Back to the Meadows, Dancing Now

Here’s another excellent essay by Donnella Meadows, founder of the Sustainability Institute.

Entitled “Dancing with Systems,” it is a summary of the wisdom she gained from years of studying and modeling complex systems. She begins, though, by describing a change in her perspective over time, a shift from confidence in her ability to control systems to an attitude of humble observation, appreciation and discovery.

“We can’t control systems,” she says, “but we can dance with them!”

Here then are Dr. Meadows’ dancing lessons:

  1. Get the beat.
  2. Listen to the wisdom of the system.
  3. Expose your mental models to the open air.
  4. Stay humble. Stay a learner.
  5. Honor and protect information.
  6. Locate responsibility in the system.
  7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
  8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
  9. Go for the good of the whole.
  10. Expand time horizons.
  11. Expand thought horizons.
  12. Expand the boundary of caring.
  13. Celebrate complexity.
  14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

I strongly recommend downloading and reading the entire essay. It is short – 8 pages – and chock full of beautiful insights and gems of crystal clear thinking.

And, as with her essay on leverage points for system change, her line of thought moves from the pragmatic to the ethical, reminding us that the pursuit of a healthy, sustainable system (or organization) is ultimately an attempt to give life to what is good, true and beautiful.


Discovery: The Neglected Step

Over the past year, I’ve been involved in strategic planning or project planning with six different organizations. The projects have varied in substance, scope and complexity but they have left me with one overriding thought:  discovery may be the step most vital to good planning . . . and the most neglected.

Discovery is a precursor to planning – the phase where you gather information and insight that will be the basis for your plan.  In the language of logic models, it is the process of cataloging the givens or precursors to your program theory:  the target problem, community needs and assets, influential factors, practices that have proven successful and resources that are available to your organization.  And, again, the return on your strategic planning may be heavily determined by what you invest in discovery.

In my experience, though, it is hard to invest in discovery.  It asks us to focus attention on areas of our organization and mission that we believe we already understand thoroughly:  participants, programs, personnel, funders, partners, competitors, trends in our field, best practices.  And all of that time-consuming work – gathering, sorting and summarizing – only gets us to the starting line. We could spend months compiling data and not be anywhere close to defining outcomes, quantifying results or outlining activities. The clock is ticking and there is a palpable itch to get to action.

In a recent strategic planning process with the Friendship Center at Holy Comforter, we decided as part of our initial environmental scan to interview three of the leading agencies devoted to advocacy and public policy for people living with mental illness. Our assumption was that this is where we would learn about the larger system that shapes and regulates community-based, residential care in the state of Georgia. While we did learn a lot from these organizations, we discovered that they actually knew very little about personal care homes for people with mental illness – the places where most of the participants at the Friendship Center live. How many personal care homes there are, how many people live them, where they are and who is regulating them – all of these were unknowns to the advocacy organizations with their fingers most closely on the pulse of mental health care in Georgia.

While it was troubling to find that our friends are so invisible, this information had significant ramifications for mission and strategy. We discovered that the Friendship Center is itself a vital source of information about people living in poverty with mental illness and that it is the largest regular gathering of this population anywhere in the state. This discovery revealed an opportunity and responsibility previously unrecognized:  serving as a bridge between people who have the ear of legislators and regulators and people living unseen in a poorly funded, poorly regulated, poorly managed system of care.

Until you invest in discovery, you will not uncover new insights  hiding within the work that you already know so well. So take the time and spend the money. Discovery will enhance your clarity, improve your planning and increase your impact.

True North: Impact, Not Efficiency

Early in December, Charity Navigator and Guidestar issued a joint press release saying that “overhead ratios and executive salaries are useless for evaluating a nonprofit’s impact.” They were joined in the press release by the Hewlett Foundation and four other agencies dedicated to assessing and rating nonprofits.

This is a remarkable statement in the current context where conventional wisdom says the savvy donor asks, “How much of my gift goes to program and how much goes to administrative and fundraising costs?”  Its doubly remarkable, however, because the press release comes, in part, from Charity Navigator – the organization that for a decade has been the leading, national proponent of overhead ratios as a reliable guide for effective philanthropy.

What’s the alternative then? Evaluate charities based on their effectiveness, they say.

As Dan Pallotta notes in Uncharitable and in a series on his blog, efficiency measures (overhead ratios) are entirely irrelevant when they are not accompanied by impact measures. Charity Navigator and the others agree with Pallotta and are promising more emphasis on what a nonprofit achieves rather than how it structures its budget.

While largely positive, the announcement merits a bit of skepticism. Most of the rating agencies listed still embrace the goal that motivated Charity Navigator’s original model:  a simple rating system that is a reliable measure of any nonprofit in any context for the purpose of directing donor dollars to high performing nonprofits. There are, however, roughly 700,000 active charitable organizations in the U.S. All of the national rating agencies have small staffs and relatively small budgets (< $1M). In short, their capacity is not adequate to the scale and scope of their intent. Also, the alternate models proposed by some of the agencies – e.g., user reviews, expert consensus – seem as flimsy as the efficiency model they are abandoning.

For the most part, though, this is good news. This influential group is redirecting attention to outcome, not input. They are also fostering a recognition that assessing the quality of a nonprofit  is a complex task that requires a careful look at multiple, interrelated factors.

If they succeed in changing conventional wisdom, however, this may pose new challenges for your organization. Your donors and stakeholders may begin to ask about your real impact in your community. You may no longer spend so much time parsing your budget into administrative and program categories, but you might need to focus more attention on evaluation, baselines and measurements.

Do not wait for Charity Navigator to define impact and effectiveness for you. This is a great time to take control of how your organization defines its impact. Spend time developing clear measurements of outcome. Develop program plans and budgets that create straight-line paths to those outcomes and educate your stakeholders on the value they create when they invest their charitable dollars with you.

From Plan to Action

Your team spent weeks hammering out a comprehensive plan for the new initiative. You defined outcomes. You outlined key activities. You specified measurable indicators for evaluation and you put it all into a logic model remarkable for its scope and clarity.

Now the plan sits on the shelf. You glance at it occasionally and think, “Will this really get done or was that an enormous waste of time?”

Successful implementation relies on many things:  adequate resources, reliable infrastructure, and people with the skills and internal motivation to make things happen. But there is one simple practice that can dramatically increase the likelihood that you will accomplish what you have planned: a Work Breakdown Structure.

Drawn from the discipline of project management, a Work Breakdown Structure is a way of decomposing a project activity into its constitutive parts – i.e., everything that needs to get done to complete the activity. There are many ways to create a Work Breakdown Structure but here is one of the simplest. Gather your team together, choose one of the project activities from your plan and do the following:

  1. Give everyone a marker and a stack of sticky notes.
  2. Write down everything that needs to be produced, delivered or completed to accomplish that activity – one item per sticky note.
  3. Group the sticky notes into major categories.
  4. Within each category, arrange the sticky notes into a logical sequence.
  5. Lay out each sequence on a timeline.

That’s it.  It’s so simple that it seems absurd that this would be the vital key to insuring project completion. Once your Work Breakdown Structure is documented, though, you will find that it allows a manager to monitor progress toward project completion on a weekly basis and at a level of fine detail.

There are a number of ways to document the work sequence and timeline that you have created, including project management applications that vary in price, sophistication and ease of use. However, I’ve found that an Excel spreadsheet works perfectly well for managing projects of the size and complexity common to most mid-sized nonprofits. Assign one work item to each spreadsheet cell, laying out the work sequence for a single category along one row. Each column indicates one week or one month, depending on your project’s level of time detail.

For more on Work Breakdown Structures and project management, see Fundamentals of Project Management by James Lewis.

Leverage Points for System Change

Here is a fascinating white paper on changing systems written ten years ago by the late Donella Meadows, founder of the Sustainability Institute.  In fewer than 20 pages, she describes twelve ways to intervene in a system and – as a bonus – ranks them in terms of effectiveness.

The Sustainability Institute applies system dynamics to critical issues of human survival — poverty, population growth, ecological degradation.  Meadows writes with these big issues in mind and frames many of the leverage points in large scale economic terms but it does not take much effort to translate her insights and apply them to smaller systems, like local communities or organizations.

Most fascinating is this:  as her leverage points increase in effectiveness, they progress in character from economic to political to philosophical to spiritual.  The least effective leverage point in her estimation is adjusting parameters, constants or numbers – minimums, maximums, how much money, how many people, how much of something is put into or taken out of a system. But, she says, this is where most of us direct “probably 90–no 95–no 99 percent of our attention.” People care about numbers and will fight for them and about them. In her observation, though, they rarely change a system in significant ways.

The most effective leverage point for changing a system, according to Meadows, is the power to transcend paradigms – a nearly mystical feat that, frankly, is a little frightening to contemplate. Easier to grasp and apply are her 5th and 6th most effective leverage points:  the structure of information flow and the rules of the system.  She uses the grand example of what happened to the USSR when Mikhail Gorbachev opened information flows (glasnost) and changed the economic rules (perestroika).

So what do the information flows and the rules look like in your organization or the system you are trying to change?