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Stop Managing to the Exceptions and Start Learning from the Consequences

In my work with nonprofits, I've found that there's a tendency to manage to the exceptions. This plays itself out a few ways.

In some cases, entire systems will be developed around what could go wrong. Staff management policies and and practices are based on the few who are problems, rather than the many who are not. Client services are developed to "control" the "bad" client, rather than to meet the needs of the vast majority who are "good."

I've also seen this principle in action when management are evaluating the use of new ideas or  technologies. They immediately consider the worst possible scenario and then use that as a reason to ultimately stick with the status quo. They've already proven they can live with the negative consequences of what currently exists, so in their minds it is often the case that "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't."

I think it's valuable to evaluate new ideas in light of the potential worst case scenario. You need to be clear about what COULD happen, rather than being all Pollyanna about it. But to me, envisioning worst case scenarios should be a route to planning to deal with them, rather than to shooting down something that could, in fact, serve you better.

I thought about this phenomenon when I was reading Chris Lehman's post on Dealing with the Worst Consequences of Your Best Ideas. Chris is the principal of a newly-opened high school in Philadelphia called the Science Leadership Academy. They are in the process of working through their first year and what Chris has to say about their planning process is applicable to nonprofits, too, I think:

One of the things I always try to keep in mind when I think about school planning and design, and something I said a lot to the faculty as we planned, was "There is no panacea in education and every great idea has a dark side, so what are the worst consequences of your best ideas?" It's important to do for two reasons -- one because I think that many educational institutions become reactionary too often, throwing the baby out with the bathwater when an unforeseen consequence of a really good idea comes along. I'd rather think about every potential dark side so that when they happen, I'm not surprised, I've thought about them first, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a consequence I can live with. And two, because you can look to mitigate them and plan for them, and speak about them before hand.

This is what happens in nonprofits, too. There is no panacea in nonprofit work.  We work with very complex social problems with no easy answers. These problems (should) force us to consider complex solutions with great potential to backfire. But unintended consequences shouldn't make us back away from powerful solutions. Instead, they should invite us to delve deeper and to consider how these consequences can help staff learn and grow to more workable options.

To illustrate this point, Chris discusses a recent issue that the school had with their students using instant messaging on their laptops:

We had some students use the laptops and instant messaging in really inappropriate ways. It was upsetting teachers and students alike, and we saw a creeping loss of a sense of safety. So what did we do? We talked about it as a community on our moodle site. The student forums were suddenly filled with conversations about what was going on, what screennames to beware of, how to block someone in iChat, and (I'm not kidding) discussion by students about how poorly this reflected on our community. The adults chimed in from time to time to give our perspective, and the conversations continued as we did continue to try to find out who was doing this. What was interesting is that as the conversations about the behavior continued, we saw less of the behavior, and I believe that to be two-fold, 1) We, the adults, made it clear that there would be consequences, and 2) (and more importantly) it quickly became obvious that the kids doing it didn't have a ton of support in the community. Kids were really upset.

This is the kind of thing that nonprofit managers fear will happen when staff use social media tools. Maybe they won't say inappropriate things, the way that teenagers would, but what if staff talk about non-work related things? Or link to something we don't approve of? In many cases, the fear of this will be enough to squash the idea before it's even implemented. But if you're willing to use this as a learning opportunity, these consequences can actually help you improve your community and capacity to function.

What strikes me about Chris's response is that the school chose to use this unintended consequence as a learning opportunity rather than to shut down their use of the tool.

Many schools (and nonprofits) would look at the experience and say "See--they're doing exactly what we worried they'd do. This is why we shouldn't have allowed them to do it in the first place!" But Chris and his teachers took a different approach. They used the experience to reinforce the organizational culture they are trying to create, one that is focused on developing students and their critical thinking skills, rather than one that is trying to create unthinking robots:

In the end, of course, this is about much more than how a few students used their laptops. It's about the culture of SLA, and how we create an open culture where kids aren't just told what to do, but have a lot of ability to make decisions in a caring community. There's a Vaclav Havel quote that speaks powerfully to this whole issue:

"Freedom is only one side of the coin, where the other side is represented by responsibility. . .

. . . (This experience)  reminds us of our own values and how we have to strike that balance, and not take away the kids' freedom to express themselves, freedom to make decisions, freedom to take ownership in our community, because that is our best idea, but rather, we just have to make sure we teach -- and embody ourselves -- the responsibility that goes with that."

To me, this story captures the essence of organizational capacity-building--having the courage to try complex new ideas and then to facilitate the organization through discussion and learning about the consequences of those ideas. Bad or good, there's always something to be learned.



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