Do your programs add up?

In my last post, I wrote about misalignment between an organization’s problem statement and the solution it offers. This diminishes the organization’s value proposition and raises questions and doubts about its ability to solve the problem.

Another problem comes from misalignment between an organization’s mission and its strategies and programs. This creates different problems for both program implementation and fundraising and communications. Program staff may not understand or be on the same page about the purpose or goals of the work. Development and marketing staff may have a hard time selling programs that don’t seem to make sense or that are difficult to link to the organization’s overall goals. The result is a disjointed organization that feels stressed and unfocused. Oftentimes each individual strategy or program can make sense, each with its own clear purpose, rationale, and goals. A problem arises, however, when it is unclear how the programs either contribute to the organization’s mission or align with each other in a way that adds up to the mission.

There are several reasons why a program might not align with the mission or other programs. Sometimes the strategic plan is not clear enough to guide decision-making about program design. Sometimes older programs do not fit with the new direction an organization may take. Sometimes organizations receive funding to take on new work in a separate program. Sometimes organizations suffer from mission drift in an effort to acquire funding to support the organization. Whatever the reason, it may become difficult to explain or justify the work in a way that is consistent with the organization’s overall messaging.

In other cases, each of the programs may align with the mission, but they do not seem organized in a clear, logical manner. For instance, programs may have overlapping work, or, at the other extreme, completely disparate work that seems disconnected. It may be difficult to understand how the different programs will work together to achieve the mission. It may be hard to explain why programs were designed the way they are. There may be lots of questions about the rationale or thinking behind the creation or development of programs. And as with a single program that is not aligned with the mission, it can become increasingly difficult to find a coherent, consistent way to talk about the organization’s programs.

So what can be done to ensure alignment of mission, strategy, and programs? There are a few options:

  1. Ideally, programs are designed under the framework of a clear strategic plan. The plan would have a clear mission to provide strategic goals, articulate values that guide decision-making, and delineate purposeful strategies that demonstrate a strong rationale for achieving the mission through various strands of work. If your organization is having trouble aligning the different aspects of your organization, a new strategic plan may be in order. (And a theory of change will help to clarify your organization’s mission and purpose.)
  2. If the mission is clear and the strategies make sense, then you should take a look at your programs. It may be that some programs need to be refocused or repurposed, or you may need to look at your program framework – the overarching criteria that determine the nature of your programs. Though there are often concerns about losing funding when changing programs, it is often the case that it is easier to solicit funding when the programs are clarified and cohesive.
  3. Sometimes the work is clear, intentional, and in alignment with the mission, but how it is described is misleading or confusing. Rather than redesign your programs or rewrite your strategic plan, perhaps all you need is to redo your messaging. Clarifying the purpose and value of each program – and aligning each program with the mission – can help bring strategic focus and cohesion to your programs.

Strategic focus means acting with the goal in mind. When programs do not align with strategies or the mission, an organization can be unfocused, where staff have different ideas about what they are trying to achieve. This can lead to confusion, stress, disengagement, and lower performance for the organization.

Clarity of purpose and common understanding about how the organization plans to achieve its mission can energize staff, making them feel more comfortable and certain, and empowering them to succeed in their roles. Be sure to align your organization’s work so it is more focused, more productive, and more successful at achieving your mission.

Does your solution align with the problem?

When making the case for your organization’s work, it’s important that you can clearly and convincingly articulate the problem. In my experience, most organizations can paint a vivid picture of what’s wrong (though some struggle to talk about why it matters) but a common mistake I see is a misalignment of the problem and the solution.

Misalignment of the problem and the solution occurs when the solution presented does not clearly solve the problem as it’s described. For example:

  • The problem is defined as hunger in a city due to a lack of housing and employment options. The solution? To provide food through a food bank. This is a short-term, immediate remedy but it doesn’t address the housing and employment issues stated in the problem.
  • The problem is defined as widespread deforestation happening as a result of the advancing agricultural frontier, displaced communities, and encroaching industries. The solution? To engage local communities in planting trees. This solution adds trees back to the forest, but does not respond to the larger issues driving the problem (nor does it do so at the scale of the problem).
  • The problem is defined as a declining interest by children in science due to the way schools and assessments direct educators to teach science-related subjects. The solution? A project-based curriculum that teaches students about science in a more engaging way. This solution does provide an alternative that achieves the intended goal, but it doesn’t take into account the factors that are preventing teachers from using the same approach in their classes in the first place.

In these examples, you can see how the problem could be well-described in a compelling narrative. And the solutions – all of which are good, necessary ideas – could be clearly explained in terms of goals, strategies, and execution. However, the linkage between the solutions and their respective problems is weak or missing.

When you describe the problem, you should frame it in a way that sets up your organization’s solution. Make it clear to the reader or listener why your solution is necessary, appropriate, and logical. Ideally, with a theory of change and a clear strategic plan, you can clarify both the problem and your organization’s response. But another quick-and-dirty fix is to work backwards: take a look at the work you do, and think about what problem it is directly responding to. The work is done to solve a specific problem, so make your problem statement a description of what your work is designed to achieve.

The work your organization is doing is important, but you have to be able to articulate it to others if you want the support you need to get it done. Learn to align your problem statement with your work so others can easily understand the value of what you do.

Why managers often fail… and how to fix it

Managing an organization is no easy feat, but it is critically important. Management is the organization and coordination of several interlocking activities in order to achieve a defined set of objectives. Like leadership, it requires essential skills that go beyond technical know-how or content expertise. It requires people skills – emotional intelligence, empathy, and insight – as well as decision-making skills and different ways of thinking. These “soft” skills enable a manager to successfully work with a team of people so that not only are the group’s goals met, but also each individual feels satisfied, engaged, and motivated by the work.

Unfortunately, most managers are promoted to positions of authority not because of their managerial skills, but because they have some technical or content expertise. They excelled in some role that probably required specific subject knowledge and the ability to deliver on projects that focused on a particular type of work. If they do well, they get promoted, and then they are in a position where they have to manage other people. And yet they may not have developed the skills needed to do that well. As the saying goes, “People rise to their level of incompetence.”

As another saying goes, “People quit their bosses, not their job.” Bosses who do not know how to manage their direct reports will wind up with employees that are unhappy in their roles, do not feel supported or valued, and do not feel connected or committed to the organization. And who wants to stay in a job when you feel like that?

So what can be done to ensure that people put into management positions have the skills they need to be successful managers?

There are three fundamental ways to promote better management:

  • Recruitment. When looking to promote from within or hire from outside the organization, the hiring manager should seek candidates who demonstrate some competency in the skills needed for successful management.
  • Development. Training and development opportunities should be offered for managers to help them continuously develop their skill set. These may be formal trainings or informal opportunities, such as learning on the job or mentoring.
  • Modeling. The organization’s leadership should demonstrate the kind of behaviors they want to see in other managers. The organization’s values, norms, and expectations (the core of culture) are set by those at the top.

Organizations are institutions of people, and being able to effectively manage those people is fundamental to an organization’s success. It is important that managers are developed into the kind of people who can improve the satisfaction, engagement, and performance of their employees. With the right support and leadership for its managers, an organization can boost its effectiveness and really thrive.