This is the third of three postings regarding "Traps" in achieving community outcomes. At every community meeting, at every step in the process, we have seen some version of these traps arise and threaten progress.
Here’s the full list of “traps” that we have encountered. Over these three entries, I’ve featured a different set of these traps:
o Let’s Get Comfortable
o Let’s Put On a Show!
o We’re Not Ready
o Oh, That’s Their Problem
o We Need a New Organization
o We Need to Collaborate More
o Data First
o Money First
o What If We Get It Wrong?
o But What Are We Going to Do?
It is helpful to know where you are now in order to determine where you are going. But if every community effort begins with, “First we have to gather all this data” (do a needs assessment, create an asset map, whatever), it will never get off the ground. For one reason, extensive data tends to "burn through" a lot of volunteer hours and passion, with in the end, very little to show for it (see below).
Put aspirations first, outcomes second, and actions third. As you do the work, the data will follow, and will help you progress toward your outcomes. In the beginning, you won't know what you don't know. So how do you know what data to look for? Conversely, as you progress toward outcomes, the data points will be more clear.
Another way to think about this trap (and it again seems counter-intuitive to most of the consultant prescriptions ... remember data collection = billable consultant hours) is to think about your own personal or community history with data. To gather data you have to have some frame, some way of looking at things. This frame tends to be the way we have always looked at the problem. This data tends to be all about telling you where you've been; but very little help in telling you what you need to do differently. Historically, the actions from this approach tend to be "do (fund) more of the same." This pleases the status quo, but does very little about "moving the needle" on outcomes.
I would venture to say that upwards of 50% of communities who contact me have undertaken some sort of extensive indicator or benchmark study, that gave them a score of where they stood but very little direction as to what to do about it.
So often, we see an opportunity for a grant and try to figure out how we can use it for our purposes. Or we short-circuit our dreams as soon as someone asks, “But how are we going to pay for this?” Be careful not to let money drive the conversation. (Check out my recent post on Funder Intentions in Working Differently Communities).
The desired outcomes should drive how money is sought and invested. Available money should not drive the activities we try. We know from experience that the communities that are willing to work differently together are much better positioned to get resources. We have seen millions of new dollars come to our Working Differently communities -- from state and federal sources, as well as, foundations (especially corporate foundations) -- primarily because they were working differently and had the outcomes to prove it. In fact, we have seen in community after community that achieving the outcome is no more expensive then perpetuating the problem. Start with the outcomes, and the money will follow.
It is the zen of Working Differently: don't focus on the money and the money will come!
What If We Get It Wrong?
Every community feels overwhelmed by this process at first. Like people with stage fright, the participants fear that everyone is looking at them and waiting for them to give the right answers. But working at the community level is a process of discovering what we don’t know, not proving how much we do know. Unlike leadership at the organizational level, expertise is not revealed by having the right answers but by asking the right questions. [See: On becoming a “Catalytic Leader” in a forthcoming Tools post] And if you feel people are judging you, invite them to get involved; after all, it’s their community and their responsibility, too.
But What Are We Going to Do?
It is so easy for our brains to jump from “what is the problem?” to “how are we going to fix it?” Everyone wants to know his or her purpose in the process and how existing roles and organizations will be affected. All too often the conversation rushes to action steps before participants are clear about purpose and how to measure success. We’re wary of too much “process” and not enough action.
It’s true that process without action and outcomes is of no value, but actions and outcomes without process won’t succeed. Look at your present community outcomes, if you have any question about that reality.
Without trust and buy-in, there’s no implementation. Without ever-increasing engagement -- well beyond the usual suspects -- there’s no sense of ownership. Without a solid foundation of community support, there’s no sustainability. The process is much of the enterprise. It allows you to use what you already do, and what you already spend, more effectively and efficiently. As an example, we have seen communities come to a shared and actionable kindergarten readiness measure and action plan in six months where two-thirds of the time was "process." And conversely, we have seen communities spend little time on process during years where of never coming to that agreement (they still have 10 different definitions of readiness -- at loggerheads with each other) and it remains that fewer than 35% of their children ready.
Process isn’t something to get done as fast as possible; it is the warp through which all the action is woven.
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