Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is Collective Impact Project Management on Steroids?

Collective Impact is a new strategy getting a lot of buzz in educational reform, but it is also employed in urban redevelopment efforts and could be powerful in health care reform and reengineering. A useful, basic introduction to the term can be found in a recent essay from The Stanford Social Innovation Review. Essentially, the idea is that we can have more impactful change - and more sustainable results - if we can coordinate all of the different work being done toward a common goal across lots and lots of agencies, non-profits, and grass-roots organizations. This doesn't happen now. For example, if we want to arrest and reverse the rise of dropout rates in America's urban schools, we need school systems, teachers unions, faith-based social service agencies, criminal justice systems, and scores of other actors to work cooperatively. And it might need to be done in a coordinated fashion so, for example, head start can give pre-schoolers the tools to succeed in elementary school, so they have a foundation for secondary education; and after-school enhancement programs can help kids in high school have the tools to succeed in college; and all along the way, social services can support families so they can provide a foundation for children's success in school.

I find this interesting for a lot of reasons. At the Graham School we offer a program in Project Management, and this seems like project management on steroids. Normally project managers coordinate projects spanning across an organization. For example, the roll out of a new operating system for an IT company requires everyone working on the project - those writing code, the graphic designers working on look and feel, the human resource managers who may need to bring in temporary staff to meet timelines, the marketing team, and others - to work in coordinated fashion. Sometimes, when the goal is a strategic realignment - maybe a merger - project teams are composed of team members from each of the companies being fused, and perhaps outside consultants. A project manager coordinates the work of all of the project teams, monitoring workflow, identifying and solving bottlenecks, all while keeping an eye on project goals, the budget and deadline.

The idea behind Collective Impact is that coordination across agencies, governments, constituent non-profits, etc. requires "a separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative." The recent essay from The Stanford Social Innovation Review that has caused so much buzz around the topic, goes on to make the case that: "Coordination takes time, and none of the participating organizations has any to spare. The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. The backbone organization requires a dedicated staff separate from the participating organizations who can plan, manage, and support the initiative through ongoing facilitation, technology and communications support, data collection and reporting, and handling the myriad logistical and administrative details needed for the initiative to function smoothly."

In other words, this backbone organization IS the project manager for the effort. Compared to what a typical project manager needs to do - coordinate a group of employees all dedicated to the firm's success - a backbone organization in a Collective Impact strategy faces a much more complex task. Participating agencies, non-profits, and grassroots coalitions might not agree on a common goal, are organized around very different operational and accountability models, and may deeply, deeply distrust the agencies and organizations with which they are being asked to work. Project managers will tell you similar problems exist in their work within firms, but without a doubt the degree of the challenge is greatly magnified when working with state agencies and grassroots organizations and unions to reengineer schools (as an example). This seems like a challenge to the field of project management: can it create project managers with the tools to lead these backbone organizations?

I also find it interesting because it points at something that I believe is an indisputable truth: we are stumbling in our politics and policy-making because we have depleted our social capital and we aren't manufacturing any more. As defined by Robert Putnam, a Harvard social scientist, social capital "refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." The more social capital we have, the easier we get things done, because we begin with expectations that the people we are working with are trustworthy and will reciprocate (i.e. will compromise and be mutually supportive). Social capital is manufactured in local organizations and in local civic engagement. By working together, face to face, and arguing about and settling differences, and overcoming obstacles, and sharing risks, we learn to trust others, and we universalize this expectation. The more connections we have, the more we work together, the more we come to trust one another. And in our (meaning America's) current politics and civic life we have lost this capacity to trust. Collective Impact is a partial solution to this problem, because we aren't asking suburban governments to trust their big-city neighbors, or the politicians in the state capital, or faith-based social services agencies, or community-based grassroots organizations, at first it is enough to share a common goal and trust the backbone organization. Then, by working together, we rebuild trust and manufacture more social capital. Future cooperation will be easier if we can lean on the backbone organization to facilitate the work of getting stakeholders to work together now.

I think there is a model here, too, for the for-profit sector. How do you innovate past current technological obstacles? One key example is the need for innovations in energy storage and transmission, so sustainable energy forms can be reliably fed into our energy grid. A recent report from the American Physical Society calls for an effort to achieve this that might be called a Collective Impact strategy. The APS's proposal, though, situates much of the coordination necessary with federal agencies. This might be difficult in today's climate, where conservative politicians (and voters) distrust the government's ability to accomplish big goals. Better, perhaps, would be to create a backbone organization to do the coordinating work. A project manager, ready to do the difficult work of coordinating an ambitious project.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Recalling the Learning Knights

One place this blog returns to again and again is the intersection between human capital and social capital. Workers who share more - who get together to collaborate, socialize, even argue and work through differences - tend to trust each other more, and that opens the door to better and more creative cooperation. And, as we have argued so often here, ingenuity and inventiveness come from collaboration, not solitary effort. You also want, we have pointed out, workers who can engage in productive arguments. Push overs, yes men, sycophants and conformists won't help your organization attack challenges. Firms need people who can analyze a problem, formulate a response, defend that response against alternate approaches, and, when confronted with better ideas, acknowledge those ideas and work to construct viable and robust solutions that weave together the best elements of several proposals. Only rigorous and confident thinkers can do this.

We were reminded of this by an article in the New York Times, written by Wes Davis, a writer and former English professor at Yale. Davis' essay, The 'Learning Knights' of Bell Telephone, is about a program offered by Bell Telephone in the late 1950s, called the Institute of Humanistic Study for Executives. The program was ambitious - a 10 month long series of lectures, course work and reading assignments, designed to create employees who were "capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises."

The Graham School has offered programs with similar goals. Innovative leaders at approached us several years ago to offer a program that, while less far-reaching than the Bell Telephone program Davis writes about, brought University of Chicago instructors into the Careerbuilder offices every month, to teach seminars on Shakespeare's Henry V, Plato, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Einstein's Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and other unlikely readings for a Friday afternoon at work. Careerbuilder's CEO believed it would help his employees think clearly and more attentively if they were exposed to "great thinkers, thinking at the top of their games." It also, I would point out, brought employees from all across the firm's landscape together for a few hours each month, creating contacts, friendships, and working arrangements that might not have otherwise existed.

Our Leadership Arts Certificate, recently refashioned as a Summer Institute in Leadership Arts, was guided by similar motivations. Drawing from philosophy and literature - including Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Thucydides, and, this summer, Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago - the Leadership Arts program crafts a curriculum that reminds us that leadership and workplace issues deal with the oldest and most persistent questions we face: what motivates us, how does our work matter, and what is the glue that binds us together?

One complaint we hear: none of this is practical. But it is. -->

As an example, one valuable lesson we can take away from Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago is a refreshingly ambitious approach to planning. At the core of Burnham's Plan of Chicago was this truth: we don't know what the future will bring, and our plans should be audacious and scalable (to use a contemporary business term). Don't focus only on what is practical or necessary given one's assessments of present needs and circumstances. Plans should be more far-reaching, more aspirational.

The problem with the way Chicago developed, Burnham believed, was that it emerged as a collage of uncountable pragmatic decisions or accommodations; there was no plan. How many workplaces are just like this? This approach to development (of a city or an organization) inevitably leads to dysfunctionalities. But the response shouldn't be to assemble a plan that addresses these dysfunctionalities, this chaos, and these shortcomings. Instead, plans need to look beyond the present and plan for the future. Too many organizations - guided by leaders and employees who can't think more expansively - create processes to fix problems, rather than plans to move beyond these problems and into a future that can only be imperfectly viewed from our present vantage point.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

To Survive, Specialize

One of the unmistakable realities of evolutionary biology is that most species who adapt and survive do so because they find a way to specialize in the vast web of life. Nature is a hostile and competitive place, and as a general principle, the more specialized an organism is, in terms of its diet or habitat, the more likely it is to survive. Unless of course, environmental shifts wipe out the species' food source or habitat. One reason generalists survive is because they can avoid exactly that type of catastrophe. The actinedid follicle mite only infests (and finds sustenance in) human eyebrow hairs. If we all shaved our eyebrows the species would disappear. Sharks, though, have survived across many eras, outlasting the dinosaurs, because they eat almost anything.

But I've drifted too far from my point. When looking at the prospects of employment in Human Resources, it seems clear that generalists are dying off and specialists are thriving (although choosing your specialty might be vital for long-term survival). Consider these U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics (taken from HR Magazine):

The thing to notice is this: the things HR managers once did - compensation and benefits, payroll, and training and development, narrowly defined - will only generate a few thousand new jobs between now and 2018. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be available in more specialized areas - recruitment and placement, talent analysis, and training and development geared toward cultivating the next generation of leaders who will fill the seats being emptied by retiring baby-boomers.

The other key trend - not mapped out in this data - is a move toward using more carefully defined metrics, to identify the talent needed to meet the organization's objectives, to inventory the organization's existing talent, to put a time estimate on how long specific types of talent will be needed and what the most cost-effective approach is to getting that talent. This is all stuff that departments and divisions across a firm do sloppily, using past experience, rules of thumb, and guesswork. Often department managers fold acquiring staff into an overall effort to try to maximize the resources under their control - more influence, more space, more funding for projects, more people. But in today's economy - in fact in any sane and rational system - a department's value is measured by its work product: is it effective in helping the organization achieve the things it needs to achieve? If this is the measure, then departments need the right people in place, not an army of people. And this points to a new, or perhaps newly significant requirement for HR personnel: they need to function as internal consultants. Directors, managers, and department heads don't know how to assess, recruit, support, and develop talent. Or at least they have imperfect ideas about all of this, and need specialists to help them.

So, perhaps in this case, specialization won't just help those of you working in HR to survive, but maybe it will help your firms survive too.

If you work in Human Resources, you need to enroll in our Strategic Talent Management and Organizational Design Certificate, which helps map the move from service-orientation to strategic partnership. And from generalist to specialist.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What's The Point?

Innovation sometimes happens by accident. Sometimes through a moment of inspiration. More often, it's a product of conversation. In the case of Groupon, the Chicago-based website that offers discounts at restaurants, museums, health clubs, clothing stores, dentists, sky-diving clubs, pedicure salons, it was a conversation about The Point. The Point was a website launched by Andrew Mason, whose brief affiliation with the University of Chicago was a quarter-long period of study with the Harris School of Public Policy. The Point was an attempt to employ the principle of the tipping point to inspire volunteer campaigns, charitable giving, and other worthy activities. The idea was simple: users could post a challenge - for example raising money so the Comunicada Foundation can give hens and chicken coops to families in Masaya, Nicaragua - and set a tipping point. In the case of the Comunicada Foundation, the tipping point was $1000. If visitors to The Point reached the $1000 tipping point, the money would go to buy hens and chicken coops for Masaya. If the tipping point wasn't reached, then any contributors who pledged to give would be off the hook, and their credit card wouldn't be charged. The point behind The Point was that people often feel charitable, or they want to work for change, but they feel like their contribution or their voice won't make a difference. The Point provided a bucket, where people could drop in their small contribution and see progress toward the larger goal, making people feel they were part of a micro-movement.

Andrew and his financial backer, Eric Lefkofsky, puzzled over how to make money from the concept. The result was Groupon, which was based on a simple concept: businesses need business, and consumers want discounts. The goal is to bring them together. And Mason saw that this was fundamentally a tipping point problem. Businesses are reluctant to discount, because it represents a loss of revenue. And too often, the people grabbing up the discounts are people who would have visited the business anyway. But, what if you could guarantee the business this: lots of new customers and an opportunity to only deliver the discount if it made financial sense to the business. For example, if 300 people walk through the door and get your product for half-price, and 200 of those people are new customers, you've lost revenue you might have collected from the 100 returning customers who are taking advantage of the discount offer, but you've collected revenue from 200 people who might never have walked through your door. So Groupon reaches out to businesses and says: a) set a discount price and b) tell us how many customers it will take at that price for this deal to make sense for you. Once those numbers are set, Groupon puts the deal on the website. If the tipping point isn't reached, the business isn't obligated to provide the discount. And the prospective customers who took the business up on the offer walk away, without their credit card being charged. But - and this is clearly part of the business model - hundreds, perhaps thousands of prospective new customers learn about a business when it is featured on Groupon.

What's the point? Mason's original idea - that he could create social change by creating a forum where people could propose projects and then assemble the numbers to fund those projects - had real appeal. But to a great extent, The Point wasn't much more than a social media site with a heart. It wasn't a business. The site doesn't carry ads. For any successful campaign where money is collected, the site keeps 5% of the total for "transaction and administrative costs." But many of the campaigns are action based, for example, a campaign to force KFC to adopt cruelty-free standards for the chicken they serve in their restaurants. For these, The Point gets nothing. Mason and Lefkofsky saw they had an intriguing model, but no way to profit from it. Groupon was the result of this effort. The company won't reveal their revenue, but they recently secured $30 million in investment capital to expand their operation to fifty new cities in 2010.

In an uncertain economy,
the smartest investment

The Graham School's Business and Professional certificate programs provide quality career-related education in convenient short, intensive, related seminars, allowing students to continue developing their careers, broadening their perspectives, and strengthening their skill sets. Our programs help you prepare for change and equip you for success.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Followership or Citizenship?

Since it entered our repertoire, I have distrusted the term followership. It has percolated through writings in business for a number of years. It is weighted down, in my opinion, by the sense the term carries that followers are herd animals: subservient, uncritical. Here and there - following the Enron scandal for example - there has been an effort to blame followers for the failures of their leaders. These authors argue: if employees can do only a little more to let leadership know that their decisions might have bad consequences, then bad consequences can be avoided. This laughably turns responsibility on its head. It is the worst kind of revisionism to argue that Enron's executive leadership wouldn't have committed fraud if someone in a cubicle in accounting would have had the gumption to stand up and say: "Um, guys, what you're doing is deceptive and illegal." Leaders need to take responsibility for their choices and failures.

But part of the body of scholarship on followership has been concerned with constructing categories or taxonomies of followers. One of the researchers who takes this path, Barbara Kellerman from Harvard, makes a breakthrough by pointing the entire conversation in a new direction. A Political Scientist by training, and a Lecturer at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School, what Kellerman talks about in her work feels more to me like citizenship, rather than followership. In fact, most of her writings on her Washington Post-hosted blog don't deal with the workplace, but with politics.

Consider for a second what Kellerman says about "good followers:"

Good followers will actively support a leader who is good (effective and ethical) and will actively oppose a leader who is bad (ineffective and unethical). Good followers invest time and energy in making informed judgments about who their leaders are and what they espouse. Then they take the appropriate action.

Doesn't that sound a lot like what we expect (but too infrequently get) from an informed citizenry? This suggests that followers have responsibilities as well as rights (just as citizens do).

Here's what she says about "bad followers:"

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Bad followers will do nothing whatsoever to contribute to the group or organization. Or they will actively oppose a leader who is good. Or they will actively support a leader who is bad.

But why do bad followers behave the way they do? And how can you help facilitate the engineering of good followers? One part of the answer for Kellerman and others who write on this topic: workplaces are populated with "isolates" and "bystanders," who are willing (perhaps even happy) to collect their paychecks without being more involved in a company's affairs than is absolutely necessary. They are bad followers in the sense that they do nothing, or very little, to contribute to the organization's success. But the other type of bad follower - those that oppose good leaders and support poor ones - are, in my mind, equivalent to "low information voters" in a democracy. Low information voters got an unusual degree of attention in the last presidential election. Different writers have linked low information voters with different problems. For example, in a tight election - as the last several presidential elections have been - it is important to reach voters who don't have the resources or the interest to learn more about issues and candidates. So the race becomes a beauty pageant or gets bogged down in discussions about relatively meaningless public policy concerns, like the preoccupation with a gas-tax holiday that dominated part of the spring of 2008. Low information voters, like bad followers in the workplace, don't make informed decisions, they follow their gut, or stick with party labels, or embrace symbolism over substance, or do what's easy.

We know a little bit about what is necessary to improve voting behavior - crudely, to turn low information voters into responsible voters. The first is obvious, but hard to implement: we need to make information cheaper and easier to obtain. Studies show that most low information voters are low-income and less-educated. They don't have the time or money to invest in accessing more information about issues, or they lack the training in critical thinking that college education helps to provide. Making the implications of candidates' policies more accessible and comprehensible - through the media or other resources - can help these voters, and all voters, make better choices. But as a society, we haven't assembled the commitment or the right set of approaches to make information cheaper and more intelligible.

In the workplace, the solution seems easier: workers should be able to access on an ongoing basis basic information about how a company is doing, across a number of appropriate indicators. And that information should be factual and transparent. Where a firm has concerns about competitors putting their hands on this information, employee access can be limited to what is necessary for informed reflection. But in general, better informed employees can become better followers.

The other solution in the political sphere is restoring a sense of civic engagement among a population that has lost its sense of commitment to the wider public, the nation, and the state. Part of the problem is that low information voters don't feel motivated to seek out and make use of information that is available. We have a good sense of how to engineer greater engagement, but it takes a commitment of resources and a span of time to produce results.

Doing this in the workplace is considerably easier. It begins with recruitment and hiring: selecting employees who express a commitment to engagement, rather than docility, is the first step. HR shouldn't target candidates who appear to be easy to manage, they should seek out what Kellerman calls "activists," those who are "eager, energetic and engaged," and have an appetite for building relationships, rationalizing and improving processes, and are impatient with poor leadership.

So if we are talking about something that resembles citizenship, why not call it that, and dispose of the awful term followership?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Different maps

As we have remarked on this blog, paths that might lead us out of the dead ends we find ourselves trapped in can go undiscovered because we don’t employ the right maps. We search and search the maps we have available to us, within our own narrow professions or disciplines, and find no direction. We remain unaware that colleagues working in adjacent professions or disciplines – perhaps several floors away within the same organization – could help us. They map the world differently, because their profession or field cares about different things, values different outcomes, measures success differently.

Sharing knowledge – initiating the right conversations – is the most difficult task many of us face in the workplace. A recent article in HR Magazine, “Managing the People Who Manage Projects,” (membership required) draws attention to the point of intersection between those who manage talent and those who manage projects, and the implication of the article is clear. HR managers – who have a key role to play in assessing talent, in managing the training and development of employees, and in shaping compensation packages – and project managers – who mainly focus their energies on project outcomes – need to work together more closely.

Firms aren’t going to stop using project teams to accomplish important tasks within their organizations or to accomplish the work firms do for their clients. In many ways, this is the new model for organizing work; it offers flexibility, efficiencies, and scalability. Project managers are everywhere, as shown by the membership growth of organizations designed to serve the professional needs of project managers. The Project Management Institute has doubled its membership in the past five years.

What type of challenges do project-oriented work processes present to HR managers? The article unpacks three concerns worth focusing on: 1. Developing employees, through training and organizational immersion, who can adapt quickly to new work environments, swiftly climb learning curves, and collaborate productively. 2. Managing reassignments efficiently so talent doesn’t sit on the bench unused. 3. Compensating employees – and engaging their loyalty – so they remain committed to the firm’s goals.

In reality, these challenges aren’t so exotic. HR managers have always needed to think about how they train, employ and compensate their employees. What the article opens our eyes to is this: all of these concerns take on a heightened relevance in a project-oriented workplace. First of all, training in emotional intelligence and programs that help employees walk in colleagues’ shoes give employees the tools to read co-workers on their team more quickly, and facilitates better working relationships. So the types of training HR managers in project-oriented workplaces provide may extend being technical job requirements. Inescapably, employees in project-oriented workplaces will be teamed with many different co-workers, sometimes colleagues from within the firm, sometimes clients’ employees. Quickly understanding everyone’s incentives, work culture, and objectives will help teams coalesce more quickly.

Second, HR managers need to follow project timelines, so they can know, for example, if a project scheduled to run for three months is on schedule, so they can have plans to transition team members to new assignments. Or, if it is delayed, they need to be prepared to recruit new talent (perhaps on a temporary basis) to fill out new teams beginning new projects. Under old staffing models, staff were recruited with an expectation that they would be in their positions indefinitely, and any change in that assignment would be signaled well in advance. Now, HR managers need to remain engaged, helping transition employers out of one project into another, keeping an eye on project deadlines, juggling team members.

Third, especially where employers are spending months at a time working under clients’ roofs, HR managers need to be attentive to the competitiveness of their compensation and benefits packages, in particular in relation to what clients might offer if they choose to lure away a top employee with whom they have worked closely. The goal is make sure that employees working outside the firm’s walls remember that they owe their principal loyalty to the employer signing their paycheck.

What’s the bottom line here? Conversations that bring in multiple perspectives are going to offer a broader field of vision. Reach out beyond your professional or occupational specialty, talk to people who map out the world – or more to the point, your workplace – in ways different than you. You’ll be more successful in navigating your responsibilities, and your organization will be much more likely to reach its destination.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Defining what we do

The Graham School of General Studies launched the Certificate in Human Capital Management last year to give human resource managers and other strategic officers the tools to design smarter workplaces and recruit and support talented, creative employees.

Like many of you, we are busy rebuilding the boat while we are at sea. The program has been a success. We feel like the questions at the core of the program, our approach to those questions, and the quality of the conversation in our classrooms distinguish us from any competing programs. Our instructors are all experienced practitioners, who are skilled at developing these topics in analytically challenging and professionally relevant ways. But, faced with requests from students, and a need to respond to the needs of the market, we are making some adjustments in the program.

We are trimming the program back from seven courses to four or five. The goal is to build a program that is more streamlined – to serve the needs of students trying to tool-up quickly – but just as rigorous and impactful.

We are retitling the program, to emphasize that the program is about talent management and building workplaces and processes that permit and encourage creativity, trust, and collaboration.

I need your help. We have two titles we are focus-group testing. Can you weigh in, by offering a comment?

Our leading candidate is Strategic Talent Management and Organizational Design. Another choice, which fared more poorly in our internal evaluation process, is Strategic Human Resource Management and Organizational Design. I would love to hear your opinion.