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7. The Road Taken: Navigating Organizational Change from a Reasonable Person Model Perspective
The Road Taken
The Reasonable Person Model (RPM) has informed, by design and in hindsight, the last twenty-five years of my personal and professional life. Here I am applying it to an organizational change effort, a case example of the organization where I work, Earth Force. I start with a brief explanation of Earth Force and the road for the organizational change we began in 2010. Two concepts—a strategy for implementation called Collective Impact (the How) and a model for collaborative leadership (the Who)—were instrumental in informing our work. We did not go looking for these models, but they work together well, which is not surprising when we map them onto an RPM perspective. Likewise, an RPM overlay provides an explanation for some of the challenges we have faced as a consequence of not adequately addressing the informational needs of our staff and partners.
A Little about Earth Force
Earth Force (www.earthforce.org) is a national nonprofit committed to engaging young people as active problem solvers in their communities and the environment. We work with adults who guide groups of young people through a problem-solving process whereby students identify and research an environmental issue in their community and then develop a project that addresses that issue. Projects that youths have accomplished include helping to establish a resident call-in system to monitor industrial odors, encouraging non-English speakers to recycle, rejuvenating community gardens, and working with their city council to establish an electronics collection program.
From 1997 to 2010, we built a reputation as an effective organization. We were a well-respected professional development provider, the Earth Force process enjoyed recognition as a best practice in service-learning and environmental education, and we had earned trust within our communities in terms of the quality of our programs. We had over a decade of evaluations that pointed to a program and strategy that transformed how educators approach teaching and positively improved civic attitudes and skills among young people (Melchior, 2012). We had used those evaluations to further improve our programs and their delivery (Meldrum, 2012). We had aligned our process to RPM, which helped explain why our Earth Force process works so well (Bardwell & Kaplan, 2008). We were successfully working with almost twenty thousand young people, educators, and partners in sixteen states each year.
Asking the Hard Question: Are We Making a Big Enough Difference?
But we knew we could do better. We had some tough conversations with staff across the country. We knew that our process changed how individual teachers teach and had an immediate effect on young people. But did it change their lives? We would have been hard-pressed to go beyond anecdotal accounts of the long-term impacts of our programming. And certainly, only outlandish hubris would have us claiming that a one-semester or even yearlong classroom experience was the reason for a young person’s academic gains or lifelong decisions about civic engagement. We were struggling to raise enough money for administrative functions in the cities where we had offices and were burning out the leadership in those communities. Could we deliver a better return on investment another way? Could we come up with an organizational strategy for building a movement that was bigger than Earth Force and that could legitimately have a role in making long-term, sustainable change in the lives of young people, their schools, and their communities?
Editors’ Comment: Durable mental models require not just practice per se but, as R. Kaplan (Chapter 2) points out, multiple and varied experiences.
Our evaluations told us that young people need multiple opportunities to build the skills, attitudes, and dispositions around civic engagement and environmental stewardship. Doing Earth Force, for young people and educators alike, is like learning to swim—it takes practice. While we had educators who would use Earth Force year after year, most young people only experienced it in one class (for one semester/year). We know it is unlikely that a young person can build a durable mental model of civic engagement, teamwork, and problem solving (what we call twenty-first-century skills) through that one experience (R. Kaplan Chapter 2). In addition, while we could be part of building a supportive environment for that work, we needed other partners—schools, universities, other nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies—to help make it happen.
We embarked on an organizational shift in 2010 that we thought could be more cost-effective and would ensure that young people had multiple opportunities to build and hone the twenty-first-century skills we want them to gain. We did this by committing to work long-term in specific communities where we could weave together the in-school opportunities with after-school and summer options. While before we had focused primarily on training educators, we shifted that outreach to include partners who, in turn, would work with educators. We focused on building networks of a diverse set of organizations within communities that were interested in the same big goals that we had around youth engagement. We envisioned neighborhoods where young people could see pathways and opportunities for meaningful civic engagement around environmental issues both in and out of the formal classroom. We committed ourselves to building viable examples of these partnerships in sixty communities by 2015.
We had some hints within the Earth Force family that this strategy would work. In 1999, Earth Force adopted the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN), a program supported primarily by General Motors. This program, started at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, relies on networks of partners who have come together, in communities where General Motors has facilities, to engage young people around the health of their watershed. We have seen long-lasting partnerships, including industry (General Motors), watershed organizations, universities, nature centers, and government agencies working with their local schools. Through GM GREEN, young people engage with General Motors mentors and these other partners to conduct an investigation of a local body of water or river and then use the Earth Force process to develop a project that addresses a problem they identify there. This program is about to celebrate its twenty-fifth year of support from General Motors. The commitment that partners have for this program told us that we had something worth building on. We had examples from over 30 communities to begin our effort and spent time figuring out what had or had not worked in those places.
Collective Impact: The How
We identified two tools that helped us articulate what we wanted to accomplish. First of all, we created a visual representation of Earth Force’s strategy (Figure 7.1) (Chopyak, 2013). This “map” exemplifies our commitment to building the bench strength of the institutions and adults who hold up a world where young people can actively engage in solving problems in their community. We use it as our brochure to great effect. I was meeting with a potential partner who handed me a fancy pocket folder with over ten pages of information. I handed him an 8- by 6-inch version of our map on card stock. He laughed and said, “I just gave you a whole folder of stuff you’ll never read. You just gave me this—and I get what you do.” I ran into a funder I had met with two years prior and reintroduced myself. She responded, “Oh, I remember you. You are the ones with that great picture!” We use a large image of the map at our trainings to help explain the long-term vision of our work and as a tool for participants to find themselves represented there.
The second tool was the concept of collective impact (Kania & Kramer, 2011). It was heartening to find external validation for our conviction that it is worth investing time in trying to break down silos and find ways to work together. Kania and Kramer had used a case example to articulate a set of strategies for building effective partnerships, which we eagerly adopted. Not surprisingly, the five conditions for collective success align nicely with RPM (Figure 7.2):
- Building a common agenda. A collaborating group needs to have a shared vision for change that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed-upon actions. It is critical that the group decide on a definition of the problem and primary goals. In other words, the group shares a model for the work it is doing together. At Earth Force, we have and are building tools to do this at every level of our work—young people do it in their group as they decide on their community action projects, partners come together to make these decisions in communities where we work, and, as a staff, it is critical that we are aligned and focused on where we want to go. We are training staff in graphic illustration as one strategy, because having someone capable of creating visual depiction of the group’s conversation helps in portraying a shared vision of the work. Our process provides another simple but unifying tool—the young people collectively write a project goal statement: “We want (a person, group, or organization) to (take a specific action) which will result in (the impact the students want).”
- Developing shared measures. Collective impact talks about the importance of the group agreeing on measures—what is it counting and what are common indicators of success. In RPM terms, this is about model building, with the group coming up with an understanding of what success means, having a feedback mechanism to assess that, and adjusting accordingly (Basu, Chapter 6; Gallagher, Chapter 8). This year, for example, Earth Force started working with partners to build a database and survey tools that gather a standard baseline of information that is important to our work (e.g., demographics and program features), with the flexibility for us to incorporate additional items that a community might agree is important to track.
- Ensuring continuous communication. Critical to building trust and any group’s chances for collective impact is effective communication that ensures there is a respectful culture of learning and sharing. It takes time, consistency, and commitment. Kania and Kramer found that “At first many of the leaders showed up because they hoped that their participation would bring their organizations additional funding, but they soon learned that was not the meeting’s purpose. What they discovered instead were the rewards of learning and solving problems together with others who shared their same deep knowledge and passion about the issue” (p. 40). This description resonates well to RPM, where we see the hook of intrinsic motivation becoming a driving force for the collaborative and meaningful action (Basu & Kaplan, Chapter 1).
- Implementing mutually reinforcing activities. Partners need to see how their efforts fit into a plan. While they are pursuing different activities, they need to be invested in supporting and coordinating with others so the diverse activities fit into the overall effort. The resonance to RPM is around the conditions for meaningful action, making sure that people can see how they are moving the effort forward and can know that their work is contributing to the larger whole. A wonderful example of this happens in Denver, where we have seven partners who come together to jointly support a summer program. The partners codesign the summer program, interweaving their offerings in a way that builds a cohesive program. In addition to collaborating on the actual programming, one partner provides the space and a free lunch program, another works with older youths who then do programming with the younger students, another partner provides youth leadership development and outdoor adventure activities, while a fourth partner takes the lead on engaging parents and additional volunteers.
- Backbone of support. Another condition for collective impact is having a respected facilitative entity that embodies adaptive, collaborative leadership, which can focus people’s attention, sustain momentum, frame issues, and mediate conversations. In many communities Earth Force serves as such an entity, providing the supportive environment for participation and community action and thereby facilitating the RPM domains of model building, being effective, and meaningful action.
Collaborative Leadership: The “Who”
If, as suggested above, Earth Force is to be the backbone support organization described in the collective impact model, who do we need to be, as a staff, to facilitate this kind of work? It requires that we be able to build and support a collaborative team within communities and provide the kind of leadership and support that facilitates the partnership. These conversations were critical for the organization as we tried to help people understand how this shift would change their roles and their relationships with partners and to give them space to assess if they even wanted to stay with the organization.
We adopted a collaborative leadership framework (Kouzes & Posner, 2012) to guide how we would work together and in our communities. The framework outlines five practices of a good collaborative leader. Not surprisingly, these characteristics align nicely with RPM, since reasonable behavior by others is presumably a desired outcome of effective leadership. While the alignment of the two is more nuanced than this, the diagram in Figure 7.3 suggests the gross overlay.
An effective collaborative leader
- Models the way. Some of the characteristics underpinning this practice include building consensus around shared values, setting a personal example of what is expected, making sure people adhere to agreed-upon standards, and following through on promises and commitments. This is such a critical aspect of establishing the culture of a group, with the leadership expected to exemplify appropriate (and presumably reasonable) behavior and to provide imagery for what constitutes meaningful action and set the bar for accountability within the context of that group.
- Inspires a shared vision. A collaborative leader describes a compelling image of the future, paints the big picture of group aspirations, and speaks convincingly about the meaning of the work. This behavior represents model building at its best—the leader provides a vision, but it also has the investment of others, who presumably see a possibility for their dreams and commitment.
- Challenges the process. The behaviors here include challenging people to try new approaches and experiments, generating small wins, learning from mistakes, and asking what we can learn. From an RPM perspective, this practice speaks to model building and meaningful action in that it encourages a failure-tolerant environment, valuing small experiments, taking risks, asking questions, and encouraging exploration.
- Encourages the heart. Behaviors in this category are expressing confidence in people’s abilities, praising people for a job well done, and finding ways to celebrate accomplishments and give team members appreciation and support. The RPM perspective would also incorporate recognizing the importance of managing our informational resources and encouraging strategies that help replenish directed attention fatigue.
- Enables others to act. An expectation around leadership is that one be able to foster collaboration by promoting cooperative goals and building trust. This practice is about building relationships, actively listening to diverse views, giving people choices, supporting their decisions, and treating others with dignity and respect. Building commitment and staff morale, from an RPM perspective, is about ensuring that people feel that their actions are meaningful (i.e., their decisions matter, they have choices) and that they have useful skills to share.
Building Youth Engagement Partnerships: The “What”
The prospect of this work is very exciting, and it is easy to feel both energized and overwhelmed by its potential. We had built a staff that excelled at training and supporting teachers. Having to now build partnerships and structures to support that work was new territory. The collaborative leadership model provided a map of how our Youth Engagement Partnership (YEP) was supposed to be. Understandably, the staff wanted to know (sometimes very explicitly) what this community-focused work was “supposed” to look like. We were in classic RPM territory—how could we support people’s understanding of where we were going so they were eager and willing to inform that journey through their experimentation, exploration, and risk taking?
Culture of Small Experiments
As noted earlier, Earth Force had some experience with the strategy that we were implementing. We had been working in over thirty communities with varying degrees of success and staff investment. We asked staff to build case stories from those examples so we could begin to see patterns and share successes and challenges. Could we come up with some ways to formalize what a good collaboration looks like? Could we articulate some factors underpinning the hunch that a partnership was going to work, or the red flags around one that is not going to work? For example, one of my warning signals that a partnership might not work out is when someone talks about “me” instead of “we.” It goes with the adage “there is no I in team.”
We are committed to building a culture that encourages experiments and learns from failure. While this is challenging with a staff that has high expectations of itself, we are trying to cultivate a culture where we can acknowledge and even celebrate “negative results.” The academic grading system as a gauge for success dies hard. We do not expect to receive 100% of the grants we apply for, nor do we expect every partnership to work out. We want to build a different metaphor for success around our community partnership building that is more akin to baseball (where .300 is a very decent average, even though it means that the batter did not “succeed” seven out of ten times at bat).
We need to take to heart, as Ryan and Buxton (Chapter 11) point out, that taking small steps and not getting overextended in ambition are key to successfully shepherding these kinds of efforts. Additionally, we see this cultural norm as critical to helping all of us have the patience to keep at this work and to have the resilience to bounce back from partnerships and opportunities that do not work out.
Building Visions to Focus the Work
Another really important decision we made by moving to a community-level focus for our work was not just to articulate the impacts we expected to see on young people and educators but also to commit to some tangible impacts we expected to see in communities. This was hard for some of us—we really valued our commitment to youth voice and having the young people work on issues they care about. Could we be true to that and still set parameters around the process? Again we looked to the GREEN program, where young people’s community exploration starts with their watershed, and realized that having that initial constraint often leads to a better experience and typically results in better projects. In RPM terms, less is more.
I can distinctly remember the sense of clarity I felt when we decided to articulate a shared vision with our existing partners for working together in their community and to use a staff-created vision to find like-minded partners in new communities. The visions are short snapshots that fit our work into the fabric of the community and articulate tangible impacts for the young people, the environment, and the community. This has brought focus to our work at many levels, including where our process best fits into curriculum, who we reach out to for partnerships, and what kinds of measurable outcomes we can promise to funders. Similar to Gallagher’s (Chapter 8) experience, we are finding that the effort spent building these shared visions can enthusiastically enlist the imagination, energy, and long-term commitment of the partners and young people.
For example, our Philadelphia vision links young people to Greenworks Philadelphia Plan, which aims to transform five hundred acres of unused or neglected public space into green spaces with pervious surfaces to reduce runoff and non–point source pollution. By 2015, Earth Force will engage twelve hundred youths in the greater Philadelphia area who will gain in their own sense of efficacy while learning twenty-first-century workplace skills through their environmental stewardship activities. Furthermore, we expect to see some significant environmental contributions. Using the students’ home watershed as a place-based unifier, young people will design and implement fifty greening projects, resulting in five acres of newly greened space throughout the area and thereby contributing to the overall goal of Greenworks Philadelphia.
Three years ago we had an inspiring idea, wonderful staff, a supportive board, and some proven models for taking our first steps in this transition. The road to implementing our new vision has been quite bumpy. Again, RPM provides powerful insights into some of our top challenges, which revolve around people needing clarity about what we are doing (model building), what we are supposed to be doing and how we are managing our attentional resources (being effective), and knowing that what we are doing actually matters (meaningful action).
Model Building: Providing Clarity around the Shift from the Old to the New
We are finding it easier to build out these strategies with communities (and with staff) that are new to Earth Force. It has been a much slower process with established relationships and staff. Two of the most important lessons have been:
Editors’ Comment: Old mental models die hard and for good reason: they take a huge investment to build and help us navigate our environments. When the environment changes, new models are often necessary. But that is often painful, and as a result people seek out environments where their models still work.
- This kind of change takes careful consideration and time. We have people who are much more comfortable with what they have known and really loved doing at Earth Force before the transition. From an RPM perspective, the resistance and crisis of confidence that some staff members have are not surprising. We had asked some hard questions about our efficacy, which was a scary and direct challenge to their expertise—their familiarity with what was expected of them and their strong belief in the fruits of their hard work. While those of us who had a more systemic grasp of the organization might see the need clearly, we could have been more careful about the scaffolding and remodeling needed to bring everyone in the organization along. We had quite a bit of attrition both with staff and partners who still wanted the old Earth Force. For the staff who have stayed, it has taken almost three years of practice and clarity making (see Ivancich, Chapter 5) as they rework their thinking—both of the work and their role in it.
Editors’ Comment: Celebrating small wins can also address some of the negative emotions that so often present a challenge when working with others.
Being Effective: Managing our Attentional Resources
Nonprofit work is a prime environment for directed attention fatigue, and this transition has compounded that. Earth Force has always hired people who care deeply about the work they are doing, and as a result they tend to give more than 100%. We exacerbated that inherent potential for overload with an organizational change that is very exciting and full of possibilities, but that also is challenging staff to adopt new roles, retool relationships, and accept a different way of doing work. Staff struggle with what to prioritize and how to know when enough is enough. Some immediate actions we are taking include:
- Apply the leadership practices discussed above to managing attentional fatigue. For example, we can work to inspire a shared vision of what it takes to remain effective and to model the way by not being “on” all the time.
- Infuse an RPM perspective into our conversations to explicitly build agreements around respecting the dangers of directed attention fatigue. Basu (Chapter 6) provides useful suggestions for self-monitoring that we can integrate into our conversations, expectations, and support of each other. We need to recognize that these apply to our partners and to the community work we do with them as well.
- Formalize the notion of self-care into our organizational structure. Our performance tools, for example, could include having staff members develop explicit strategies for how they are going to manage work-life balance and the quality of their work environment and how the organization can support their long-term dreams and aspirations. We can establish routines that help all of us restore attentional capacity. A strikingly effective example of this happened at the end of last year. As a thank-you to staff, we officially closed the offices the last week of the year. With our workflow at a standstill, even the most fervent workaholic had to stop. Upon returning in January, we noticed a marked increase in energy, focus, and productivity.
Meaningful Action: Keeping Our Eye on the Prize
When we started on this journey, we knew that it was not going to happen overnight. And we knew that our collective decision to focus on low-income communities and to work with public schools would compound the unpredictability and instability inherent in what we are trying to accomplish. We have seen several years of work in a school evaporate when the district decides to replace the principal and educators, we have had school districts run out of money to pay their teachers, and we have had multiyear funding streams cut off after one year. Our challenge is to support an organizational identity that perseveres, that sustains a sense of realistic optimism, and that can celebrate and learn from both success and failure. To do that, we need also to make sure, as an organization, that we look up once in a while to see if we are still on track and have ways of ground truthing whether that track still makes sense.
Some steps we are taking:
- Create a culture and language that celebrates small wins and incorporates multiple ways to acknowledge success.
- Build visions with short-, middle-, and long-term horizons, including benchmarks of success and flexibility for small experiments. We need to remind ourselves to incorporate opportunities for reflection and feedback that carry with them our intention and expectation that we are building out a long-term engagement.
- Build teams and roles that explicitly value people’s strengths, passions, and expertise.
- Establish systems for gathering data that is meaningful and aligned with the work we are doing.
RPM can productively inform organizational change and reinvention and explain resistance and difficulties in implementing changes. RPM’s emphasis on sharing models, its strategies for managing information and facilitating clarity to help people be more effective, and its reminder that people need to know that their work is creating meaningful action are keys to a successful transition.
Applying the tenets of RPM to our organizational change journey holds promise that we can create a supportive organizational environment for our staff, partners, and ultimately young people and their communities. This is not trivial at all; it speaks to the heart of our organization and how we do our work. Our mission is about helping to create a world where young people are valued and actively engaged in their communities. Accomplishing that depends on adults being reasonable, accessible, and cooperative and young people having the space and time to learn and explore. We need staff who are really good at their job and clearheaded, intentional, and focused. And, from a people perspective, like any nonprofit, we need to care for our attentional resources, without which none of this is possible. And the journey continues.
- Bardwell, L., & Kaplan, S. (2008). Creating a generation of problem-solvers: A cognitive perspective on service-learning. Information for Action: Journal of Service-learning Research for Children and Youth 1(1), 1–13.
- Chopyak, C. (2013). Picture Your Business Strategy: Transform decisions with the power of visuals. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011, Winter). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 36–41.
- Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2003). Leadership Practices Inventory. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
- Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2012). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
- Melchior, A. (2012). Earth Force 2010–2011 evaluation results. Unpublished report. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University. http://earthforce.org/sites/default/files/2010-2011%20Eval.pdf.
- Meldrum, V. (2012). The relationship between a quality experience and youth outcomes: An analysis of the Earth Force evaluation. Unpublished report. Arlington, VA: Crecer Strategies. http://earthforce.org/sites/default/files/Earth%20Force%20drilling%20down%20on%20best%20practices.pdf.