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.

What organizations can learn from Trump

Regardless of what you think about him, the fact is that Donald Trump has stunned everyone. He has lasted longer as a presidential candidate than anyone presumed, and he has garnered far more support among the Republican base than anticipated. His brash, off-the-cuff, anger-driven style has resonated with a lot of people, and it has gotten him more attention and media coverage than all other candidates combined.

Whether or not he wins the Republican nomination or even the presidency, there’s a lot to be learned from his performance during this campaign season. Organizations seeking to build a larger base of support for their work or their cause should take notes from Trump’s success – and his failures. Here are some key lessons to consider:

  • Have a strong brand. There’s no doubt that Trump has a strong brand. Just the mention of his name conjures a certain impression of the man, what he represents, and the kind of experience he creates. The strong emotional responses that people have to him are indicative of his distinct style and presence.
  • Keep it simple. Carnegie Mellon University did an analysis of Trump’s campaign speeches and found that they contain language commonly spoken by children ages 11 and under. His overall vocabulary ranked around the level of an eighth grader. Is it no wonder that he has been able to reach so many people? Too often organizations use words or syntax that are difficult to understand, which keeps people from connecting with or supporting them. Keep your language simple so people have no trouble agreeing with you.
  • Tap into emotions and values. Trump has run for president before, but this time he has gotten much further in his pursuit, and that’s in large part because he has tapped into the anger and frustration of a lot of Americans. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of anger and frustration about the economy, immigration, terrorism, and our government. People respond to Trump (and similarly to Bernie Sanders) because he speaks out about these issues and he shares their feelings. What he says about immigrants, terrorists, politicians, and the economy reflects their own feelings and it resonates with them. Organizations wanting to grow and engage their own bases of support should similarly find ways to tap into their audiences’ emotions and values, and show how their work will benefit the things they care about.
  • Be authentic. A lot of people connect with Trump because he tells it like it is (in their view, anyway). They admire him for side-stepping political correctness and just speaking his mind, unfiltered. This is a big contrast to most politicians, who measure their words carefully and, as a result, come across as duplicitous or untrustworthy. Though organizations should probably be culturally sensitive to avoid the kind of negative attention that Trump has garnered (see the last point below), they should strive to be honest, straightforward, and true to their values in their work and their communications.
  • Be consistent. Trump is consistent in his style and personality, which reinforces his brand. Consistency also breeds trust and loyalty, because people know what to expect from him, and this in turn reinforces the relationships he’s built with supporters. On the other hand, he has not been very consistent in his policy positions, and though he has dismissed such accusations, it has caused problems for him. People find the inconsistencies in what he says to be cause for mistrust – someone who says two different things is less predictable and therefore less trustworthy – and such mistrust erodes your base of support. Organizations should be sure to be consistent in both their brand – their presence, personality, and messages – and their positions – what they stand for and believe in. If you dramatically or frequently change your brand or positions, you will lose some supporters, and it will make it harder for you to gain new ones.
  • Don’t be afraid to turn people away. If you’re going to have a strong brand that is authentic, taps into people’s emotions, and takes a hard position on the issues, you’re bound to say things that will turn people away. And that’s okay. If you’re trying to appeal to everyone, you’re probably appealing to no one, because you end up washing out your brand and your messaging by taking too many positions or dampening your language too much. Organizations should be confident in what they stand for and be comfortable communicating as much, even though there may be people who disagree with them. The people who disagree are not your target audience, and trying to appeal to them means you risk losing those who do agree with you by downplaying or moving away from what they care about. You probably don’t want as many people hating you as Trump has, but don’t feel that you need to appeal to all those who disagree with you either.
  • Back up your word. One of Trump’s weaknesses is that while he has an opinion about a lot of things, he doesn’t really have any evidence to support his positions. This makes him vulnerable to attacks from those who disagree with him. Organizations who will take positions on issues should be able to support their claims and justify their rationale with concrete evidence from reliable sources. This not only defends you against any attacks from naysayers, but it builds your case for support – and it makes your organization look more expert and professional.
  • Own up to your missteps. Trump is never shy to boast about his accomplishments, and a big part of his brand appeal is his success as a businessman. However, many have pointed out that many of his so-called successes were actually failures (Trump Steaks, anyone?). Trump refuses to admit any failures or weaknesses, and as a result, some have questioned his qualifications for Executive-In-Chief. After all, a sign of good leadership is accepting responsibility for your mistakes and then learning from them so you don’t repeat them. Similarly, organizations should step up and admit mistakes when they occur, take responsibility for them, and then learn from them so they don’t happen again. No one likes to admit failure, because they think it is shameful and will make people dislike them. But consider the alternative: hiding your failures takes a lot of effort, covering them up makes you vulnerable to those who might uncover them, and ignoring them increases the chances that it will happen again. And denying your failures only to defend them instead will make you look foolish, unprofessional, and untrustworthy. Just look at Trump.
  • Stay positive. Trump was quick to go negative in his campaign – against those he didn’t trust (he insulted Mexicans when he launched his campaign), against anyone he didn’t like (politicians, Obama, Megyn Kelly), against those who didn’t like him (the media), and against his competition (Republican candidates and the Democratic candidates). While those who supported him and his positions may have been energized by such attacks (and his willingness to speak his mind openly), it certainly turned a lot of people off, and it raised questions about whether or not his disposition was appropriate for the office of the President. As noted above, it’s important to stand for what you believe in, but that doesn’t mean you need to take down others too. Staying positive doesn’t mean you can’t talk about problems or crises. In this context it just means not offending or insulting others, including those who disagree with you. Especially in a world where social media and word of mouth can make or break a brand, it’s important that you earn people’s respect by behaving professionally and civilly. It will help you keep those who do support you, get positive attention from those who might support you, and minimize conflict from those who don’t support you.

Love him or hate him, don’t let Donald Trump’s candidacy pass you by without taking away some important lessons. His success and failures are similar to those of many organizations, and like Trump, they will rise or fall because of them.