Friday, February 25, 2011

Practice on a Cloudy Day

The last two weeks Arizona has been treated to cool weather and a cloudy sky.  White, ashy, soft looking swirly clouds letting the ever present blue sky peek through.  Driving to my morning meeting, I decide on a route through Papago Park, a desert park with large brownish-red boulders surrounded by creosote and other desert greens.  It is one of my favorite spots in this Valley of the Sun.  I breathe deeply and take in the cool air rolling in through the open windows. I look for my favorite saguaro cactus growing two baby buds that form a heart from a certain angle.  It is quiet and I am happy.  Leaving my meeting I take the same route and see the heart peeking up over the creosote bushes.  I am aware of how thankful I am for my morning mediation practice.  I wonder what the fifteen minutes I took to sit quietly allowed me to experience or not experience during the meeting.  I marvel at those I know who have an “enduring practice” and the lightness, insight, and love they express freely in their whole being.  I think how much more I, and others, would benefit if I exercised more consistency in sitting quietly.  What I know for sure is that for today I gifted myself this equanimity-seeking time and for that I am grateful.

Friday, February 18, 2011

When Too Much Rigor Leads to Rigor Mortis: Valuing Experience, Judgment and Intuition in Nonprofit Management

This article was originally published  on July 12, 2010 on the website of The Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. I read it via the Nonprofit Quarterly 02/17/11 edition.

Several powerful donors have concluded that nonprofits make inadequate use of impact assessment tools.  They are backing up their arguments with an implicit threat: measure in particular ways or you don’t get the money.  Wise nonprofit leaders know that the problems they work on are not susceptible to simple measurement.  They know that the kind of formal impact measures some donors expect and management consulting firms prescribe are hard to come by honestly.  They collect various data all the time to inform their judgment and decision-making and to spur learning. Now, data collection (to donor-specified standards) is increasingly used for accountability purposes.

This may have the effect of reducing the degrees of freedom nonprofit leaders have to innovate and to pursue promising but risky ideas (without the fear that failure to prove one idea will poison their chances to learn from that failure and try something else another day).   As former Ford Foundation President Susan Berresford argues, insisting that grantees demonstrate measurable, short-term impact can have the effect of “miniaturizing ambition” for doing risky but potentially break-through work.

People who impose these restrictions confuse use of prescribed tools or achievement of certain outcomes as evidence of good management.  Sometimes they are. But, in and of themselves, they hardly constitute an impressive tool kit of good management practice.

The good judgment of experienced managers, deeply immersed in the complex social dynamics of the communities in which they work, is a formidable and essential resource in assessing impacts.  Experience and tested judgment also come into play in shaping a picture of the complex variety of social factors that might explain, for instance, why some poor children and not others attend school, or what mix of interventions are most likely to keep kids out of trouble with the police.

Effective nonprofit managers get information from a variety of sources: formal studies, observation of trends in behavior, feedback from partners and clients. They also draw on deep reserves of knowledge of the local social context, of cultural norms and values, and on the ability to empathize, to look at the world through the eyes of others.

These sources of knowledge are particularly important in shaping untested but potentially innovative, breakthrough approaches to social change. Effective leaders first and foremost seek to explain how a given problem is responding to a given set of interventions.  Data help describe what is happening, but the interpretative powers of managers are essential to meaningful explanation.

One of my favorite examples (see working paper here ) of the kinds of insights that arise from observation, judgment and experience is the particular knowledge that Muhammad Yunus gained from walking through poor communities around Chittagong University in Bangladesh on his daily walk to work.  His knowledge of rural Bangladeshi society, combined with his advanced training and powers of intuition, spawned his ideas on social lending, or what became known as micro-finance.

The invention of micro-finance demonstrates that breakthrough innovations, and even simple adjustments to well-established programs, are spawned by a variety of sources and intellectual attributes:  data, data intelligently interpreted, knowledge of the local and comparative contexts, and good judgment.  All four of these factors are essential to shaping development breakthroughs.  Donors should give greater weight to the latter three over the first in considering funding proposals.

A recently published book on the use of applied mathematics to help understand messy, hard-to-measure problems speaks to the importance of experience and judgment in making sense of limited data.  The book is “Street-Fighting Mathematics: the Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving,” by Dr. Sanjoy Mahajan.  Dr. Mahajan is associate director of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory and the book grew out of a course by the same name that Dr. Mahajan taught for several years at MIT.

The basic premise of his approach, set out in the books first sentence, is that “Too much rigor teaches rigor mortis: the fear of making an unjustified leap even when it lands on the correct result.”  Many real-world problems are not easily described with the kind of precision that professional mathematicians insist upon. This is due to the limitations of data, the costs of collecting and analyzing data, and the inherent difficulties of giving mathematical expression to the complexity of human behavior. In the face of these obstacles, mathematicians tend to do one of two things: insist on finding the true proof, even in the face of huge methodological constraints (rigor mortis) or give up.
Mahajan counsels a third-way: using mathematical reasoning to find a good-enough, approximate and usually valid and useful answer; or as Dr. Mahajan so adeptly puts it, “When the going gets tough, the tough lower their standards.” His book describes six tools for better understanding complex problems with limited data, including picture proofs, lumping, and reasoning by analogy.

There is wisdom in Dr. Mahajan’s core argument that is relevant to current debates about the place of impact assessment in program management.  Many problems, especially problems of social analysis, present huge problems of description and accurate measurement.  We can learn much of what we need to know by tracking a few data points, but knowledge of the underlying social forces and personal motivations that frame the decisions people make is essential to specifying what should be measured and interpreting findings wisely.
My concerns about the emphasis some donors give to evaluation and impact assessment lie not in their lack of value, but in a skewing of perspective.  I want to sum up with a few thoughts on getting the perspective in better balance.

  • Knowledge of the local context and the insights spawned by that knowledge are hard won and accumulated over many years. External donors and many of their staff too often don’t possess such knowledge.  For large Western donors, reliance on data and impact measures can be a crutch, a substitute for the knowledge of local context they don’t have. 
  • Lack of knowledge of context contributes to an over reliance on one-size-fits-all interventions based on experience from elsewhere, resulting in poorly-adapted local project design.   An obvious remedy is to place greater trust in the leadership and judgment of people who live and work close to the problems; local educators, entrepreneurs, civil society leaders. 
  • Evaluation is first and foremost a learning tool, of greatest value as an aid to the judgment of program leaders and managers. The work of donors also stands to benefit from the knowledge that grantees gain in assessing changes within the communities they work and progress in pursuing particular goals.
  • Of greatest relevance to predicting the merits and eventual success of a proposed grantee initiative are the wisdom, experience, judgment and reputation of the grantee organization and its leadership and staff.   These are the important qualities that should be considered when contemplating a grant.  (William Duggan’s book, “Strategic Intuition,” examines the qualities of leadership and management that spawn systemic impacts.)
  • Donors who insist on short-term measurable impact should stay away from funding work that seeks breakthroughs on complex, long-intractable problems.

My Response to this Article

Thank you for lifting up an issue that is often only talked about behind the closed doors of social change professionals on the front lines.  Many of the clients I work with express frustration about the desire for and assumed capacity of their organizations to engage in the level of evaluation/measurement being asked of them by multiple funders who are often all asking for different data.  This is particularly debilitating for small and medium size organizations who understand this is part of the funding reality in the nonprofit sector. 

Social change investors/funders would benefit by understanding that the value of "knowledge of the local and comparative contexts, and good judgment" of social change professionals is more than just about a trend, or being respectful, or being politically correct to the organizations (and thus the communities) they support.  Understanding the value of these hard-earned skills of social change professionals begins to change the conversation.  If one is being really radical, it could shift the power dynamics between social change professionals and funders all together and establish a new “normal” between all of us who want to support inclusive and sustainable social transformation.  In my imagined new norm, the understanding that these skills are essential to social change processes would be be reflected in the practices, requests, expectations, and attitudes by all parties.

Measurement and evaluation is necessary and insufficient if the elements of continuous learning, feedback loops, opportunity for adaptive leadership and adaptive management (by all parties) are separate from the entire conversation of how people will work together.  Yes, I am advocating that social change professionals in nonprofits and investors/funders develop partnerships not an out-dated patronage relationship.

Investors/funders and social change works alike would benefit from a deeper understanding about the nature and iterative process of social change and human development reflected in practices and requests of one another.

Thanks again for a thought-provoking article.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Transforming or Transformational Leadership: Does It Matter Which Phrase We Use?

The difference between TRANSFORMING LEADERSHIP (via Burns) and TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP (via Bass) is significant.  Richard Couto’s chapter, “The transformation of transforming leadership” in the Leadership companion:  Insights on leadership through the ages (Wren1995), details these distinctions and is the most accessible text I have found on the matter.  This entry provides a summary of Couto’s chapter.  I want to be clear that I am not proposing that one of these is better than the other; what I am proposing is that we be thoughtful about which one of these we are actually doing or talking about. Each of these approaches, "transforming" or "transformational", provides different possibilities for action and reflects a values base depending upon the setting and purpose for which they are used.  In my own work I lean more towards transforming leadership because I believe its meaning closely aligns to my values and the purpose of my work.  

Why does making a distinction between these two words matter? Maybe it does not to the “average Joe” but for those of us who engage in leadership development directly or indirectly, I think we are beholden to understand the distinction between the concepts communicated in the words we use.  Clearly, I believe language is generative; it carries the energy of the historical discourse from where it derives and unconsciously has influence over our thoughts and actions.  As social change workers it is beneficial to know that we are promoting a certain type of leadership that can only be understood when we ask, “leadership for the purpose of what, for whom, and by whom?” This level of intentionality is fundamental to our work.

Most importantly, for me, is that transforming leadership is focused on changing conditions, culture, and larger social systems change.  Transformational leadership is intent on changing the conditions and culture alone.  The differences between these two terms, as Couto remarks, are in part due to the context in which leadership is studied.  For Burns, his context is leadership within social movements and politics.   For Bass, his context is about leadership within formal organizations. (105)  I am more predisposed to Burns, because Bass’s work has changed the “test of radical transformation from social change to the achievement of institutional goals, including preservation” (105) and for me this is a lot of what is wrong in the nonprofit sector – we measure success by institutional goals and not necessarily meaningful social change. 

All of the references, except where noted, are directly from the chapter “The transformation of transforming leadership” by Richard Couto; page numbers follow in parenthesis. 

Transforming Leadership (via Burns)
Leadership is a process in which one participates. (103)
Transforming Leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents(p.1). (103)
Transforming leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality(103).  
Transforming leadership changes some of those who follow into people whom others may follow in time (103).  
Transforming leadership assists a group of people to move from one stage of development to a higher one and in doing so to address and fulfill better a higher human need (103).  
The transforming leader shapes, alters, and elevates the motives and values and goals of the followers (103).  

Transformational Leadership (via Bass)
Leadership is a condition or state of being that one holds (103).
Transformational leaders transform followers.  The direction of influence is one way—from leader to follower.  This is unlike transforming leadership where a follower could transform leaders by the interaction (which is a process) of leaders and followers (104).  
Transformational leaders may expand a follower’s portfolio of needs; may transform a followers’’ self-interest; and may elevate a follower’s need to a higher Maslow level.  (106)
Transformational leaders may elevate followers’ expectation of success for the purpose of enabling followers to recognize and realize an organization  goal that exceeds past accomplishments.(106)
In transformational leadership, followers remain subordinates of the transformational leader, regardless of whatever else might be transformed. (106)

Author’s Note:
This entry is an extension of my ongoing commitment to be precise with language in social change work. One of my longest standing critiques of leadership literature derives from my experience that there are many words within the leadership development, organizational development, and social movement literature that, when applied in the framework of social justice work, take on different meaning because they are used for different ends.  The difference of leadership "for what end or purpose" often reveals theoretical, moral, economic, political, and social conflict between how words and concepts are applied in the field. Throughout my professional career, I have consistently felt uncomfortable that context and end purpose are not more readily referenced, or are often ignored altogether when applying words and concepts originating in different fields (e.g., education, business, or public service). As such, I have developed a commitment to raising awareness about the distinctions that "break the chain of inference--from conjunction to categorization to commonality--[as] the norm" (Lakoff, 1987, p. 5). 

(1) Burns defines morality in terms of human development and of a hierarchy of human needs.