Musings on Milestone Management

I spent two hours on January 10, 2020, morning with 80 plus bright eyed leaders and staff of nonprofits in Manatee County, Florida. Our subject was Milestone Management. Simply put, what do you look at that tells you that your participants are making progress that forecasts they will get to a result—whether a job, a house, grade level reading, or anything else important.  I was again reminded of how good groups can be of getting to milestones once they pry fee of the mind-set of managing to a work plan and put themselves in the shoes of those they help.  Management guru Peter Drucker once noted that a social program is never defined in the same way by its recipient as by its nonprofit creator.  How true!

It is also true that when participants co-own a result and the milestones they must achieve to get there that they will outperform a group without shared intentionality.  One milestone that participants readily get (often quicker than program staff) is how critical it is to move from having information to using it.  The fact that a participant can tell you what they learned may just measure short term memory retention.  By using what they remember they gain confidence and sense of progress.

I also find good news in how open and confident nonprofits are that they can pin down warm but fuzzy words.  I asked workshop participants, for example, if they could see and hear engagement or its lack. They said yes. For engagement, they saw energy, eye contact, smiles more than frowns, and connection.  I was also taken with great examples from my group yesterday about readily verified behaviors that reflected engagement. One was simply coming back for more sessions. Another noted was telling friends about it who then came. Nonprofit staff can be equally adept at pinning down other attractive but abstract terms that were mentioned in the workshop, including commitment, leadership, and empowerment. 

We also discussed the need to look at timing in terms of participants rather than the arbitrary periods of a contract.  The first task I put before groups attending was to respond to this question: What’s the first thing you look for that tells you a participant is or is not on track to achieve results?  No one said that they had to wait until the end of the first quarter when a report was due.   The power of milestones is their fit to program participant progression, which often begins with engagement. It is a huge predictor of success and when you can discover it is not present early-on you have trouble to change things to get to engagement. 

I am constantly reminded that such data points are simple, readily verified, and highly predictive of participant involvement. 

Speaking of simple, I end with a quick way to get from work plan step to a milestone.   Ask this question:  So What?   So you will write a resource directory.  So What?  So people who get it discover resources they did not know about.  So What?  So at least 50 persons report connecting with a new resource and getting significant value from that connection.    The journey from doing something to achieving something is greatly aided by this question. 


Energy as the Scarcest Resource

Clear on core values and mission…strong on culture…presence of strategic plan…high-performing board…outstanding leadership… clear policies…, competent technology. Many attributes define successful organizations. In the rosters of qualities of high performing groups, however, we seldom see a factor that may actually be the most important ingredient in predicting sustained success.

The word is energy.

An organization can have all the right attributes, but lack the energy to bring then to life. Energy is not only precious but scarce. It is easier to acquire information and even insight than it is to buy energy. In fact you can’t buy energy. You have to make it. Here is my take on the value of energy in people and in their organizations.

Our scarcest resource is energy — in ourselves and our organizations

Energy is a huge predictor of both organizational and personal achievement. It is the lifeblood of focus, drive, passion, and tenacity.  Regretfully, many of the practices used in organizations (including job descriptions, budgeting, and strategic planning) seem to take out more energy than they put in.  How sad!

To build energy in yourself and your organization you first have to see what is now happening. What happens between start and end of work to charge or drain the batteries? I have developed a tool called an energy audit and you can contact me for more information and possible us.  It lets organizations or units within them take a look at their sources, distribution, and applications of human energy—in both positive and negative forms. It’s a bit like a house energy audit that looks for heating and cooling is generated and distributed and at energy leaks in and out.

Unlike many conditions (including empowerment and self-esteem) people seem reasonably clear and consistent on understanding their energy level and when it goes up and down. Many can tell you, for example, whether they leave a meeting, a Facebook session, or a one-on-one discussion with their boss with more or less bounce in their stride.

We also know a lot about how to increase energy. One great generic strategy is to compress time.  Virtually no one is more excited at the fifth meeting of strategic planning than the first. And almost everyone at the end of an hour looks at their watch to see how much longer this gathering will continue.   We build energy by doing things in shorter order. And far more often than not, quality actually increases when we reduce cycle time of most activities.

Download the full document to see my take on the value of energy in people and in their organizations as a predictor of high achievement.


Evolving into an “Outcome Guide”

When Consulting Just Doesn’t Fit the Narrative of Our Results First Work

As a Results First leader, I am different than an every day consultant. I chose the term “Outcome Guide” for six specific reasons:

  1. Guiding is in a result context.  You don’t need a guide to wonder through a field or a forest—whether literal or figurative. You need a guide to reach a destination—whether it is mountain top, a creel full of fresh trout, or a specific accomplishment for an organization.  

  2. Success is clear and agreed upon in advance.  You either reach your summit or you do not.  The point is not to write a plan but to use a plan to get to a stated place of achievement. So many consultants are paid by the hour or the output. I am paid when you arrive where you wanted to go.  And I offer a warranty. 

  3. Guides are expected to know the route and share that knowledge. They do not ask their clients to discover their own paths.  They are a resource-full partner, not simply a facilitator for reformulating  what group members already know.

  4. Guides help with provisions.  I find the analogies to organizational life playful and helpful.  Many organizations, for example, set forth on program voyages loaded with murky baggage of evaluation and outcome terminology. They have packed too much to sustain the pace. 

  5. Guides  are expected to know the terrain.  Think, for example, of swamps as places that can mire you down and cause great loss in momentum. Most organizations can anticipate these after the blush  of project launch is over.  Knowing about when swamps (as well as mountains and other obstacles)  will be encountered gives a huge leg up on how to avoid or get through them. 

  6. Guides must know the starting point.  Whether on a map or a Garmin, you need to know present location as well as destination.  Starting half way up the mountain is very different than starting at the bottom. Further, most groups find it difficult to confront unpleasant discrepancy between aspiration and current reality. Jim Collins is among those that feels that confronting reality clearly is essential for greatness.
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I developed many of my thoughts and tools while President of The Rensselaerville Institute (TRI) , “the think tank with muddy boots.”  I recommend the Institute for project-scale engagements.  Its Outcome Group is especially good at insuring that an outcome framework gets to your “shop floor” in a way that builds energy and intense focus on achievement.  I especially like it that TRI is the first to take its own advice.  Its signature program, School Turnaround puts a set of outcome tools to use to reverse failure in public schools in short order.