A few people have mentioned they want to know more about what I actually DO. I think they must mean my professional practice. Okay… I contract with organizations to help them improve communications.
In order to accomplish a lot and have a great time doing it, my clients and I use an Agile development framework. This is rather a new application for Agile, and so part of the story is how we are linking up our discourse, mapping our cognitive terrain as we go along. When approaching a nonprofit organization, for instance, here is some material I might put together for the Board.
Questions for nonprofit Boards in an age of increasing competition (first paragraph is excerpted from the article “Saving the Ship by Rocking the Boat,” Mario Morino, Nov 2011 – see leapofreason.org)
1. What conditions could change precipitously, endangering our mission and those we serve? 2. Within current constraints, what can we do to improve the outcomes of our programs? 3. What is our organization’s “baseline” budget for providing the minimum acceptable level of service to clients? 4. Who would be our “knight in shining armor” if we needed one? In other words, who would we turn to if we were at risk of having to fold our tent? 5. What are the “one step away” opportunities? In other words, how can we change our prospects by building off what we already know? 6. What can we do to strengthen our revenue base? (perhaps tying back to the one-step-away opportunities.)
Many organizations today are choosing to adopt an adaptive planning approach. This differs from traditional strategic planning in that it does not assume that conditions will remain stable or predictable, but instead acknowledges a climate of uncertainty. Adaptive planning draws on a set of entrepreneurial business principles known collectively as “lean,” or “Agile” management. It has been used to great success in the start-up world, and is now being modeled for use in the public and nonprofit sectors.
Becoming Agile as an Organization
Agile managers recognize that customers/clients cannot generally tell us point blank in advance what would delight them. Entrepreneurial organizations must make assumptions and test them as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to gain understanding about community expectations and desires.
A nonprofit planning process based on this approach will acknowledge that conditions governing operation in five years or even two cannot be precisely known. Energies are geared towards agreeing on a set of near-term priorities that a team can commit to achieving.
Workflow is organized in the form of a “sprint,” (several of these may form a campaign, the traditional nonprofit development term). The entire team is focused on completing its commitments, recognizing that some of the assumptions on which they are based will turn out to be wrong and will need correction. Completed work is seen to be the best basis for making management decisions and for reporting about outcomes to funders. Planning is costly, and even the most well-executed plan does not guarantee success.
To be Agile is to be reality-based, to think cross-functionally and to have accurate information guiding management decisions about whether to “pivot or perservere.”
An essential feature of the toolkit I am developing for Agile in the Arts is Organizational Storycraft Compelling stories are developed and released about an organization in regular increments, with community feedback gathered and the most “tellable tales” retold to generate new levels of enthusiasm and engagement. Development and marketing goals – in other words, fundraising and publicity – are pursued in an integrated way.
In March I began a Storycraft contract with a nonprofit organization operating in Hartford, CT. In our first Sprint we set out over eight weeks to craft a case statement, research new funding prospects, submit grant proposals and prepare for an annual appeal.
The development team was comprised of staff and Board members and key volunteers. I served in the role of Scrum Master or coach, as well as writer. The team reviewed in-progress documents regularly and gave feedback. Week by week, as we moved closer to “done,” the interactions grew more frequent and more meaningful.
At our retrospective session the client made an interesting observation. Working in Agile mode, not only were all the deliverables met on time and the organization better positioned from a fundraising standpoint, but “we can all talk more powerfully now about who we are and what we’re about. We can see ourselves better.”
More details and reflections on this sprint will form the basis for this week’s TGIF chat, to be posted this coming Friday.