Start With Just One

My friend Cindy Cotte Griffiths wrote a piece as the year began that holds an excellent lesson. She tells a story of a project her young son was working on. Instead of trying to add a whole bunch of elements, he wanted to see how few elements it would take te get his task done.

He was disappointed that he couldn’t get it done with just one piece, he needed at least two. Here’s how Cindy tells it:

“Recently my son told me “You can’t do it with one.” I was remembering a visit to the American History Museum more than six months earlier. He was talking about his attempt to attach magnetic objects on a ramp in order to direct a ball into a hole in the hands-on science exhibit.

I was delighted he remembered because at the time I stood there marveling at his minimalist approach.

For over an hour, every other kid immediately proceeded to add as many gadgets as possible to the ramp. More and more and more, without even checking if their system worked.

When my son walked up, he was the only one to remove all the pieces and try with one. Only one. No matter what he did, it didn’t work so he tried two.”

What a great thing to remember.

I am in the midst of developing an agenda for a meeting, and I know that my own advice to myself is usually just to keep agendas as short as possible. But, when you’ve got a whole day to fill, you get worried, and you start to add in this and that until your agenda looks good on paper. You want others to know you put effort into it, so you add more.

It’s a discipline to keep to about one subject for every 90 minutes. But I am going to do it.

I’ll see if I can use the bare minimum, starting with just one thing, and build from there only if necessary.

Making Document Reviews Work

Photo by Flickr user 'The River Club'

If you are having a meeting (or a conference call) to review a document, here are three things that can make it helpful:

  • Insist that whatever is being reviewed get shared ahead of time, with ample time to read
  • Insist that participants edit the document using Track Changes ahead of time, send the changes directly to the author
  • Use this agenda: 1) overall comments; 2) section-by-section quick recap; 3) other items that have come up; 4) next steps, by whom and by when.

Using this approach, the time together can be made most useful. Meetings are good places for things that cannot be accomplished in other ways — things that require more than one brain. In other words, overall and creative discussions. A meeting where you are going over line edits, or talking about a document that no one has read, is not worth anyone’s time. Similarly, if someone is hijacking everyone else’s time to convey line edits that are better conveyed in writing, that’s not worth anyone’s time either.

While this all sounds very sensible, it is easier said than done. Everyone needs to do their part. And it takes a strong leader.

  • The writer might use the meeting itself as their deadline, and share their document almost immediately before the meeting. If this happens, reschedule the meeting because it will be worthless.
  • Participants may decide it is “easier” to just “talk through” their changes in the meeting. This is an illusion, because it adds churn. (And it actually takes more of that person’s time to “talk through” than it would to just make edits.) Except when there are specific and limited changes, this almost always adds ambiguity. If too many people are doing this, it is a good idea for the meeting leader to intervene and say, “Everyone will get their specific changes to the writer. Let’s focus only on overall issues.”

Like this? You might also like my Nine Tips For Better Meetings.

Oh, D.E.A.R. — How to Respond to Crisis: Eat the Whole Bug

I spent the last weekend, as I do a couple of times a year, leading ethics and leadership sessions at the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership’s Candidate Training Program. This is a bipartisan, intensive boot-camp for new candidates, delivered within an ethics framework. It has been proven to work and numerous grads are now holding office.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot through osmosis, as I listen to expert after expert, year after year. I can tell you all about message development, strategy, research, fundraising, get out the vote, and more. One segment last weekend featured a new speaker who talked about crisis communications.

The speaker was full of great sayings. Here are two:

Look what i found, richie sensei!! by Flickr user ninja gecko
'Look what i found, richie sensei!!' by Flickr user ninja gecko

“When you are hit with a crisis, the forest is gone — you’ve run headlong into a tree.”


“Admitting it and getting everything — all the information — out there is like eating a bug. You can eat the whole bug all at once, and get it over with. Or you can take little bites and keep eating bits of the bug. Just eat the whole bug.

He was full of great , concrete advice. This one was my favorite:

As a political candidate, when a crisis hits, you have four choices, illustrated by the saying “Oh, D.E.A.R.“. (Get it?)

The choices are:

  • Deny — “No, it didn’t happen, you are wrong, they are lying.”
  • Explain — “Yes it looks bad but there is more to the story and when you know all the facts it’s really OK.”
  • Admit — “Yes, it’s true and we are very sorry.”
  • Respond — “The real issue is my opponent’s terrible record on x.”

It’s an interesting construct, and you can look at a number of current political crises and see which path the subjects are choosing to take.

(And, if you think about it, this same idea applies to organizations in crisis, too.)

New Norms Needed For New Realities

As my friends on Facebook know, I recently turned off the voicemail on our home telephone line. Even though I had a fairly stern outgoing message that informed people they should not expect a message to reach us timely, people were still leaving messages and getting miffed when we didn’t call back. But the thing was, everyone in the family uses their mobile phones — the home line is an afterthought. We never check the voicemail and rarely use it. (I am keeping the line for emergency purposes, in case you were wondering why we did not simply join the  25% of American households who have no landline phone.)

#ACRTW - Sunday brunch in London with friends. by Flickr user Andrew Currie
'#ACRTW - Sunday brunch in London with friends.' by Flickr user Andrew Currie

I got to thinking about “home” phones and “office” phones and “mobile” phones as I filled out a few forms today. I was being asked to provide a bunch of different numbers. I know that the purpose is to make it easy to reach me. But in my case, asking for a bunch of numbers from me makes it harder to reach me, because the best way to reach me is to call my cell. Period. (I do use Google Voice, and will be writing an article about different ways to use that in a few days.)

Why did people call our “home” line and try to leave a message, even though we asked them not to? Habit. Why do organizations ask for a series of numbers, even though most people could just as easily provide one number and be just as reachable? Habit.

Old Habits

Well, “habit” might not be the right word. It’s that our norms have not quite caught up with reality. Norms are powerful things. They direct what we do, often subconsciously. For instance, in filling out my forms, the thought crossed my mind that it would be most useful if I just put the same number in “work,” “home,” and “mobile” fields. But I didn’t (now I wish I did).

More and more, even people who have a “traditional” job are reachable in ways that they never used to be. Signals reach us immediately, regardless of time of day. It used to be important to know different numbers for people, so you could use different mechanisms based on time of day — not so much anymore. Chances are that calling the office number at 10:00 pm will engage the auto-forward, or you will leave a voicemail that will immediately ping the recipient. Either way, that late night “work call” is going to interrupt the recipient’s enjoyment of Bones — because they may well be sitting there on the sofa with their phone in hand, checking emails and sending texts while they watch.

New Norms

Some years ago I used to spend my Sunday afternoons “getting a jump on the week.” I would tidy up anything that had been left undone from the week prior, and send out emails that would be waiting for people when they arrived at the office on Monday. Slowly, life changed. I realized that my Sunday emails were being read Sunday, mere moments after being sent. Far from getting things in place for Monday, I was ruining peoples’ weekends. I confess I “discovered” this because it happened to me! I decided to stop ruining other peoples’ weekends in the hopes that the good Karma might come back to me. So far, it hasn’t happened yet, but I can hope.

It’s not that I was being rude intentionally. Nor is it the case the people who reach out to me professionally on Sundays are being rude. It’s not like they want me to actually work on Sunday; they are just sending me a note. Used to be that was a good way to make sure someone had whatever they needed to start the week. Now, such messages have negative consequence that they did not used to have.

My habits have not yet fully caught up with reality. If I stopped to think, I would know that even when people have a work email and a personal email, chances are their work email is beeping through to them wherever they happen to be. I just didn’t think about it, because this work habit is ingrained, and supported by the longstanding norm of separation between work life and home life — a separation that exists less and less.

I think lots of us are in this boat.

Now that communications are seamless and unified, we need to begin to develop new norms about how we deal with one another:

  • Organizations might ask for the “best number to reach” me, not presume that my home number is best in the evening, work is best in the day, and cell is to be used if the others don’t work.
  • As colleagues, if we decide to work on Sunday, we might consider holding our emails in the Draft folder and firing them off on Monday morning.
  • As professionals, we might consider establishing ways of unplugging, and of making it clear when we are unavailable — not to be rude but so others know how best to interact with us.

What are some other new norms that are emerging?

Renaming An Organization

My good friend Hildy Gottlieb, author of the very important Polyanna Principles, is in the midst of choosing a new name for her organization, the Community-Driven Institute.

She has written a very interesting and transparent article about that process, and has thrown a few ideas out there for people to react to.

The Vision Words

I love this photo of Hildy Gottlieb
I love this photo of Hildy Gottlieb

So far, the advice she’s been given by a number of colleagues is for the organization to ask itself a number of vision-type questions: What change are you creating? What do you do? What does it look like?

So far, Hildy and her colleagues have settled on a general sense that the CDI is about “LEAPING from dreams to reality” and “That creating . . . dramatic social change is just taken for granted to be the expectation that guides our work.”

Having led a number of strategic planning and visioning efforts, these are important questions. However, they are not at all enough. It is a very short hop from “vision” questions to a boring, me-too kind of name that fades into the generalized social-sector obscurity that is filled with this Institute or that Center or some other Initiative.

Just think how many organizations could easily be named something like the “Community Change Institute.”

No, we’ve got to go beyond, and get underneath, all that mission-speak. When it comes to the name of the organization, it must be informed by — but does not necessarily have to include — the vision words.

The Searchability Imperative

There’s another organizational imperative: searchability. This is too often overlooked, but in the world of pervasive search it is critical. Organizations are well advised to consider a one- or two-word name that is unique. Invented, in fact. You don’t want to name your organization that is related to a generic search phrase. When someone searches on your name, you don’t want other results cluttering up the first page of hits.

I have in mind two renamings that I think hit the mark.


The first is my friend Jill Vialet’s organization. It’s now called Playworks, which I think is an awesome name. It used to be called Sports4Kids, which has the advantage of being unique but was a little dated with that number in the middle and also was not quite correct (her organization is about play, not just sports). And the tagline, “Education Energized” does a great job of following up and giving people the general direction that the organization goes in.

But . . . and this is important . . . the name does not rigidly adhere to mission-words. Here is Playworks’ mission: “To improve the health and well-being of children by increasing opportunities for physical activity and safe, meaningful play.” See? It’s not the Institute for Safe, Meaningful Play, nor is it the Center For Education Through Play. “Playworks” is memorable, one word, searchable, and awesome.

(Also, don’t get me started on how incredible the curly-human logo is.)

The second good renaming happened more than a decade ago (I don’t have the exact year). The National Center for Nonprofit Boards renamed itself BoardSource. Again, a manufactured name, that does a great job of conveying the purpose of the organization (Mission: “Dedicated to advancing the public good by building exceptional nonprofit boards and inspiring board service.”) At the time, the name rankled but that was because I was old-fashioned. I’ve come around, and now I think the organization was forward-thinking when it went with the one-word name.

BoardSource. Yep, that explains what it is pretty well.

The Hard Work

So that leaves us with the hard work of translating mission and vision words and phrases into a name. That takes creativity, long walks, late-night discussions, and epiphanies in the shower. But — this is important — it’s important to keep a high bar here. It can’t be rushed.

It’s also important to make sure to get out of your own echo chamber. It’s easy to think a word is working, when it is not. For instance, there is a highly respected organization that works on a number of progressive issues related to democracy. It’s called Demos. To some this is an apt name, but to my mind it is too hifalutin. If you don’t know what the Greek word “demos” means, you really don’t have a clue what the organization is about.

I don’t know what Hildy’s new name should be. That word “leap” has some potential. “CommunityLeap” is a possibility, but I am afraid it is too much of a mouthful. Plus, one of her key audiences is nonprofit consultants, and the name doesn’t convey that sense.

Hildy has been toying with the word “leapfrog” and there is some potential there, too. Although one commenter (I think rightly) said she wasn’t too thrilled by the word “frog.”

I also wonder if Hildy wants to get the word “Polyanna” activated somehow, since her Polyanna Principles are a linchpin of how she works.

As I think of things, I may chronicle them here in the comments — but if you have some ideas, or other thoughts, please add them below! Especially if you think I am all wet.

(By the way, that Amazon link to Polyanna Principles up top is an affiliate link, I could not resist.)

Speaking In Opposites: Why Organizations Need Outward-Facing Empaths

Over the weekend I encountered two signs that got me thinking about the messages large organizations send to those they serve (sometimes these are “customers,” other times they are “patrons” or “constituents”). Everyone knows that organizations have a tendency to put their own needs first. We’ve been hearing management gurus berate corporate America for this since at least the late 1980’s. So the better organizations try very hard to lean against that bias.

Still, it’s incredibly difficult to do from the inside. And even when you try, it’s easy to botch the job.

Here’s are two cases in point, discovered at two separate Wendy’s drive-throughs. The story of why I went to two Wendy’s is a story for another time.

At the first Wendy’s, as I pulled away from the menu board where I had just ordered, I saw this sign:

wendy's money
To help serve you better . . .

The sign told me: “To help serve you better, please have your money ready.” I get that. If we all drive up with our money ready, the line will go a lot smoother. We won’t get as many bottlenecks. But the way this is phrased is a lie. The reason for me to have my money ready is so the line goes more smoothly — not so you can serve me better. I would feel better about the admonishment without that “to better serve you” type of intro, because it is disingenuous. Just tell me to have my money ready.

I didn’t think much of it, until they got my order wrong and I had to go back out. I had already had communications problems at this restaurant, so I went to a different one, thinking I might have better luck there. At Wendy’s #2, where they thankfully got my order correct, here’s the sign I saw:

"If you fail . . . "
"If you fail . . . "

This sign was telling me, “If you fail to receive a receipt with your order please notify manager before leaving window for a refund of price paid.” Again, I get it. This is a way of making sure that everyone’s accountable — they’ve got an audit trail, and I’ve got a way to check my order.

But once again, the sign is saying the opposite of what it means. They really mean: “If WE fail to give YOU a receipt.” But it’s phrased as a failure on MY part.

I’m not resentful at this in any way. It is an illustration of just how hard it is, as a matter of practice, to execute the idea of being outward-facing. Each of these signs has a fundamentally good purpose (keep the line flowing; make sure people can check their orders), but the purpose was executed without any sort of external filter.

As organizations communicate with their constituents, they need to make sure they are running everything by someone who has the right mindset — someone who can put themselves in the shoes of the end user. This is harder than you might imagine because it involves a lot m,ore than just being smart. It takes empathy and creativity. The bigger the organization, often, the more these kinds of people get pushed to the margins and become hard to find.

(Please note that this is nothing against Wendy’s. I’ve seen the same tendencies in lots of organizations. They just happened to conveniently illustrate my point.)

Myers-Briggs In The Nonprofit Workplace: How To Lead With J's And P's

When they discover Myers-Briggs personality types, many people are transfixed by the dichotomy between “extraverts” and “introverts.” This may be because this is the easiest and most in-you-face concept.

That was my own experience, when I first learned that I am an ENTP personality type.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has four factors, each of which has two possible values. Knowing these values can allow us to understand what our biases and inclinations are when it comes to our personaties, as well as those of others. This is useful in the workplace (and, in fact, in any situation where it’s all about how people get along: families, civic efforts, etc.).

Equal Opportunity Employment by Flickr user pasukaru76
"Equal Opportunity Employment" by Flickr user pasukaru76

It’s especially useful to know (or be able to identify through observation) others’ types, because that can help you get along with them better and — as a leader — can help you create balanced teams that are the most effective. It helps to have lots of different types around.

Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Extravert / Introvert — Where you get your energy
  • INtuitive / Sensing — How you take in information about your world
  • Feeling / Thinking — How you like to make decisions
  • Judging / Perceiving — How you organize your world

One’s Myers-Briggs type is not destiny. It is more a description of what your “default” or preferred way of handling things is.

Each of the factors is important in its own right. But, in the workplace, I have found the last letter-pair in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to be particularly  important. This is P vs. J — “Perceiving” vs. “Judging.”

Peceivers And Judgers

Many people misunderstand this factor, because of the pejorative sense the word “judging” conveys — they hear “judgmental,” which people see as negative. But it has nothing to do with that. This factor describes how a person organizes their world.

A P is always scanning for new information and prefers to defer making decisions until absolutely necessary. A J, on the other hand, is always on the lookout for decisions already made, and prefers to make a decision and move on whenever possible. For a P, decisions are contingent and new ideas can reopen decisions that had already been made. To a J, decisions are only reopened in extreme circumstances.

In the workplace, J‘s tend to get on P‘s nerves, who see them as overly uptight. Meanwhile, P‘s tend to absolutely infuriate J‘s, whe often regard them as unstable and mercurial.

Seth Godin’s recent article on hunters and farmers can be seen as a description of P‘s (hunters) and J‘s (farmers).

Tips For P Leaders

Lots of nonprofit leaders, in my experience, are P‘s. I’m one myself. Over the years I have learned a few pointers in getting along and thriving.

Advice for leaders who are P‘s:

  1. Remember what others are hearing. Remember the J‘s around you are looking for and actively cataloging commitments made. So, when you muse about things, talk through alternatives, and suggest you might be rethinking this or that initiative — others may be hearing definite plans. This can cause anxiety and misunderstandings.
  2. Find a safe sounding board. As a P, you need to find someone to bounce ideas off of. It might be safest to look for someone outside your organization to talk to.
  3. Play to people’s strengths. J‘s are incredibly good at identifying the commitments people make — who promised to do what by when. They are the best people to have taking notes at a staff meeting, they are in their element driving complex projects with intricate deadlines, and in ensuring that policies are adhered to. Do you need solid and consistent performance, day-in, day-out? Get a J on the job.
  4. Be clear when you’re just talking. Make sure you let people know that sometimes you are raising ideas without any decisions attached — and that you will definitively say when you do make a decision. It is important for others around you (especially J‘s) to be able to know what is stable and what is fluid.
  5. Careful you don’t get distracted! If you work with many other P‘s, it’s easy to get sidetracked. P‘s are distracted by shiny objects and, get a few of them together in one room, it’ll be one new initiative after another! That’s great, but . . . older initiatives may tend to fall by the wayside. As a leader, make sure there are enough J‘s around to keep things on track.

That last point, about getting sidetracked, cannot be overemphasized.

The Distracted Organization

In my experience and observation, it is very easy for an entire organization to take on P characteristics if there are too many P‘s in senior leadership without any J balance. And, for whatever the reason (we can speculate all we want) it seems like there are a lot of P people throughout the nonprofit sector.

Furthermore, people often (not always) tend to gravitate to folks like them. So, a leader can end up surrounding themselves with people they like, but who do not necessarily complement or balance their skill sets.

So, many organizations can themselves become mercurial, easily distracted by shiny objects and new ideas. I can remember returning from a meeting with one organization. The meeting lasted three hours and we never even touched the agenda. “That is a totally P organization,” I told my colleagues. (I even wrote a memo about it for others, for their use in working with the organization.)

Knowing this, knowing the potential for distractedness (the downside of the P factor), it is important to work against that and actively seek out people who are different from you. This is of course true in an inclusionary sense (gender, ethnicity, orientation, background, and so forth) but it is also true in a personality type sense.

What Are P‘s Good For?

Are P‘s a terrible thing? Distracted, mercurial, flighty . . . they sound like a nightmare in the workplace!

Speaking as a P, certainly not. P‘s can drive a lot of energy, creativity, and out-of-the-box breakthroughs (these are not solely the province of P‘s, don’t get me wrong).

If you need a stalled project accelerated, put a P on the job. If you have a high-energy and time-limited task (like prepping for an important meeting or event), a P can really shine. Because of their omnivorous approach to things, a P can be great in a generalist troubleshooter position and (balanced with a good J as a partner) can be a great manager.

In a future post, I may outline my thoughts about some of the other Myers-Briggs factors and how they relate to leadership. Please note, though, that this is just based on my experience and I am not an expert on personality types. I’ve just thought a lot about them and try to use them in my day-to-day life.

What’s your type? How has that impacted how you get your work done?