I had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Autumn Hays at Partnership for Working Families today. I was particularly struck by her email signature, which opens with:
The Partnership improved the lives of 1.5 million people last year!
This is so smart on so many levels. First, it shows that the Partnership has a clear impact goal and are tracking it in a compelling way. It’s just good storytelling. I’d love to see more transparency in how they’re coming up with their numbers, but I’m a geek, and I’m nitpicking. The fact that they’re doing this at all is great.
Second, they are intentionally drawing people’s attention to their impact in a simple, innovative way. I’m sure Autumn sends lots of emails, and every one of the recipient now has some sense of the Partnership’s impact. It’s the nonprofit version of the McDonald’s “billions served” sign.
I would love to see others do stuff like this. I’m totally planning on stealing this.
I went on a five-mile run last week with my little sister. She considers five miles a “short” run. I consider it long, but that’s not what made our little excursion remarkable.
What made it remarkable was that this run came at the end of the year. I even felt pretty good afterward. I’ve been in better shape, and I’ve run longer distances, but never in December. I’m usually exhausted due to stress and out-of-shape due to inactivity. I’m ending this year feeling strong, healthy, and rested.
This was a transition year for me. I wanted to take the time to reset and reflect. I wanted to rethink what I wanted to accomplish over the next few years. I also wanted to re-engineer my life, rediscovering balance that I hold near and dear.
It’s been hard, and it’s been gratifying. It started by unpacking and letting go of many things, giving myself a chance to mourn, to celebrate, and to heal. I had to create lots of space for something new to emerge, and I had to relearn and relive the ups and downs of that creation process.
None of this would have been possible without the support and encouragement of many, many friends. Maybe there are people out there who are stronger or grittier than me, but there is no way that I could have gotten through this past year without the people in my life. I am beyond thankful for this, and I feel very, very blessed.
I don’t feel like this transition process is done, but I do feel like I’m entering a new stage, and I’m excited about what lies ahead. For the first time since 2006, I am entering the new year with professional certainty. I know what I’ll be working on, and I know where most of my income will be coming from.
For the first time since 1999, my life is also feeling spacious. I feel like I have room to explore and to let things emerge, and I’m excited for those things to happen.
If 2013 was about resting, then 2014 is about testing. Was I successful in creating new, healthy habits? Will I be successful in letting go of old, toxic ones? Will I be successful both in maintaining balance, but also in having greater impact?
Mike Munchak put us all through a lot of field goals for no real reason, and in doing so, he illuminated the difference between meaningful game management and the illusion of impact.
In this one, biting sentence, Barnwell is offering commentary on how we evaluate coaches. When you kick a field goal, you’re putting points on the board, and so it may look like you’re getting results. But the real question is whether kicking a field goal the highest impact move you could have made at the time. The sports analytics movement has shown that some of our most common practices are often the worst moves we can make, even though they give us the illusion of progress.
The short version of the success of the Seahawks’ defense is good players who hustle, communicate with each other and wrap-up tackle. Contemporary NFL defenses are so plagued by players’ desire for spectacular plays that make “SportsCenter” that blown coverages and missed assignments have become de rigueur. Seattle’s defense almost never has a broken play. And those lads can tackle! Seattle misses fewer tackles than any NFL defense. Lots of wrap-up tackles where the runner gains an extra yard are better than a few spectacular hits for a loss, plus frequent missed tackles. Seattle defenders understand this.
Hustle, communicate, execute. It sounds so basic, it’s almost a cliche.
A big reason I developed Changemakers Bootcamp was my realization that getting really, really good at the basics could have a much bigger impact than on inventing new tools or processes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of attention and focus seems to be on the latter rather than the former. We see lots of stories from sports and other fields what a mistake this can be.
Seb Paquet and I had our second weekly call this morning. (Our “jazz hands” insights video from this week’s call is below.) Seb opened the conversation by sharing a personal story and discussing the importance of being fearless, but not reckless.
Which raises the question: What’s the difference between “fearless” and “reckless”?
After our conversation, Seb posted this very question on Facebook. There were a number of interesting replies, with more likely to come. Two, in particular, resonated with me. Alan Yelsey suggested that the distinction was in whether or not you “fully considered the risk or the value of the objective.” Helen Aitkin noted that the etymology of “reckless” was “without care.”
I agree with both Alan and Helen. I think that intention is the critical distinction, which is still a very fine line. If you take a risk that has a 90 percent chance of failing, and you understand that risk up-front, you are being intentional, but other people might still consider it reckless.
So many of the challenges that we face are ultimately about navigating tensions gracefully. By definition, there are no easy ways to describe how to do this. The best principle I’ve found for navigating these tensions is to be intentional, but hold it lightly.
In other words, have a goal, but don’t be so bound by it that you miss out on the opportunity to learn. Put a stake in the ground, but be open to surprises and new learning. If you practice this basic principle over and over again, you eventually develop an instinct for how to assess risk and navigate uncertainty. If you move without clarity about your intentions, or if you hold on to those intentions too tightly, you will likely fail.
This, to me, is the essence of craft, and it’s become the foundational principle of my work.
I shared this principle with my friend, Mark Bolgiano, a few years ago, and he noted that this same principle applies to golf. You need to have a strategy for how you are going to propel your ball to the hole, but if you grip your club too tightly, you will likely miss your mark. I found this to be a nice physical metaphor for how to think about this principle.
Similarly, Seb brought up the analogy of scientists discovering anomalies in their experiments and reacting in frustration, when the anomalies may actually be clues to some groundbreaking new principle. If you hold onto your intentions too tightly, you miss out on the learning.
The discipline of being intentional is an art form in and of itself. On both calls with Seb so far, we’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing the challenges of setting good goals and being explicit about success. Here are some principles that have emerged along with some relevant blog posts:
Define success as a spectrum, from minimum to wild. Seb was the first to share this principle in our conversations by way of a great template from Amy Kirschner. He also noted the importance of considering the zone of proximal development. I first picked up this idea from Kristin Cobble (read her blog post for more), who was strongly influenced by Robert Fritz’s “rubber band model” for navigating tensions.
Define both success and failure. This is a good way of coming up with and gut-checking your spectrum of success, and it was my “jazz hands” moment from today’s conversation. When we are far removed from the actual moment of assessing success or failure, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we might treat something as success when we actually believe it to be failure. If you ask, “What is failure?” explicitly, you can identify this behavior well in advance.
Ask the “wild” success question twice. In the same way that we might be overly lax in defining minimal success, we can often be overly constrained in defining “wild” success. We self-censor ourselves, because we don’t really believe that wild success is possible. Another trick I picked up from Kristin is to ask this question twice, explaining, “Okay, how would you really, truly define wild success?”
Here’s a story I shared last year about applying the principle of being intentional and holding it lightly on one particular project. And, without further ado, here are Seb and my “jazz hands” moments from today:
Earlier this week, I told my friend, Jeff Mohr, about a strange result from a survey that we took last year about nonprofits’ experiences working with consultants. As Rebecca Petzel noted in her writeup of the results, the nonprofits we surveyed generally expressed a high degree of satisfaction in the quality of their consultants’ work, but the majority also said that the work had not stuck. (Here’s some additional analysis performed by a larger group of participants at a followup workshop.)
How could organizations be satisfied with the work if it didn’t stick?
Jeff’s response was to cite a term that his dad, Mike Mohr, likes to use: “Noble Pursuit Syndrome.” It seems that folks in the social change space often rationalize work by suggesting that the intentions were good, therefore the work could not have been bad.
Not only is this something I observe others do all the time, it’s something I personally do all the time! My higher self is aware of this and tries to counterbalance it, which is a big reason why I ultimately left consulting. But it’s also a big reason why I stayed in consulting so long. I and my team would work our butts off on an inspiring project, and at the end of the project, we would review our often softly-framed success metrics, discuss all of the things that we thought went well, then collect our checks and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
I always felt (and still do feel) completely validated from a market standpoint. But it was hard to truly assess the quality of our work from a social impact standpoint. While I tried (and am still trying) to be thoughtful and rigorous about impact, I often found (and am still finding) myself falling back on Noble Pursuit Syndrome. It’s a challenge, and I believe it’s a serious problem in this space.
Jeff said that Mike has threatened to write more about the syndrome. I, for one, would love to hear what he has to say, and I hope that others share their thoughts and experiences with this as well.