of consumers’ time or buy into the notion that they should be paid for their participation. This is where a strong shared commitment to consumer participation can convince funders of its value. Paying people also speaks to their value in the process. If you really want consumer participation, show that you value it. One way to address this might be to levy a membership fee to support coalition operation as well as the payment of stipends. Seeking a sustainable line item in grant requests is another possible strategy.

#5: Make your meetings worth attending.

Don’t go through all the difficulty of getting good consumer participation only to have meetings filled with long, boring committee reports and extended ‘insider’ discussions. Make your meetings accessible in terms of location, content, and ambiance. Welcome all members. Create agendas that are decision-focused. Share useful information. Provide training on new skills. And make the environment warm, inviting, and engaging. If I had my way, every meeting would start off with a big pot of soup or table full of everyone’s favorite casseroles. Then when Consumer X walks into the school cafeteria for an after-work meeting, he smells dinner, he sees happy people, he’s nourished and ready to work. How you do this is by your group’s members making a commitment to making it happen. It’s not rocket science, it’s just chicken and rice.

Consumer participation will make whatever you’re doing better and more effective. But you get what you pay for – in terms of effort, commitment, and resources. Think about it – is it worth it to you?

Always interested in your comment and ideas. Let me know what you think!

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Solving the Riddle of Project Sustainability

Every grant application asks you how you will sustain funding for the proposed project after grant funding has ended. Nearly all funders see their role as launching new ideas, supporting pilot programs, and encouraging system change. For that reason, most funding sources limit their support to three to five years. After that, it is their expectation that other sources of support will be found. That’s why a grant application will ask you to describe your strategy for sustainability.

Do you have one?

Right now, I’m working on a sustainability plan for an innovative program which is two years into a three-year federal grant. This has caused me to think hard about what needs to go into sustainability planning. Here are my thoughts:

Start early: There’s a reason why funding sources ask you to talk about sustainability in the grant application. It’s because that’s when you should be thinking about it! Last minute sustainability planning equals panic; that’s not productive.

Engage good partners: This also should be done early. Bringing in key partners at the beginning insures their input in program design and operation and gives them time to think about their own organization’s role in sustainability. If each key partner can see how the project benefits his/her organization, their contribution to sustainability will be enhanced.

Operate a good program: Self-evident, maybe, but you’d be surprised how many projects have slow start-ups, heavy staff turnover, poor recruitment, and other impediments to showing impressive results. Unless a program has good outcomes that indicate future, even better, success, sustainability is practically impossible.

Determine what’s worth sustaining: Not every program component will make the cut. It’s important to have a critical eye toward the program, think objectively about what’s working well and what isn’t and consider program modifications or even redesign to strengthen winning components.

Develop a compelling case statement: This has two ingredients: 1) an analysis of participant outcomes that demonstrates that people do better in this program than without it; and 2) an analysis of costs associated with the program as compared to business as usual. You want to have a strong answer to potential funders’ question: Is this program better than what we are currently doing?

Find the connectivity: Among your partners, who benefits most from the program? In the broader community, including government, human service systems, foundations, who stands to benefit from the results your program is providing? Finding these connections and weaving them together into a network of interest and support for the project is critical.

Educate: There are many ways to educate and a project focused on sustainability needs to employ them all. Having good program materials, using print and social media, making presentations to conferences and groups of foundations, and seeking opportunities to educate the broader community about the project are all critical sustainability steps. Every member of a collaborative effort should be able to educate others about the project.

Connect the resource dots: Sustainability may be the result of new funding, realignment of existing funding, increased in-kind resources, greater use of volunteers, institution of a fee structure or all of the above and more. What is clear from experience is that one single funding source is unlikely to be the savior for a program; there needs to be a network of support if long-term sustainability is to be achieved.

Project sustainability is a tough question but without careful thought and planning, a great project can evaporate at the end of its initial funding. Time to start planning is now.




Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Listen to the People

Stress and strain, conflict and consternation are nothing new with important community projects that involve a lot of different interests, a ton of money, and little agreement about which problem to solve. This was highlighted by last week’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article looking at the city’s latest effort to reduce infant mortality. In an article entitled, “Program to reduce infant mortality slow to get going,” published as part of the newspaper’s Empty Cradles: Confronting Our Infant Mortality Crisis, reporter Crocker Stephenson tells us two stories. One story is about Tia Love, an African American mom who received intensive home visitation during her pregnancy and after her son was born and who could now well be the ambassador for the program throughout the country.

Contrast that to the tremendous frustration of the second story – the inability of local interests to form an effective and sustainable coalition to manage several million dollars in funding from the Wisconsin Partnership. Of the things we do well in Milwaukee, heaping blame may be at the top of the list. In this case, the blame goes to Patricia McManus, PhD., head of the Black Health Coalition, and an intense, uncompromising, very experienced leader in the African American community. Her complaint, as described in the article, is that the local coalition effort was not being run by the community but by outside interests. She is portrayed as the spoiler, the one responsible for the Wisconsin Partnership’s decision to pull back its substantial investment.

This kind of story is familiar to me – the faltering and weakening of coalition efforts. Usually, these are community initiatives that start with great fanfare and, often, the promise of significant  financial reward once a plan is developed. All the ‘right’ people are called to the table and they’re told to come up with a plan and a consensus. And it’s a bust. Maybe there’s a plan but there’s no consensus. Why is that?

It’s not about a person. It’s about the process. If the process is not genuine, it will fail. Either we can blame the person who keeps pointing out that it’s not a genuine process,who, in this case, I think is probably Dr. McManus, or we can figure out how to make community planning processes genuine.

It’s this simple: The technical expertise cannot lead the planning process; instead it must inform a process led by people with lived experience. In other words,  the consultant or the technical expert must essentially say to the group: How can I help you decide what to do? What information should I gather? Where should I look for answers? How do you want to make decisions?

When the technical experts lead a community planning process, everyone but them is disenfranchised. And this makes the non technical experts, aka the community, very, very angry. They feel patronized, minimized, and marginalized. They rightfully perceive that their lived experienced is viewed as less valuable than the experts’ technical knowledge. It’s conflict from the jump.

There’s an old adage in youth development work and it is, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” In providing technical support to a community planning effort, the ‘expert’ needs to demonstrate that he/she cares by keeping his/her mouth shut and listening. Of all the things a consultant is asked to do, this may be the toughest. Sit down, listen, take a back seat, understand where people who have the lived experience you lack think the process should go, and help them get there.

Everything I talk about on this blog I’ve learned the hard way. That’s why I know whereof I speak. Signing off this fine February day,


 Full link to article:

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Bridging the Gap in Group Facilitation

One of the toughest jobs as a group facilitator is to help connect people who have widely different perspectives on the same problem. In my work, it is very common to have the representatives of a major system in the same room with its consumers or other community representatives.  It’s the child welfare system administrator and a foster parent serving on the same committee or the head of a city’s economic development authority and the owner of the corner QuikStop. The systems person is thinking about budgets, outcomes, policies and procedures. The grassroots person is thinking about what happened in his/her situation yesterday, about his foster child’s problems in school or her grocery store’s inability to compete with the big box stores.

Ostensibly, the system person and the grassroots person are focused on the same topic but they rarely speak the same language. The distance between the ‘view at 30,000 feet’ and ‘boots on the ground’ is evident in how people identify problems and consider solutions. It’s even evident in the terminology they use and, most fundamentally, in the level of trust and respect they have for each other.

Good communication and problem-solving is impossible without a basic level of trust and respect. How does a group facilitator encourage this? Here are some ideas.

First and foremost, the group facilitator must be open and transparent about the process. This means saying the same things to the system representative as he/she says to the grassroots person. When one faction decides the facilitator is in the pocket of the other faction, credibility is lost.  This can be a fine line to walk.

Second, the group facilitator needs to establish a plan to proceed with the group’s work that is agreed upon by everyone. This will serve as the anchor for discussion and interaction. When things get confusing or stalled, the group can return to the plan. Work the plan and stick with the process are two of my favorite facilitation sayings.

Third, the group facilitator has to create an environment where conflict can make a productive contribution to the group’s work.  When people of differing views can openly express their opinions, talk through their concerns, and find areas of common cause, their group’s work will be 100 times better. Key point here is that the facilitator can’t be the intermediary in conflict; people have to learn to talk to each other.

Fourth, when there is white water (the going gets tough), the group facilitator finds the threads of agreement and weaves them together.  The facilitator encourages everyone to find the solution within the group and resist the urge to go outside the group to someone (do an end run) who can mandate a solution.

Fifth, the group facilitator helps people in the group establish friendships and connections that will live past the group.  This means the QuikStop owner will always feel a special connection to the economic development honcho in his/her town. It’s hard to attack a friend (not impossible, but hard) so this bodes well for their long-term working relationship.

It’s tough and tricky being the facilitator for a group of big picture/small picture folks.  Key words for success: careful, calm, neutral, and, most of all, forward-thinking.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Build a Better Program: Flow Chart

What is this nightmarish scribbling?  It’s the makings of a flow chart, of course.  You can’t tell? 

Like logic models, a good flow chart can help a planning group or a funder understand how people will ‘flow’ through a new program. This is another way to explain graphically how a proposed program will work. If done well, a flow chart can also show how a program won’t possibly work. 

Creating a flow chart is something that many program developers avoid.  Because they see in their heads how a program will work and because they’ve described the operation in a narrative, they figure a flow chart is duplicative, takes too much time to develop, and consumes too much space in a proposal or report.  I don’t agree with this.  Here’s why.

First, the process of creating a flow chart will expose areas of weakness in the program design. Overly-complex processes, service delays, confused decision points, and too many opportunities for consumers to drop out in frustration can all be surfaced in flow-charting.

Second, if a new program is being developed by a consortium of agencies or even a group of departments within an organization, a good flow chart will help define roles and responsibilities. Wrong assumptions about who will be doing what can kill a good program if not caught before implementation begins.  A flow chart is good preventive medicine.

Third, a flow chart supports the development of a better, more realistic, and detailed budget. Whether you are putting together a funding proposal or a new program approach, a well thought-out flow chart will lead to new questions about how much various steps will cost, the source of that funding, and how the process could possibly be made more efficient.

For these reasons, a good flow chart represents time well spent. Don’t get caught up in all the tricky engineering flow chart symbols, just start at Point A with a box and draw an arrow to Point B until it makes sense to you.  The finished product will look nothing like where you started but then neither will your program.  That’s the whole point.


Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Embrace Your Demons

Embrace your demons, everyone of them.  It’s because you have them that you have anything at all to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.

Professionally, progress and success are all about embracing your demons – organizing the project that seems way too big to manage, writing the giant proposal with so little time, shaping a work group with a bad history and no clear direction, making a speech you are afraid to make, doing something you haven’t done before.

Professional safety lives as a small, stuffed teddy bear along with the blankie you carried around when you were three years old.  Many of us keep the teddy bear and blankie at the bottom of the briefcase as constant reminders not to venture to far into the unknown and unsafe, to the land where the big demon, aka failure, lives, growling and scary under a bridge. If we never walk (or run) over the bridge, we never have to risk meeting up with the demon.

A richer, more productive professional life, I believe, comes from regularly doing something you are afraid to do.  By this I mean, something that you know in your gut is a bit ahead of your learning curve, an activity, job, or speech that is not ridiculous to undertake but clearly beyond the current boundaries of your comfort zone. 

Sometimes this means working with people that you can’t stand or worse, don’t like you!  It’s almost reflex to go the other way if such people will be involved in one of your efforts.  But that’s what those ‘demons’ expect – that you’ll be too afraid to walk across the bridge. 

Whether it’s people, projects, or presentations, surprise your demons this Thanksgiving by giving them a big hug and a wet sloppy kiss.  They live to make you better professionally but only if you embrace them. 



Print pagePDF pageEmail page