Tag Archives: Ideas

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

Naming, Knowing, & Trusting

“Here’s my promise: I will know your first and last name by the end of the week.” This didn’t sound like much of a promise really; until you consider that it was a promise I made to more than 100 youth, most of whom I was meeting for the first time.

Early in my career I was put in charge of a four-week summer youth camping program. I was barely aged out of the “youth” category myself. (Looking back at that period, I ask, “What in the world were they thinking?!?!” yet, it was a position I held for 11 summers.) Each week we would receive a new batch of campers and each week I tried very hard to get to know each of them by name. Sometimes I was successful; other times I was not. Occasionally, I’d stand before the whole group at the orientation and make that promise. Always, though, even unannounced, I would do my best to learn and remember each camper’s name so I could greet them by it…at least once by the end of the week.

There were two reasons I made this effort.

First, being known by our names feels good. Who has not known the embarrassment of being known as that “other person” or “hey, you” on occasion? Or the awkwardness of being called by another person’s name…even if it does look a lot like ours? Or the irritation of being called a different name that is a mispronunciation of our name? (You can imagine how many times THAT happens to me, especially during the holiday season, with the last name of “Klaus.”)

When I work with people, even on short assignment, I do my best to learn and remember their names – first and last – because I know how important it is. Sometimes, I even rehearse the pronunciation of their names, especially when I mess up the first time. A few years ago, I was working briefly with a woman whose first name was a lovely Spanish name that was nearly unpronounceable to me. I kept Anglicizing the name – not belligerently or uncaringly – but because I just couldn’t get my mouth and tongue to make the right Spanish vowel sounds. She became frustrated and corrected me rather directly. I came home that night, consulted with my spouse on the correct pronunciation (Spanish is her first language), and I rehearsed like crazy. The next day my effort was obvious even if my execution was still imperfect. This experience, which was a bit difficult for both the woman and me, reminded me how important it is to know a person’s name and to get it right.

Second, getting know, and correctly using, the names of people is a simple yet solid community building activity. From the moment those campers arrived, my staff and I had only six days to create a sense of community among them, which we knew would “make or break” the whole camping experience for many of them. By learning their names and being able to use them, and allowing them to know and use our names in return, we were taking the first steps in community building.

Correctly learning and using the names of people is still one of the easiest and best strategies in community building and community change. Each of us can do it and we can do it all by ourselves. The only permission we need is the permission of the person whose name we are trying to learn and use.

However, knowing a person’s name does not equate to knowing the person. This is a mistake commonly made in American culture which values fame and celebrity. Just because we know the names “Beyoncé” or “Lady Gaga” does not mean we actually know them. In community work we need to go beyond just knowing names. We need to know people and we need to be known by them. We need to get to know people as we let them get to know us. This is the beginning of trust. This is important because, as you may know already, change happens at the speed of trust.

At another point in my career I worked at University of Iowa Health Care as a fundraiser for the children’s hospital. As part of my orientation I received a packet of information that included a wallet card titled, “15 House Rules for Service Leadership.” I still have it today because I think it offers some great advice for learning people’s names, getting to know them, and building trust. See what you think:

  • Break the ice
  • Stop and help
  • Take the time
  • Keep people informed
  • Anticipate needs
  • Respond quickly
  • Respect privacy and confidentiality
  • Handle with care
  • Maintain dignity
  • Treat adults as adults and children as children
  • Listen and act
  • Help each other
  • Keep it quiet
  • Look the part
  • Respect our differences

Be greater, Do good, Everyday.

Tom Klaus

 

Listening for Crickets

Some people think of me as an expert in a few things, which is okay. It is not okay, however, that I have acted like an expert in most things…if not all things on occasion.

This awareness is part of the understanding that comes with experience and maturity (which is a nice way of saying “age”). That it took me a while to arrive at this self-understanding is a bit embarrassing yet I’m glad I did. It has dramatically changed how I try to work with individuals and groups. Even more, I think it has changed my relationship with them for better.

The problem with being an expert on anything is that we imagine it comes with a license to weigh in on everything, no matter how remotely related to our actual expertise. It is even worse when we experts become leaders. Leadership implies responsibility and now, along with our license, we feel a duty to share our expertise with everyone we can, whenever we can, wherever we can, and to the fullest extent possible. Makes us great party guests, huh?

When we experts are put in leadership of a team, a coalition, a collaboration, a backbone organization, or a collective impact initiative, it becomes especially important for us to exercise self-control.

Only when we lay aside what we think we know and lay down our leader/expert role can we hear more clearly the expertise of others and the wisdom of the collective.

Craig Ferguson & Geoff

Comedian Craig Ferguson with his Late, Late Show “side kick,” Geoff

So, this is where Craig Ferguson’s advice comes into play. In a stand-up comedy special he performed in 2011 titled Does This Need to be Said?, Ferguson offered three self-reflective questions. In one of his best lines, he also said it took him three marriages to learn them. Besides their potential for saving marriages, they are also important questions for us leader/experts to consider before sharing our wisdom. Let’s take a brief look at each of Ferguson’s questions:

Does this need to be said? Collaboration work is full of ups and downs. There will always be a temptation for us leader/experts to step in to try to solve, explain or otherwise smooth the way. In reality, the way does not always have to be smoothed. Often it is in the process of working together, through both good and bad, that challenges are met by groups with innovative solutions which produce the best outcomes.

Does this need to be said by meTruthfully…probably not. I’m learning that if I shut up, allow space for others to speak up while I simply listen, then if it needs to be said at all, others will say it. I’m learning there is often a difference between what I see as an issue and what the group sees as an issue.

Does this need to be said by me nowYou see, when I put on my leader/expert Super X-ray Glasses I can see many things that mere mortals cannot. Further, my expertise may tell me that “this is gonna be a problem and we gotta deal with it now.” When I shut up, keep my opinions to myself, and just listen, what I have learned is: a) if my analysis is correct, then others will usually see it too, name it, and the group will address it; b) my analysis may be only partially correct and the group may feel there are other issues (which my analysis may have missed or minimized) that it needs to address first; or c) if my analysis is dead wrong, the group will move to other issues which, once resolved, tend to take care of the issue I diagnosed.

A more academic presentation of Ferguson’s three questions comes from one of my favorite organizational culture authors, Edgar Schein. In his article On Dialogue, Culture, and Organizational Learning, Schein described “suspension” as a critical aspect of productive group dialogue. “Suspension” is to stop talking and listen: “to let the issue – our perceptions, our feelings, our judgments, and our impulses – rest for a while in a state of suspension to see what more will come up from ourselves and from others” (p. 33).

More pragmatically, I have to come to call this “listening for crickets.” This is the time of year for cicadas to make their presence known. I love the sound of cicadas – for this native Iowa country boy their annual symphonies are the quintessential sound of summer. Admittedly, cicadas can be quite loud and intrusive. Crickets, on the other hand, often require us to suspend our activity and to listen quietly for their “voices.” This is what we leader/experts must also do to make sure all voices can be raised, are included, and clearly heard and understood in the collaborations we lead.

Today, I am building my expertise in listening for crickets and trying to lead by that example. In doing so I hope other leader/experts will follow and, even more, that the crickets among us will speak out and be heard. After all, listening for crickets is one of the most important competencies for any collaboration leader. Let’s get better together.

Be Greater. (Listen for Crickets.) Do Good. Everyday.

Tom Klaus

A Reflection on Reflective Leadership

I have a confession to make. I attend Tamarack’s Collective Impact Summits for very selfish reasons. I have come to experience and appreciate the annual event as a personal retreat. Okay, it is a personal retreat taking place in the midst of several hundred people. Never forget the words, though, of the world famous Anonymous who said, “Even in a crowd, you are alone inside your own head.” (Kudos to the Tamarack team for another extraordinary event last month in Vancouver!)

When I attend this Tamarack event I am in a continuous state of reflection and inner dialogue. 

Filling in for Tamarack's Liz Weaver, I got to facilitate

Filling in for Tamarack’s Liz Weaver, I had the privilege of facilitating “Collective Impact from Around the World,” which featured (from my left to right): Nicola Taylor (New Zealand); Valerie Quay (Singapore); Per Holm (Denmark); and, Te Ropu Poa (New Zealand).

This dialogue is informed and shaped by the people I meet, the conversations I have, my observations, and my experiences at the event. I can appear to be busy on the outside and at this year’s event I was quite busy: I facilitated a daily “Learning Lab” consisting of ten other participants; led a workshop; was a late substitute facilitator for another workshop; and hosted a dinner conversation. Through all of this I was still alone inside my own head…and loving it!!!

In recent years my work has led me to a more intentional practice of reflection and a deeper appreciation for the role of reflection in leadership. For most of my life I have been a Quaker, a member of a group known for its use of meditative silence. However, only recently have I come to more fully connect reflection and leadership. The first point of connection was when I was conducting and writing up my doctoral research on leadership in the intractable conflict over sexuality education in the United States. In that study I found that leaders of sexual health organizations, who are engaged in the conflict, are quite reflective. They are involved in three interactive reflective processes that affect their leader motivations and behaviors, and, yet, contributes to perpetuating the conflict.

The second point of connection was about a year ago when a colleague and I were working together on a “mindfulness” curriculum for teachers at the Transylvania College in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In the process of editing the material I found myself learning more about the practice of mindful reflection and how it related to leadership in the classroom. It inspired me to learn more about both mindfulness practices and reflective leadership.

The third point of connection came earlier this year when I was trying to answer the dreaded question I get from prospective clients: “How much do you charge?” I usually want to say, “Just enough,” because, in fact, it is true. When I moved into consulting work I wanted to stay to true to my personal mission of working on behalf of nonprofit organizations, especially those that can benefit from high quality leadership and organizational development assistance but usually cannot afford the rates charged by large consulting groups. To this end I did my research and I came up with a rate that meets my needs (not my “wants,” to be sure, or else I would not still be driving an eleven year old Subaru) and which rarely gets any push back from my clients.

The process of thinking through an answer to the question of “How much do you charge?” led me, not surprisingly, to a reflection on the values I bring to my work. This resulted in the creation of the TRIBE Guarantee that I offer every client.

When we intentionally embrace mindful reflection as part of our leadership approach there are two benefits that are nearly immediate. First, we are driven to think more carefully about the alignment of our values with our leadership behavior. It pushes us to consider the things we are doing as a leader in light of who we are being as a person. It calls us to look at how we treat followers, colleagues, and those whom we are trying to help or lift up. Even more, it can help us be more present to each. Overall, mindful reflection can inspire us to more authentic leadership.

The second benefit becomes apparent when we are trying to provide leadership in a collaborative effort, such as a Collective Impact initiative. Even on the best days, it can feel like we are one of those legendary cat herders of Western lore.

On more challenging days, those in which we are running severely low on patience and good humor, reflection can save us from damaging over-reactions. Edgar Schein advocates for the practice of suspension which is a reflective process of internal listening that needs to precede response. Suspension is a particularly useful skill in those circumstances when we have been in an interaction that we perceive to be negative (e.g., disagreement, challenge, attack, etc.). Schein writes, “We have to learn to listen to ourselves before we can really understand others.”

These two benefits of reflection are related. Becoming a more reflective, authentic leader will affect our efforts in collective leadership by inspiring us to build relational trust and act more ethically in all of our behaviors. Who can say these are not good things?

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

T.W.K.

CI Summit Update: Shared Measures v. Evaluation and Continuous Learning

On Tuesday (September 29) at the CI Summit 2015 in Vancouver, Fay Hanleybrown and Mark Cabaj shared a dialogue in the morning plenary about arriving at shared measures in Collective Impact (CI). It was a terrific conversation and they did a really nice job of parsing out the difference between shared measures and evaluation.

Mark Cabaj & Fay Hanleybrown discussing Shared Measures

Mark Cabaj & Fay Hanleybrown discussing Shared Measures

Working with CI it is sometimes easy to confuse shared measures and evaluation. Shared measures are a set of agreed upon indicators that mark a CI initiative’s progress toward attaining its ultimate goal or goals. For example, reduction of homeless by XX% or a decrease in the teen birth rate by XX%. Evaluation, on the other hand, is a range of activities that have the purpose thoughtfully collecting useful data about activities and outcomes related to operationalizing the CI initiative. Evaluation data, therefore, is very useful for informing the continuous system improvement that is needed to help the CI initiative become more effective in attaining its ultimate goal or goals. Shared measures help the CI initiative keep everyone focused and moving toward the same vision and mission while evaluation is a “deeper dive” into the data that is then used to improve efforts and adjust strategies.

This discussion converged nicely with the topic of my own workshop yesterday at the CI Summit on the “Roots to Fruit of Sustainable Community Change” (aka R2F). My workshop formally introduced the R2F model that has been in development in collaboration with my friend and colleague, Ed Saunders (recently retired as the Director of the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa). Ed and I have worked together for 25 years in the field of teen pregnancy prevention in the state of Iowa and in national projects in the United States. The R2F model has been simmering and taking shaping through much of the time in a many conversations, discussions, and work sessions. However, it has been since moving into the world of independent consulting in 2013 that I have been able to give it more focused attention. The R2F model offers a strategy for creating a community “ecology” that supports efforts in addressing challenging social problems and a means of monitoring and measuring the change effort for evaluation and continuous system improvement. Central to the R2F model is the integration of the Collective Impact Five Conditions framework.

In this blog space I will begin to share more about the R2F model, its components, and resources in the next few months. Later this year (or even as late as March, 2016, depending on publication schedules), our first peer reviewed research paper on R2F will appear in a special Collective Impact issue of Community Development, the journal of the Community Development Society.

Many thanks to Paul Born, Liz Weaver, and the rest of the Tamarack crew for their support and encouragement during the development of R2F over these past few years and, now, for the opportunity to share it at this CI Summit.

Today is another full day at the CI Summit. Loads of great plenaries and workshops to come. More later.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

TWK

Muckers, Spouters, and Collaborative Leaders

Here we go again. It is the Quadrennial Quest for the next “great” leader of the United States. It is too bad we are fixated on a Presidential leadership model that has not worked well in the recent past and increasingly holds little hope for the future. Are we ready to embrace a different approach to leadership that is a better practice now and in the future?

Real Iowans by Grant Wood (1930): Notice, not flannel, Eldon, Iowa

Real Iowans by Grant Wood (1930): Notice, no plaid flannel. Eldon, Iowa

Imitation Iowan Carly Fiorina at the Iowa State Fair, 2015

Imitation Iowan: Carly Fiorina at the Iowa State Fair, 2015

It does not appear so, according to the coverage of the approximately 20 Presidential candidates mucking their way through my beloved Iowa State Fair and spouting their solutions for every issue imaginable during this past week. Yes, mucking and spouting…spouting and mucking, ad nauseam. By the way, my favorite imitation of an Iowan from this week’s coverage was performed by Republican candidate Carly Fiorina. Fiorina appeared in a photo at the Iowa State Fair in front of the famous Butter Cow dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. Please. What idiot campaign aide told her THAT would be a good idea? Just to set the record straight, I’m including some random photos of what REAL Iowans look like and how they dress on the job. But I digress.

The United States, and most other countries, are locked into a mythic model of leadership known formally as the “Great Man” theory. In the 1970’s “Transformational Leadership” theory was introduced by James MacGregor Burns as an alternative way to think about leaders. Transformational Leadership became, and remains very popular, though it still retains many elements of the Great Man theory because of its dependence on a single individual to lead the way and call forth the inner leader of others.

Real Iowan: Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines, Iowa

Real Iowan: Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines, Iowa. No plaid flannel here.

I am convinced we will not make real progress in being greater and doing greater good until we renounce our heretical faith in the power of a single great leader. The velocity of knowledge and the complexity of our world are forcing us to consider other approaches. For me, shared leadership in a collaborative culture is more realistic and hopeful.

Recently I again observed the power of shared leadership and collaboration in action. For the past two summers I have taught “Managing for Optimal Performance” in the MBA in Economic Development program at Eastern University. It has been a small class, only three and four students, possibly because the focus on the program is on alleviating poverty which is certainly not the typical career path for many MBAs. The course is very short…barely six weeks. Yet, in that time, students are expected to design, deliver, and report out on a project that is intended to help people living at or near the poverty level. This summer’s projects included a soccer clinic for Haitian immigrant youth; distribution of nutritional information and recipes at an urban farmer’s market; a family photo project for immigrant Latin American single mothers and their children; and a “good neighbor” yard clean up and home fix-up day for a single mom recently debilitated in an accident. In all cases, the students were required to form a team of no less than four people and to use decision making processes that were inclusive and collaborative. The project reports clearly showed the depth of understanding the students’ acquired about establishing a collaborative culture and using shared leadership.

Kurt Warner, NFL MVP 1999 & 2001, Burlington, Iowa

Real Iowan: Kurt Warner, NFL MVP 1999 & 2001, Burlington, Iowa. Still no plaid flannel.

As I reflected on their project journals and reports, I found myself thinking about those things I am most likely to hear come from the mouths of leaders who really try to practice shared and collaborative leadership.

“Please.” Collaborative leaders do not just assume people will follow them because they have the title, the position, the power, or even a “mandate.” They invite others into leadership, humbly seek their expertise, and genuinely value the contribution each makes.

“How or what do you see, understand, experience, or believe about our situation?” For collaborative leaders, the perspectives of others are invaluable sources of information. They understand that many of the problems we face are so large and so complex that the better solutions are found when many eyes from diverse viewpoints are examining them.

“What options do you believe offer us the best chance of addressing the situation?” Working in collaboration means gleaning the best ideas from among the many perspectives on the situation without regard for self-interests. I know. If I had not thrown in that bit about self-interests, it would have been just fine, right? My experience has been that partners in shared or collaborative leadership often filter their ideas in order to protect self-interests. They may fear giving away proprietary information or trade secrets that can weaken their competitive advantage over competitors, who may also be their collaborators on some projects.

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa

Real Iowan: Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Nope, no plaid, no flannel on Mr. Secretary.

“Thank you.” These two under-utilized words powerfully acknowledge that a single individual alone is not responsible for any good thing that happens. These are words of humility that indicate a collaborative leader’s awareness of the role of others.

“We did it.” This is a tricky thing for a collaborative leader to say because it is so tempting to say it without really meaning it. It can merely sound like an imitation of humility, if it does not come from a genuine posture of humility. Know what I listen for? Emphasis. When I hear the word “we” emphasized too strongly, I suspect leaders are trying too hard to convince themselves and others that they really mean “we” and not “I.”

Spewing from the mouths of muckers and spouters, these same five phrases can be just empty words in a crass imitation of humility. Whether the speakers are vying for the role of President, Prime Minister, or leader of a local community change effort, we must watch and wait. We need to be on the lookout for those who reveal their collaborative nature through the congruence of consistently matching these words with a posture of humility.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day.

Tom

Real Iowan: A guy who knows how hand-tie and wear bowtie, Morning Sun, Iowa

Real Iowan: A serious looking guy who owns no plaid flannel and knows how to hand-tie and wear bowties, Morning Sun, Iowa.

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