Lessons from Sports #738: Alignment and Long-Term Planning

Balancing short- and long-term strategic planning is hard largely because they often conflict. A great example of this is when the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005. It was a shocking choice, because the Packers already had a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Brett Favre, and they had short-term needs at other positions. Furthermore, Rodgers was far from a sure thing. The Packers were sacrificing their immediate effectiveness for a potential Favre replacement 3-5 years in the future.

In sports, part of how you enforce the discipline of balancing the short- and long-term is by separating the roles of coach (short-term) and general manager (long-term). Andrew Brandt, the Packers former vice president of player finance, described how this dynamic played out when choosing to draft Rodgers:

We get to 24 and we got one name staring at us, and it’s Aaron Rodgers. We know we have the most durable quarterback in football [Favre], so I can just sense [in] the room to my right were the coaching rumblings where you could just sense they’re like “Oh my God, are we really going to do this? We’re going to take a player that can’t help us this year, maybe not next year, maybe not the year after, maybe never.” There was some rumbling. And I sense what was going on to my left side, which is more management oriented, and it was the same thing they always say, which is trust the board. We put in all our scouting, we’re going to take the best player available. And obviously management won out over coaching. It was one of those ultimate best-player-available decisions. But you look at the Green Bay Packers that year, that’s the last thing you would think that we’d pick.

It turned out to be the right choice. Rodgers replaced Favre three years later (while Favre was still good), has been two Super Bowls (winning one), and is almost surely a future Hall of Famer.

What would it look like if more organizations (especially smaller ones) had separate roles responsible for short- versus long-term planning?

(The article above is also an excellent case study on the imperfect science of decision-making.)

In other sports news, the historically great Golden State Warriors eliminated the Portland Trailblazers from the NBA playoffs, 4-0. Afterward, the Blazers star point guard, Damian Lillard (who had an outstanding series), commented on how “together” and “on the same wavelength” the Warriors play.

It’s extraordinary commentary coming from a great basketball player on a very good team. At this level, every team invests heavily on getting everybody on the same page, and all good teams achieve that. But there are clearly different levels of alignment, and when you reach higher levels, you play at higher levels. I think it speaks powerfully to the importance of alignment, which most organizations in other fields do not value as highly as professional sports teams.

(As an aside, my friend, Pete Forsyth, wrote a great article about Lillard, free licenses, and Wikipedia in 2014. I recently helped make Pete famous in the Oregon sports world this past week when the above, Creative Commons-licensed photo I took of him sporting his Lillard jersey at a Warriors game appeared in this Willamette Week article this past Monday.)

Networks and Enrollment

Los Angeles Union Station

I spent this past Wednesday with some of my favorite colleagues talking about networks and social change. Garfield Foundation had brought us together to surface our collective mental models about networks and to see where they overlapped and where they diverged. The day was rife with wonderful twists on familiar topics, and I learned a tremendous amount exploring different nuances with the others.

One of the important themes that emerged was enrollment. The classic careless way to approach design is to say, “Let’s just get everybody into a room together and see what happens!” There’s an element of openness here that should be encouraged, but beyond that, this approach is likelier to create more problems than solve them. It’s critical to think through the following questions:

  • Whom do you want to engage in your process?
  • How do you enroll them?
  • At what stage do you enroll them?
  • How do you want them to engage with each other?

Taj James shared a wonderful metaphor for how to think about enrollment: Picking people up at the train station. Do you want to pick people up at the first stop? The second stop? The third? What would happen if you had picked up the people from the third stop at the first stop instead? What if you want to pick up a group of people at the first stop, but they’re not ready to travel? Maybe they’re not packed yet, or maybe they don’t want to travel with people they don’t really know.

Here are three examples of how I dealt with issues of enrollment in previous projects:

Wikimedia Strategic Planning

The purpose of the Wikimedia Strategic Planning process (2009-2010) was to build a movement-wide set of priorities through a bottoms-up process. We had to navigate around two conceptual myths:

  • “We have to work in small, closed groups before we can open up the process. Otherwise, it will be too chaotic, and we’ll never get anything done.”
  • “Once we have something to show people, we’ll put it out there, and thousands of volunteers will magically start working on it.”

The first myth is a common one. It is easier to get things done and build relationships when working with small groups. But should the first stage of a process like this be about “getting things done”? Who gets to be part of that initial small group, and what will be the impact of the people you leave behind at that first station? Also, is “closed” truly a prerequisite for working in small groups?

When I came on board, the team had already drafted a plan that did not open up the process until three or four months into a 12-month process. I immediately changed that, and two weeks later, we were engaging with the community in an open, large-scale way. My reasoning was this:

  • The end goal was co-creation and broad-scale ownership of the strategy. If you don’t give people the opportunity to get on board early, then it won’t be co-creation.
  • Even if you gave people the opportunity to get on board, why would they? Wikipedians are overwhelmingly young (in their teens and 20s, many of them students). Most of them had never heard of strategic planning, much less participated in a planning process. Many of them didn’t even know what the Wikimedia Foundation was or that it even existed. They were there because they liked writing carefully crafted, thoughtfully researched articles about areas of interest. Why would they spend time participating in a strategy process?
  • We already had a small group of people who were committed to working on strategy, and we had some norms and relationships in place. Given that core, I was confident in my ability to open up participation while maintaining a high-level of productivity.

We engaged our core community immediately around questions that mattered to them, and we listened. The initial question we asked was, “If you had the opportunity to change anything, what would you change, and why?” The “why” question pushed people to start thinking strategically, because it forced them to connect tactics to purpose. It helped everybody — not just us — understand what people were seeing and thinking, and it also surfaced people who were already thoughtful and engaged whom we could more actively target in later stages of the project. Because it was many-to-many conversation as a opposed to something like a survey, people were building relationships with each other while they worked through these questions.

We also continued doing our preparation work, but we did it openly, inviting others to jump in and participate. The deluge of distracting volunteers that people feared never came. Instead, the people who did come helped shape and improve the work that we were doing, and many of them became critical leaders later in the process.

Delta Dialogues

With the Delta Dialogues (2012 and still continuing without me), we were dealing with the wickedest of problems: California water issues. One of the ongoing dynamics was the lack of inclusion in existing planning processes. People involved in planning feared disruption, and so they would either exclude stakeholders from early stages of the process, or they would try to control their participation through a set of discouraging ground rules. That simply reinforced the rampant mistrust that already existed in the region, especially when the resulting plans felt one-sided, which made those stakeholders even more disruptive. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We originally proposed a joint small-group / large-scale engagement process, but for a variety of reasons, we ended up focusing on a small, representative group of stakeholders. It was a network leadership play. Our goal was not to “get things done.” That approach wasn’t working, because people were not taking the time to listen and understand to each other. Our primary goal was shared understanding.

Once again, our biggest challenge was going to be enrollment. There was severe planning fatigue in the region, and the people we were targeting were extremely busy. The exact timing (beyond our control) was even more challenging, because it came in the heart of harvest season, when farmers in the region were literally working around the clock, seven days a week. How were we going to get people into the room? How could we keep them coming back?

We played a number of cards:

  • We focused on people, not just organizations. People didn’t really know much about our organizational client, the Delta Conservancy. But everybody knew, liked, and trusted its Executive Director, Campbell Ingram. People came the first few times because of their relationship to him. It was our responsibility at that point to keep them coming. If he had not already been such a trusted network weaver, we probably could not have gotten this process off the ground.
  • We bet that participants would buy into the goal of shared understanding versus something like planning.
  • We invested a considerable amount of time creating a space that was safe, inviting, and transparent. Instead of hosting the conversations in a “neutral space,” we rotated locations among the stakeholders. That deepened empathy and relationships, because people were not only talking to each other, they were immersed in each other’s worlds. It was also far more inviting to spend a day on a farm or in a nature preserve than it was to be stuck in an office building.
  • We thought explicitly about people we wanted to bring on board at future stations, and we tried to set the stage for that. We produced artifacts that people could easily share outside of meetings, all centrally located at a public website that anyone could point to. We assigned each other buddies, and we encouraged people to talk to their buddies between meetings. We also had a leadership development component to encourage people to have these same kinds of conversations outside of our process. (This part of our process wasn’t working, and we quickly scrapped it. We were trying to do too much.)

Our ongoing challenge was making sure people kept coming back. And, at each meeting, people would consistently say that they had felt swamped and had considered skipping, but that they were glad they came and that this was their favorite time of the week.

Organizational Change Initiatives

I don’t really differentiate an “organizational approach” from a “network approach” in my mind, because an organization is simply a type of network, and the same principles apply. I’ve been in a few large-scale organizational change efforts, and enrollment was always a huge, sometimes overlooked challenge. People don’t necessarily think this is the case, because if you’re working with C-level leadership, they can essentially “force” people to “participate.” The power dynamic here is similar to what many foundations experience. They can easily get people into a room. However, getting people into a room is not the same as enrollment.

Many organizational consultants make  two mistakes in their processes. First, they spend all of their time with leadership, which simply reinforces both a narrow perspective as well as a power dynamic that gets in the way of broad participation. Second, they focus entirely on the meetings. Again, you can leverage power dynamics to get people to a meeting, but your success depends on what people do outside of those meetings.

I always apply the same principles of participatory processes to my organizational work, and I invest just as much time building relationships with people at all levels of the organization. Those leaders are critical in getting other people on board at future stops.

Disrupting Organizational Consulting

My secret goal with Changemaker Bootcamp is to disrupt management and organizational development (OD) consulting.

My rough and totally unscientific estimate is that the budgets for 90 percent of all management and organizational development consulting projects would be better spent on capacity development for staff.

Good consultants already orient their work toward developing this capacity, but it comes at a premium cost. When compared to other consultants who are charging similar or higher costs but are providing far less value, these costs are more than justified. However, I think there’s a huge market opportunity for something that provides greater, broader value at a fraction of the cost.

Physical fitness offers an apt analogy. If you want premium service, you can hire a personal trainer. At the opposite end of the market, you can buy a book or search the web for tips on how to stay fit. There are many services in-between as well: DVDs, bootcamps, gym memberships, and so forth.

Fitness Market

With organizational work, there are two extremes with very little in the middle, and it’s skewed heavily (and needlessly) toward the high-end.

Organizational Effectiveness Market: What Is

There’s consulting on the high-end, and there are books and articles on the low-end. Most existing training programs fall on the low-end of the spectrum as well, because they are oriented primarily around delivering information rather than on shifting behaviors.

There’s no reason why the market for organizational effectiveness should not look more like the market for physical fitness.

OE Market: What Should Be

I think organizations in general — and, by extension, society as a whole — would be much better off if it did. I think services like Changemaker Bootcamp have the potential to shift the market in this way.

An Example: Strategic Planning

Consider strategic planning. Organizations bring in consultants to help guide the process or to provide content expertise. The vast majority of strategic planning processes focus on helping the leadership team develop the “right” strategy.

Some organizations really benefit from these processes, because they understand what strategy is, and, more importantly, they understand how to act strategically. I’ve worked with several organizations like this, where my primary role was to create the space for them to have the strategic conversation. Once they had that space, they were able to align quickly and execute effectively.

The vast majority of organizations — and people, it seems — don’t fall into this category. In these cases, hiring a consultant is a waste of money. These organizations don’t have the capacity to evaluate the end result, and they’re not likely to act on it regardless.

Unfortunately, these organizations often hire consultants anyway, and the results are predictably ugly — “strategies” consisting of long lists of goals that are too general and abstract to mean anything. Not that it matters, since no one in these organizations generally knows what those goals are anyway.

The worst part about all this is that developing a good strategy is relatively easy. Acting strategically is what’s truly hard.

Acting strategically takes practice. Good consultants can help organizations practice in the same way that personal trainers help their clients. However, most consultants do not take this approach. Even if they did, there ought to be more and better ways to support practice than consulting.

Changemaker Bootcamp’s approach is to offer a set of exercises for practicing asking generative questions. These exercises don’t require any specialized skill to do, but they can help develop specialized skills if repeated often enough with constructive feedback from others.

My hypothesis is that most organizations would benefit far more from having their staff go through exercises like these than they would from hiring expensive consultants lead them through traditional planning processes.

Help Wikimedia Win the Management 2.0 Contest!

One of my past projects is a finalist for the Harvard Business Review / McKinsey Management 2.0 Challenge. I am recruiting Wikimedians and everybody who cares about open collaboration in general and the Wikimedia movement in particular to help us win.

From 2009-2010, I had the pleasure of designing and leading the Wikimedia strategic planning process. Not only was it the first strategic planning process of its kind for Wikimedia, it was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. It was a completely open, movement-wide process, where anyone in the world could help co-create a five year plan for the movement as a whole. It was risky, it was scary, it was stressful, and it was exhilarating.

And it worked. Here’s what happened:

  • More than 1,000 people from all over the world contributed to the project
  • These volunteers created over 1,500 pages of high-quality, new content in over 50 languages
  • The year-long process resulted in five clear movement-wide priorities that has resulted in a movement-wide shift over the past year

If you’re a Wikimedian, you’ve seen and felt the renewed focus. If you’ve followed Wikimedia, you’ve read about initiatives that have emerged from the plan: closing the gender gap among contributors, a shifting emphasis on the Global South, and a slew of innovative features focused on strengthening community health. All of this came out of the planning process.

Why did it work?

It worked because we had an organization (the Wikimedia Foundation) that was committed to the cause and the process, even though it was an enormous risk for them. It worked because we had a great team. But the main reason it worked is that Wikimedia consists of an amazing, engaged, passionate community. We created a space, we invited people to come, and passionate, devoted, really smart people came and took care of the rest.

I’ve been wanting to tell the story of the process for a long time, but the usual thing happened: I got busy with cool new projects. Along the way, friends and colleagues have convinced me to get bits and pieces of the story out. Diana Scearce of the Monitor Institute has been a huge evangelist of the work, constantly putting me in front of philanthropic audiences to tell the story. The Leadership Learning Community (on whose board I serve) asked me to do a webinar on the topic last March, which garnered a great response.

Chris Grams has probably been our biggest advocate, and he’s the reason I’m writing this blog post today. Chris heard about our work through a mutual colleague, and he asked me to lead a webinar on the project for opensource.com. Something about our story stuck with him, and he kept finding ways to talk about us.

Several months ago, Chris told Philippe Beaudette (the facilitator of the project) and me about the Management 2.0 Challenge. As usual, I was too busy to contribute, but Chris pushed us. He wrote the initial story, and he kept kicking our butts until we fleshed it out. And so we did.

Today, they announced the top-20 finalists, and we’re one of them. The other 19 stories are really great, and it’s an honor to be nominated. But you know what, our story is the best of the bunch. We’re talking about Wikimedia, the greatest, free, volunteer-created repository of human knowledge that exists on the planet. We ought to win.

You can help us do that. The final judgement will be based on the feedback the story get, and how the story evolves as a result. So for starters, we need feedback. Please read the story. Rate it, comment on it, and ask as many people as possible to do the same.

Thanks for helping!

Photo by Ralf Roletschek. Cropped by Deniz Gultekin. Licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.