Category Archives: Ideas

The (Mostly) Certitudes of Change

All things considered, I prefer sameness in my personal life. Okay, actually I more than prefer it. I really like the comfort of my personal routine when I am at home. 

I get up and go to bed at the same times everyday; I eat the same breakfast each morning (baked oatmeal – be sure to ask me for my recipe); I have used the same bar soap, shampoo, and other personal products for years; I have had the same haircut for years (of course, having little hair poses certain limitations); I walk our dogs at the same times every day; when my clothes wear out, I replace them with the same brands in as close to the same style as I can find; and my work day follows the same pattern as much as possible when I’m not traveling for work – I do research and writing in the morning, meetings and calls in the afternoon.

Despite this love of routine, I have come to appreciate there are many facets of change, whether it is personal or group change.

Both have been and continue to be areas of focus in my work – from developing leaders, to organizational change to community development. In recent months I found myself thinking nearly nonstop about change as I was coming up with a name for a new initiative I started piloting and rolling out at the first of this year – Tenacious Change℠.

One mostly certitude of change is that even when we say “yes” to change with our mouths and bests intentions, we can say “no” to it with our hearts. We outwardly go along with it and yet we may inwardly resist the change. At the personal level, even when we know a change would be good and we decide to do it, the change does not automatically happen. For many years I weighed at least 75 pounds more than was healthy for me. I knew I needed to lose weight and made several decisions to do so. However, it was not until I had a crisis with weight induced sleep apnea that my internal “no” became a “yes” and I made the change.

In a group setting, whether it is a team, organization, or community-wide change initiative, we outwardly comply with the change – maybe even enthusiastically support it – but, then, we can work quietly behind the scenes to slow the change or even prevent it. We can even be unaware of our own passive resistance.

Resistance to change, whether merely passive or passive aggressive, is frustrating though it is not a form of evil. It is a characteristic of humanity.

Let’s be honest…what do we humans really love about change? That’s right, pretty much nothing. I know…we act like we love it, especially in our professional worlds. Why? Because we want to appear innovative, original, experimental, inventive, cutting-edge, forward-looking, state-of-the-art, trend-setting, pioneering, Bohemian, groundbreaking, trailblazing, revolutionary, unorthodox, unconventional, offbeat, cool, avant garde…yada, yada, yada. Yet, when we peel away all of that feigned love of change we are human creatures of habit. This is another one of the mostly certitudes of change.

Change is inevitable, regardless of how we feel about it. This is beyond being a mostly certitude of change…it is a certitude. We cannot stop change or, as one of my favorite musicals puts it, “you can’t stop the beat.” We only deceive ourselves if we think change will not occur simply because we do not want it.


If change is inevitable, what choices remain? We can choose to do nothing and let the change unfold without our participation. In that case, we will likely be swept along in whatever direction the change moves things – for good or for ill. If we do not like the change, we can complain about it but that will be too little, too late, and quite annoying to everyone around us.

We can choose to respond pro-actively to change. This choice opens other choices to us. First, we can choose the type of change we want. Our basic choices are evolution (gradual developmental advancement) or devolution (gradual degeneration of advances). Then, we can choose to anticipate it, facilitate it, manage it, and prepare for it to happen again.

To anticipate change is to do some forecasting to imagine what the future holds and then decide what change is most needed. To facilitate it is to take an active role, often in collaboration with others, in deciding the strategies and tactics that will initiate change and move it forward. To manage it is to institutionalize the change which occurs to prevent things from slipping back to the way they were before the change. To prepare for it to happen again is to begin the process all over again. Why? Because change is continuous, which is a another certitude of change.  

Change is inevitable and it is constant, regardless of how strongly we resist it. Our role lies in choosing the type of change that occurs and in how we assist it.

To be a Change Agent is to be an active participant in change. Even though I like routine in my daily life, my spirituality and ethic compels me to be a Change Agent to make our world a better place for all. As we close out 2017 and prepare to boldly begin a new year, I have a wish for all of us. I wish for us to be active participants in changing our worlds – whether neighborhoods, communities, states, or whole countries – to be places where everyone, can feel welcome, accepted, heard, respected, cared for, and loved. 

Be greater. Do Good. Everyday.

Tom

The Challenge of Competing Ideas

“Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?” That was not a question I had expected, though I had responded to plenty of difficult questions in the preceding three hours of the meeting. For two years I had been piloting a sexuality education curriculum to prepare it for wider dissemination and replication in public schools. My visit to the rural Midwestern community on this winter evening was to meet with the curriculum committee of a local school considering adoption of the program. When I arrived at the school, I learned the meeting was to be held in a large multi-purpose room that served as both a theater and cafeteria. This seemed an odd location for a committee that was typically comprised of less than a dozen people. As I walked into the room, I realized it was not a committee meeting after all, but a community meeting and up to 200 people were expected. My mind raced to understand what this could mean.

I took a walk through the empty hallways of the school to center myself, focus my thoughts, and calm my nerves. I had not prepared for 200. I did not have nearly enough handouts. I could not understand why someone at the school had not given me advanced notice. I puzzled why so many people were expected to attend a committee meeting that even the official members probably skipped as often as possible. The knot in my stomach told me this was not going to be a good evening and that I had better remain calm and focused. I resolved to keep my comments and answers short, simple, and embellished with only a touch of gentle humor to convey friendliness. Walking back toward the meeting room I passed a large group of people huddled in the corner of the school’s main lobby, busily taking notes, and listening intently to the instructions of a man who was obviously in charge. He would be, as I would shortly learn, the first inquisitor of the evening.

A single member of the curriculum committee finally greeted me. I never did meet the other members.

By the time my host escorted me to the podium at the front the room had nearly filled to capacity. The leader of the group in the lobby was seated in the middle of the front row, surrounded by his followers, directly in front of the podium. My host briefly introduced me. I delivered a 15-minute opening presentation as requested and then invited questions.

The man from the lobby rose and asked in a booming voice, “Do you believe in moral absolutes?” and then smiled broadly, while his followers murmured their approval. I breathed deeply, remembered to smile, and said quite simply and very succinctly, “Yes.” For half an eternity, we simply looked at one other, smiling. Slowly, his face began to flush and his feet shuffled uneasily. Finally, he nervously turned to his followers for guidance, his confidence and certainty quickly dissipating. He mumbled something and hastily sat down, even as others in his group leapt to their feet and began shouting their questions at me as if to protect and defend their leader. Some of the questions were about the curriculum, some were about me, and many were philosophical and even theological. Thus, the evening began and continued for more than 3 hours until a man in the last row of chairs stood up and asked: “Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?”

I smiled, thanked him for his question, and said, with a touch of humor to diffuse a tense situation, “I don’t think my spouse would appreciate me having sex with another person.” The man exploded in rage. He jumped up and screamed, “I asked you a question and I demand an answer! Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?!?” All eyes flashed toward him, then shifted back toward me to see what I would do. I stood silent for a moment to quell my fear and compose myself. Finally, I calmly replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t believe that is an appropriate question.” All eyes turned back to him and throughout the room I could hear the whispered pleas from embarrassed community members for him to, “Sit down and shut up.”

Mercifully, the meeting was soon over…but the evening was not.

As the meeting was breaking up I was gathering my wits and materials. A woman strode up, stood in front me, glared into my face, and said, “I cannot believe you were ever a minister of the Gospel.” I was stunned and did not respond, so she moved closer and repeated it louder. I still did not know what to say so she came even closer and yelled it at me. I finally managed to mumble, “Thank you for your comment,” turned quickly, and started walking for the door.

Just before I reached the door, a man ran into me…hard…knocking all the materials out of my hands onto the floor. I was shocked to see he was a priest. I bent down to pick up the materials, keeping one eye on my “assailant.” To my surprise, the priest bent down and started helping me pick up the material. As we were both bent over, our heads close together in the gathering work, he whispered to me: “I really appreciate what you are doing and support it. I just wanted you to know I can’t say so publicly.” He handed me the last paper he collected, straightened up, and walked out the door.

The drive home was nearly 200 miles in the middle of the night over frozen roads, and I would finally get home at 4:00 AM. I never once feared for falling asleep as I intently watched the road ahead of me, and wondered what kind of place I had been where I would be accosted by a priest, just so he could speak to me. I nervously watched the rearview mirror for fast approaching headlights on the isolated rural highways.

It was months before I would sleep well again, even in the security of my own home.

As I drove home my mind tried to make sense of the evening. I also tried to make sense of my career move barely two years before. I had moved from a career in religious work to social services, where I was put in charge of piloting and replicating a teen pregnancy prevention program. I wondered if I had made the right move and if this kind of thing was going to be a regular part of the job. Even more, I wondered if I should stay with it. I did. Now, more than two decades later, and many similar community meetings, I am still in the field, as are numerous other veterans of the conflict over sexuality education on both, or many, sides. Since that winter evening I have wanted to more fully understand why and how we provide leadership amid such conflict.Peace and Conflict

This true story was featured in the opening pages of my doctoral dissertation, which was completed in 2013 after years of living the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. It is a battle for public support and funding that still rages today, having originated in Chicago in 1913.

When I completed the study, I promised everyone who participated that I would share a summary with them. If you are interested in reading it, you can find it here and are welcome to download it free of charge.

The study focused on the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. However, the “lessons learned” in the study can be applied wherever competing ideologies keep people from working together for a greater good. Have we not seen this competition in many community change coalitions, collaborations, and collective impact initiatives? Of course, it happens regularly in politics, leading to the infamous gridlock that hobbles any administration and legislature from leading and governing.

I am not offering this summary because it has all the answers. I am offering it because it may have some insights that are timely, especially for those of us who live in the United States. Indeed, it raises some important issues and questions if we are going to find a way to work together – regardless of our cause and despite our differences.

Be greater, do good, everyday.

Tom

A Father’s Day Reflection

For most people, Father’s Day is over for 2017. Mine extends into next week. I am privileged and blessed to claim several young adults as my children though I have only one biological son. Due to my work and volunteer schedule, I was not able to enjoy brunch with him yesterday as we had planned, so we are doing it next Sunday. Therefore, I still have time to post this essay, which I originally wrote about 10 years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

First, a brief bit of background on the essay.

I love oatmeal: plain (with a little salt to bring out the flavor); not so plain (with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon); exotic (with walnuts, apples, craisins, lots of cinnamon, more than a touch of vanilla, and freshly ground nutmeg). In fact, I eat the exotic oatmeal everyday for breakfast. I love oatmeal made on the stove too and I love it baked. By the way, I have an incredibly good baked oatmeal recipe. Let me know if you want it.

If I am ever invited to have oatmeal at your house, know that I have at least three oatmeal limitations, or requirements if you will:

  1. I am not a fan of microwaveable faux oatmeal. It contains too many chemicals and I worry that a universe-ending explosion will occur when “nuking” it.
  2. My oatmeal must be made using the “old fashioned” rolled oats, not the ground-to-a-pulp “quick” oats which have no substance, no taste, and no reason for existence.
  3. I will not eat oatmeal without salt. Period. The salt (which is always listed as an optional ingredient on the box) is what makes the flavor “pop.” Warning: Most restaurants and hotels with the complimentary breakfast buffets do not put salt in the oatmeal. Such an inhumane action is probably not yet worthy of a boycott or class action lawsuit but do know you will need to salt you own oatmeal.

However, it should be a criminal offense when anyone (and you know who you are!) try to pass off the faux oatmeal as “homemade” or “freshly made.”

Shortly after moving to the East Coast, I wrote of my passion for oatmeal in an essay I submitted to National Public Radio’sThis I Believe” segment that was a regular feature at that time. Now I believe they did not care much for the essay because it was kindly rejected in that soft-spoken NPR way by someone with a delightfully inimitable NPR-type name like Dharma Chung-Nunberg. Despite the heart-wrenching, soul-shattering rejection, I liked the essay and decided to publish it here anyway. (Ha! Take THAT, Dharma!)

I believe in the magic of oatmeal. My palate prefers the old-fashioned, whole grained oatmeal, but the magic of oatmeal usually transcends its form.

As a child, a steaming bowl of oatmeal, generously trimmed with farm-fresh cream and heaps of sugar, seemed to warm the kitchen of our Iowa farmhouse. On frigid February mornings the oil-burning stove at the end of the kitchen strained against the toe-numbing cold. Still, the oatmeal warmed me inside-out and the warmth seemed to mystically radiate throughout the drafty house. On those mornings of school bus windows frosted-over for the entire ride into town, I still remained warm and satisfied until the noon bell rang. At the bell, fueled by the oatmeal, I would race my best friend down the steps to the basement lunchroom of Morning Sun Elementary School.

As a young man and new father I introduced my baby boy, Jake, to oatmeal’s magic. Having wrestled him into his high chair and locked him into place, I would begin the

File0060

Tom & Jake at their introduction on Christmas Day in 1984. (Photo by doctor)

morning breakfast routine. He would strain against the unyielding high chair and vocalize his hunger. I would mix his oatmeal with just enough water of just the right temperature. As the first spoonful of the oat concoction reached his lips he would begin to emit a low “mmm” sound. He would eat and coo as I would whispered to him with each spoonful of his goodness and strength and my love for him. For the next several minutes we were connected, father and son, by the warmth and satisfaction of oatmeal. These early bonding moments have been built upon through the years as he grew and became a man and I, well, just became an older man.

Today, for the first time in my life, I live far from both the farmhouse and the son. Preparing to move from Des Moines to Washington last December I gave away nearly every food item in my kitchen…except my near new box of oatmeal. Upon arrival in DC, I unpacked it and shelved it in a cabinet where I could not miss it. The following morning it became my first meal in my new home.

Middle age demands I eat oatmeal more for its physical benefits today and, sadly, I now must trim it with skim milk and less generous portions of brown sugar. As the morning’s first spoonful triggers my taste-buds, it also triggers my memory. It takes me back to winter mornings in which I remained warm despite the bitter cold. Even more, it warms me with the memory of being a dad. It transports me back to a series of wonderful mornings when my son and I became a part of each other through the magic of oatmeal. I can close my eyes and recall the sounds, sights, smells, and smiles of those moments. When I open them I realize it is only a wonderful memory that will not happen again.

Or will it? Who knows…in the latter stages of my life I may be the one who coos as my son lovingly feeds me my oatmeal. By then, Jake, cream and sugar really should not be a factor in my longevity…so be generous, my son.

 

 

 

 

              

Grateful Dead? Grateful NOT Dead! (My Five Words of Gratitude for the Thanksgiving Season)

I have a new lease on life as my old lease nearly expired on August 3, 2015…but more about that in a moment. 

This blog runs in the United States on my own website (nonprofitgp.com) and on the Tamarack website (tamarackcci.ca) in Canada. Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving the second Monday of October; in the United States we celebrate it the fourth Thursday of November. To honor both traditions, I decided to publish a blog on gratitude that runs roughly midway between the two holidays.

However, this blog is not the one I envisioned last May when I posted a request for readers to submit five wordsBroken Heart that expressed their deepest sense of appreciation and gratitude. I have received a lot of responses and, in fact, am still receiving them at Five Words of Gratitude. You are welcome to add your own! In May I imagined using them to write a sweet and inspiring blog for this Thanksgiving season. I could not have predicted then I would be writing such a personal piece on gratitude instead.

About 18 months ago, when I turned 60 years old, I had a lot of people say things to me like, “You know, 60 is the new 50!” The real optimists would say it was the “new 40” and the totally clueless would say it was the “new 30.” In fact, it felt like 80, even 90, to me.

By my 60th birthday I was utterly spent. Fatigue was my constant companion. I attributed the exhaustion to my decision to begin a doctoral program at age 55. I went to school full-time and worked full-time, and then pushed myself to finish my research and dissertation before my 60th birthday. For nearly five years I had sworn, “I will NOT still be doing this at age 60!” I achieved the goal in September, 2013, finishing about 7 months before the big birthday.

Shortly after I finished my doctorate, I noticed that not only was I very, very tired; I was also having some other challenges. While walking our dogs I would occasionally lose my balance and stumble forward, nearly falling. My eyes were increasingly sensitive to light and my vision was occasionally blurred. I sometimes had difficulty swallowing when eating. Most frightening of all, my thinking did not always seem very clear to me.

However, none of these symptoms were ever severe enough to warrant calling my doctor. In fact, each had logical but not very urgent explanations: Balance issues? Inner ear out of whack; it will pass. Light sensitivity and blurred vision? New prescription for my glasses at my next check up. Difficulty swallowing? Probably an allergy; just avoid the problem foods. Exhaustion and difficulty thinking clearly? Dude, you are getting older!

Unfortunately, the problems did not go away and only grew incrementally worse. For two or three weeks in June, it seemed I was viewing everything from underwater; you know, where you can see everything but it seems slightly distorted and, if it moves, it seems to move in slow motion? My balance was quite bad enough I was scared to walk our dogs. Then it all seemed to pass and I was doing well…until August 3.

On the morning of Monday, August 3rd I was not feeling very well. My balance was off a bit yet I drove 120 miles to St. Davids, Pennsylvania to teach my final class of the summer at Eastern University. When I reached Eastern University I felt very dizzy and nauseous. I staggered wildly down the sidewalk to the front door of the building where I met a woman going inside whom I recognized as faculty from the nursing school. She recognized I was not feeling well – it was particularly obvious after I demonstrated how unwell I was feeling with the assistance of a nearby trash bin. While I was recomposing myself, she was calling 911.

When the EMT’s arrived, they assessed me for a possible stroke and took me to a nearby hospital which had a special stroke and cardiac trauma center. Once in the ER a myriad of tests were performed. As a result, I can say with high confidence that I have a structurally sound heart, with very little plaque, that has never been physically damaged and I have no indication of brain tumors or cancer. I was seen by an ER physician and a whole host of specialists within only a few hours. The initial assessment led them to believe I was having inner ear problems. A nurse stuck a scopolamine transdermal patch behind my ear to alleviate the dizziness but the team decided to keep me overnight for observation anyway. It made sense – it was getting late, the patch needed time to work, and I would have had to drive 120 miles back home at night. They also seized the opportunity to hook me up to every available type of monitor they could find at that hour in the hospital.

At 1:30 AM everything changed. My heart paused…for four seconds…and my heart rate was abnormally low, between 35 and 45 beats per minute. Only elite athletes, or nearly frozen people, can even have such low heart rates and still be alive. From that point on, every person that came into my room would ask, “What’s your name?” “What is your birthdate?,” and “Are you an elite athlete?” Really…they asked that, albeit with a bit of polite disbelief once they got a better look at me.

At 6:00 AM my heart paused again…also for about four seconds. At six seconds, by the way, a person passes out. By this time they were already preparing me for additional tests and by noon I had a new diagnosis: sick sinus syndrome. It is a relatively uncommon but pretty straightforward problem with the heart’s natural pacemaker. The fix is just as straightforward: a titanium pacemaker implanted in my chest to “pace” the heart properly. It is really pretty cool technology: if the lower chamber of my heart does not beat within a half second of the top chamber, the pacemaker (whom I have named “Jude”) shoots a 2 volt shock to the lower chamber to wake it up. Jude is also set to regulate my heart rate at no less than 60 beats per minute, which is not a bad ballroom dance tempo either. Jude is monitored each night by a small computer that sits next to my bed and sends real-time data to my cardiac electro-physiologist in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I cannot wait for the version that will “beam me up” to the doctor’s office for my annual appointment.

Of course, living out the story I have just told was not as fun as I have tried to make it here in the re-telling. It was scary and not everything went well. In fact, I had to have two surgeries to finally get Jude to “seed” properly to my heart. The second surgery was done without general anesthetic because I did not do well with anesthetic the first time around. It was a truly surrealistic, but not unpleasant, experience to be awake and talking to the surgeon while he reattached the pacemaker leads to my heart muscle.

Today, though, I am truly grateful not to be dead. It could have happened so easily on August 3rd. I might have passed out while driving to Philadelphia; the woman at the door of the school might not have been a nurse and not known I was in crisis; Bryn Mawr Hospital, nationally recognized for its cardiac care, might not have been the nearest ER and hospital; and, had the ER team at Bryn Mawr not kept me overnight for monitoring, my heart pause might still be undiscovered.

In this Thanksgiving season I have a sense of gratitude unlike any I have ever had before. In part, it is also because I am feeling stronger and better than I have in many years, and all of my symptoms are gone. Wait…maybe 60 really IS the new 30!

Happy Thanksgiving – belated or in the near future!

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.

T.W.K.

Redden Your Nose and Join In or Do Even More?

Today is Red Nose Day. “Say what?” you ask.

Red Nose Day is a big thing in the United Kingdom and it has been for 30 years where it has raised billions of British pounds to end poverty. It is a part of the United Kingdom’s Comic Relief charity. “Oh, I remember Comic Relief,” you say, “but isn’t that OUR (the American’s) thing?” Uh, not really. We stole borrowed the idea from the Brits and now we are borrowing Red Nose Day, too, but this time it only took us three decades. NBC is taking the credit for bringing Red Nose Day to the United States. The television network partnered with Walgreens to sell the red noses that I am modeling in this classy photo of myself. Tonight, May 21, NBC is featuring a 3 hour broadcast (think “mini” telethon but without Jerry Lewis) to raise awareness and money.

Hey! It's Red Nose Day! Where's Yours?

Hey! It’s Red Nose Day! Where’s Yours?

Though my Inner Clown compelled me to buy this $1.00 red nose the last time I was in my local Walgreens, it was never very clear to me if this was more than a marketing ploy for Walgreens and a ratings push for NBC. I am still not sure. Frankly, the promotion on the U.S. version of Red Nose Day has seemed more about NBC, its stars and programs, and Walgreens products and services and far less about the cause. (Look, I do understand cause-related-marketing but you still have to highlight the cause, too.) Until you take the cellophane off the nose and read the odd “cut-out”-like information piece that is attached to it, you might not even know which charities stand to benefit from Red Nose Day. To really learn what your Red Nose purchase supports you have to go to the official Red Nose Day website where I found this explanation:

The funds raised during the Red Nose Day campaign will be given to a variety of nonprofit organizations that transform children’s lives. This year we’ve partnered with twelve amazing organizations working in the US and abroad. The great news is the half the money distributed will be spent right here in the US at projects close to home. The other half will be spent in some of the poorest communities in the world in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

However, for me, the clearest explanation of the purpose of Red Nose Day came from an NBC Entertainment promotional site:

The aim of Red Nose Day is to bring about real and lasting change by tackling the root causes of poverty and social injustice.

Now, THAT’s a cause I can really get behind.

Nonetheless, I had secretly wondered if my mild addiction to collecting red noses had led me to unwittingly add to the profits of two big businesses. My angst was increased when I read that only 50 cents of my $1.00 red nose purchase would actually go to the charities listed as beneficiaries of the effort and the remainder would be invested in nose production. Given the scale of production required to supply so many red noses to Walgreens all across the country, I find it hard to believe they really cost 50 cents each to produce. Five cents seems more realistic. Obviously, I could do far more by simply going to each charity’s website and contributing $1.00 directly to each of them. In fact, I could double my contribution by sending the same $1.00 to them that I spent on the cheap red nose at Walgreens…except I would not have the red nose for my collection.

Ouch! That pricks my conscience. It seems like I am not really different than the many others who need to get something in return for investing in a cause. Some people need their name on a building. I simply need a new red nose for my modest collection.

Last night I attended a celebration of the work of Dr. David Greenhalgh, the Director of the PhD in Organizational Development program at Eastern University where I received my doctorate. David is retiring, in his words, “on August 31 at 11:59 PM” and the PhD Summer Residency dinner included a tribute in which students and alumni were present to participate. It was a great party! The after dinner speaker was Dr. Joanne Ciulla, from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is known for her work and writing on ethical leadership and she spoke briefly and engagingly on the topic of “The Ethical Peculiarities of Leadership.” She observed that ethical leaders can be ineffective and effective leaders can be unethical. If we wish to be both ethical and effective we need to examine our leadership actions with these four questions:

  • Am I doing the right thing?
  • Am I doing it the right way?
  • Am I doing it for the right reason?
  • Am I using what I have learned?

I applaud the leadership efforts of NBC and Walgreens and the followership efforts of all of us (even if we are just wanting to merely add to our red nose collections) for falling in behind Red Nose Day. I love it that the cause is “tackling the root causes of poverty and social injustice.” I wonder, though, if we might learn from our efforts this year and improve upon them next year by thoughtfully considering the first three questions from Dr. Ciulla. Perhaps NBC and Walgreens can make it more about the cause than about pushing programming, stars, and products. Perhaps I can add a red nose to my collection and still contribute directly to each of the charities.

Indeed, what more can we all do? 

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day. (with or without a red nose)

Tom

The Unintended Consequences of “Five Words of Gratitude”

After I published my last full blog asking “What if…?” I pursued a little “what if?” of my own that has had profound and delightful unintended consequences. I had read an article in the New York Times about the Webby Awards which are given out each year by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. I was fascinated by a rule of the Webby Awards that is enthusiastically enforced by booing audience members: no acceptance speech can be more than five words long. Wow! It makes me actually want to watch the Webby Awards program!

The article offered several exemplary brief speeches, including these four that I particularly like:

  • “Had we lost, we’d sue.” American Bar Association Journal in 2008.
  • “Making life terrible for dictators.” Human Rights Watch in 2010.
  • “Donating my unused word.” Corporate Social Responsibility Amalgamated in 2012.
  • “The Oscars should do this.” Actor Kevin Spacey in 2013.

Inspired by the Webby Award’s succinct acceptance speeches, I began to wonder: What if…I asked people to express Heart of Gratitudetheir gratitude to significant people in their lives in only five words? What could they say? What would they say? Would they even do it?” I decided to create an online Google form where people could post their five words of gratitude to another person and invite people to share them. I did not blog this at the time and decided to only post it in LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, and made it the subject of my monthly “marketing” newsletter (because I really hate having to do marketing anyway and this seemed more fun than marketing). All of this was just for fun and I was not counting on having many, if any responses. Well, I was wrong. I got a bunch of responses. Here are just a few:

  • To a sibling: “Thank you for graciously listening.”
  • To a child: “Your smile makes my day!”
  • To a colleague: “Deep thinker with a conscience.”
  • To a deceased parent: “Inspiration to overcome obstacles.”
  • To a patient: “Honored by attending your childbirth.”

Because so many of the responses are very powerful and I have been deeply touched by them, I decided to share this invitation a little more widely through my blog. I have been asked whether I will share the responses and, yes, I will. However, I am not exactly sure how and when I will do that. For now I will continue to compile them and in the near future I will be sharing many of them in future blogs.

In the meantime, if you would like to contribute, please click on this link: Five Words of Gratitude.

Be Greater. Do Good. Everyday. (Those are not my five words of gratitude but someone did suggest they could be.)

Tom

What if…”Better Practices” not “Best Practices?”

An emphasis on using “evidence based practices” is stifling experimentation. This was the statement I posed in a poll within my last blog, back in February 2015, just before I got sucked into a vortex of Federal grant writing from which I am only now extracting myself. The results are in and a full 77% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the statement is true.

Before we run out and create an “evidence based practice” of wild experimentation on the basis of this finding, however, it is important to keep two things in mind. Firstly, this was a highly unscientific poll that was not intended for grounding a new discipline but only for stimulating dialogue…which it did. Secondly, I am not really a “best practice” or “evidence-based” curmudgeon, but I am not an uncritical fan of them. On some days, I may even be more critic than fan.

In fact, we need “best practices” and “evidence-based practices.” I was particularly taken by the comments of my friend Andy Penziner who offered this defense of evidence-based practices in a comment on my blog at http://www.nonprofitgp.com:

First, evidence-based solutions/best practices would seem preferable to pet solutions or random practices. Second, context and generalizability should always be acknowledged and considered. Third, a creative, open mind should never be stifled in favor of blind deference to whatever the best practice d’jour might be; they can coexist. Finally, as for pleasing funders or conforming to their priorities…well, it’s kind of a fact of life, eh!

What IfI would like to add two additional points to these. One is that there are some situations in which “evidence based practices” are the best and only practices you absolutely want. For example, do want to see a doctor that is not using evidence based medicine in providing care for you? Probably not. Do you want to live in a high rise building that has not been built to the standards of evidence based architecture and building construction? No way! Do you want fly down the highway in heavy traffic inside an automobile that has not been built to evidence based standards and carefully tested? Absolutely not. Keep in mind that my previous blog was a bit of a rant about using “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices to address complex social problems. A complex social problem is one that eludes solutions proposed by “best practices” and “evidence-based” solutions because it shares the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. It is dynamic; has many interdependent agents or factors; one change in the system affects changes throughout the whole system; and it is robust in its ability to do all of these things. Within complex social problems, there may be a place to use some “best practice” or “evidence-based” interventions for very specific purposes. However, to believe that one or two or even three or four “evidence-based” interventions can solve the whole of the problem is just wrong thinking. It is also to commit the error Andy warns about: failing to acknowledge the role of context.

The other thing I would like to add to Andy’s list is that “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” also have useful historical value. They tell us what did and did not work well in the past, which may have value for our current situation. Considered in this light, “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” can suggest to us “better practices that may work” though they offer no guarantees of working in our situation. I bristle against “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” when they are presented as the “solution” regardless of the context, which, in the case of social problems, is usually complex.

I have become increasingly fond of the idea of “better practices that may work.” This allows me to feel comfortable standing in both the worlds of “evidence-based” practice and “what if” experimentation. On the one hand, it allows me to consider the evidence of proven and best practices. On the other, as Andy indicates, it helps me to keep a creative, open mind; always consider the context; and avoid uncritically adopting the evidence-based practice of the moment.

The key word in the phrase “better practices that may work” is “may.” “May” does not offer the guarantees of “will.” To say something may work is to say just as clearly that it may not work which is a loaded proposition for many folks.

It is loaded with the risk of failure. It is loaded with the humility required to admit that one does not have all the answers. It is loaded with the requirement to engage in the uncertainty, angst, and, some would say, joy and excitement, of “what if” experimentation.

Over the past few months I have been compiling some “what if” experiments with regard to community engagement on complex social problems and have been discussing them and exploring their implications with increasing regularity with my clients. If you work with communities to address such problems, here are a few of my questions to help you think of your own:

  • What if…people with lived experience of the social problem we are trying to address were really welcomed into our coalitions, leadership teams, and other planning groups? (As my friend Tommy Ross has said, “There is a big difference between an invitation and a welcome.”)
  • What if…that welcome included having the same decision making power as the rest of us?
  • What if…we valued and prioritized relationship building and social networking as community engagement strategies more than using social media and marketing?
  • What if…we focused more on creating community ownership of change than “buy in” to the change?
  • What if…we used principles to guide our work rather than checklists, protocols, and performance measures?
  • What if…we were to build trust before trying to change things?
  • What if…we shared the leadership and did not insist on being out front?
  • What if…we were to conduct evaluation that is focused on developing a better effort rather than measuring achievement of outcomes?
  • What if…we were to embrace the risk of “better practices that may work”?

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

Tom Klaus