Flip charts and post-its will only take you so far. (Photo Credit: Samuel Mann, licensed under CC BY 2.0)
Like laws and sausages, organizational strategies are best appreciated once they have been made. Busy nonprofit executive directors, in particular, often experience strategic planning as a frustrating time sink of cat-herding, budget-massaging, and word-smithing. Still, nonprofits do better when they have a sound strategy in place, and defining one entails a thoughtful exercise in leadership. I won’t presume to cover what distinguishes a good strategy from a bad one in this post (though here is a great primer from Richard Rumelt). However, in the fifteen years I spent as a consultant to nonprofit, government, and business leaders, I repeatedly witnessed a core set of leadership practices increasing the likelihood of developing and executing a good strategy. I found myself sharing these observations in an email last week with the leaders of a fledging enterprise that is just embarking on a strategic planning process, so I thought I would share them more broadly for other nonprofit leaders setting off on a similar journey.
1. First and foremost, make sure this is a top priority for you (or wait until it becomes one): The single biggest determinant of success in these efforts is the personal investment of the leader of the organization in the process. Other factors can vary, but if the planning effort is important to the person in charge, it tends to work out; if it’s not, it doesn’t. The litmus test of “important” here, in my book, is that you see developing a strategy as one of your top three priorities. If you find yourself mulling over issues and questions related to the emerging strategy in the shower or on your commute, that’s a good sign. If not, far better to wait to do your planning until you have the time, energy, and interest to do so rather than to try to force things when you don’t.
2. If you are using an outside advisor, choose one you can trust—then trust them: While not essential, in many circumstances the right outside consultant can provide the perspective, process, and push you need. But choose carefully. Develop a shortlist of potential candidates. Check the references they provide (and some they don’t). Meet in person with two or three finalists to get a feel for how they think and what it would be like to work with them. Then, once you have selected an advisor, rely on them. The more you can think out loud with them on matters of substance, and the more feedback you give them on what is working well (or not), the better the counsel you will get in return.
3. Use the planning work to rally your team and board: A mistake leaders often make is trying to plan on their own, without engaging colleagues and trustees, either because they don’t want to take up their time or because they don’t want to give up any control over the plan itself. This will keep you from forming what change management guru John Kotter refers to as the “guiding coalition,” which provides both the diversity of perspectives you need to develop a great strategy and the allies and champions that you will ultimately rely on to carry it out. Give meaty planning roles to key team members—as project managers or working team leaders, for example—and watch them grow. Ensure that a small group of influential and supportive board members participate in a steering committee that guides the effort, and engage the full board at a few different points over the course of the effort. It will help them—and you—develop.
4. Consider (and reconcile) both ends and means: Some planning efforts spend a lot of time on big picture questions of vision and strategy but never get down to brass tacks: who is going to do what, how much it will cost, and who will pay for it? Other efforts go straightaway to these prosaic matters without paying any attention to the big picture. The truth is you need to work on both fronts, and—this is key—ensure that your strategy and programming, on one hand, and your organization and finances, on the other, hang together and reinforce each other.
5. Bring fresh information and perspectives to bear (but be wary of diminishing returns): Planning is an opportunity to gather and reflect on new data and feedback to fully inform your thinking. It can’t simply be a facilitated discussion. If you aren’t surprised by new information at some point in the process, you haven’t dug deep enough. But you also need to avoid “analysis paralysis.” Clarify the key open questions to focus the data gathering and analysis. Generate and test hypotheses, then decide. You won’t analyze your way to the right answer, only to a set of better-informed judgment calls that you’ll still need to make.
6. Take as much time as it takes (but no longer): Given planning is an extra effort, and that you need clarity on your strategy as soon as possible, you will want to move quickly. Remember though you want to bring a critical mass of influential stakeholders along so that they understand the plan and will be standing in your corner when it comes time to execute it. You shouldn’t presume that they are tracking its development at the same level and pace you are. Take time to get their input and enlist their support. You want to go slow to go fast here. But not too slow, as people (not least you!) can lose interest in a process that lacks decisive momentum.
7. It’s ultimately about the process, not the product: As should be clear from the practices above, the real benefit of planning is not the final document but rather the discipline the process imposes, the new information it generates, the working relationships it fosters, and the conversations, insights, and commitments it sparks. To paraphrase and mash-up von Moltke the Elder and Eisenhower, no plan survives contact with the real world, but the process of planning is indispensable. You are the leader of the organization. Don’t regard a sustained investment of your time to get a good strategy up and running as a distraction from your work. It is your work!
Are there any other effective practices that you’ve used or observed? Please weigh in using the comment box below.
Should we welcome the emergence of vape-filled rooms? (Photo Credit: Paul Hansen, licensed under CC BY 2.0)
Are democracy reformers searching in the wrong places for the solution to what ails our politics? That’s the premise of a bold stroke of a white paper entitled, “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy” from Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution (a grantee of the Madison Initiative). I would encourage anyone concerned with the health of representative democracy in the United States to read his assessment. You may not like it—indeed, you may have a visceral reaction to the arguments Rauch presents in it—but we all need to reckon with what he and a growing number of astute observers are saying about our current quandaries.
What is political realism? Rauch observes that “above all, the realist believes in the reality of trade-offs. We live in a world of second and often third choices, and in order to govern one must make decisions and engage in practices which look bad up close and are hard to defend in public but which, nonetheless, seem to be the best alternative at the time. Always the realist asks: ‘Compared with what?’ Principles alone mean little until examined in the harsh light of real-world alternatives.”
Rauch goes on to note that political realism is a disposition akin to the realist tradition in foreign policy. Accordingly,
[I]t sees governing as difficult and political peace and stability as treasures never to be taken for granted. It understands that power’s complex hydraulics make interventions unpredictable and risky. (Banning some ugly political practice, for instance, won’t make it go away.) It therefore values incrementalism and, especially, equilibrium—and, therefore, transactional politics. If most of the players in a political system are invested in dickering, the system is doing something right, not something wrong. Back-scratching and logrolling are signs of a healthy political system, not a corrupt one.
Rauch’s argument can be read as an indictment of the progressive, populist, and libertarian reform traditions that he describes as waging an unstinting three-front war on transactional politics in the name of expanding transparency, stamping out corruption, and empowering the people (populists), meritocrats (progressives), or markets (libertarians). And surely much of the pushback on this piece will come from reformers working in these different camps.
But it won’t be sufficient for critics to dismiss Rauch as overly nostalgic for the heyday of Tammany Hall. Rauch sizes up the factors that led to the downfall of traditional machine politics and acknowledges that that the way forward is, well, forward. We still need political machines to govern, but as Rauch notes these machines need to be understood in conceptual, not historical terms: as “informal (as opposed to legally constituted) and mutually accountable hierarchies, networks, and relationships that allow politicians to organize their environment by reaching accommodations, honoring accommodations, rewarding and protecting supporters, punishing and marginalizing defectors, and exerting coordinated influence through multiple formal channels.”
Rather than trying to rehabilitate political parties or strengthening their position in our system, as some have called for, Rauch bids us to think more broadly, and with an eye to the future and the form that new machines could take. “Translating the axes of analysis from parties to machines has the advantage of putting function ahead of form; it begins by asking not what an organization or system is but what it does.” Using Rauch’s definition, not all machines need to be party organizations, and indeed not all party organizations are capable of serving as machines – just ask Speaker Boehner. But all machines do need the fuel of transactional politics and the private negotiations and deal-making that such politics entail.
Rauch is not alone in making his telling points. Another service that this paper provides is to draw together findings and observations from a growing number of leading scholars who can also be placed in the realist school of thought, or are at least fellow travelers, including Rick Pildes, Ray La Raja, Nate Persily, Bruce Cain, Frances Lee and Sarah Binder. (Full disclosure: the Madison Initiative has funded the research of La Raja, and supports research centers with which Persily, Cain, and Binder are affiliated). We have learned much from the work of each of these scholars, and trust that this paper will help their collective insights gain even more of the hearing that they warrant in the public debate.
You might be asking at this point, just how does Rauch propose that we build and fuel these modern day machines? For my part, I do wonder if the steady erosion of material incentives in American politics, i.e., the patronage jobs, pork barrel spending, and perquisites that officials enjoyed in an earlier, pre-ethics reform age, has forever limited the scope of transactional politics in our public life. Rauch does offer some preliminary suggestions that he believes hold promise, including routing more campaign finance through formal political party organizations and strengthening the hand of committee leaders and processes in Congress. And we are seeing some positive, albeit nascent developments in these areas.
But Rauch’s most pressing message is that we should begin by rethinking common reform assumptions and “argumentative defaults” that “have gone unchallenged and hardened into dogma.” For example, here at the Madison Initiative we are focused on alleviating polarization, but Rauch suggests that what Rick Pildes has termed the “fragmentation” of political leadership is actually the deeper set problem. Rauch likewise questions widely held reform imperatives such as increasing voter participation, making districts more competitive, publicly financing campaigns via small donor matching schemes, doubling down on transparency, and continuing to fight the “all-consuming, ever expanding, and by now entirely counterproductive war on corruption.” We have been pushing on these fronts for some time now. Are we better governed than before? What Rauch is ultimately saying to would-be reformers is that, given we find ourselves in a deep hole, perhaps it is time to stop digging and reconsider the problem at hand.
There’s a reason predicting the future is so hard: we humans tend to overestimate the extent to which it will look like the present, only with better gadgets. This point was brought home to me at a recent grantee event, when I had a chance to speak with a member of the House of Representatives, a savvy Democrat who has represented a rust belt district for more than three decades. I asked him what the biggest change in Congress that he has witnessed over the years was. He thought about it for a moment and said it was that the Democratic caucus no longer had any conservative southerners. When he had arrived in Congress they were most notable bloc in the party. Now, as National Journal recently pointed out, in the 114th Congress there is not a single white Democrat serving in either the House or Senate from South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Missisisppi, or Louisiana. The representative shook his head in disbelief as he reflected on this observation: if someone had told him this was how things would end up when he was first elected, he said, “It would have been inconceivable to me!”
His response intrigued me for a few reasons. First, he didn’t lead with the polarization and corresponding decline in institutional comity that most observers of the institution would highlight. But of course the changes he alluded to—the migration of conservative Southerners into the Republican Party, and the growing preeminence of African Americans in the Democratic Party in the South—have been major factors driving polarization, helping to sort American citizens and the legislators representing them into two ideologically coherent and distinct political parties.
But his reflections on dramatic changes that would have been inconceivable to his younger self also prompted me to consider: what changes will unfold over the next three decades that we simply can’t imagine today? It is easy for me to presume, like the representative I spoke with, that the main contours of American politics today will remain unchanged long into the future, especially because things seem so “stuck” at present. But a safer bet from a historical standpoint is that things will change in ways that we can’t currently conceive of, let alone predict.
Mark Schmitt leads the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, which is a grantee of the Foundation’s Madison Initiative. He has a thoughtful essay in the current edition of Democracy, entitled “Democratic Romanticism and its Critics,” that everyone interested in democracy reform should read. Schmitt’s piece does a commendably fair job of summarizing the perspectives of a growing number of democratic skeptics for the readers of a journal whose self-professed mission is “to build a vital and vibrant progressivism for the twenty-first century.”
Schmitt notes that:
[T]his school of skeptics is less interested in an idealized democracy…than in effective governance. They worry less that government is pulled away from the public interest by money and concentrated power than that it can’t address problems in even the messy, transactional, and imperfect way that it once did.
Schmitt’s subtitle is a provocation, suggesting that, if the skeptics are right, then “everything you thought you know about fixing American politics might be wrong.”
In the end Schmitt doesn’t go that far, concluding that the skeptics’ perspective rests unsteadily on a nostalgia for party bosses, political machines, earmarks, and the like that is itself idealized and, in his view, fails to illuminate a practical way forward. To his credit, elsewhere Schmitt has sketched out a democratic reform agenda that seeks to reframe traditional arguments railing against corruption by focusing instead on elevating the value of what he terms political opportunity.
Digesting these two pieces together provides a great vantage point on the evolving debate on political reform. Kudos to Schmitt for his willingness to listen to and take seriously the arguments of those on the other side of the reform debate and to revisit the assumptions of the advocacy community that is closer to home for him. We will need more of this kind of critic and political boundary-crosser for the work that lies ahead.
The American Enterprise Institute hosted a terrific conference earlier this week, in partnership with the Center for American Progress, to unveil a jointly issued report and interactive data base entitled States of Change: Demographics and Democracy. You can find these resources on AEI’s website and CAP’s website.
Over the past year, the first of a planned three-year effort, the States of Change project has looked back across four decades to analyze the demographic trends in age, race, ethnicity, education, family structure, and political participation across the fifty states that have brought our society to where we are today. The project has also looked out through 2060 to project how these trends will evolve in decades to come.
When Ruy Teixeira of CAP and Karlyn Bowman of AEI first approached us with the idea for this joint project in late 2013, we were intrigued. We ended up funding it—and not just because of its substantive importance for our work and that of many others in the field of democracy reform. We also appreciated their aspiration, as representatives of institutions working on opposite sides of the political spectrum, to establish a shared set of facts and projections, then organize a series of wide-ranging discussions, debates, and white papers about the implications of what they found for our politics and policy. Given that so many think tanks presume they have a monopoly on truth, it was refreshing to encounter institutions that felt they could get to better answers by working together. Judging by yesterday’s effort, they’re off to a great start.
I won’t begin to do justice to the richness and depth of the information that you can find in States of Change; let me just encourage you to dig into it yourself. (If you’d like an overview, you might watch Gwen Ifill’s interview with Ruy and Karyln on the PBS NewsHour.)
Finally I’d be remiss if I didn’t tip my hat to Ruy Teixeira of CAP and Karlyn Bowman of AEI and the colleagues they have engaged in this effort. Karlyn and Ruy, along with Bill Frey of the Brookings Institution, who joined forces with Ruy to drive the underlying demographic analysis, are adeptly pulling off this collaboration. I can imagine that it hasn’t always been easy, but their partnership has been a real credit to them and their institutions. Indeed, to my mind it is an example of think tanks at their best. It’s been our pleasure to support them thus far and we look forward to seeing what comes next.
The moment of truth came a few weeks back while I was driving around doing errands with my family. While we were stopped at a light, I snuck my phone out of my pocket and started scrolling through my feed, something that had increasingly become my habit when bored. My 11-year-old daughter busted me from the back seat. “Dad, are you texting someone while you are driving?” I quickly reassured her that I was just on Twitter, and anyway the light was red. My spouse was seated next to me in front, and in the midst of this shameless performance, I saw her left eyebrow rise up. I shoved my phone back into my pocket, the light changed, the car behind us honked, and we drove on.
But the moment stayed with me. It reinforced a growing sense that Twitter was distracting me in ways and at times that I shouldn’t allow. I had to admit that the man who had once taken pride in carefully reading and note-taking his way through the 69 volumes of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson for his dissertation research was now often waylaid before he could skim a three-paragraph blog post.
I contemplated going cold turkey. But as a grantmaker, I have found Twitter to be a highly efficient way to follow the activities and perspectives of current and potential grantees and co-funders—not to mention researchers and observers offering unconventional wisdom on the issues we care about. And it is a way for me to share what I am thinking and reading, not a bad thing given the value the Hewlett Foundation places on transparency.
So in the spirit of being helpful to others out there who might be wrestling with similar issues, here is my self-designed six-step recovery program:
1. Delete Twitter from my smartphone. This step has made the biggest difference by far, as it has more or less eliminated the mindless use of Twitter—not to mention the temptations that had me setting a very bad example for my children.
2. Cap the number of accounts I follow.I have gone from following more than 800 feeds at the height of my addiction down to a self-imposed cap of 200 today. If I add a new account, I stop following another. This has me making more intentional choices about whom to follow.
3. Puncture the filter bubble. In pruning my feed, I took care to keep and in some instances to start following people who see things differently than I do, including a few who routinely tick me off. I realize that if at any point I can’t identify such antagonists, then I am in the bubble.
4. Use the “lists” feature to organize my feed. This lets me group who I follow into categories and thus make more intentional choices about what I am seeing in my feed. If I want to read political scientists parsing President Obama’s budget, I don’t need to sort through sports columnists debriefing whether the Seahawks should have given the ball to Marshawn Lynch—or vice versa.
5. Read before retweeting. This step slows me down so that I can actually process the rich information in my feed, and it ultimately helps me be more respectful of my tweeps. On a related note, if I say something is a “must read,” it really should be!
6. Make a list of a dozen books I need to read this year – and read one each month. Part of moving away from habits that have gone bad is replacing them with better ones that will help me get back on track. While I don’t want to drop Twitter altogether, I realize I need to renew my capacity for sustained reading and reflection or it will atrophy.
As the saying goes, I am trying to take things one day at a time. Thanks for listening. Would anyone else out there in the Twitterverse like to share their ideas for coping with this challenge?
Congratulations to the hardworking team at the Washington Monthly for an outstanding January/ February issue. Given how this magazine consistently punches above its weight, the Madison Initiative is pleased to be helping underwrite their efforts with a multi-year grant for general support. In this issue I’d recommend you be sure to read Donald Kettl’s “Ten Secret Truths About Government Incompetence,” (including my personal favorite: “half the time, when it looks like it’s the president’s fault, the problems really come from Congress.”) Next you might take in Kevin Kosar’s essay on how Congress is shooting itself in the foot, or really the brain, by chronically under-funding the work of the Congressional Research Service. Don’t overlook John DiIulio’s review of Frank Fukuyama’s masterwork, Political Order and Political Decay, for an extended treatment of “The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Government” and what it would take for it to rise again. From there you can go on to understand how climate change is messing with polar bears’ food supply in ways that aren’t good—“to a starving polar bear, a human is just meat”—or learn about “Three Simple Fixes that Could Save Pro Football,” among other diversions.
The biggest must-read piece in the entire issue is actually the Editor’s Note from Paul Glastris: “Why a Second Progressive Era Is Emerging—And How Not to Blow It.” Pointing to the difficulties and dissatisfactions that are increasingly rampant, Glastris detects “a seed of hope” and suggests we are on the verge of an era of positive change—setting the stage for the kind of effective, responsive government that the Madison Initiative’s work is intended to support—that could rival that which occurred at the outset of the 20th Century. But he notes two fundamental differences between then and now:
The first is that progressivism between 1890 and 1921 was bipartisan. Each party had its progressive wing, and each competed with the other in articulating a reform agenda. Today, progressivism is profoundly one-sided. It is the dominant force within the Democratic Party and at best a tiny, rump, besieged minority in the Republican Party….The second great difference is the almost complete lack of attention being paid by modern progressives to public administration and government structure… for the most part today’s left-leaning progressives are almost entirely focused on politics, economic justice, social issues, and the influence of money in politics. These are important subjects. But the vast complex of government is largely a black box to these folks.
What I’m saying is this: there are energies being unleashed today that give the country a shot at reforming itself. But reform can’t and won’t happen until the left takes government—its structure and functioning—far more seriously, and until the right develops a stronger pro-government wing that can win over conservative supporters and compete with Democrats, challenging their blind spots while partnering on needed reforms.
Whether you are waiting to welcome a second Progressive Era or not—not all of us are—you have to admit that the man has a point.
Hillary, Jeb, Mitt, Rand—will they or won’t they? When and how will they? Twenty-one months out from the next presidential election, somehow we’re already caught up in the high drama of the campaign. Our democracy has a presidential fixation that rivals that of teenagers addled by the latest pop stars who also go by first names alone.
In some ways this popular obsession is understandable. It is much easier for the media (and thus the citizens consuming it) to focus attention on one person in the Oval Office than on the 535 members of Congress. And with each election and transition it is natural for us to get our hopes up that—at last—a leader will come along to heal our broken politics.
At the Madison Initiative, we’ve gotten plenty of constructive feedback on our Congress-centric view of the world. Our critical friends have told us that we need to make more room in our systems map for the role of presidential leadership in fostering constructive compromise. We are thinking through this input and its implications for our grantmaking. But we don’t envision moving Congress away from the center of our map anytime soon.
For all of the hopes we place in our presidents, in the current era they inevitably disappoint us. Consider that the last two occupants of the White House have come to office pledging to serve, respectively, as “a uniter, not a divider,” and as a leader elevating “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” However, as Richard Skinner has shown, both George Bush and Barack Obama came to exemplify what he has termed the “partisan presidency.”
Whether we like it or not, in an era of intense polarization the mantle of partisan-in-chief is inevitably handed over with the house keys at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Indeed, George Edwards has demonstrated that, far from rallying Congress, presidential efforts to publicly champion legislation actually work to deepen the partisan divisions that drive legislative gridlock.
If you think about it, the president—one person, the leader of one party—cannot practically encompass and represent the diverse and divergent viewpoints that drive our nation’s politics. Given how deeply and evenly divided we are, in the wake of a presidential election you can count on roughly half of the voters to see the chief executive as the person they voted against.
If you want representation, it has to come in and through Congress, where—despite the unseemliness of so many aspects of the sausage-making—the full diversity of the country is meant to be represented. And it is, more or less: whatever your political perspective, you can count on at least some members of Congress (if not entire party delegations) speaking up for it.
So even as we brace ourselves for the next two years of presidential pandemonium, we will continue to focus our efforts on supporting the ability of Congress and its members to deliberate, negotiate, and compromise in ways that work for the American people.
It’s been a brutal week for representative democracy in the United States. First, we had the gruesome report (albeit better late than never) from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence describing the widespread program of torture undertaken by the CIA from 2001 to 2006. Presently, we’re watching an ungainly legislative mess—all $1 Trillion and 1,603 pages of the so-called “Cromnibus”—slouching its way through Congress at the eleventh hour. As different as they are, both episodes represent profound institutional failures.
My spirits were buoyed, however, by an email I received yesterday from my daughter Sophia, a senior at Georgetown. She passed on a letter to the community from the university’s President, Jack DeGioia—one that made her feel proud to be affiliated with the institution.
You might recall DeGioia’s resounding defense of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, and civil discourse more broadly, when she was attacked by Rush Limbaugh two years ago for her congressional testimony calling for health insurance plans to cover contraceptives. Needless to say, this was not an easy defense for the president of a Catholic institution (whose health plan did not provide for birth control) to give, but he offered it without flinching. After noting that Limbaugh’s critique could “only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student,” he went on to observe that “In our vibrant and diverse society, there always are important differences that need to be debated, with strong and legitimate beliefs held on all sides of challenging issues. The greatest contribution of the American project is the recognition that together, we can rely on civil discourse to engage the tensions that characterize these difficult issues, and work towards resolutions that balance deeply held and different perspectives.”
In yesterday’s public letter to the Georgetown community, written in the wake of the controversy surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, DeGioia offered some broader “reflections on citizenship and a just society.” As DeGioia put it, in the aftermath of these developments, “the fabric that we think of as America seems to be fraying.”
What can we do about this? I would encourage you to read DeGioia’s letter in its entirety to appreciate his assessment, but let me excerpt two central paragraphs for your consideration here:
Citizenship—participation in a just society—then, is predicated on more than the rule of law, on more than the privileges and rights bestowed through membership in a particular political order. It assumes a commitment to a common shared project—a civic project that entails a sense of belonging to something bigger than any one of us: the idea that together it is possible to build a commonweal. This possibility is predicated on the conviction that we are connected to one another by something deeper than transactions, economic or otherwise. Responsible participation in a just society presumes a deep belief that we can only realize our own promise and potential as individuals through our shared commitment to such a common project.
On other occasions, I have written to you encouraging civility in discourse and in our interactions with one another. The events of these past months reveal that much more is required. We need to engage in the work of rebuilding our commonweal; we need to reexamine our commitments to one another; we need to identify concrete projects through which, together, we can build for the common good—projects that will enable us to rebuild trust in one another and to justify belief in the principles on which our American democracy was founded.
President DeGioia has once again given all of us—not just the members of the Georgetown community—truths to ponder and a standard to live up to, both through his message and the example of his leadership.
Last week marked the public launch of the Madison Initiative’s systems map, version 1.0. This map captures our take on the key variables in our system of representative government, the causal links and loops that connect them, as well as where our grantees are working to improve the system. The map will serve as the framework for our evolving strategy. If you haven’t yet—and why haven’t you?—you can take a guided tour of our map and provide us feedback on it here.
By way of continuing the conversation, I’m sharing responses to three questions I recently put to Jeff Mohr, co-Founder and CEO of Kumu, the online platform we have used to develop and share our systems map. Jeff has been an essential partner for us on this part of our work, and Kumu has proven to be an exceptional tool. I think you’ll appreciate Jeff’s take on the power of systems mapping when it comes to tackling complex problems.
1) What prompted you to start Kumu?
Honestly, Kumu was born out of a frustration with how awful the existing tools were for tackling complex social issues. We tried to map relationships among actors in the Hawaii renewable energy space a few years ago and threw our hands up in frustration. Why do we have an abundance of beautifully designed, elegant tools for sharing pictures, fetching cabs, and keeping in touch with friends, and yet nothing for solving complex issues?
We believe better tools have a big role to play in making greater impact. US foundations deploy more than $47 billion each year and yet many things seem to be getting worse—not better. Sure these challenges are innately difficult, operate on long time frames, and are often unpredictable, but we’ve got to get better at solving them and stop wasting so much money.
Take any of the major issues of today (obesity, education, health care, or even ISIS) and you’re guaranteed to be working with complex systems that cross sectors, geographies, and communities. These issues are rooted in culture and require significant behavioral shifts to overcome, yet we approach them as if money, knowledge, and idealism will magically solve them.
Organizations spend little time mapping out the underlying structure of the systems they are working to change and often duplicate (or worse hinder) efforts by working in silos. Dr. Paul Betalden puts it best, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets.” We’re not mysteriously getting screwed out of making an impact. These are the results of the systems we’ve designed (intentionally or not) and if we expect to change those results, we need to intimately understand the structure of the systems, actors, and incentives holding the status quo in place. And that’s what we’re trying to help people do with Kumu.
2) Kumu doesn’t seem like your typical Silicon Valley startup. Most of them wouldn’t feel obliged to provide a social manifesto, like you do, the first three tenets of which are “Sh*t’s Broken, We’re all Responsible, All hope is not lost—yet!” Say a bit more about the determination driving your social mission.
Peter Thiel has a great question that he asks of possible investees, “What do you believe that few others do?” At its core, the manifesto is our response to this question. It defines the bias we operate under for building Kumu.
We believe it should be easier to be happy in this life—that it shouldn’t be a battle for anyone to have their basic needs met. Sure there needs to be incentives for people to go off and do grand things and make lots of money, but there also needs to be balance and compassion. Capitalism doesn't mean we're each on our own.
In a way, it’s getting back to the argument of the founding fathers—that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are very basic needs but needs that still aren't met in much of the developing world. What’s worse is they only grow harder to grasp as the world moves faster and gets more complex.
3) Any words of encouragement or advice you’d offer to teams that are doing mapping work for the first time?
Teams spend a lot of time worrying about whether their map is “right.” I can tell you right now, it’s wrong. The right approach is rarely intuitive. It’s usually incredibly messy and full of contradictions. But the good news is it’s not about getting it right. Creating a system map is as much about the process as it is the map. That’s why its important to be smart about who you engage in the process, how early you bring them in, and that you frame it as an ongoing, evolving understanding of the system. As Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab points out, “The only way these solutions work is when they’re developed in partnership with the people actually affected by these problems.” So be inclusive.
Set the expectation that this work will be complex, messy, and slow. Don’t expect that any one map will magically unlock the missing secret. There are no silver bullets when working on complex issues. As Ben Horowitz would tell you, it takes a lot of lead bullets. Mapping is more about how we can increase the odds that our lead bullets actually hit the target. And especially in large, cross-sector challenges, about how we can get everyone to at least aim at the same target and stop shooting each other in the foot.
Focus on discovering and changing the underlying system dynamics. Danny Burns, from the Institute of Development Studies, urges that “sustainable change requires changes in system dynamics.” Even if your intervention appears to have “worked,” without altering the core dynamic that brought about the problem in the first place, you’ve only kicked the can down the road a little further.
Finally, don’t forget to have some fun along the way. Ultimately this work is about building relationships and breaking down barriers, and laughter truly is the shortest distance between two people.