The Power of Formats
We like to think that people create solutions and fresh paths to reach them. In organizations, who among us is not firmly convinced we are open to new ideas? Yet look at our expressions: stay within your lane, color within the lines, follow the instructions. My favorite: tell me what to do and I will do it.
I have just finished a book called Put Results First which will be out late this year. In it, I muse about how to reconcile our belief and values about innovation and the fact that we tend to tread the same paths, year after year, group after group. My question to myself: where do I see the most similarities in what nonprofits and other organizations produce? The list I made is largely a set of documents we produce, including organization charts, plans, and logic models.
Why are these products so similar organization to organization? I concluded that it is not due to our culture, values, aspirations, or work ethic. It is due to our formats. The headings and sequence of the documents we produce have outsized power to shape what we think and sometimes do. Does that matter? Greatly, I think. Consider:
Organization charts portray the organization as a set of components where everything has its place. Money is over here, programs there. Every function belongs somewhere. Nothing belongs everywhere, including innovation and results. In focusing on what goes in the boxes we ignore the more fertile territory of interactions between them.
Logic models-along with theories of change— have columns such as activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts. Foundations often require this product and offer help for nonprofits to know what to put in the right place on the chart. When I ask staff in organizations what the logic is that connects what they do with what they achieve, many want to get the document in order to answer.
Plans of all varieties have a template as well. Most define strategies as general statements of activities. “Support community health fair events,” and “Provide national thought leadership” are two I pulled from plans while tapping this. What is missing is how the group will do these things. Everyone wants to be a thought leader. Fine and dandy—but useless without a fresh idea on how to get there.
Formats favor those experienced in writing documents. The point of developing charts, models, and plans is the written product. Regretfully, that document has little relationship with what individuals do day to day to achieve more. Formats are soothing to those who want direction. Just tell me the three steps to take or the five things to do. Our templates do that. No one has to worry about creating a real strategy. Rather, complete the document with these topics. Read five existing plans and you know what content to include. Formats center us on conventional thinking and action. Our results may stay as fixed as they do.