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Watch out for Traps!

Posted on May 7, 2015
By Jay Connor

trap fence escape net.jpegAt every community meeting, at every step in the process, we have seen some version of these traps arise and threaten progress. If you keep them in mind, you can see them a mile off and avoid falling into them. Even better, we’ve seen communities where, at every meeting, they designate someone to be “Sergeant At Arms” who will point out when such traps emerge and help everyone steer clear.

Here’s the full list of “traps” that we have encountered.  Over the next week or so, in three entries, I’ll discuss a different set of these traps:

o  Let’s Get Comfortable
o  Let’s Put On a Show!
o  We’re Not Ready
o   Oh, That’s Their Problem
o   We Need a New Organization
o   We Need to Collaborate More
o   Data First
o   Money First
o   What If We Get It Wrong?
o   But What Are We Going to Do?

Let’s Get Comfortable

Working differently isn’t easy because it isn’t what we’re used to doing. Whenever community groups meet, they must be constantly on alert not to let discomfort pull them away from the new approach. This is especially a risk with people who are joining the effort mid-stream and may try to devolve the conversation back into an approach with which they are comfortable. You want folks to join the process continually, BUT be sure to orient newcomers appropriately [see earlier blog posting on “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Communities” for more detail on this concept of on-going orientation], and designate participants in each meeting to be the watchdogs or guards who will point out when the conversation is falling back on old, bad habits.

If every other community meeting your members are likely to attend, is focused on the old way of thinking about problems – single-sector activities, scarcity, ideology, blame – it is no surprise that there is a natural inertia in that direction and away from the more successful outcome focus of Working Differently.  We’ve seen where communities have posted their “values” and “method of operation” or take a few minutes at the beginning of each meeting reminding folks that this is a different way of working. (See upcoming “Tools” posts for examples.) 

This is also a real value provided by the community support organization or backbone organization [see earlier blog posting on "Creating the New There." for more detail on this concept of someplace in the community having a catalytic focus on the end result -- the community outcome].

Another derivative of this trap is a long-drawn out process of TRUST Building.  We’ve seen some efforts derailed for years while some well-meaning funder pays for trust building exercises.  (And most consultants are more than willing to prescribe this easy source of consultant-billing).  We have yet to see where this artificial trust is maintained in the face of the hard decisions required to develop a shared definition of the outcome and a meaningful measure.  At best, they are the community equivalent of gathering around the campfire to sing "Kumbaya."  (It's perhaps pleasant once a year, but would be mind-numbing as a sole activity.)  Success comes from jumping right into the central question – what outcome do we want? – and build trust around acting and not falsely around preparing to act.

Let’s Put On a Show!

When we aren’t sure what to do, we can easily fall back on familiar strategies like creating a new program, hosting a conference, holding a fundraiser. But we shouldn’t propose any actions until we know what the outcomes are, and then we should test those actions to measure if they are, in fact, getting us to those outcomes. When we are ready to decide how to reach the outcomes, we should begin with what we already know is working, rather than grasping at new ideas just because they are new. Achieve results from respecting and aligning the work of the community, not covering over the old system with one more layer of programs.  (We'll cover this more fully in future posts.)

We’re Not Ready

Even when we are inspired by the idea of working differently, it may feel like too much, too fast for some communities. Or certain organizations perceived to be critical to success may not feel ready to participate. But if we aren’t ready now – when our kids and elders need help, when families are in distress, when our environment is degrading – when will we be ready? Don’t get held up because some people won’t get engaged right away; some folks won’t take time to get involved until you have some actions to show them.  As we talk about in the earlier “Seven Habits” post, make sure there is always an empty chair at your working differently community meetings for whenever folks are ready to join, BUT we don’t have the luxury to wait.  Get moving. NOW!

Oh, That’s Their Problem

“The Blame Game” [link to Habit #5 in my Seven Habits of Highly Effective Communities post] can go both ways—refusing to take responsibility for poor outcomes, or insisting that your organization, sector, or silo “owns” that problem and keeping others out of the effort to solve it.  If you let your citizens believe that your organization owns education or health or economic development, they will fold their arms and say, “Let us know when you succeed.” But these are our problems as an entire community. We all own them together, and we can only solve them together.

We Need a New Organization

Working at the community level does create a work load that someone needs to manage. An organization or an individual leader must commit to convening meetings, preparing handouts, taking notes, reporting back, and convening the next meetings. Successful communities have dedicated staff time to facilitate the process. But the last thing we need to encourage working differently is another organization to feed.

In our 2003 book, "Community Visions, Community Solutions" we called this type of community support a "community support organization."  The recent work on Collective Impact calls this effort a "backbone organization."   Both of these conceptualizations envision a stand-alone entity.  But I have seen many communities make great progress at achieving outcomes without the formal establishment of an "organization."  The key is a means for the community to work in this new cross-sector, outcome driven space.  In Erie, PA, for example (, Mary Bula holds this space, despite being housed in the United Way and supervised by a partners group from Mercyhurst University, The United Way and a leading community action council: GECAC.  Someday they might form a separate organization, but they didn't dissipate a lot of the community's energy thinking organization, before they thought outcomes. 

Don’t assume that a new 501(c)3 will make everything easier. It feels easy, because that has been the standard answer in the past. But it may damage your ability to achieve aspirations, because it will take ownership from the community and put it in the “new, super-duper organization.” This creates an excuse for disengagement. How often have we seen the community metaphorically clap the dust off its hands and say, “Well, that’s done,” and move on to some other equally uneventful activity?

Your desired outcome isn’t to create a new organization but to create a new way of working as a communitythat balances activities and solutions. Find other ways to get the work done through existing mechanisms. [link to “A New There” post]

We Need to Collaborate More

Whenever we visit communities and ask executives how many collaborative meetings they attend in a month, the average number is 7 or 8 meetings. That’s 7 or 8 different collaborations for different purposes. Now, we’re all about bringing organizations and community members together, so we obviously advocate for collaboration. But no organization can change its structure, processes, and measures  7 or 8 different ways to meet the goals of all these collaborative efforts.

The problem is that most collaboration occurs around activities and funding, not around outcomes. Communities that are working differently require fewer collaborative groups, because they are no longer building coalitions for each program or funding stream.  Instead, they have begun with the question, “What do we want to accomplish?” and then built an infrastructure to get there. Collaboration occurs in order to achieve the outcomes that everyone has agreed on together. This creates a fundamentally different way of organizing work and, therefore, of organizing how we all work together.

Data First

It is helpful to know where you are now in order to determine where you are going. But if every community effort begins with, “First we have to gather all this data” (do a needs assessment, create an asset map, whatever), it will never get off the ground. For one reason, extensive data tends to "burn through" a lot of volunteer hours and passion, with in the end, very little to show for it (see below).

Put aspirations first, outcomes second, and actions third. As you do the work, the data will follow, and will help you progress toward your outcomes. In the beginning, you won't know what you don't know.  So how do you know what data to look for?  Conversely, as you progress toward outcomes, the data points will be more clear.

Another way to think about this trap (and it again seems counter-intuitive to most of the consultant prescriptions ... remember data collection = billable consultant hours) is to think about your own personal or community history with data.  To gather data you have to have some frame, some way of looking at things.  This frame tends to be the way we have always looked at the problem.  This data tends to be all about telling you where you've been; but very little help in telling you what you need to do differently.  Historically, the actions from this approach tend to be "do (fund) more of the same."  This pleases the status quo, but does very little about "moving the needle" on outcomes.

I would venture to say that upwards of 50% of communities who contact me have undertaken some sort of extensive indicator or benchmark study, that gave them a score of where they stood but very little direction as to what to do about it.     

Money First

So often, we see an opportunity for a grant and try to figure out how we can use it for our purposes. Or we short-circuit our dreams as soon as someone asks, “But how are we going to pay for this?” Be careful not to let money drive the conversation. (Check out my recent post on Funder Intentions in Working Differently Communities).  

The desired outcomes should drive how money is sought and invested. Available money should not drive the activities we try. We know from experience that the communities that are willing to work differently together are much better positioned to get resources. We have seen millions of new dollars come to our Working Differently communities -- from state and federal sources, as well as, foundations (especially corporate foundations) -- primarily because they were working differently and had the outcomes to prove it.  In fact, we have seen in community after community that achieving the outcome is no more expensive then perpetuating the problem. Start with the outcomes, and the money will follow.

It is the zen of Working Differently: don't focus on the money and the money will come!

What If We Get It Wrong?

Every community feels overwhelmed by this process at first. Like people with stage fright, the participants fear that everyone is looking at them and waiting for them to give the right answers. But working at the community level is a process of discovering what we don’t know, not proving how much we do know. Unlike leadership at the organizational level, expertise is not revealed by having the right answers but by asking the right questions. [See: On becoming a “Catalytic Leader” in a forthcoming Tools post] And if you feel people are judging you, invite them to get involved; after all, it’s their community and their responsibility, too.

But What Are We Going to Do?

It is so easy for our brains to jump from “what is the problem?” to “how are we going to fix it?” Everyone wants to know his or her purpose in the process and how existing roles and organizations will be affected. All too often the conversation rushes to action steps before participants are clear about purpose and how to measure success. We’re wary of too much “process” and not enough action.

It’s true that process without action and outcomes is of no value, but actions and outcomes without process won’t succeed. Look at your present community outcomes, if you have any question about that reality.   

Without trust and buy-in, there’s no implementation. Without ever-increasing engagement -- well beyond the usual suspects -- there’s no sense of ownership. Without a solid foundation of community support, there’s no sustainability. The process is much of the enterprise. It allows you to use what you already do, and what you already spend, more effectively and efficiently.  As an example, we have seen communities come to a shared and actionable kindergarten readiness measure and action plan in six months where two-thirds of the time was "process." And conversely, we have seen communities spend little time on process during years where of never coming to that agreement (they still have 10 different definitions of readiness -- at loggerheads with each other) and it remains that fewer than 35% of their children ready.

Process isn’t something to get done as fast as possible; it is the warp through which all the action is woven.

Social Innovation, Community Change

Jay Connor

By Jay Connor

Jay Connor is the Founder/CEO of The Collaboratory for Community Support in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has extensive leadership experience in the business, nonprofit, and public policy arenas. His major interest is in crossing the borders between these sectors and articulating their interdependence for the benefit of community dialogue and system effectiveness. Jay is also the author of Community Visions, Community Solutions: Grantmaking for Comprehensive Impact.

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