Evolving Plans

On December 16, 2013, I embarked on a planning exercise for Strong Roots Consulting, specifically in the areas of mission/vision/goals, business practices, and activities for the year ahead. Today marks the one-month point of that process, and with it an update.

If I had followed the traditional New Year’s approach, I should have spent the past couple of weeks thinking about what I want to accomplish with Strong Roots Consulting in 2014. Instead, my mind has been on the bigger picture: what is my vision of success, and what is the mission that Strong Roots is working to follow? The former is by its nature more blue-sky thinking – abstract and long term – while the latter starts bringing the ideals back to earth. I think I found a good balance:

Vision: Changemakers – including individuals, community groups, non-profit organizations, charities, social enterprises, and social-purpose businesses – have the resources, knowledge, skills, and courage to work together and better our world.

Mission: Build the capacity of the for-impact sector to create positive change in our communities through developmental, empowering, and participatory approaches to research, evaluation, and planning.

Now, these are draft statements, so if you have any feedback (positive or negative), I would love to hear them in the comments below, via social media, or more traditional channels. In particular, I would like to know whether “for-impact sector” is understandable. Unfortunately I can’t remember where I first heard this term (perhaps at the Social Enterprise World Forum?), but the idea behind it has been a powerful influence on me: rather than defining people and organizations by what they are not (not-for-profit or non-governmental), the focus is instead on what they are doing, namely making a difference in our world. The term is also more inclusive, as it can include social entrepreneurs and social-purpose businesses that blend for-profit methods with social and environmental aims.

Clear as mud? Too apt to cause confusion? Let me know!

Cue the “Under Construction” GIF

There are always lessons in the journey, and two in particular came up this past month:

  1. This kind of planning is not quick – or easy. I would like to say that I followed some clear-cut process for developing these statements, but the truth is that I spent a lot of time reflecting, writing, and whiteboard sketching to get to where I am now. For organizations with more than one person involved, additional time and resources would be needed to engage staff, leadership, and stakeholders in the process.
  2. Reflection – and adjusting in response – is key. These ideas didn’t spring out of nothing: going through notes and journals, I can trace a line of thought going back several months (if not longer). For example, this past fall I put in a number of hours drafting up a long-form blog post that ended up being consigned to a dusty corner of my laptop, but the essential ideas from that draft have been extremely helpful this past month in moving me forward. Even now I’m not 100% sure that the ideas presented above will be the final versions: I’ll be field-testing them in conversations, reflecting further, and likely changing in response.

The Next Month

I’m still working on coming up with goals that strike the right balance between immediate-future, concrete-abstract, and achievable-aspirational. In writing up this blog post, I came to realize that my vision sets out some of the longer-term ideas, while an annual review and planning process would help generate specific objectives within the timespan of a year or two. From that insight, my organizational goals would find a home between those two poles with outcomes that can demonstrate some progress over a 5-10 year framework.

Another consideration is whether to declare an explicit set of values for Strong Roots. Through my participation in the Leadership Saskatoon professional development program, I recently attended Robin Mueller‘s excellent session on personal and organization values – revisiting my notes from that event is definitely on my to-do list!

Examining business elements has been on the backburner so far, as this first half of January has kept me hopping. With the vision and mission in place to help guide my thoughts (and goals coming soon!), I’ll be reviewing and reflecting on aspects such as the role of this website, my use of social media, space arrangements, and my membership in various professional orgs.

All in all, I’m happy with my progress so far in this planning. Watch for my next update on or before February 16th!

Thoughts and Gratitude for the Holidays

For those of us who strive to make our world a better place – whether you work for a charity, a non-profit service provider, an advocacy organization, a social-purpose business, or are “just” a community member who is passionate for a cause – there is really no time that is absolutely quiet: no time where there isn’t someone in need, an action we can take, or a new idea that we can sketch out. Although we encourage others to take time for themselves and those they care about, we’re not always so good at following our own advice.

With that idea in mind, I would like to share three thoughts for those of us who are working for change in our communities:

First, if you are at work over the next week, whether it’s providing support to those in crisis, heading across the country to help restore power in areas affected by ice storms, or staffing a desk at a community service, thank you. Our world doesn’t shut down just because of the holidays: your efforts are important and even crucial for those who face difficulties during this “quiet” time of year. I also hope that you get at least some time over the next week with friends and family to rest and recharge.

Second, for those who do have the opportunity for a break, take it! Spend it with those who are important in your life and reflect on the positives in your life and work. If you’re so inclined, think about what you want to see happen in the months to come, but don’t let it dominate your time away. Come back in the new year refreshed and ready for the challenges and opportunities that 2014 will bring.

Finally, for everyone, enter 2014 with the idea that we all can make a difference. Every day brings us choices, from what we do at work and how we interact with those we meet, to what we value and what we want to see in our neighbourhoods and our world. The impact may not be readily apparent, but it is the small actions of many that make a difference.

I hope you find what you need this holiday season, safe travels to those who are visiting friends and family, and I look forward to connecting and collaborating in the new year!

Strong Roots will be on break for the remainder of the year, returning to normal operations on Friday, January 3. I will still respond to email and phone inquiries during that time as I am able, however it may take longer than my customary two business day response window.


Tis the season for looking back at the year that has passed and making plans for the new one on our doorstep, and Strong Roots Consulting is not immune to this time-honoured tradition. 2013 has been a good year to both me and the business overall (injuries aside!), but I have definitely identified some room for improvement, including how I track my time, where I draw the line between Brian Hoessler the individual and Strong Roots Consulting the venture, and what is the best way to incorporate social media in my work.

During a brainstorming session, I started thinking of where I would like Strong Roots to be by this time in 2014. The problem I ran into is that these outcomes were all fairly generic: review and revise some of the business elements, define a clear mission, vision, and goals, and sketch out a path to reaching those goals, including initial actions, milestones, and rubrics/indicators, resources needed (including my own professional development), and processes for reviewing progress and adapting in response. I could easily see myself dragging my feet on these pieces and be no further along come next December: worse, if I only accomplished these outcomes, the year would not have been very productive!

The solution I hit on? Change the deadline. I am giving myself three months, to March 16, 2014, to have these pieces together, so I can spend the remaining nine months of 2014 following through. Another component to keep me on track is my commitment to report back through this website on the progress I’ve made, at the very least at the one- and two-month yardsticks (i.e. January 16th and February 16th) and when completed: I hope that sharing this experience will also be useful for my readers who are wrestling with their own planning, be it for individual growth or organizational change.

I already have some ideas on all of the outcomes identified above, and just writing them out and sharing my thoughts this way is helping to fuel my enthusiasm and determination to move ahead. What are your goals for the days to come, either personally or for your organization? Share below, or just follow along for the ride!

SPECs and Vision

As the end of the year rolls closer, I have been taking some time to reflect on the work I have accomplished so far through Strong Roots Consulting and where I hope to go. My recent post about Amazing YXE got me thinking about the strengths-based approach that has consistently served as one of my guiding principles – in case you missed it, here’s the pertinent part:

In supporting for-impact groups and organizations, I have always preferred to take a strengths-based approach that recognizes, celebrates, and builds on existing skills and assets. Although it would be foolish to deny that there are real needs and challenges in our communities today, focusing exclusively on deficits can lead to disillusionment, cynicism, and hopelessness: looking at strengths and existing resources (which may not always be measurable in dollars and cents) can help create confidence and point a way forward for individuals and neighbourhoods. More than that, this approach affirms the fact that every individual has something to contribute and some way of making a difference for our world.

In the above quote, I bolded the line about deficits-focus because the trend to emphasize needs and challenges is all too prevelant in our world today, including (and perhaps especially) in the traditional non-profit sector. Charities and service providers often work to address some type of problem, such as the effects of poverty, illness, violence, bereavement, or family conflict. Blame it on the prevailing Western model of medicine, where our idea of “health” has been formulated as the absence of illness, but even organizations that aim for a more positive and affirmative outcome like helping children achieve their potential can end up working to address impediments over encouraging well-being.

Very few people I know who work to make the world a better place want to focus exclusively on slapping bandaids on the wounds of individuals, families, and communities. While recognizing the necessity of dealing with acute problems that comes from living in an imperfect world, we want to build capacity, nurture strengths, and empower people and neighbourhoods. Over time and in the face of shrinking budgets and a never-ending flood of problems, it becomes too easy to focus on immediate needs and leave those aspirations for broader change on the back burner until that near-mythical future point where funds, time, and the will to use them are abundant.
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Building from the Roots Up

As noted in the Strong Roots story, over the span of my career I have found myself working in different fields – ranging from youth development to disability research to immigration – but throughout I have always kept a soft spot for cities, and more specifically, their neighbourhoods. Fortunately, I have been able to combine my passion for things urban with my career through work and volunteer opportunities, starting with my first job in the area of community development and community-based research. The summer after my first year in grad school, the community association for the neighbourhood I lived in received funds from the municipal government to hire summer students to support their work through preparing grants, investigating potential structures for their organization, and assisting with outreach and community research (hmm, sounds a lot like the services I provide today!).

Working with this group of committed volunteers was inspiring in many ways, but three lessons come to mind today:
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Word Counts

In response to my post last week on open-ended questionnaires, Sheila Robinson over at Evaluspheric Perceptions explored some of the risks in interpreting this type of data. Without a systematic approach to analyzing qualitative data, we can fall prey to confirmation bias, which as described in her post, “causes us to remember or focus on that with which we agree, or that which matches our internalized frameworks, understandings, or hypotheses”. Another risk is that we pay too much attention to extreme viewpoints, whether positive or negative, because they are more likely to be remembered. Check out Sheila’s post for more thoughts!

One question that I want to address quickly is what to do if you have collected some data from an open-ended survey and want to avoid these pitfalls, but don’t know where to begin? As with evaluation in general, one of the simplest starting points is counting. Read through all the responses and keep a running tally of how often certain ideas come up. You may already have some ideas in mind for how to categorize responses, which will help in sorting but could leave you open to confirmation bias: take care that you’re not trying to fit a square-shaped response into your round category! If you come across strong or extreme comments, make sure you view it in relation to general trends (having complementary numerical data helps here!) to determine how representative that position is: that’s not to say that you should ignore a point raised by a small number of people, but as in the example raised by Sheila in her post, you don’t need to rush and make sweeping changes to something that’s working for the vast majority of respondents.

If there’s interest, I can share an extended example from my first experience with qualitative analysis – food for a future post!

What’s in a Question (type)?

While on Facebook earlier today (I was connecting with some colleagues on a work-related issue, honest!), I came across a survey for a local non-profit initiative. As someone who both identifies as a researcher and generally likes filling out surveys, I eagerly clicked the link … and found myself looking at ten open-ended, fill-in-the-blank questions.

Now, I don’t have anything against this style of question: indeed, as I noted in an earlier post, it’s good to provide space for respondents to share their own perspectives and stories without being boxed into a particular set of responses. In my opinion, though, inviting only written responses is a move too far in the other direction. Some respondents may not have the time to write down their thoughts, while others may feel pressured to provide insightful, well-crafted responses to each question and decide to take a pass on the survey as a result. I remember a conversation with a community group where one member personally disliked open-ended questions: this person’s view was perhaps a bit extreme, but it brings up the good point that individuals may simply have preferences for one question type over another. Accessibility is also a potential concern: will people who have low literacy skills or other challenges around writing feel comfortable participating? A final consideration is analyzing this type of data, which takes more time and effort compared to compiling statistics from multiple choice or rating questions.

Again, I have nothing against open-ended questions: depending on the intended audience and purpose of the survey, it may even be completely appropriate to only use that type of response. For most general surveys, though, a little bit of variety is probably a good thing.

Buzzwords for Non-profits

From social enterprise to strategy and planning principles, the non-profit sector is borrowing a lot from the business world. Unfortunately, one less positive adoption is what the Harvard Business Review dubs “bizspeak“: their list of words that should be blacklisted, from “actionable” to “win-win”, has definitely made it into our vocabulary. To be fair, non-profits have long had a language of their own, especially acronyms: moving to a new city or province, or connecting with an organization from a different area (youth services compared to health, for example) requires a mental recalibration and some awkward “What does that mean?” moments.

As a lighthearted end to the week, I’d like to hear from you – share some non-profitese that you find particularly aggravating, amusing, or both!

Time to Count

As the one and only person working for Strong Roots Consulting, there are many business elements I have to deal with as part of the trade. There’s various regulatory and legal requirements to fulfill, finances to manage, and – a personal “favourite” on the necessary evil list – time tracking. My general preference is to create a proposal with a set project fee, instead of charging by the hour: however, I still need to determine how much a project should cost. A simple starting point is to estimate the number of hours that I would need to complete the work and multiply that number by a per-hour rate. Time tracking then becomes a data collection method to help me assess the accuracy of my initial estimate – or in other words, the first step in an evaluation.

For many people, conducting an evaluation seems like a complex undertaking. Where do you start? Do you need to create a logic model first? What should you measure? What data collection methods should you use? Quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods? How do you analyze and present the data you collected? A search for “evaluation” books on Amazon turned up over 128,682 results, while a Google search returned “about 357,000,000 results”, so not much help from those sources (or rather, too much help).

One piece of advice I heard recently (and for the life of me I can’t remember where) is that one of the easiest first steps to take in evaluation is counting. It makes a lot of sense: we learn counting at an early age, after all, and it’s pretty easy to come up with questions that can be answered with a number. How many clients are we serving? How many referrals are we making? How much staff time was dedicated to a certain project? How many people indicated through a client survey that they were happy with our services? I bet if you took a minute right now you could come up with similar questions for your professional or personal life (how many hours of TV do I watch a day?) that can be easily answered by tallying up numbers.
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A week or so ago, I received an email out of the blue from a manager who works for a local non-profit agency. She was interested in social innovation and had done some work in that area, and recently learned about the First Tuesday session I had hosted in January on the topic. We met for coffee and had a great conversation, coming up with some ideas on how to promote and support social innovation in Saskatoon. Our next step was to reach out and connect with some other people locally who might be interested in helping out with the planning: although I was already expecting a positive response, I was a bit surprised by the strength of interest expressed and the ease by which we were able to convene an in-person meeting (past experience in the non-profit sector has taught me that finding a date and time for everyone to meet is easily two-thirds the battle!).

This experience of going from a couple of blog posts and a one-off session on the topic to finding an ally, developing some concrete ideas, and quickly connecting with a group of co-conspirators reminded me of the concept of emergence, as described in Getting to Maybe. One of the social innovation examples that the authors drew on was Irish rocker Bob Geldof’s work organizing the Live Aid concert to help alleviate famine conditions in Ethiopia. In describing his experience, Geldof noted that once he started on the project, momentum and energy flowed in, almost beyond his control. “No one particularly stood in my way,” Geldof recalled; “On the contrary, doors impenetrable a week earlier swung open effortlessly.” In Getting to Maybe, this and similar experiences are held up as examples of emergence. Based on ideas from complexity science and in contrast to traditional views of the heroic individual or the deliberate plan that is followed inevitably to a logical conclusion, emergence recognizes that disparate actions from a variety of actors can unexpectedly come together and multiply one’s efforts. New and surprising outcomes often result, while cause and effect can become hopelessly tangled.

In a similar vein, this developing movement on social innovation in Saskatoon has demonstrated emergent properties. Did I plan that my blog posts and the First Tuesday session would be found by someone who would contact me, and that we would subsequently find such a good reception amongst others? Although I may have hoped for such an outcome, I saw my work as simply laying the ground and waiting to see what happened. The situation could have turned out differently – someone else could have contacted me, or perhaps at a different time, or maybe someone else in the city might have started something similar that I would have learned about later and joined in. On the other hand, it would be foolish to think that I had no impact, that this issue was fated to happen regardless of my individual action. If I didn’t write those posts and hosted that discussion, would anything have happened?

Although emergence can seem like something inherently uncontrollable, there are some means to encourage it, or at the very least to be prepared to recognize and act on the opportunities that come along. Getting to Maybe articulates a number of principles in this regard, several of which jump out at me: speaking passionately about the issue, practicing and developing the expression of one’s vision, and supporting intense interactions, networking, and information exchange among those who are interested. I think I was (unconsciously) following those principles through writing on this blog, holding the First Tuesday session, developing my own learning and understanding on the topic (such as by reading and commenting on Getting to Maybe), and building connections with like-minded people in Saskatoon.

Going back to our ideas and plans, I’m going to hold off on sharing specifics for the time being because we’re still very much at the beginning stage: I’m hoping to have something more concrete to announce before the end of the month. That being said, if you are interested in supporting and promoting social innovation in Saskatoon (especially if you are or have connections with powerful strangers), please drop me a line! I think there are some real possibilities here, and I’m excited to see where this venture will lead.