Story By Numbers Episode 3, Part 2

Today’s Story By Numbers Podcast was so incredibly awesome, we had to split it up into two files. Part 1 is available here and in iTunes.

This week, Ruth and I interviewed Mary Brown of Lee Alexander Consulting. Mary specializes in innovation and design thinking, which are both areas that many nonprofits can benefit from exploring.

In Part 2, we talk about:

  • Getting the Unusual Suspects involved in your organization’s storytelling.
  • Flipping storytelling on its head by making it about the people you serve.
  • Contests as the low hanging fruit of innovation.

Thank you for listening. To be sure that you get timely updates on the podcast, be sure to subscribe in iTunes.

Story By Numbers Episode 3, Part 1

Today’s Story By Numbers Podcast was so incredibly awesome, we had to split it up into two files. Part 2 will post tomorrow, both on the site and in iTunes.

This week, Ruth and I interviewed Mary Brown of Lee Alexander Consulting. Mary specializes in innovation and design thinking, which are both areas that many nonprofits can benefit from exploring.

In Part 1, we talk about:

  • How Panera Cares takes the soup kitchen model and flips it on it’s head.
  • The innovative ways that Goodwill continues to advance it’s model, especially with it’s Blue Boutiques.
  • If it seems rational, it’s probably not innovative.

Thank you for listening. To be sure that you get timely updates on the podcast, be sure to subscribe in iTunes.

Wrapping up the 2012 Blogathon

This is my 31st day of posting daily on thanks to the 2012 WordCount Blogathon. It’s been a great experience and I would like to thanks Michelle Rafter and her Blogathon team for all the work they put into this event.

For me, the Blogathon has been motivation to get content on my site and start to plan out what it will be and the role it will have in my business going forward. I’ve done a lot of work in the background to accomplish this. I’ve also experienced a lot of highlights this month:

  • Starting the Story by Numbers podcast with my podcasting partner Ruth Terry.
  • Going from essentially no traffic to having over 500 visitors. This may sound like a small number for many sites, but I’m quite happy with the rate of growth.
  • Posting my first online business offer – Quick and Dirty Consulting Services. In order to pull this off, I had to write the offer, set up a PayPal account, and begin publicizing it.
  • Had some great comments made on some posts.
  • Set up Feedburner to manage RSS feeds and email subscriptions to the site.

So, what will the future bring for the Changing River Consulting site? Well, I’m going to cut back posting to three times per week.

  • Tuesday will feature a post about Evaluation.
  • Thursday will feature a post Change Management.
  • Saturday will remain Personal Change Day for a while. If the idea doesn’t work for my audience or begins to feel like a bad fit, I may change things around.

Ruth and I also plan to continue making podcast twice per month and of course I will post them here.

My thanks to everyone who has found their way to my site, taken the time to comment, and generally made this a very rewarding month!

How to Do Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is a tool that can be used to forecast large scale societal changes and determine appropriate organizational responses to those changes. It was developed by the United States military in the 1960′s and was adopted by large corporations in the 1970′s. Shell Oil’s use of scenario planning to deal with the energy crisis of the 1970′s is probably the most famous corporate example. By using scenario planning to predict changes in the energy market, Shell was able to out-maneuver its competitors and stay profitable during the first major challenge to their market.

In recent years, the full-blown scenario planning process has fallen out of favor with large corporations. However, I have seen simpler adaptations of the tools of scenario planning applied successfully in the nonprofit sector. As I explained in What is Adaptive Capacity?, scenario planning can be used as a way of building up an organization’s ability to respond to external changes. Also, I’ve begun to use a version of the process in my personal planning. Let’s dive into the mechanics of scenario planning and see if it may be a good tool for you.

What is Traditional Scenario Planning?
The scenario planning entry at Wikipedia gives a fairly long and detailed description of the traditional scenario planning process, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll just summarize the main steps of the process. Some of this part of the post was inspired by Lawrence Wilkinson’s article in Wired from a few years back.

  • Identify the driving forces of change in your industry. For most markets these driving forces include things like demographics, consumer preference, technological developments, and regulatory environments.
  • Choose the uncertainties within your list of driving forces. There are some things, such as demographic changes, that can be forecasted pretty accurately. However, other elements, such as what the regulatory environment might be depending on who is elected as the next president, are more uncertain. Out of your list of driving forces, select the two variables that are most uncertain and also the most critical to your business planning.
  • Create an “Axis of Uncertainty” with the two variables from the previous step acting as the X and Y axes of a simple four quadrant matrix. I’ve constructed an example matrix based on the very simple scenario of planning an outing. In this scenario, I don’t know the weather forecast and I don’t know if the museum I might go to will be open or closed. The matrix looks like this:

It’s raining.

The museum is closed.

It’s raining.
The museum is open.
It’s sunny.
The museum is closed.
It’s sunny.
The museum is open.
  • Create scenarios based on the four quadrants. As you can see from my matrix, having the variables laid out on a grid facilitates decision making. If it is raining, but the museum is closed, I’ll have to find another indoor activity. If it’s raining and the museum is open – well, I’ll probably go to the museum! You get the idea.
  • Monitor trends and respond as needed. Now that you’ve set scenarios, you know what data points you or your company need to monitor in order to make choices about possible actions. For example, I would probably need to check the Weather Channel or look out my window to figure out if it will rain or not. By staying aware of changing conditions, I’m better equipped to decide which scenario is most likely to play out and which choice of action I should take.

A Streamlined Process That Can Help You
The example I gave above for the traditional scenario planning process is quite simple. However, for an organization with several confounding factors, this process can become very complex very quickly. One of the criticisms of traditional scenario planning process is that it can become so complex that it becomes useless at the time of decision making. Fortunately, I have seen small nonprofit organizations use a much simpler version of scenario planning that creates greater organizational flexibility and responsiveness without hiring a 6-figure consultant. Maybe this process is more appropriate for your organization.

  1. Gather Your Data. This step is similar to the first step in the traditional process. Identify the major change drivers for your industry and gather any data you can find on projected changes to those drivers for the next few years.
  2. Gather Your Team. Get everyone in the same room or on the same conference call. You’ll need your most informed and creative people.
  3. Tell Stories. Incorporating the data that you’ve collected, create some plausible stories of your organization’s world in the near future. Try to mix positive and negative changes, because that’s generally the way things work out.
  4. Construct Responses to the Stories. Use your best “What If?” skills to brainstorm plausible responses to the stories that you have built. Be as specific as possible while staying true to your organizational values and core competencies.

The best thing about using a more streamlined version of scenario planning is that you can apply it on an individual level as well. In the 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris recommends a process he calls fear-setting. This process involves imagining the worst possible scenarios that could happen if you make the decision to pursue a different lifestyle. After you’ve constructed the stories, figure your way out of them. As he writes in the book, no problem is insurmountable and most are a lot less serious than we start out thinking. I may detail this process more in a future post.

Have you used scenario planning in your work or personal life? What do you think of it as a tool? Share your experiences in the comments section.

What is Adaptive Capacity?

Adaptive capacity refers to the ability of any system to respond to change and return to a state of balance. I first heard of this concept in relation to the nonprofit sector in the United States. However, it can be applied to ecological systems, any type of organization, and even individuals.

An example of adaptive capacity in an ecological system would be of a river valley experiencing heavy rainfall. For a time the water level in the river will be much higher than normal. Most of the time the river basin will absorb the water fairly quickly and the water level will return to normal within a day or two. However, if the volume of rain exceeds the river basin’s capacity, the river will flood.

Change Fatigue
When an organization or an individual has an excessive amount of change in a short period of time, something has to give. To build on my previous analogy, the system will “flood” or break down in some way. For an organization the “flood” may take the form of communication breakdowns, high turnover, and low productivity. For an individual it could be extreme stress, relationship problems, or even physical and mental health issues.

These symptoms of change fatigue occur because the system isn’t strong and flexible enough to adapt.

Building Adaptive Capacity
It is possible to build adaptive capacity in and organization in much the same way as it is possible to build muscles in a human body – through regular, sustained exercise. When an organization is proactively engaged in steady, small changes, it will be much better positioned to handle external changes when they come up.

Here is just a small sampling of exercises that can build adaptive capacity.

  1. Scenario Planning. An in-depth look at scenario planning requires its own post. For the time being it is enough to know that the process involves a team envisioning possible futures and detailing plans for those futures. The idea is to have possible actions for many situations, so that the organization is prepared for as many outcomes as possible.
  2. Cross Training. Many organizations are running so lean now that they don’t have adequate “bench strength” in the case of a team member absence. Cross training is definitely helpful during times like flu season. However, it’s also an advantage to have cross-trained members so that the organization has multiple perspectives to adapt and improve processes. One person performing the same job for years can become inflexible or run out of ideas for making changes. Multiple perspectives of the same job can build the capacity for adaptation and continuous improvements.
  3. “State of the Industry” Meetings. Many fields, such as real estate, have annual, local forecast meetings. These meetings allow members of that profession to get together and discuss expert projections and their own hunches of the coming year. If you don’t work in one of these fields, you can still have your own information exchange sessions with other members of your organization. Assign everyone a sub-topic to research and discuss the findings among your team or the whole organization. In rapidly changing fields, a quarterly meeting might be even better.

Change is Easier When You Know What’s Coming
In many ways, building adaptive capacity is a lot like building your crystal ball gazing skills. It’s pretty hard to adapt to circumstances that you just couldn’t see coming. In fact, we usually call those events “crises” or sometimes “acts of terrorism!” The good news is that most change follows fairly predictable patterns. Through careful study and information exchange, most organizations in most fields will be able to get the big things right.

These are ideas that I’ve picked up through my studies and experiences within a few types of organizations. If you’ve had different experiences, or tips for building adaptive capacity, please share those in the comments below.

photo by: dullhunk

When Have You Prepared Enough?

This weekend I’ve spent a lot of time working on my beat up old sail boat. It’s gotten a lot of TLC this off season and is much less beat up than when my partner and I bought it. However, there is still always more to do, and today we found ourselves finishing up a few “small” projects while it seemed like the rest of the world was out enjoying the water this holiday weekend.

This situation brings to mind all of the planning, measuring, and analyzing that we often do in evaluation. There is always tweaking we can do, there are always things we can improve. When is it enough? When should we actually call it good and let the program staff do their work?

A Complaint Free Long Weekend: Mission Possible?

Memorial Day weekend is upon us. For most of us, this means a three day weekend, time with family, and trying to get the propane for your barbeque grill filled on a Sunday.

In other words, it’s the perfect recipe for a LOT of complaining.

As much as I usually always love my family time, I do notice that I can drift into unhelpful negativity when I’m around them for extended periods. This weekend, I’m going to do my best to avoid complaining and I hope you’ll join me. As a good evaluator, I would love to have a good sized data set for analysis!

So what should we try to eliminate? I humbly suggest the following:

  • Most swearing. Especially in reaction to burning the hair off your knuckles because your dad hasn’t fixed the ignition on his gas grill.
  • Criticism, mostly directed at my brother in law.
  • Negative feedback when not followed by a positive suggestion. Example: “Plaid shorts and a stripped t-shirt? That’s horrible.” Possible correction: “Those shorts are very bold. Perhaps a solid colored shirt would work better.”
  • Gossip. Everyone knows your cousin is gaining weight. No need to speak of it.

Does this sound possible? If you give it a try, please tell everyone how it went in the comments.

photo by: sylvar

Crossfit and Program Evaluation

For almost a year now, I’ve been going to a CrossFit gym. If you haven’t heard of it, CrossFit is a type of physical training where crazy people athletically minded individuals get together and do workouts like this:


For time:
1 mile Run
100 Pull-ups
200 Push-ups
300 Squats
1 mile Run

It’s unlike any other type of fitness regimen I’ve done before in a couple of ways:

1) It’s crazy. See workout above.

2) We measure EVERYTHING. Every workout is timed. You always try to get a faster time, or do more reps, or lift more weight – or ALL OF THE ABOVE.

There are several benchmark workouts in CrossFit that you repeat periodically – maybe two or three times a year, like “Murph.” My gym provides log books so that everyone can record their performance in the baseline workouts and see how they have improved over time. I’ve done a 1/2 version of “Murph” twice now and improved my time by over 20%. You can imagine I was pretty happy to see that (once I regained consciousness).

So, constant measurement, benchmarks, clear performance indicators, goals… is this starting to sound familiar? If I didn’t know better, I would say that CrossFit was invented by an evaluator!

Project Management, Change Management and Personal Development: Where is the Crossroads?

Way back in my pre consulting days, I did a video interview with Bas DeBaar, author of The Project Shrink web site. I think the interview still has many valid points (even though I hate my hair!), so I am reposting it today.

A few of the highlights include:

  1. Why personal development can make organizational change easier
  2. How to “bootstrap” your own personal development
  3. Why flexible, frequent planning is the most effective method for most organizations
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