Strategic planning

Managing Through Change: Part II - How Do You Respond To Your Own Success?

An Interview with Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA

Slow Food is a grassroots organization founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986 and has since spread to over 150 countries. Offering an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming characteristic of the local ecosystem.

In recent years, Slow Food USA faced an enviable but daunting challenge. The organization’s priorities, once radical, had become increasingly mainstream. How could Slow Food USA continue to be vital and relevant? Additionally, Slow Food had historically been supported by a large grass-roots membership. But the attraction of membership was waning in the United States among members of all types of membership organizations. How could the organization adapt its revenue model in response?

Recently we spoke with Richard McCarthy, Slow Food USA’s Executive Director, about how the organization navigated these challenge to find a new path forward that focused on convening and inspiring their audiences.

Wellspring: How would you characterize the challenges that Slow Food USA Faced?

Richard McCarthy: “The context for Slow Food USA was what happens when you start to succeed. The ideas that Slow Food pioneered and our unique belief system have evolved into a complex ecosystem of competing organizations in part because of our success. Our ideas are no longer marginal and crazy. They are now main-stream. We are a brand, and a body of ideas. By recognizing that, we clarified that our role should be a nexus, not a club.”

Wellspring: Slow Food USA had historically been a membership-based organization. How would you describe the challenges Slow Food faced with its membership model?

Richard McCarthy: “With changes in technology and social media, individuals’ expectations of how they interact with groups have changed. Mobilizing civil society in America has become a real challenge because people have too little unstructured time left. We work too hard and travel too much. There isn’t enough economic security and time, so an old-school member organization based on strong social ties is really difficult to enact in the US. Now, people tend to move into and out of organizations, to touch them and occasionally engage. Getting people to make a deep commitment to strong social ties is asking a lot.”

Wellspring: You looked at other organizations’ models during strategic planning with us. What stood out as most useful or interesting?

Richard McCarthy: “The real a-ha moments for us were learning about Alcoholics Anonymous and Burning Man. Alcoholics Anonymous is an extraordinary organization—it’s global, very flat, and based on a set of values that are replicated all over the world with little assistance from a central body. We realized that’s how Slow Food functions—we’ve never had a centralized and fully capitalized mother ship. That gave us insight into considering the nature of our organization, which has strong values and loose structure. Regarding Burning Man, people don’t engage with their events for rational economic reasons— Burning Man’s crazy idea is a visible, tactile, authentic experience. Their example helped us to realize what people look for in Slow Food— a tactile, meaningful experiences where details matter. This pointed to the core of what our future could be.”

Wellspring: What was one of the most exciting moments during the strategic planning work?                   

Richard McCarthy: “Fairly early on in the process, we came out with an understanding that we inspire people. While measuring inspiration is not easy, it landed in our laps that, ‘oh my god, this is what we do.’ When people described why they came into our organization, inspiration always came up. That is different than most people’s interaction with social change—it’s often from fear or anger. Inspiration is not that typical. Realizing that we did this well was quite exciting. We found a strength that we had not valued previously and identified a path that was within our reach and allowed us to harness that strength.”

Wellspring: You decided to pursue a model of convening people and organizations nationally. Why?

Richard McCarthy: “Convening a vast array of other organizations and people relieves us from having to be active in every space. For instance, if one group is good on food and labor issues, we can rely on them as partners without having to have an answer for everything in that space. We can support others, and maybe even lead from behind. The business model for civil society is really vulnerable. It would be so much easier to let big organizations do their thing because their scale would help them perpetuate. But at the other end of the spectrum, there can be a balkanized society of organizations. You want a biodiversity of organizations, but not so much internal competition that we end up cannibalizing each other.”

Wellspring: What advice would you have for leaders facing similar challenges?

Richard McCarthy: “One of the under-recognized and underutilized fuels for organizations is passion. Passion is the glue that often keeps organizations going during difficult times. If there isn’t much passion, then no strategic plan can facilitate a shift. So in some ways, passion matters more than the soundness of the business model.”

Wellspring: What thoughts or advice do you have for organizations focused on issues like food, in these times where there are a number of politically charged issues taking precedence in the media and national conversation?

Richard McCarthy: At moments like this, where the conversation is not about excitement that a new garden is going in at the While House but rather building a wall around our country that keeps out people who grow, harvest, and serve food, it is easy to be distracted and feel like we have to join someone else’s conversation. I think it requires extraordinary discipline to ignore that white noise. In such times, it is important to revisit the mission to see if it is still relevant and still makes sense— and that the right outcomes are being measured. If things are not aligned, an organization can go astray.”

Wellspring: What would you want others to know about strategic planning and pursuing new paths forward?

Richard McCarthy: “It was an extraordinary process. It ate up a lot of time, but at moments it was fascinating. What was most difficult was maintaining a public face during the process— we were still open for business, but were questioning why we exist. Also, it took our historic network of members and chapters a long time to adjust because they weren’t living the strategic planning process every day. Making a culture shift and building the staff and skills for a new organization is a lot of heavy lifting.”

The Key to a Great Workout

greatworkout

The New Year brings gyms and workout classes filled to the brim with people who have set a new year’s resolution to get in shape. As a workout fiend myself, I love going to workout classes that are fun, but also tough and little painful. The fun keeps me engaged, but it’s the discomfort in the process that makes me stronger.

When debriefing a recent strategic planning project with our client, the CEO joked that the strategic planning process had been “mostly fun, and a little painful.” Our consulting team had brought up some tough questions that were uncomfortable for the organization’s leadership to confront, but ultimately important to figure out as the organization looks to the future. And the leadership’s efforts to think through those challenges will make the organization stronger.

The parallelism struck me. The point of strategic planning is to make an organization stronger in the long-term. It’s fun to think about the future, especially the opportunities. But, it can also be uncomfortable to face challenges and threats to the current way of doing business. For me, it’s fun to be active, but I’m not getting stronger if I’m not challenging myself. As workout instructors are always encouraging their classes, it’s the tough moments when we most want to quit that we are making the most progress towards our goals. And, upon finishing a workout, I always feel accomplished and glad I did work through the hardest parts. Our work can be like that of the instructors, and my hope is that every organization feels that sense of accomplishment and progress through strategic planning.

Focusing on Impact

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend who teaches at a business school about some of the economics concepts he emphasizes with his first year MBA students.  He shared that he consistently hammers home the distinction between growing profits and just getting bigger. That is, what ultimately matters (assuming a company aims to maximize profits) is the product of revenues and profit margins, not revenues for their own sake. While this emphasis goes against the growth-at-all-costs mindset that seems to drive many business decisions, focusing on profits is a better recipe for a company’s long term health.

This conversation got me thinking about one of the most common strategic planning questions that we get from our clients at Wellspring: “How can we grow our revenues?” Like the business sector, the non-profit world often uses revenues as a measure of organizational success.  This makes sense, since revenues are necessary to run programs – and greater revenues suggest a greater scale that in turn suggests more impact. But is revenue growth really the right way to focus the objectives of a non-profit business?  I am increasingly convinced that the answer to this question is “no”.

You may be wondering – if we are not focused on revenue when building out a strategic business plan, then where should we focus?  Non-profits are in the business of maximizing social impact. To stretch the business metaphor, it’s like a non-profit’s margin, so total social impact is the product of scale and efficacy. Strategic plans that aim to scale up projects that less directly serve an organization’s mission, or that distract staff and management, can lead to a larger – but less impactful – organization. For those of us who care deeply about maximizing social impacts, this is not an optimized outcome.

An impact-centered model can help non-profits determine whether they should grow at all.  If there are scale-up opportunities that don’t distract or detract from current work, consider seeking additional revenues to support this expansion. But remember, most organizations can only stretch themselves so thin without affecting their impact – good data, careful analysis, and organizational discipline are invaluable in determining (and then respecting!) where that point lies.  

Strategy consulting in Wonderland = Asking the right questions

Tennel_Cheshire_proof
Tennel_Cheshire_proof

This past year, I worked with a nonprofit organization to develop a strategic plan, and as part of the process, we at Wellspring Consulting facilitated a full-day retreat, bringing together key Board and staff members who were committed to the organization’s future. The President of the organization was a master storyteller. His reputation for exceptional tale-telling and side-splitting punchlines was known by all in his field. During the retreat, the President recounted a story that I had heard many times before, but within this context, I was able to hear it in a new way. Now, his gem of wisdom allows me to explain what outstanding strategy consulting is.

When introducing Wellspring at the Board retreat, the President started with a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. [see here] At this point in the story, Alice has entered the woods and arrives at a fork in the road. She looks around to see if there are any clues as to where the paths might lead and is suddenly startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on the bough of a tree.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the CheshireCat.

"I don’t much care where…" said Alice.

"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.

“And this,” declared the President of the organization, “is why we have Wellspring with us.”

As the story unfolds, we see that the Cheshire Cat’s role in guiding Alice on her adventures was to pose the right questions. From the vantage point of his perch up in the tree, the Cat could see the landscape of Wonderland and could watch Alice traverse the terrain. At each vexing crossing, the Cat would pop into the scene to push her thinking again and again. As her guide, he enabled Alice to navigate her way through Wonderland by posing the right questions to elucidate the right insights. Though seemingly disorienting at times, his astute, logical line of questioning brought Alice through a process by probing further and further, allowing her capital-T Truth to rise to the surface, until Wonderland began to make sense to her.

This is what outstanding strategy consulting is. Excellent strategic planning entails asking the right questions, which in turn requires strong skills in logic, in analytics and in “organizational therapy,” the term I use to describe the process of reflecting on what is seen from an objective outsider’s perspective.

The Cheshire Cat’s extraordinarily talent in bringing Alice through a process by posing the right questions is no surprise given Lewis Carroll’s expertise as a mathematician, logician and teacher. Carroll understood how asking simple, mindless questions lead to simple, mindless answers, whereas asking great questions can invoke great answers and, in turn, lead to great decisions.

Pushing your thinking until the vision for where you want to go becomes clear is the power of outstanding strategic consulting. At its core, strategic consulting is about asking the right questions – ones that are nuanced and thoughtful – in order to make the right decisions. Through this process of questioning, a shared understanding among organizations’ leadership unfolds, and like Alice with her eventual new-found orientation, you can get to where you want to go.

Did Your Strategic Plan Get Dirty, or Dusty?

Recently, I was in a meeting with a strategic planning team at the Village for Families and Children in Hartford, Connecticut. Gallo Rodriguez, the President of the Organization, said "Our strategic plan should get dirty, not dusty." He was calling upon the group to work towards a strategic plan that would lead to action, and change the way the organization works. We often hear people say, "We don't want our plan to just sit on a shelf and gather dust." Rather, they want the plan to guide their work and be actively used - in other words, to "get dirty." How can you assure that your strategic plan guides your work and "gets dirty?" We've found five elements that help this come true:

  1. Articulate your most important strategic questions, and focus your strategic planning process on providing answers to these questions.
  2. Collect the facts. Analyze them to generate insights about your environment, your competitors and collaborators, your revenue opportunities, and use these insights to arrive at well-founded decisions about the future.
  3. Assemble a planning team of your organization's key decision-makers and influencers. Engage this team to discuss fact-based insights and reach decisions about the organization's future. See that team members act as representatives of the various constituents of your organization -- staff departments, Board groups, external stakeholders -- and work towards a consensus that considers all views.
  4. Listen for what will work. Gather advice. Involve people. The naysayer, the visionary, and the pragmatist all have important contributions. Great outcomes emerge through careful listening and creative development of solutions that address what has been heard. And when people feel heard they are more likely to support the plan.
  5. Establish an unambiguous plan of action and use it to guide who does what, by when. Clearly describe each action step so anyone can tell when it has been accomplished, has one person ultimately responsible (not a group), and has a due date on the calendar.

By using these five elements, you will greatly increase the chances that your strategic plan will guide the work of your organization. You will have a plan that gets dirty, not dusty.