#leadership Wednesday Whimsy

Questions and Inquiry

I just read Doing Justice by Preet Bharara.  Here is a passage by this highly regarded former federal prosecutor:

People are forever using acronyms they can’t expand, spouting jargon they can’t translate, trafficking in concepts they don’t grasp.  They parrot shallow talking points and slogans and other people’s recollections. When you take at face value everything said to you—even from supposed subject matter experts opining with great confidence—you are at risk of perpetuating everyone’s superficial understanding of the matter at hand.  There is no shame in asking basic questions, in virtually any context.  In fact, it is essential to your personal understanding of any issue.  ….find the person in the new job who asks the fewest questions and there’s your problem.

We think of prosecutors as at the high end of conviction (pardon the pun).  Preet speaks of the power of simple questions to unseat certainty.  How many do you ask each day?   I find it highly useful to differentiate questioning something, which typically starts with a viewpoint, and asking questions where you are open to different answers.

Quick aside:  this book also reflects the power of examples.  The author uses actual incidents not just illustrate his points but to make them.  Examples and questions—vs. generalizations and assertions.  Let curiosity reign! 


The Gap vs. the Continuum

Like many others, I am drawn to gaps. In wealth, we have the rich and the poor. In technology, we have those who connect and those who do not. In social justice, we have those with privilege and those without. 

The contrast that exists is, of course, made possible by the anchors. Hans Rosling in a respected and provocative book called Factfulness points out that what he calls the “gap instinct” is made possible by a false view of reality. He provides a ton of data to make the case that most people are somewhere in the middle of virtually all distributions. In income levels, for example, he divides the world into four levels and shows that few people are at levels 1 and 4 which anchor the gap between the haves and have nots. Most people are at levels 2 and 3.

One reason to look closely at what lies between is to understand present circumstances. While the vision of achieving food security is clear, it matters whether the best money goes into getting grocery stores and farm markets into a food desert or providing transportation for persons to get to resources that already exist. From the view point of those living between extremes, Rosling speaks persuasively on how how small increments of progress can matter a great deal. 

The other reason for looking at people, families or other units distributed between end points is to understand present degree of movement. A child static at three grade levels behind needs different and more help than one at an equal point but gaining two grade levels each year. The logic of gaps can mask important increments of change. 

In some areas there may be only be two choices. Can a person be a partial racist or is it one or the other? Even if the latter, some path forward probably describes progress better than a one-time, lasting conversion. Few of us change overnight.

The trickiness, of course, is to see the reality of  progression or regression while not losing the power and urgency that gap mindset conveys. With equity, diversity, and inclusion we must live in two worlds. As the British tube station announcement puts it, “Mind the Gap.”

Wednesday Whimsy


There’s a nice word. Presumably no one is against it. But the term does not readily lend itself to verification, especially if gradations are involved. Just how will we know if a person is more “empowered” as a result of this or that program? Or is the question irrelevant? Could empowerment be an all or nothing proposition?

The question I like to ask of this word and other nice but abstract terms such as “collaboration” and “self-esteem” is just what is it that an empowered person does and achieves that an un-empowered one cannot? I often take this further to ask what you see and hear that reflects empowerment in a person or team.

An example of a great response comes from a nonprofit with which I worked at the request of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. The group wanted money for its program to empower at risk youth. I asked my questions and a program leader said that empowerment to them meant that a person had and made choices. I liked that. Nothing much happens without intentionality. We rather quickly looked at the areas where they wanted to see a sense of choice and of choosing and devised two questions for each of their programs:

  1. I see that you did ______ (a behavior related to program goals). Why did you do that?
  2. What other choices, if any did you think you had?

The nonprofit found that it took little time to establish the extent to which empowerment by this definition was present. The young person either said that they could of done x or y and chose x. Or he or she said “What else was I going to do?” Sometimes we make things too complicated.

innovation Wednesday Whimsy

Innovation Comes from Immaturity

This assumption is based on a limit and on a rediscovery. The limit is the concept of growing up, which implies acceptances of convention and tradition that innovators avoid. Indeed, the designation of “immaturity” is frequently applied to innovators of all ages who constantly question the rules. To be mature is to become habituated to life’s prevailing norms, values and habits. In many cases this is the definition of mental health as well as of progress in cognitive, social and other domain where scales anchor in “age-appropriate” behavior.

Some writers see this as a progression from toying with many possibilities to an acceptance of probabilities to an accommodation of certainty. Innovation cannot thrive with this context. Certainty precludes options.

The rediscovery part of the assumption moves from the conformance of progression to the enthusiasms of childhood. How many times do children ask “why” and remain unsatisfied by our answers. And consider ideas. Having one as a child does little for the ego. But building one…and then using it—there’s the fun. Childhood projects often begin with a preference, a whim, an impulse. Calculations come later as the route unfolds. Surprises abound while zigging and zagging. Correlations and causalities are in suspension. For adults, the itch is to try something new and build on what works.

“Act your age” in conventional thinking is a blessing. For innovation it is a curse. This is a realm in which childhood’s end is another beginning.


Watch Word Differences

A Wednesday Whimsy Regarding Words

Watch your words, we are admonished since childhood. Over many years, I have added this guidance: watch for the differences in what words mean. If I ask a grant seeker, for example, “What are your measurable and quantitative objectives?” am I making a distinction between measurable and quantitative, or do I just want to appear erudite by including two words that mean the same thing?

In the current focus on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice the stakes are much higher when it comes to language. In these terms, I sense substantial differences in meanings, which brings far more richness to conversation than an assumption that the words simply pile on to create a critical mass needed to right a big wrong.

A quick example—equity and equality. As I understand it, equality means giving everyone the same resources. Equity means distributing resources disproportionately such as to achieve the same outcome for everyone. Circumstances may not factor in equality but they sure apply to equity. This distinction also raises important questions on means and ends. Not to be pointy headed this Wednesday. Just to say that such distinctions enrich discussion.


How Long Does Success Last?

Good nonprofits track and verify the number and kind of participants who achieve a gain—whether it’s landing a job, reading on grade level, or rehoming a displaced family.  Great nonprofits track and support the number of participants who sustain that gain.     

In a few areas, like workforce development, the challenge of staying power is well known. Simply put, it costs more to help someone sustain employment than to get the job. Habitual behavior is another  area where we understand the challenge.  How many of us lose 20 pounds and then see the weight return within a year?  Mark Twain put it nicely:  “Quitting smoking is not difficult. I have done it hundreds of times.”

One way to look at the value of sustained gain is the concept of cost per gain.  Divide the cost of the program not by those who participate… but by those who achieve the intended results.  For example, if a program costs $100,000 and includes 1,000 participants, the cost per person served is $100.  If only 100 of the participants get to the defined result, however, the cost per gain is $1,000. 

This logic is helpful to both nonprofits and philanthropy in shifting away from the high counts at the level of “serving” or “reaching” persons that many foundations have traditionally supported.  A program that mentors 400 persons has historically been seen as more valuable than one that, for the same money, mentors 100.  But hey. Not so fast.  If you don’t mentor with the intensity and duration  needed, the touch is not sufficient to make a difference.    I actually experienced that mentoring example—and found that the nonprofit starting with 100 dramatically outperformed the one starting with 400.

Now let’s dig deeper.  Assume a service that gets people to food security by getting them enough food at a cost of $4,800 for a year.  If the money for food supply stops, food security ends.  The cost is an annual cost per gain.

Consider a different program that gets people to food security by growing a garden, getting more sustained income, or some other step with staying power.  In that case, the gain may well continue after the program costs end.  If food security lasts for three years after a program ends, the annual cost per gain for four years drops to $1,200.   The return on charitable investment is four times higher.

This logic suggests another insight: that the smartest investments is for steps to help participants sustain gains.  Consider a high school program for students at risk for dropout.  My clients and friends in the college access business point to the sad reality that, for many reasons,  at risk populations can experience college drop out rates that are as high as high school drop outs.   

Schools like Green Tech Charter High School in Albany, NY have discovered that a reasonable added cost to track and support its students through the first two years of college has the highest possible leverage of all education dollars. The major funds to achieve a high school education are leveraged by much lower costs to make graduation pay off in a path to success.  

I have developed descriptions of cost per gain drivers and tools from work with Leslie Clements and the Humana Foundation.  Holler if you want to see them.

Have a great week, everyone! – Hal

Wednesday Whimsy

Listen Twice as Much as You Speak

Are you listening? Or waiting to speak?

Focus on listening over speaking is another adage with as much power as the last Whimsy, Hustle While You Wait that was posted last week.

I was asked by a major bank CEO to help them win the coveted Baldridge Quality Award. My assignment was to document how they were a great learning organization. I decided to sit in on a wide variety of meetings, many with the senior leadership team. I defined two columns with tally marks for the number of statements made and questions asked at each meeting.

I then reported to the CEO that I was not successful.

What I had found was a ratio of about 100 statements—participants asserting things to others—for every question asked. My reflection was that learning is not separable from curiosity and inquisitiveness. Both come from questions.

A longer blog post will soon look more deeply at the power of questions to guide thinking by others in ways that statements cannot do. Meanwhile, ask someone to use a tablet to keep the same tally I did for some meetings in your organization.

Wednesday Whimsy

Hustle While You Wait

Last night I was re-reading a few sections of Stephen Covey’s classic 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and came across an intriguing four word sentence.  It came in an example of a personal mission statement and said:  Hustle while you wait.  I love divergent thoughts, which as prompt me to question conventional wisdom. In this case the convention comes from adding an adverb:  Wait Patiently. Beyond raising the question of when patience helps or hurts comes the question of how I can hustle while I wait.  I am resolved to try these steps:

  1. Accelerate intentionality.  Shift from distress to a good look at what I will accomplish in the rest of my day.  My body at rest is distinct from my mind at rest and most forms of intentionality help me to settle down.
  2. Observe. If I am in any form of waiting room or line, use the time to see how the organization is supporting waiting and what it could do better to reduce agitation.  Insights from what I see and hear may well come from the times when I have little else to do.
  3. Reflect.  So what is going on that defines waiting?  For me, reflection often leads to an understanding that what I glibly see as an external factor causing my wait is actually something that I can at least to some extent control.   While it is easy to say that the ball is in someone else’s court, the reality is often that I am waiting on myself.

Target Practice

Many graphics on the pursuit of results has the look of a target and a small “bulls eye” at the center. Indeed, my colleagues and I called our book Outcome Funding…a new approach to targeted grantmaking. And—sure enough—put the traditional target image on the cover. I am now questioning this way of looking at aiming points. In the vital area of inclusion, diversity, and equity, for example, a much broader canvas seems needed. Perhaps many points on the periphery should get as many points as hitting the center. The point is to recognize both complexity and different perspectives as what must first be achieved. As well as the sense that we need to loosen up to see more possibilities rather than narrowly focus on a pre-set victory shot. I will henceforth keep the bullseye for very specific gains and limit its use when vision must broaden rather than narrow.

Uncategorized Wednesday Whimsy

Never the Twain

It’s tough to learn from mistakes you never made.

Mark Twain

While I spend hours tapping out prose to make and amplify thoughts, I keep finding that short zingers like this one get to the point far more quickly.   Further,  the best are actionable without further ado.   Suggestion:   think of or discover a quote that you like.  Ask yourself what you could do to express its core meaning next week.  If you can’t think of anything, try a new quote.    Email me if you want a good batch that I have found not just wise but useful.  My way of expressing this passage is to require myself to identify one screw up a week to ask what I will do differently next time.    They are all different. Never the Twain shall meet.