Friday, May 20, 2011

Plan, Act, and Reflect: Group and Personal Praxis

In previous posts, I've described a chart for evaluating an organization, a spiral and spokes model for balanced growth, and outlined some ideas about maintaining continuity between short-term and long-term planning.  Now, I'm going to try to bring it all together, and sketch out a model for a growing organization that plans, acts, and reflects.

Looking at the movement over the past few years, people are doing more, they're thinking through things beforehand more, and they're studying and thinking about what needs to be done. This is great. We have a long way to go, though, because it's generally not balanced. We have groups that are big on acting but don't seem to have a plan or think about the effects of their action afterwards. We have study groups that delve deep into theory but don't get involved much in action and have trouble with concrete plans. 

Some groups are pretty good about this and relatively balanced--planning, acting, and then reflecting on their actions for next time. But often the planning and reflecting as a group tends to be focused only on an immediate goal. This is the flip-side of groups that focus solely on far off goals and neglect the concrete.

And just as different groups seem to find an unbalanced niche, individuals do the same and gravitate towards groups that match their personal preferences. So you find people that care a lot about theory but don't know how to apply it gravitating towards study groups. People that care about winning immediate gains gravitate towards groups devoid of theory and without a long-term plan. People that are attracted to militant action gravitate towards action-only groups.

To be effective, though, we need an organization that cares about theory and far off goals, that plans before it acts, that reflects on actions in order to be more effective next time, that works on long and medium term goals as well as short. And the organization needs to have a place for people at different levels of development in different areas. Someone who truly is only interested in thoughtless "militant action" or who just wants to study theory and never apply it has no place in an effective organization, of course, but part of the role of the organization is to take people with different levels of experience, knowledge, ability, and risk acceptance, and both allow them to plug into productive work and to develop their abilities in other areas to make them more well rounded.

At least, that's the thrust of what I'm investigating - how to build an effective, growing organization that plans before it acts and reflects afterwards, that achieves short-term goals, but as a means to achieving medium and long-term goals, according to medium and long term plans. And to be growing, it needs to be able to take people in largely as they are, find ways to let them apply their skills and do what they seek to do, and also help them to grow in their abilities and vision.

Of course, at the state of the movement now, few if any people are really actually good at much of what we need to do or know where to begin. That's ok. In fact, it's best if we are honest with ourselves about our current limitations if we hope to move beyond them.

So what does that mean for planning? Well, people and groups that do no planning choose that route because they know their limitations and know that any plan they come up with would take a long time and wouldn't be very good. It's rational then to avoid that detour and get right to what they want to do. Likewise, people and groups that plan only in the short-term are rightly skeptical of long-term planning.

It would be a mistake to jump right in and start crafting intricate long-term strategies that go beyond what we know. If we did that, we'd go down one of two possible routes - stick with the plan and fail miserably, or end up ignoring it and not really using a long term plan.

But there's another way to go that avoids those traps and follows two important principles. One principle is to stick with what you know and what speaks to the experience of the people in your group. The other principle is that you can't grow if you don't stretch. These principles are opposed, but they still work together. If you stay with only what you know, you'll get better and better at it, but you won't really go anywhere. If you stretch too far, you'll become ungrounded and disconnected from the present. Instead, you play to your strengths, but challenge yourselves.

In the context of planning, this means that you don't concern yourself too much with long-term planning, since it's probably far outside your experience and abilities. But nobody is completely without ability in this regard. So you challenge yourselves to come up with a long term plan that is as concrete and realistic as you can manage, but no more detailed and intricate than your hazy view of the future warrants. So you spend a bit of time, not much, on this. Come up with something you can work towards and revisit as you learn more.

In addition to this, you can work on a medium term plan - this is closer to your experience, and it's easier to guess about the future. You'd spend more time on this, and the result would be more detailed, more concrete, and more accurate. But still, it would be pretty limited, because it is a stretch.

Next is the near term plan. This you can really sink your teeth into. What are you going to do over the next 6 months or year? You can set specific goals, with measurable targets, and put these on the calendar. You'll have some sense of how these goals feed into your medium term goals.

Once you have the plan, you can track how well you are doing. But you can do more than that with the plan. The plan is a recruiting tool - it shows prospective members not just what you are doing right now, but what you plan to be doing and what they can help to build - all in a concrete way. And you can use the plan in conjunction with the spiral and spokes and the evaluation chart I mentioned earlier to evaluate where your organization is currently at. If the targets are all being met, the spokes are all balanced and growing, and your status table is also balanced, then all is great and just keep on doing what you're doing.

But let's be honest - it won't work out like that. Targets will be missed, your spokes will be unbalanced, and there will be gaps in your chart. These tools, together with your collection of plans, will help identify problems. Maybe you were just too optimistic with your plan and need to scale back. Maybe something unexpected came up that your plan didn't address. Maybe your initial priorities were off track. 

Whatever the problem, periodic evaluation allows you to adjust the plans, or, if you are still confident in the plan but not its execution, it allows you to refocus energy where it is needed to satisfy the group's goals.  The key is first you plan, then you act, then you evaluate and adjust your plans.

And there's another use for the plans - making new plans! The first time you layout plans for your organization, it's a lot of work, because you're starting from scratch. But after that, subsequent planning sessions can take longer-term plans as a broad-strokes model to base shorter-term plans on. And even though you'll revisit the long term plan with new information and abilities, you just need to change it enough to reflect what's come up.

Something else that group plans and evaluations will do for a growing group is identify skills and resources that will be needed in the future. These won't appear out of thin air. You'll either need to attract people that have these skills or you'll need to train members and get them up to speed in time. This points to individual planning and evaluation.

With periodic individual evaluations and planning, individual members can identify their own strengths and areas that they would like to work on. As group needs are identified, individual members need to be encouraged to step up and grow as an individual. This can be done with self-directed study, mentorship, training workshops, and also intentional and reflective learn-by-doing.

In this way, intentional periodic group and individual evaluation and planning can tell us what to do next, how to do it, and who should do it. When an action is coming up, rather than always having the most talented organizer take charge, members that most need experience and training can take the lead backed up by more experienced organizers.

And since the group collectively evaluates itself and collectively developed it's plan and individuals evaluate themselves and come up with their own plans, this process will emerge naturally.

Members will see the concrete need for leaders in the organization, and they will see what is needed to develop leadership in themselves.  In addition the group will encourage people to grow and help find ways for people to direct their energy in ways that make them effective personally as well as making the group effective.

So how do we put all this together? First, we need to be careful to prefer a broad-strokes approach rather than an involved step-by-step one. We could come up with a 10 step plan, and then begin by breaking the first step down into 10 steps, and quickly lose sight of what we need to do, never getting to step 2. Instead, we might have a 10 step plan, or maybe even better, a 5 step plan. And we figure out for each of those 5 steps what is the minimal amount of energy we can apply to each in order to make a quick pass through them all. Then, after we've done that, we'll have made progress, and we'll have learned some things. That's the time to revisit and try to flesh things out a bit in another pass.

So what about some steps for a small group just starting out?

1 - Decide on basic principles - if you are a local group in a larger organization, this is largely done. Otherwise, you can look at statements of principles from other organizations and just borrow it. If there are glaring omissions, you can add some for your local group, but keep it simple and don't get bogged down in it.

2 - Develop a purpose - I really liked the discussion on this in chapters 4 and 5 of The Purpose Driven Church. No, I don't want to start a church, but that doesn't change the fact that these two chapters have some very valuable general ideas for creating the foundation of a growing organization with an uncompromising purpose. I've created a workshop loosely based on these chapters, and I'll talk more about that soon.

3 - Develop spiral and spokes - from the key purposes, identify key spokes needed to realize those purposes in a growing organization at future levels of size and activity.

4 - Evaluate where you're at - look at the spiral/spokes and also the evaluation chart I talked about and figure out where you are at as an organization, what your strengths are and also areas for growth.

5 - Develop a plan - from the evaluation of where you're at, come up with plans for far off goals, long term goals, medium term goals, and near term goals. Focus most effort on more immediate plans, leaving farther off goals more broad strokes.

6 - Implement the plan - take the near term plan and figure out what concrete steps need to be taken right now to meet your goals, and do it.

7 - Evaluate the group and yourselves as individuals - this would be ongoing, including post-action reflection as well as periodically evaluating progress towards group and individual goals.  This leads back to step 4.

Next up - Developing a Purpose: a workshop for small groups

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