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Take a Ride on the Wild Side of Leadership

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Not long ago my friend Mark Holmgren posted a blog titled Becoming a Learning Organization (Part One) that got me thinking about what it takes to provide leadership to a learning organization. As Mark points out in his post, learning organizations are more likely to address complex issues and challenges effectively. To be clear, the term “learning organization” does not refer to a specific size, configuration, purpose, or structure of a group. It can refer to a multinational corporation, public agency, small social sector or nonprofit organization, and even a project team. All of these can be learning organizations. The core idea is that it is an entity that has developed the capacity to learn, change, learn some more, and then change some more to respond effectively to its environment. Mark does a great job of explaining how this happens.

Some organizations learn and change only as much as their leaders learn and change. These groups tend to have autocratic leaders that are clearly in charge and who have the first and final say in everything. Autocratic leaders are no accident. They often arise because the organization has bought into some version of the “great man theory” of leadership. Though the “great man” theory was first challenged over 150 years ago, it remains a common approach to leadership among organizations of all kinds. British rocker Bonnie Tyler asked us “Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?” in her popular 1980’s hit that seemed to give voice to our need for “great men” to lead the way. However, “great men” rarely support the creation of a learning organization because it means they have to release power and control and admit they might not be so great at all. To be fair, when I began my own leadership journey, this was the first approach I learned and I have had to systematically unlearn it in order to more effectively provide leadership to organizations and groups addressing complex issues.

The decision to lead an organization that values group learning and develops the capacity to change is also a decision to move to the wild side of leadership. Part of the appeal of “great man” leadership approaches has to be that the leader’s grasp on power and control means predictability – at least for the leader. To lead a learning organization often means a willingness to embrace and endure the chaos that usually comes with complexity.

This difference can be illustrated using the metaphor of dance.[i] The “great man” approach is like being the leader of a line dance, in which the leader stands at the front of a group of people, usually all standing in straight rows, who are all facing her or him and mimicking the steps of the leader. In this situation only the leader knows what step is coming next and she/he usually executes it flawlessly while members of the group may make missteps and stumbles as they try to keep up. As a result, the leader almost always appears to be much more competent at the dance than the followers, thereby proving her/his worthiness to be the leader. Leading a learning organization, though, is more like being the lead in a ballroom dance, such as the waltz or fox trot, which moves around the floor among many other pairs of dancers. In this situation, the leader cannot see where all the other couples are or what figures (steps) they are performing nor can the leader know when another couple will abruptly cut into their line of dance. Floor craft, the art of moving gracefully about the ballroom without crashing into another couple, becomes a primary skill that ballroom couples need to learn and hone to maximize their dancing experience. In such ballroom dance, the leader often depends upon the follower to see what she/he cannot see and relinquishes control as the lead to become the follower in order to perform certain figures.

What does it take to lead a learning organization? To be certain, there are many competencies one needs to effectively lead any organization (or to lead on the ballroom dance floor) yet there are three I believe are core competencies for leading a learning organization.

The first, sharing, is the ability to step aside from the leadership role to allow others to step up to lead. Sharing asks a leader to lay down their authority, right, position, and maybe even their title, as a leader to create space for others to emerge with their own ideas, insights, authority, and leadership. Sharing means no one in the organization or group is seen as incapable of making a contribution. Sharing also asks leaders to trust that others are as committed to the organization as they are and want the same good to be accomplished, whether that is in the form of profit or mission achievement. Recently I was reminded of the power of sharing when a friend assumed a new position in a medical school that put her in charge of the clinics. The clinics had been suffering for some time with a lack of patients and none of the directors, doctors, or nurses seemed to know why or have a solution. My friend decided it was time to talk to the front desk personnel. What she learned was that the front desk personnel were aware of the problem, had creative ideas for incentivizing patients to keep appointments, and were quick to make the suggestion, even willing to adjust their own hours, to keep the clinic open in the evenings to accommodate patients’ work schedules. Most importantly, she also learned that the front desk personnel were intentionally dissuading patients from coming to the clinic on certain days when it was being supervised by a particular doctor they did not trust to provide good care. When leaders are not willing to step aside to let others step up (share), the organization cannot grow and change to meet the present challenges.

The second, reflection, is the ability to take in information (both new and old), turn off one’s “filters” (assumptions, judgments, critiques) about it, and to consider it again to glean the fresh understanding and insights it offers. Reflection is the antidote to the “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before” syndrome that afflicts so many organizations and groups. This ability, however, means nothing if a leader is not willing to consider information, whether new or old, with clear eyes and clean filters. In the case of my friend’s medical school, however, there was no information to reflect upon until someone was willing to seek it out. Sadly, you and I both know from experience that having information is no guarantee that it is going to change anything. The universe of file cabinets is populated with needs assessments, for example, that have provided reams of information on communities which have not really contributed to our understanding of the community because there has been too little reflection on the meaning of the information. Reflection is a powerful tool for any leader of a learning organization, and yet it is a tool that must be intentionally picked up and used.

The third, in my short list of competencies for leaders of learning organizations, is adaptability. Adaptability is quite simply, as the word itself suggests, the ability to adapt or change. Adaptability requires a bit of courage on the part of leaders because it often results in the disruption of systems, interruption of plans, and the introduction of chaos as the organization is pushed into change. Adaptive leaders are, therefore, courageous leaders who are willing to experiment by letting their organization or group members experiment with the ideas that emerge from the learning process. It is adaptability that can make the ride pretty wild for leaders, as well as their organizations. Other leaders in my friend’s medical school were not too sure about trying some of the ideas offered by the front desk staff. To their credit, they agreed to test some of the ideas. The experiment is still too new to know for certain how it will work but one thing is clear: if they were not willing to experiment, nothing would change and the learning would be lost.

It is more comfortable to be a “great man” leader who has control, power, and predictability but it is not always as much fun as stepping over to the wild side of leading a truly great learning organization. Let’s get wild, okay?

Be greater, do good, every day,

T.W.K.

[i] If you would like to learn more about dance as a leadership metaphor, join me on Sunday, November 2, 2014 at 1:00 PM (Pacific) in San Diego, CA at the 16th Annual International Leadership Association Global Conference where I’ll be co-leading the workshop “Teaching Collaborative Leadership in Complex Environments with Ballroom Dance.” For more information about the conference, visit http://www.ila-net.org/.

Community Needs Assessment or Community Understanding?

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I have a tolerate/hate relationship with community needs assessments. I really wanted to write that I have a love/hate relationship with them but that would be dishonest. I do not love them at all, but I do understand their importance and will tolerate them…barely. In fact, I have designed them, conducted them, and used them to inform and guide work on community projects and initiatives.

So, what’s my problem with community needs assessments? In part, it has to do with my research orientation. I am a qualitative researcher at heart and by preference, and too many community needs assessments focus on just the numbers. I can do the numbers, but they do not “chat to me” as they do to my quantitative researcher spouse who becomes positively giddy over statistics. Even more, I think the importance of numbers are overblown since they do not tell the whole story. They are good for describing a situation or issue, but not explaining it, which is really the key to community change. Until we understand why or how something is happening in a community, we usually cannot influence and change it.

Okay, so I have owned my part in my problem with community needs assessments and I have come to accept that community needs assessments are a necessary evil. Yet there are still other problems with community needs assessments that have little or nothing to do with my research orientation or preference. I believe they can be improved and made more useful both to those that must conduct them and to the residents of communities that are subjected to them. Here are my recommendations.

First, I propose we lose the name “community needs assessment” and replace it with “community understanding study.” The name “community needs assessment” has come to assume weaknesses, problems, negatives, and deficits in the community. Therefore, we are imposing our belief that a community has problems and biasing the outcome from the outset. We need to consider that our perspective may not be what the residents of the community see at all. They may, in fact, see strengths, benefits, positives, and assets in the community. They may see their communities as incredibly, infinitely resilient and able to overcome any challenge. Community “needs assessment” assume communities are doing poorly with regard to one or more issues. As a result, some needs assessments effectively double bind residents into responding to the assessment questions in ways that only reveal the deficits. Recently I participated in a community needs assessment that had several of these types of questions on it. For example, it asked me to choose from a variety of responses with regard to a health related issue, without first asking me if I actually had that health issue. To respond at all was to admit to an issue that I did not have. (In fact, although I did not have the issue, I might have developed it had I allowed myself to dwell too long on such a poorly constructed survey.)

Second, I recommend we pay closer attention to how and why we do studies of communities in order to be more thoughtful and intentional. Funding often drives community studies. Funders may require a community needs assessment to justify an “investment” in the community. Recipients of funds, even when they are not obligated to conduct a needs assessment, may include a study in their work plan merely to assure the funder that they know what they are doing and to establish their credibility with the funder. These real or perceived expectations too often produce hastily undertaken studies that, for example, may use poorly designed survey or interview questions, convenience samples that are not representative of the community (often even excluding residents with valuable lived experience with the issue being studied), engage in a wild flurry of busy data collection activity (aka “going through the motions” to create the impression of a “good” study), or other such things that result in an overall poor quality effort. Studies done in this way neither provide actual benefit to the funder nor grantee and certainly provide little value to the community. At worst, a poorly done needs assessment may turn up community “problems” that are completely unrelated to the real issues facing a community, sending both the funder and grantee off on a chase to fix “problems” that are either insignificant or nonexistent.

The Sledgehammer of Helpfulness: It looks soft but it still smarts!

The Sledgehammer of Helpfulness: It looks soft but it still smarts!

Third, I suggest we more forthrightly and clearly admit our findings are based upon assumptions that may not be correct. Whether a community study uses a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed method approach, the information gathered is always limited by key core assumptions that we are asking the right questions in the right way of the right people to get an accurate picture of the community. Good researchers are always aware of such assumptions and worry about the limitations of their research. They will take care to describe the limitations and hope that they are thoughtfully considered before the findings are applied to an unsuspecting community by the Sledgehammer of Helpfulness: “You need this, see? And you’re going to get it whether you want it or not!” I have been guilty of wielding the Sledgehammer of Helpfulness myself as a leader who did not always understand and respect the limitations of data collection and analysis. More fully aware of my own limitations today, it is painful to see others who still swing the sledgehammer at communities.

Fourth, I suggest we find a better way to study the life of a community continuously in real time. Community needs assessments are too often a “still photo” or “snapshot” in time that fails to provide ongoing “real time” updates. Snapshots become dated very quickly, though we may cling to them as if they really do represent the present. Even worse, I have been involved in some large community needs assessments that take so long to produce findings (sometimes more than a year) that when they are delivered, the original conditions it found are no longer present. As a technical assistance provider who was supposed to use that data to tailor my assistance, I found it to be an absurd, crazy-making requirement that was both useless to me and the community initiatives it was supposed to serve. I think my colleagues involved in community based participatory research (CBPR) are trying to figure out how to study a community in real time and I appreciate their effort. I would still ask them to look beyond just the numbers and to shift their focus from community problems and deficits to positives and possibilities.

Fifth, I strongly suggest that we professional do gooders (PDGs) who conduct the studies stop trying to be experts in other’s communities. One of the biggest problems I have with community studies of any kind is that they shift the balance of “expert” power from the community residents to the PDGs who are doing the study. Here is a very hard truth: we PDGer’s have too often used our community studies for two terrible deceptions. The first is our own self-deception. Some of our community studies result in such massive amounts of data on communities that we first conclude we must be the true experts. I have been in meetings with PDGs who have asserted (one even pounded the table for emphasis) that they were the experts in the community they were serving, not the people who lived in it. Unfortunately, the deception does not stop there. We, who have claimed expert status by virtue of our reams of data, too often commit a second deception on the residents with lived experience in the community we are studying. We use our new self-declared expert status and data (see the Sledgehammer of Helpfulness above) to convince residents that we know them better than they know themselves. When this happens, community engagement  work, then, becomes a process by which we convince the community residents what their needs really are and get them to agree to let us do an intervention to them – an intervention we have often designed just for them without their input.

Finally, I recommend that our community studies be expanded beyond an examination of “needs,” to include an assessment of community “wants” and “will.” It is just as valid to ask residents of a community what is wanted as it is to ask what is needed. Some will argue that it is hard to trust that people will want what is best for them. To that I ask, “Could we possibly make that sound any more condescending?”  Others will argue that people may not even know what they want. To that I say, “So what? Will it kill us to find out?” I think we will be surprised what happens when we actually trust people to tell us what is important to them. Okay, maybe people will tell us they want a new car or a new cell phone or something else that seems ludicrous to us given our “expert” observation of the many other greater “needs” in the community. However, what if we then ask them why it is important to have a new car or new cell phone? Maybe we will learn that they need transportation to take a chronically ill child to a hospital for regular treatment or they are unemployed and need a contact phone number to list on job applications.

Both a wants and will assessment require us to go beyond surveys, questionnaires, and interviews to engage people differently to gain a deeper understanding. A community “will” assessment is a bit more complex and requires the most creative engagement strategy. What are residents of a community actually willing to do? People do not always act in the best interest of their needs. For example, I may need to maintain my weight but I still enjoyed my share of that large Polynesian pizza from the Lost Dog Pizza Cafe last Friday night. They may also describe their wants but then do something entirely different, including something that meets a need that is more important to them than their wants (e.g., I still want Polynesian pizza for lunch today, but I will have yogurt and granola instead.)  How do we know what people are willing to do? One of the best indicators of what people are willing to do is discovered through an Appreciative Inquiry process. Through Appreciative Inquiry people identify the most positive moments and experiences that they are not only willing to experience again but will intentionally plan to experience again. This process can be used to help us better understand what residents and communities are willing to do.

If community change is going to be effective, we need to align community needs, community wants, and community will with our understanding of how these are interconnected. No assessment is ever perfect, whether it is a needs, wants, or will assessment. Communities are complex adaptive systems which are dynamic and in constant flux, which is all the more reason to create community understanding studies that allow us to remain aware of the fluctuations, both great and small.

An Update on For Barbara: The Power of One: On May 5, 2014 I posted a blog about my long time friend and colleague, Barbara Huberman, that generated many comments from readers. Barbara passed away in hospice care on Saturday, May 17th. Barbara had asked me in March if I would assist her family in planning a celebration of her life. Before she passed away, Barbara got to read that blog and I got to have one last visit with her. On June 3rd, in Washington, DC, more than 150 people from around the United States attended the celebration and memorial for Barbara Huberman. It was one of the most profound honors of my life to lead that celebration. We miss you, Barbara. Rest well.

More later…

T.W.K.

 

 

For Barbara: The Power of One

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May is Barbara’s month. In the United States, May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. Since it first began in 1991 in North Carolina, National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month (NTPPM) has taken root and grown throughout the country. As a result, hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations and communities throughout the United States will seize upon the annual moment NTPPM offers to rally their communities to reduce adolescent pregnancy. Over the remaining days of NTPPM 2014, articles and editorials in support of teen pregnancy prevention will be run in newspapers; faith communities will conduct services that include a focus on sexual responsibility and the value of parent/child communication about sex; mayors, even governors, will sign proclamations; and special forums will be held, just to name a few of the many possible activities. Already this month, both Seventeen has featured an article on teen pregnancy resources and The Huffington Post has posted an editorial in recognition of NTPPM.  National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month has also inspired important offshoots. For example, in conjunction with NTPPM, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has been sponsoring the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy which is two days from now, May 7th.

BHuberman

Barbara Huberman

But May is Barbara’s month. Barbara Huberman, as the CEO of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Council of North Carolina (APPCNC), created Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month in 1991. When she relocated to Washington, DC in 1995 to join the staff of Advocates for Youth, with the permission of APPCNC, she brought Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month with her and launched it as a national initiative. Every year since  then, beginning in Winter, Barbara begins to get ready for the upcoming NTPPM. As recently as 2011, Barbara and her interns updated and refreshed the NTPPM planning guide which is available as a free download from Advocates for Youth.

Barbara is one of the closest friends and colleagues I’ve ever had. I met her for the first time in 1995 at a conference in Washington, DC, just as she was beginning her tenure at Advocates for Youth. I’m not sure when I really became friends with Barbara. It just seems, from the very first, that we have always been friends. In 1999, after pestering me incessantly for two years, Barbara convinced me to go on a European study tour that she had put together for people working in the field of adolescent sexual health and teen pregnancy prevention. It was a remarkable experience and the brief documentary about the timeless, revolutionary findings of the study continues to fascinate audiences fifteen years later.

Barbara is the reason that I relocated from my home state of Iowa to Washington, DC. She was instrumental in my recruitment and hiring at Advocates for Youth. I’ve never quite figured out what Barbara saw in me that told her I’d be a good bet, but I’m glad she saw it. For nearly eight years I had the most incredible experience of working side-by-side with her. Together we built stronger, more sophisticated and sustainable statewide adolescent sexual health and teen pregnancy prevention organizations throughout the United States. In that time we supported several existing organizations that Barbara had had a role in creating and together we helped bring to life several new organizations. While at Advocates for Youth, we collaborated to create the National Support Center for State Teen Pregnancy Prevention Organizations and we started the State Organization Leadership Academy and Roundtable. We loved our work and we had great fun working together.

The hours and days of travel together gave us lots of time to talk, often over dinner or in airports waiting for our flights. In these moments was when we learned the most from each other. Barbara has been a mentor to many people, including me, but she is also a lifelong learner. In 2009, when I started my doctoral program, Barbara became one of my strongest supporters and loudest cheerleaders. We would often talk about my studies and she would often ask me to share with her what I was learning through both my reading and my research. What has always been wonderful about our friendship and working relationship is that we did not always have to agree. We usually did, but not always. Though even in disagreement, our friendship thrived and created a safe space for us to remain engaged professionally until we worked out the conflict.

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Prairie Home Companion at Wolftrap – 2011

Barbara Huberman is more than a friend. She is a member of our family of choice who is often with us for birthdays, weddings, and just for fun. With my family, and many of our friends in common, we trek to Wolftrap on Memorial Day weekend each year to enjoy the Saturday night performance of A Prairie Home Companion which is also broadcast live on public radio. We spread out a blanket, unfold our chairs, enjoy a “potluck” picnic, and settle in for the show. (I’m behind the camera in the photo to the left.)

Much, however, has changed in the past year. In March, 2013, I left Advocates for Youth to complete my doctoral research and dissertation. At about the same time, Barbara received a diagnosis of leukemia. Though she has bravely fought it and has been fiercely determined to beat it, it now appears she will not. Since leaving Advocates for Youth, Barbara and I have stayed as closely in touch as her illness will allow. For several months we’d meet regularly at our favorite diner for lunch or dinner. When she began a second round of intensive chemotherapy in early January, we’d communicate via email or text. More recently, as the illness has gained ground, the messages have come less frequently. In one of the last messages I received from her, Barbara asked me to attend on her behalf an event that is honoring her role in helping to start the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. On Wednesday, May 7th, my spouse and I will be traveling to Columbia, SC to be there for Barbara. It is a sad duty for me but one that I’m deeply honored to perform.

It is my reflection on Barbara’s life and professional contributions in preparation for this event that has inspired this posting. I often use this space to write about community engagement, leadership, sustainability, and other such matters. There is much in Barbara’s life and work that speaks to these issues. One of the most important lessons I, and many others, have learned from Barbara Huberman is the difference that one person can make. There is a plenary presentation that I’ve seen her do on a few occasions that really captures the essence of that message. Her presentation always ends with this video. I hope you’ll take the one minute and 43 seconds it takes to view it; it is well worthwhile.

National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month stands as an example of the power of one person to make a difference. Barbara understands, though, the power in shared leadership as well. Barbara has always believed that she alone should not and could not “own” NTPPM if it were to be successful. She supported the efforts of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s efforts to establish the National Day within NTPPM. She has continuously made herself, her ideas, and NTPPM materials freely available to leaders of statewide teen pregnancy prevention organizations. Yet NTPPM was just one of the many innovations Barbara introduced to the field of adolescent sexual health. With each of them, she felt it was important that others embrace them and make them their own if they were to be successful.

When I finished defending my dissertation, my committee chair, Beth Birmingham, gave me a card with a message she had written, using the metaphor of dance (we are both ballroom dancers) to describe the learning journey we had taken together. I share it below because it so beautifully illustrates an important aspect of shared leadership and I also believe it is a message Barbara could give to any one of us she has mentored over the years:

When this dance started…you only had a vague understanding of the overall stage…I agreed to lead. We took to the dance floor, took to our positions and began, me leading, you tentatively following and together making the way…slowly and surely, with each turn around the floor, you found your footing and soon, your expertise and ability surpassed mine, you took the lead and I became the follower. You found your feet, you gained not just experience but expertise and today you’ve established your leadership. Thank you for letting me partner with you in this wonderful dance. 

For me, Barbara’s belief in the power of one and the value of shared leadership has had a profound impact. It led her to befriend and “dance” with a teen pregnancy prevention program developer and organization leader she found in Iowa, freely sharing her insights, ideas, vision, dreams and material with him. It led her to entrust these to me with the hope and expectation that I would continue, and extend, some of her work. I have always seen this as a challenging expectation, yet I am honored to be so trusted by Barbara and have promised that I will do all I can to honor that trust in return. That includes, I believe, affirming to the next generation of leaders, that the art of social change requires the courage and power of one person to step up, and then to intuitively step back at the right time, to share leadership with others in order to achieve sustainable greater good.

Thank you for this dance, Barbara. Here’s to you, in May, a month that will always be yours.

More later,

T.W.K.

Teen Pregnancy Prevention Lessons from a Small Town

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I’m a National Public Radio (NPR) junkie…I freely admit it. Each morning, as I shave and shower, I tune into my local NPR station to catch up on the news I slept through. This morning I was pleasantly surprised to hear a story on an issue that I’ve worked on for most of my career.

Check out this link to NPR’s story this morning (Sunday, March 30, 2014): What A Small Town’s Teen Pregnancy Turnaround Can Teach The U.S. : NPR.

What I really liked about this story, aside from hearing the voice of my long-time colleague and friend, Forrest Alton, CEO  of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, were a couple of important lessons that I think Denmark, SC can teach the rest of us.

First, teen pregnancy prevention requires a long-time, continuous effort. The effort has been ongoing in Denmark for more than 30 years. This illustrates why investment in teen pregnancy prevention, and other social change initiatives, has to be long-term – very long-term. For years I have been arguing that systemic social change requires at least 10-15 years of focused, committed effort under the best of conditions. Anything less, will not stick. I’ve been working with a lot of teen pregnancy prevention organizations across the United States on program and organizational sustainability in order to give them time necessary to make change happen and last in their communities. One of the first messages I try to convey to these groups is that change takes a long time and attaining sustainability is an intentional process that also takes time. However, good things will come if we are patient…and work hard.

Second, it is a balanced approach. Anything to do with adolescent sexual health, including teen pregnancy prevention, is a hot potato in many communities…particularly communities in the American south.  I started my career as a youth worker. The first lesson I learned was this: if you want to help individuals experience personal change and growth, meet them where they are, not where you want them to be. To do anything less conveys a profound disrespect. This is also true when it comes to working for change in communities. Michelle Nimmons, the woman featured in the interview, really seemed to understand this. For over 30 years she has been working with the people of Denmark, SC to strike a balance between effective efforts to address teen pregnancy with a respect for the community and its beliefs and values. It appears she has been uncommonly successful.

My professional research has focused on leaders of sexual health organizations engaged in social change efforts (you can download an executive summary at www.begreaterdogood.net). As with any social change effort, leadership is key. Leaders who are most effective are also long-term and have become adept at working respectfully with communities. They help their organization stakeholders understand that change takes time and continuous investment while keeping them motivated. They also help their stakeholders understand the necessity of working respectfully with the community. I’ve also come across some leaders who exhibit something a bit more than respect – what I can only describe as love. Ah, but let us save that for another time.

More later…

T.W.K.

 

Elicited Chat: Chinwags with a Purpose

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I can chat anytime, anywhere, with anyone. I am infamous for my chatting ability and inclination. I’ve written a little bit about my proclivity for chatting in an earlier blog (Movies, Wavers, & Client Love). The airplane is my favorite place to chat with people for the obvious reasons of boredom on long flights, the unwillingness of airlines these days to provide distractions (e.g., food, movies, flight crew with a sense of humor, etc.), and the absence of space to move any other part of your body but your mouth, which, at least, supports the activity of chatting.

This past week I was on a flight when my seatmate surprised me with my own opening gambit when he turned to me and asked, “Going away or going home?” I was stunned that a) he beat me to the question and b) he used nearly the exact question I use to start many fascinating conversations. Needless, to say, we chatted the entire flight. He had an entirely more fascinating life than my own – he is a movie director, had worked on many of my favorite films (including some in the Star Trek series and a movie with one of my favorite actresses, Jodie Foster). He was en route to begin shooting the remake of a very well-known movie series. However, we mostly chatted about the joys and challenges of launching our 20-something children. This kind of chatting is a lot of fun and it certainly passes the time in the most entertaining way when one does not have many other options.

I have come to realize, though, the value of chatting in relation to research. Chatting with a purpose, what I am now calling by the more scientific sounding name of elicited chat is a useful qualitative research strategy. An elicited chat is one that calls forth or draws out information in an informal act of talking in a familiar way with another person. To be clear, I am proposing elicited chat is different from elicited conversation, a more structured qualitative research strategy used in some other fields. Elicited conversation in these fields appears to refer to a conversation that is staged in order to gain research data. Elicited chat is differentiated by an even more informal interaction in which the researcher follows openings to collect data in the natural flow of the chat as the openings appear. Of course, before a researcher would engage in any data gathering activity, he or she needs to pay attention to the guidance of the appropriate Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure the ethical treatment of research participants. Assuming IRB approval, an elicited chat with research participants has the potential for mining some very useful qualitative research data in a less contrived way than traditional qualitative interviewing.

My journey to discovering for myself the value of elicited chatting began when I was doing my dissertation research on leaders of sexual health organizations using a constructivist grounded theory approach. Though I used a semi-structured qualitative interview process, I noticed that in nearly all of the interviews they changed into something different at some point. They stopped being formal interviews directed by my carefully constructed interview guide and became, instead, chats that were merely informed by the interview guide. When this change occurred, I could feel it and, presumably, so could the other person. The tone of our talk changed, the sense of connection changed, and the conversation grew warmer.  As a result, we became more open, more genuine, and more revealing with each other. I have no doubt my research participants shared things with me after the change that they would never have shared with me, if the change from an interview to an elicited chat had not occurred.  Before your imagination runs ahead of you, please remember we are talking about “elicited chats” not “illicit chats.”

There are several reasons why I believe elicited chats can be more effective in gathering rich data, in some situations, than interviewing.

  1. The concept of “chatting” connotes a level of informality that is lost when a research participant knows he or she is about to be interviewed. The informality creates a more relaxed environment and that can, in turn, result in more entry points in the talk to access the data being sought.
  2. While there is still a necessity for informed consent and some structure to assure confidentiality in an elicited chat, an elicited chat can be done in a way that is less contrived. It can be done in a variety of settings, even while doing other things, thus allowing the conversation to more naturally flow between the researcher and the participant.
  3. It is an approach that changes the power relationship between the researcher and the participant. They become two people in an interesting chat about something instead of being an “expert” trying to learn more from a “subject.” They are bound, in the moment, as two people by mutual curiosity and the joy of conversation.
  4. This bonding allows two people to communicate across socio-demographic (e.g., age, race, socio-economic position, etc.) and ideological barriers that might otherwise restrict their interaction.  Elicited chat, by virtue of the human connection it creates, can quickly facilitate a trust and confidence between two people.

Recently I wrote on the challenge of community engagement on issues that were perceived as being difficult to address (see Community Engagement and Touchy Topics). My experience of interviewing sexual health leaders, who represented a very wide spectrum of ideologies in the debate over comprehensive sexuality education and abstinence-only education, convinced me that an elicited chat has considerable value when trying to learn from another person who has a very different ideology than my own. When community issues being researched are less controversial, elicited chat can work well because it more closely resembles the informality and familiarity that characterizes how neighbors and members of the same community typically talk to one another.

As I have continued to think about elicited chat and become more convinced of its value, I am also considering several limitations to its use.  First, a researcher needs to be naturally curious about the topic and genuinely care about it. Chats are richest in those magic moments when both parties are connected with interest and sincerity. Secondly, a researcher needs to be a “people person.” The richest chats are between two people who enjoy connecting with others. For this reason, my seatmate and I started talking the moment we sat down in the plane and did not stop until we were walking off the plane together. Thirdly, at the risk of sounding ageist, elicited chat may work better for the more mature (e.g., older) researcher. The art of conversation requires a large frame of reference that may not yet be available to less mature (e.g., younger) researchers. Finally, a researcher needs to be comfortable with chatting as a complex, though informal, process. Chatting is a complex process in that it is often messy, by which I mean it has the properties of complexity – it is dynamic, entangled, emergent, and robust. (More about this in a future blog.)

I am continuing to think about the integration of my love of chatting with qualitative research.  I would be pleased if you would think about it with me and join the conversation.

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2014 by Thomas W. Klaus

Giving Voice to the Voices in Our Head

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We all have voices in our heads. They are the ideas, random thoughts, non sequiturs, and inspirations which often appear out of nowhere, even in the middle of the night, like this blog at 4:15 AM on a Saturday morning when I could be sleeping in. Fortunately, they also occur at other times of the day. I am especially good at non sequiturs at all hours.

So, there I was watching the opening ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Olympics last night (yes, this is one of those non sequiturs but it is going to make sense in a minute). I am loving the spectacle of the show and I am enjoying it so much I pick up my tablet and start tweeting. I am blathering away on Twitter for hours when, finally, a friend sends me a note: “What are you doing?  What are you talking about?”  I reply: “Well, the opening ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, of course.  Duh!” The show ended, I went to bed and I woke up at 2:50 AM with a startling realization: I had not been using any hashtags to give my friend, or any other of my zillions of followers, the context of the voices in my head. Okay, who is the idiot now?

And, of course, that is the point! (Yes, another non sequitur but I will connect it now.) People who have followers (aka leaders) need to remain always aware of the voices in their heads. Communicating ideas, random thoughts, and inspirations clearly to others is essential.  Even more, it is a core responsibility of leadership to communicate effectively with our followers and colleagues. Regardless of how creative, inspirational, and important the voices in our heads, if we do not make a focused effort to share them clearly and coherently, they flow out as a string of non sequiturs. Look, an occasional non sequitur is fine as it tests whether people are really paying attention to us. However, a steady string of them can cause people to seriously question our competence.

Here are a few lessons I learned, again, tonight on how all of us can avoid confusing our followers whenever we are wearing the mantle of leadership:

  1. Remember, the voices in your head are in your head only. Seems pretty basic and easy, right? It usually is until we have hit a gusher of ideas. In those moments they want out so bad we forget that others cannot hear those voices too and do not know the context out of which they flow.
  2. Slow down.  Do not go immediately for your cell phone to call a press conference or text, email, post, or tweet any of your insights to the world. Do not call for an all organization staff meeting, video conference, convocation or write a company-wide memo. Sit with it for a while. Mull over it. Have a cup of coffee or tea. Walk around the block. Whatever you do, keep it to yourself for now.
  3. Write your idea as a Haiku poem. Haiku poetry is typically only 10 to 14 syllables in length. By writing your idea as a Haiku, not only will you distill it to its very essence, you’ll also make it sound very pretty. Even more, it will help you organize your thoughts and push you to communicate them more clearly and concisely. Yes, even Twitter gives you 140 characters and it does not always seem adequate, to be sure.  Trust me, though, you can thoroughly confuse people with 140 characters.
  4. Try it out on one or two people who will not agree to any idiotic thing you say just because you are the leader.  Yes, share your Haiku poetry with them.  You do not have to tell them it is a poem, if that seems too risky to you.  You may be worried, after all, since you are the leader, that they may judge you for taking time away from your important schedule to write poetry.  You know, though, it is not such a bad idea that leaders write poetry.  It models the capacity for reflective thinking as well as the wisdom to break with the insanity of a frantic schedule.  If these one or two or more people quickly grasp the idea, seem warm to it, and are comfortable “kicking it around” with you, then you can share it with more people.

In retrospect, I really wish I had taken a few minutes to test my tweets instead of being carried away by the inspiration of the moment.  Nonetheless, it was a good reminder of how the voices in my own head can confuse my followers – whether on Twitter or in a real-time leadership role – if I do not intentionally, thoughtfully, and clearly communicate them.

I’m going back to bed.

More later…

T.W.K.

We’re Running Low on Flowers

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The Mall in Columbia is 5.3 miles from my house.  Three young people died there last Saturday, January 25, 2014, at 11:15 AM in a murder/suicide. This morning I awakened to the news on my local National Public Radio station that legendary folk musician Pete Seeger died yesterday, January 27, of natural causes at age 94.  What do these four deaths have in common?  To me, there seemed to be a connection but I could not see it.

All morning I was haunted by this question but I did not have an answer until I went to The Mall in Columbia to see the site of the tragedy. The shop where the shooting took place has been closed since the mall reopened yesterday. It is completely boarded up with whitewashed plywood. Stenciled on the wall is a message that indicated the shop will be closed until further notice. Below the stenciled message someone had hung a sympathy card with a handwritten note scrawled inside. At the bottom of the wall this morning were flowers.

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?

As you continue to listen to this iconic Pete Seeger song, you will learn the answer. All the flowers are gone because they are being picked to adorn the graves of those fallen in war. Of course, at the time Peter, Paul, & Mary made this song famous the Vietnam War was looming ahead for the United States and the song eventually became a campaign song in anti-war protests. However, the song is just as appropriate today given the many wars that continue to take young lives throughout the world today. These include the undeclared war on our communities fueled by gun violence.

Today in Maryland there are at least three new families caught in a vortex of grief. One grieves the loss of a son with whom they had recently celebrated his two years of sobriety from drug addiction. A second grieves the loss of a daughter who leaves behind her own two-year-old son. The third grieves the loss of a child whom the police and the media do not count among the victims, and have, even worse, dehumanized into “the shooter.”

Our community grieves as well. Any illusion that we had about the safety and quality of life in Columbia, Maryland has been shattered. We have joined a sad and growing group of U.S. communities on the broken battlefield of senseless, preventable gun violence. The Mall in Columbia shooting does not meet the criteria for a “mass shooting” (at least four victims according to the FBI), but it feels like it to us. Ironically, had the young man who instigated the violence successfully exploded the two homemade bombs that were found in his backpack inside the shop’s fitting room, we would have far exceeded the FBI’s seemingly arbitrary threshold for a “mass.” But, then, it would not have been just a shooting anymore, it would have been a bombing, and the issue of gun violence would have been irrelevant, right? Gun violence, whether one dies or a “mass” die, is never irrelevant in our communities.

If Pete Seeger had lived another day to read that last statement (of course, I wildly flatter myself to even imagine that Pete Seeger might have ever read this blog), I think he would have agreed with it. I believe this because of one line, that seemed to eloquently sum the meaning of Pete Seeger’s life in the New York Times this morning:  “For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.”

Over the years I have come to see and embrace the power of community that Pete Seeger saw many years ago. He knew, and I am learning, that communities are extraordinarily powerful when they are finally moved to action. A few years ago we were reminded by a First Lady of the power a community has to raise a child. Today, we need communities to not only raise up a child, but to step up to protect those same children – all the children – in a way that prevents them from becoming either victims or “shooters.” In recent years we’ve begun to run low on flowers to cover the graves of our children dying as a result of preventable gun violence.  It is preventable, if we have the will.

Message on the Wall at Columbia Mall

“Will” is a small word but a gigantic concept. Genuine human change always begins with human will.  We change ourselves and our communities only if we can find the will to do so. Perhaps, in his or her own way, this is what the person was trying to say in this note left on the plywood wall at the mall: “We must be better. We can be better. We will be better.”

Pete Seeger once explained how he came to write “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and readily acknowledged, as any good songwriter, that the song has been changed over the years to reflect the times and the need. Therefore, I doubt he would object to one more change, especially if the song were to move our communities to find the will to finally do what it takes to end gun violence. With apologies and deep appreciation to Pete Seeger, may I offer the following?

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago. Where have all the flowers gone? Parents picked them everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?

Where have all the parents gone, long time passing? Where have all the parents gone, long time ago. Where have all the parents gone?  Buried children everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?

Where have all the children gone, long time passing? Where have all the children gone, long time ago. Where have all the children gone? Gone to graveyards everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?

My condolences to the family of Pete Seeger at his passing yesterday after such a long, full, remarkable life. My deepest condolences to the families of all three young people whose lives were ended much to soon at The Mall in Columbia last Saturday. May the inspiration of Mr. Seeger and the tragedy of too many of our children’s deaths from gun violence finally cause all of our communities to find the will to rise up and end this war.

More later.

T.W.K.

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