To Change or Not to Change (your strategic plan, that is)

Shannon Johnson (11/14/14)

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” -Woody Allen

Our clients have hags…BHAGs that is (also known as big, hairy audacious goals). You have to if you are working to solve complex social problems. While Woody Allen’s quote is good for a laugh, we definitely do not think that planning is futile. We fundamentally believe that organizations need to have strategic plans to achieve their BHAGs. We’ll take the liberty to translate Mr. Allen’s quote to “The best plans will (and should) adapt over time.” I know, not quite as funny.

We were excited to see that the folks at Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) shared the same view in a recent article and webinar “Strategic Philanthropy in a Complex World.”  SSIR did a great job of explaining (and visualizing) the concept of emergent strategies. The concept is this:

  1. You start with your strategic plan to accomplish your BHAG (intended strategies)
  2. Some of those plans don’t pan out (unrealized strategies) – let’s drop those
  3. Fortunately, some plans do work (deliberate strategies) – of course, we’ll keep these
  4. Hopefully we’re learning along the way, and new ideas and opportunities arise (emergent strategies). Now, what to do with these? As Lloyd Christmas says in Dumb and Dumber, “We don’t usually pick up hitchhikers. But I’m-a gonna go with my instincts on this one. Saddle up, partner!


The SSIR language may be a bit formal, but the concept is simple: Start with your best thinking at the time, figure out what’s working, and adapt your plans with new strategies as they come. The concept of emergent strategies is freeing. You do not have to have it all figured out when you set out to create a strategic plan. Emergent strategy gives you permission to be “strategically opportunistic” and take advantage of new opportunities with confidence. And confidence looks great on you, by the way.

A charter school client of ours appreciated the nuance of being “strategically opportunistic.” Despite the constant flux of California’s education climate (due to frequent political and funding shifts), our client set a strategic direction with its staff and board leaders. They created a coherent vision for impact, prioritized specific investments and strategies, and considered various financial scenarios. Recently, this client had to let some unrealized strategies go. But by remaining flexible, they have stayed focused on achieving their overall goal of equipping students for college success.

Tell us: have you had to let go of an “unrealized strategy” recently? When did you know it was time to let it go? Have you had the opportunity to take advantage of an “emergent strategy”? Let us know in the comments section, or email us at to share your thoughts!


The Inside Scoop on Strengths-Based Performance

by: Giselle Nicholson (10/16/14)

“Tell me about your strengths.” We are all familiar with this often-dreaded interview question. Even if you happen to avoid it in an interview, any complete performance review will force you to confront this question and discuss your strengths.

But why? Do your strengths really matter? Is it even possible to self-assess your strengths? Empirical research answers with an unequivocal YES. As a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program, I’ve followed this research for eight years. I find three themes from the research to be highly relevant to leadership development efforts: 1) The ability of leaders to leverage strengths is critical. Awareness of how skills match strengths and how to leverage strengths as motivators provides high return on effort. 2) Skills are important, but approaching your tasks by capitalizing on your strengths will get you further. 3) High performing teams focus on developing positive relationships, positive communication, and a positive work climate — matching strengths with goals fuels this positivity and performance.

So why do so many of us fall short in applying our strengths? Because knowing your strengths is not the same as using them. When taking a strengths assessment, most of us briefly reflect then think we’re done. We don’t put our strengths to work, so we never reap the rewards of deliberate, ongoing action. To help you move beyond the threshold between self-awareness and action, here is an overview of a strengths-based, ongoing team development activity we’re doing at Blue Garnet.

First, a little background: we have been experimenting with and learning from a variety of strengths tools since 2008 (half our company’s lifetime). As a professional services firm, we need exceptional talent to provide exceptional services, so we take individual and team development very seriously. We began by testing two tools: the Values in Action character strengths assessment and Gallup’s StrengthsFinder. We use these resources for hiring, for team building, and with clients for coaching, strategy retreats, leadership development workshops, culture assessments, etc.

Recently, we dug into our collective strengths to better understand how our individual roles sustain a culture of learning and growth. We believe that shared leadership and collaborative learning (one of Blue Garnet’s values) are linchpins to sustaining a positive firm culture – so off we went!

Instead of revisiting our results from Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, we experimented with Marcus Buckingham’s StandOut assessment. StrengthsFinder identifies your top five talent themes, whereas StandOut identifies two primary roles that will make you most effective at work. Buckingham helped develop StrengthsFinder and his StandOut tool lists predictive “talents” for your two roles, many of which are similar to the StrengthsFinder talents. We appreciated this overlap and used Buckingham’s new tool to build on our previous learnings.

After individual StandOut assessments, our team gathered for three “workouts.” We use the term workout to emphasize that these assessments aren’t prescriptive; they require us to identify, discuss, and work out what these strengths and roles mean, individually and as a team.

  • Workout #1: Strengths Refresher. First, we discussed our strengths-based philosophy and reviewed how we apply positive leadership practices to our work. Then, we went over the StandOut tool and discussed our individual roles, what our commonalities are, and where we differ. Our “homework” was to use two worksheets throughout the next few weeks as practical, energizing ways to deepen our individual understanding of our strengths and roles in action.
  • Workout #2: Team Mapping. Using a visual map of our roles and strengths, we had a reflective conversation on questions such as: Where do our roles and strengths intersect? Where do we balance each other out? Are there gaps on our team? How does our unique mix of strengths factor into our culture and the “feel” of everyday team life? As homework, we gave 360º feedback to every team member on what contributions we value and what we need from each other, looking forward, to achieve positive deviance in performance.
  • Workout #3: 360º Feedback. We each shared our thoughts on the (confidential) feedback we received, leading to a rich conversation about our roles and team contributions. Then, we shared examples from the feedback where we observed our firm values in action. We learned what our values mean to each team member, where we have alignment and strong evidence of values in action, and which values may be underdeveloped or difficult to put into action. Each individual then crafted commitment statements, which are critical for taking action, fostering positive energy, and enabling successful growth for our team.

Positive, strengths-based leadership has demonstrated improvement for many organizational outcomes, such as profitability, productivity, quality, innovation, customer loyalty, and employee engagement. There are a variety of assessments and tools to choose from, but I’ll let you in on a secret – the tool you use is far less important than what you do with it. It’s all about execution and making your learnings stick.

sample organizational strengths tree

sample organizational strengths tree

For our clients, strengths-based tools and techniques have been instrumental in facilitating complex organization-wide conversations, improving talent development practices, managing culture change, and growing well (see a sample strengths tree to the left). For our team, continuous strengths-based learning improves our communication and the way we work together, encourages ongoing professional development, and serves as a lens for how we approach tough questions and solutions. As a ‘learner’ strong in ‘futuristic’ and ‘maximizer’ strengths, I confidently believe these exercises drive our team’s excellence.

We hope you enjoyed this peek into one of Blue Garnet’s ongoing firm development practices. Please let us know which strengths development tools you find most useful, and what has worked best for building your team’s culture. And of course if you have any questions, email us at!





Ditch Your Mission Statement

by: Jennifer Shen (9/24/2014)

Woah, woah, woah. We don’t want you to incur the wrath of the IRS, but most mission statements are simply not enough to drive high performance and guide you to your intended impact.

A useful, high-quality mission statement “focuses the organization on action. It creates a disciplined organization.”[1] It “sets out the reason for the organization’s existence and drives programs and services, operational goals, and day-to-day activities.”[2] But because most mission statements are also used for legal purposes, marketing, and promotions, they usually end up as an inspiring catchphrase on a t-shirt, not a clarifying statement of the organization’s purpose or ultimate impact.

Alternatively, mission statements are also often created by a committee to offend no one—in other words, designed to be broad, wordy, and practically meaningless. For example, can you guess whose mission statement this is?

We will strive to integrate virtual educational opportunities in order to competently operationalize impact to the highest standards.

In truth, it was created by the Mission Statement Generator, which recombines nouns, verbs, and adjectives into prototypical and jargon-filled mission statements. Admit it: for just a second, you thought it was real.

Sample Impact Statement

So, if a mission statement isn’t a true “North Star” and doesn’t provide the guidance you need for making tough decisions, what’s a leader and strategic thinker to do? We at Blue Garnet believe an Impact Statement is the best tool to create focus, drive clarity, and help you to become a high performing organization. An Impact Statement defines in one sentence how the world is different in ten years because of your organization. It includes a scale, timeframe, unit of change, and clear impact, to drive operations and galvanize action. The best Impact Statements incorporate a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG) and answer the question “so what?” for your organization.

Are you ready to “ditch your mission statement” and take accountability for results to a new level with an Impact Statement?

[1] Light, Mark. Results Now for Nonprofits: Purpose, Strategy, Operations, and Governance. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Print.

[2] O’Connor, Judith. The Planning Committee: Shaping Your Organization’s Future. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Nonprofit Boards, 1997. Print.

Nurture Your Inner Learner With Three McAdam Award Finalists

by Taylor Chamberlin 9/1/14 (updated 10/8/14)

Have you read any inspiring, insightful, or downright useful books on nonprofit management lately? If so, odds are it was a nominee  for The Terry McAdam Book Award. This annual award program, which honors Terry McAdam, who devoted his life to improving the nonprofit management field, selects the nonprofit sector book that best shares knowledge and builds the social change movement. Blue Garnet’s Jennifer Shen is thrilled to be a member of the selection committee, which announced a winning nominee at The Alliance for Nonprofit Management National Conference on September 17-19th in Austin, Texas.

We at Blue Garnet have an innate love of learning, so we strive to cultivate a similar curiosity in others. That means it’s that time of year once again (see last year’s posts here and here) to nurture your inner learner by sharing the 2014 McAdam Book Award finalists.

Creating Value in Nonprofit-Business Collaborations book coverCreating Value in Nonprofit-Business Collaborations: New Thinking and Practice (by James E. Austin and M. May Seitanidi)

Everywhere you turn, the nonprofit sector is buzzing about how collaboration can improve the work that we do. This timely and important contribution answers the all-important question, “What the heck is a value proposition?”, then gives practical advice for thinking about partnerships through a collaborative value framework. Austin and Seitanidi have a “pracademic” approach, sharing insights and guidance by balancing case studies, evidence of effectiveness, and storytelling. You can read more about transformational nonprofit-business partnerships by purchasing their book here.

Content Marketing for Nonprofits Book Cover

Content Marketing for Nonprofits: A Communications Map for Engaging Your Community, Becoming a Favorite Cause, and Raising More Money (by Kivi Leroux Miller)

In this outcomes-focused world, it is critical to know how to effectively share your story. Content Marketing for Nonprofits can serve as your handbook on creating a communication strategy that will help you climb up the “engagement ladder” to inspire behavioral change. Many organizations find creating a marketing strategy intimidating, but Miller’s approach makes communications mapping accessible.  You can purchase Content Marketing for Nonprofits here!

 The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook book coverThe Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: Fully Integrating Online Service into Volunteer Involvemen(by Jayne Cravens)

Volunteers are critical to the success of many nonprofits, but all too often organizations don’t have a strategy in place for volunteer management. We believe that meaningful volunteer engagement can become a strategic advantage– we even highlighted our partnership with a foundation helping to build volunteer management capacity in our last newsletter. We were heartened to see a guidebook with up-to-date insights and advice on integrating online activities into volunteer management, especially considering the rapid change and innovation of the last decade. If you seek a easy-to-use and forward-thinking guide to integrated volunteer involvement, look no further! You can purchase The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook here.

Now it’s your turn: Have you read anything lately that you think deserves an award? What do you think about the 2014 McAdam Book Award finalists? Let us know by commenting below!

Update: the winner is…drumroll please… Kivi Leroux Miller for Content Marketing for Nonprofits! Read more about her work and this year’s McAdam Book Awards here. Congrats Kivi!

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Challenges emerge. You plateau. It happens to all of us.

So what does it take to achieve great impact over good enough?

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