Archive for February, 2015

Fail Better: Learn how to make nonprofit failures maximally useful

Let’s face it: Failure is universal. It is universally associated with avoidance, denial, frustration and shame. Yet smart individuals, teams, and even some organizations have discovered failure, if anticipated, evaluated, and corrected, can be the answer to succeeding sooner.

Fail Better authors Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn personally have experienced and observed these interactions with failing better and have assembled a systematic approach for improving how you fail. If we know failure is inevitable, why not get better at it?

Our latest recommended book is about just that—how to fail better. Sastry and Penn have designed a purposeful way to experiment and innovate that will transform your failures into opportunities to learn, modify and improve.

If you’ve ever asked any of the following questions, then Fail Better is for you:

“How do I deliver on my work—get my ‘real job’ done—and at the same time innovate and improve?”

“How do I improve my own personal practices and habits to enable even better impact?”

“How can I learn from previous experience, within our organization or more broadly?”

Sastry and Penn explain that “smart leaders, entrepreneurs and change agents design their innovation projects with a key idea in mind: ensure that every failure is maximally useful.” In Fail Better, the authors show you how to create the conditions, culture and habits to determine what the most
effective solutions are by:

1) launching every project with the necessary groundwork,

2) building and refining ideas, products and services through iterative action, and

3) identifying the learning moments and embedding the knowledge.

Launch, iterate, embed

In other words, the book discusses how to address failures and make them beneficial before (launch), during (iteration) and after (embedding) the project’s work. You will learn an invaluable skill you may never have developed before: how to distinguish “preventable, wasteful and uninstructive failures” from helpful ones you can incorporate into your process.

Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights and failing better

The Civil Rights Movement is an example of iterating and embedding your learning. Initially, when the movement did not accomplish enough change working through the legal system, it began to look at lessons from India’s independence and worked with the NAACP to share assets and capabilities. The leaders had to consider the time horizon by acknowledging that their movements in the short run could possibly only pay off in the long run.

They practiced civil disobedience in many settings and shared their field-tested advice with other groups. They were constantly telling their stories through speeches. They continuously embedded their learning when they met to discuss and debate perspectives and tactics. The ultimate embedding occurred with the civil rights legislation. They, especially Martin Luther King, Jr., documented (embedded) their thoughts as well.

If nonprofits are willing to accept that failure is inevitable and part of progress, then they can enjoy the benefits turning mistakes into productive experiences. Both large and small organizations can implement the launch-iterate-embed practices Sastry and Penn recommend in the book. Watch for future installments about the Fail Better method and how you can embrace failure for what it can teach you.

See also:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change

Image credits: rrfit-com,,,

Leave a reply

Employee feedback: the gift that keeps on giving

It happened again. The phone rang a few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon at 4:30. It was an executive director who was at her limit with an employee who had worked at the organization for more than two decades. The caller proceeded to tell me this employee had never performed very well and could she fire her? We talked for a bit. I asked the ED whether she had ever given feedback to this employee. Did the employee receive regular performance appraisals or just general information about job performance? The ED paused and said, “”No,” and agreed to have a conversation with this employee in which she would create job goals and give specific and concrete examples of what constitutes excellent performance.

I happened to see this ED two weeks ago and asked about her problem employee. The ED said that much to her surprise, the employee was doing great. When the ED asked the employee what accounted for the improved performance, the employee said she finally understood what was expected of her. The difference that good feedback makes cannot be overestimated.

Performance management is the process of giving feedback to help employees progress toward achieving predetermined goals in their job and for the organization. Usually performance management is a human resource system where individual employees receive a regularly scheduled performance appraisal from their supervisors. Often the performance appraisal is done on an annual basis.

A key skill that is required for giving feedback to employees about their performance is that of HR. HR skills enable an individual to aptly judge an employee’s credentials and potentials and give feedback as and when required. Visit to know more,

Use it or lose it

Organizations spend a lot of time designing the perfect form. Yet, the most perfect form doesn’t do anything if it isn’t used. Supervisors and employees report that they don’t like the process generally. Supervisors complain about the time, the discomfort of giving feedback and the fact that in this day of tight budgets, pay increases don’t usually follow. Employees don’t like the process since feedback often comes too late to correct a negative problem and supervisors forget to recognize the good work employees generally do.

Good performance management, whether in the form of feedback or a formal performance appraisal, helps employees know they are valued, first. Second, they learn which behaviors they should continue and which they should stop. Some statistics suggest that when employees are terminated, almost 50% of the time, employees say they didn’t know what was expected of them. And, employees often report that they are motivated by appreciation for a job well done. Something a performance appraisal process can embed is what the manager does to clarify expectations and to give positive feedback.

What might a good evaluation form include?

Nonprofits frequently ask is there a “best” form? There is no one right form. A few considerations as to the form’s construction can include:

Does the form measure what is important to the organization?

Are the evaluation criteria job related?

Do the criteria reflect the highest priorities of the organization, department and job?

Do employees and supervisors regard the form as relevant?

Do supervisors and managers understand and buy into the purpose of the form?

Does it include:

Important identification information


Instructions for completion

Defined performance criteria

Performance levels/ratings

Specific performance examples supporting ratings for each criterion

Space for employee comments

Signatures with dates (employee, supervisor, higher level of manager and/or human resources)

Keep it simple so it’s easy to use

Most human resource books include sample forms as well as some websites. Wikipedia references a great, long publication from the Department of the Interior that serves as a guidebook and also includes a sample form. Again, the point of the form is to use it. Don’t make the form too long or too complicated with the calculations of the ratings. This will keep the most diligent supervisor from using it.

Once a form is designed that is appropriate for your organization, your culture and systems, the hard part of a good performance appraisal is your feedback session with the employee.

The most productive sessions will include the supervisor:

Providing a comfortable and uninterrupted setting, indicating how important these discussions are.

Being candid and truthful.

Describing the specific expectations and how the employee did or did not meet them.

Focusing on the job, not the person, by using specific examples of what leads the supervisor to give the particular feedback. Make sure the feedback describes job-specific behaviors to support comments.

Asking employee for his/her input or comments.

Being an active listener.

Regular evaluations prevent panic

In smaller organizations, conducting regular feedback sessions can be done without an elaborate form. In larger organizations, a unified approach with a consistent form is a good idea. When done on an ongoing basis, performance appraisals are much more than just another human resources’ “to do.” Evaluations can acknowledge good employees and help retain them as well as serve as a corrective tool to limit poor performance. In addition, performance appraisals are good documentation if the employee/employer relationship goes badly. And performance appraisals can help you not make those panicky calls late on Friday afternoons.

See also:

Winning with a Culture of Recognition

Nine Minutes on Monday: The Quick and Easy Way to Go from Manager to Leader

Image credits:,,

Leave a reply

Create a nonprofit culture of shared leadership in your organization

Many of us who grew up with the Internet simply have a different way of looking at the world compared to previous generations.

Take access to information: the Internet has democratized access to and dissemination of information in some very dramatic ways since the early 1990s. These different views spill over into the workplace, especially in terms of expectations around access to information, transparency, communication and decision-making. Within many nonprofits, leadership structures are lagging behind these shifts through the continued embrace of hierarchy, creating challenges for established leaders, younger employees and everyone else in between.

Less hierarchy equals better impact

This continued reliance on hierarchical structures has been repeatedly cited by young nonprofit leaders as one of the key barriers to leadership development in the sector. Ready to Lead: Next Generation Leaders Speak Out, a nationwide report published in 2008, states that organizations that maintain traditional hierarchical structures “risk perpetuating power structures that alienate emerging leadership talent in their organizations.” The report continues, “Executives who adapt their organizational cultures for less traditional hierarchy, while holding everyone accountable for meaningful mission impact, are in the best position to attract and retain the next generation of leadership.”

Opportunities versus challenges

Even though these generational differences often play out as challenges, many opportunities come along with adopting flatter structures and shared leadership models. Organizations that diffuse decision-making and communications are often more adaptable, which can lead to greater sustainability. Also, organizational cultures that integrate shared leadership practices often better demonstrate the values that many nonprofits exist to uphold. On a practical level, shared leadership models can also create a higher level of engagement and buy-in among staff and can promote the leadership development and retention of employees.

Shared leadership can be defined in many different ways, and practices fall along a continuum. The chart below summarizes some of the key practices that often differentiate leadership models within a nonprofit environment:

Area Hierarchical structure Shared leadership model
Decision-making Top management. Important decisions communicated down without input. Collaborative decision-making. Input from appropriate staff members is regularly sought and considered in any important decision.
Communications Top-down, one-way, infrequent.  Increased transparency, staff members have a say in all important decisions.
Structure Hierarchy Flattened hierarchy, networked, matrix, or collaborative
Planning Board and ED develop, staff implements. Partners in determining the organization’s future, all staff play some role.
Processes Directive Collective
Culture Resistant to change Encourages new ideas and innovation from all staff
Definition of “leader” Executive director and possibly select senior managers The organization cultivates leaders at all levels.
Ideas that some organizations are testing out Co-directors (separate internal and external focus) 

Management teams that report to the board, with the executive director serving as an equal member of the group

Strategic plans are developed with equal input and decision-making between board members and staff

If your organization has a traditional structure, testing out new approaches in areas like decision-making and leadership can be a good place to start to integrate some of these practices within your organization.

Here are some ideas to consider:

Use staff meetings to discuss critical issues and gather input, rather than reporting. Select an issue that is affecting your organization’s work and facilitate a conversation to get staff member input on addressing that issue, both short- and long-term. After some discussion, identify ways your team as a whole can work to address the issue, and then follow-through.

Include staff as partners in strategic planning. This can include something as simple as gathering staff input through an anonymous survey, to hosting multiple staff work sessions as part of the planning process, to fully integrating the staff, board, and your organization’s constituents into a partnership to create a plan for your organization’s future.

Gather staff input on a regular basis through anonymous staff satisfaction surveys and on important decisions affecting the organization. For staff surveys, openly share results and commit to addressing at least two or three things as a team.

Empower staff members at all levels to participate in setting goals in their functional areas and for their own performance, rather than prescribing deliverables and expectations.

Increase access to information and cultivate a culture of transparency. Additional transparency can include sharing board packets, financial information and program evaluation information, along with things like inviting staff members to observe or report at board meetings.

With younger leaders assuming leadership positions, formal and informal, within the sector on an increasingly frequent basis, shared leadership models are likely to become more and more prevalent. Help ensure that your organization can both attract this talent and maintain its relevancy by starting to integrate some of these practices in your organization. In addition to possibly strengthening your own organization, you can contribute to the retention and development of the next generation of sector leaders today.

This chart is adapted from “Shared Leadership: Why it Matters and How to Help Nonprofits Get There.” Alliance for Nonprofit Management Conference 2010, Judy Freiwirth, Psy D., Dahnesh Medora, and Deborah Meehan.

See also:

The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide: Revealing the Hidden Truths that Impact Performance

Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity

Liquid Leadership: From Woodstock to Wikipedia – Multigenerational Management Ideas That Are Changing the Way We Run Things

Image credits:,

Leave a reply

Clear up blurred lines of responsibility between nonprofit board and staff

If there was one universal nonprofit rule book that contained a set of rules defining the roles of the board and staff, we could avoid an incredible amount of miscommunication and angst over getting things done at the leadership level.

The fact is it doesn’t exist because things change, asserts author Jean Block. She adds that organizations and people evolve. Block has written The Invisible Yellow Line to provide a way for board and staff leaders to communicate about their roles and “reduce the trap of assumptions and defensiveness.”

Is your organization thriving or diving?

Board leadership is an area that demands much of our attention and effort due to its critical role in helping an organization thrive or dive. The Invisible Yellow Line author, Jean Block, has taken the literature on this topic one step further.

Block recognizes that a lack of clarity among roles between board and staff members is one of the most common reasons for conflict and inefficiency at the leadership level. Block provides leadership guidance in the areas of governance, management, operations and development as well as the key responsibilities where most gray areas (or what Block calls Invisible Yellow Lines) exist.

How to get started with using The Invisible Yellow Line

We asked Jean about how to get started with her model:

CP: The list of key responsibilities at the end of each core chapter (worksheet) is very helpful for generating conversation about the many Invisible Yellow Lines that may arise as board and staff work together. How did you create these lists?

JB: Practice, practice, practice and on-the-job experience as both a board leader and staff leader. These are the kinds of things that apply to most nonprofits and create a stepping-off place for discussion as to how you might handle them in your particular organization. I mean for these discussions to be ongoing because as organizations change and the people running them change, the roles might change.

CP: You state the obvious in the beginning of the book when you emphasize how communication is essential to manage the inevitable Invisible Yellow Lines. Yet knowing this fact still doesn’t always help boards and staffs work together. What’s the best way organizations can start and keep the communication going?

JB: Obviously, when things go wrong, fingers start to point and often there is no good way to get back on track without feeling defensive. I have seen organizations that have adopted the Yellow Line terminology as a way to communicate without pointing. In fact, using the Yellow Line can even be an icebreaker in tense situations.

CP: Is there an area of leadership (governance, management, operations or development) where organizations should start defining responsibilities or do you recommend a different beginning for nonprofits looking to avoid conflict at the Invisible Yellow Line?

JB: I think the answer to this question has to be defined by the organization. For some, defining governance versus management responsibilities is difficult. This is especially true in situations where the board has to transition from a “working board” status to a governing and policy-making board. For others, defining resource development is a critical issue. And let’s remember, these roles are likely to change with changes in staff and volunteer leadership as well as changes in an organization’s focus, maturity, etc.

Get the best of both worlds—our free summary and 20% off the book

If you feel like your staff and board would benefit from greater clarity, consider downloading our free summary of the book. Inside the summary on the cover page, we’ve included a 20% discount promotion code for the book.  Open up communication with your board and staff and prevent critical tasks from becoming enormous problems later.

See also:

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Transforms Your Organization

Image credits:, JeanBlock

Leave a reply

Welcome! Please provide your log-in information below.
Forget your password?
Enter your email or user name and your log-in information will be sent to the email on file.