Ticket to Ride and nonprofit leadership

January 27, 2021

Filed under: Communications,Consulting,Fundraising,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:51 pm

One of my pandemic “weaknesses” has been the amount of time I’ve spent playing Ticket to Ride – the online version.  For those not familiar with the game, you can read about it here. 

In short, your intent in the game is to connect train routes between different cities, collecting cards of varying colors and playing them in a strategic way before your opponents take the connections you need.   Longer routes are worth more than shorter routes.  You can add routes during the middle of the game, not just the beginning. For the most part, two players can’t use the same connection.

In order to “justify” my time spent, I started thinking recently about the lessons Ticket to Ride offers to nonprofit leaders.   

So here, without further delay, are my top 5 lessons for nonprofit organizations.  Of course, I’m pretty sure these lessons are worth reading even if you have never and will play the game . . .  .

Lesson 1 – In Ticket to Ride, there is a tension between waiting to have all your cards collected to complete a whole series of connections versus seizing some early connections that are good enough to get you started.  If you wait too long, though, you can miss your moment — in particular, somebody else may claim the same connection.

I’ve seen some nonprofit leaders fail because they were so focused on getting everything right, making sure all the plans and resources were perfectly aligned, that they took action too late.  A certain degree of boldness is essential to lead a nonprofit. 

Lesson 2 – In Ticket to Ride, there are eight different colored cards and one wild color (e.g. yellow, green, black, etc., plus wild.) and you have to be mindful of what colors you need now, what colors you need in the future, and what colors are available right now (you get to see 5 options or pick a mystery card). If you focus too much on your short-term needs only collecting colors you need for a few early connections you want to make, you’ll find yourself short of what you need for subsequent connections.  Of course, sometimes that first connection is critical and it’s worth the short-term focus.  But, over time, I’ve found that I tend to score highest when I focus on a diversity of objectives, looking beyond the initial few steps and towards the next set.

So too in nonprofits I’ve seen nonprofit leaders become so short-term focused that they find themselves emerging from a successful early activity completely ill-prepared for what comes next.  In contrast, nonprofit leaders who amass a variety of resources with the aim of pursuing a series of objectives over time tend to achieve greater success.

Of course, astute readers may ask: “doesn’t this contradict Lesson 1?”  In part, yes.  But not completely.  You must be bold (as described in Lesson 1), but not so bold that you fail to build up the resources (money, people, other assets) that you need to be successful in future endeavors. 

Lesson 3 – in Ticket to Ride, there is a benefit in collecting a series of routes that piggyback on each other, so that you can advance towards multiple objectives (e.g. routes) with a single connection.  For example, connecting Denver to Kansas City could help you connect Salt Lake City to Chicago as well as San Francisco to Washington DC.   You can use that connection on both routes.   

So too for nonprofits, it’s important to look for synergies and other ways in which the same activity can serve multiple purposes.  To take just one obvious example I’ve experienced recently, if you write an article for your email newsletter, are you also posting the same content (with either no or minor edits) on a blog?  Posting it on social media? 

Similarly, if you build relationships with constituents as part of your volunteer program or advocacy, are you taking advantage of those same relationships when fundraising rather than treat your fundraising as unrelated? While this may seem obvious, I’ve watched more than one organization fail to take advantage of the volunteer-fundraising synergy. 

Lesson 4– in Ticket to Ride, you can play cutthroat, where instead of building your own connections/routes, you anticipate the routes others appear to be building, and you block them on your turn.  This is perfectly legal within the rules of the game. 

But within my own social circle and with those I’ve been randomly playing online, it’s considered a social faux pas, and people (including yours truly) will often refuse to play in the future with those who compete in this “blocking” manner. 

A similar dynamic is true for nonprofits.  There can sometimes be short-term advantages you can seize away from an organization with which you are sometimes allied and sometimes in competition.  An example I’ve observed: raising money from a set of overlapping donors with a fundraising message that’s explicitly anti the other allied organization.  This may yield some short-term donations. However, if you get a reputation of being not a good collaborator, future opportunities to collaborate/partner will disappear, to your detriment. 

I can attest first-hand that as an environmental group Executive Director there were some environmental organizations who I cut out of opportunities because I’d seen them repeatedly use messages that undercut other allies.  If you develop a reputation for not being a “fair” player, your nonprofit will be weaker in the end.    

Lesson 5 – In Ticket to Ride, most players exclusively focus on building connections that complete their routes, and nothing but their routes.  However, I have noticed that really stellar players are aware of the overall board and sometimes build beyond their routes, to the next major city.  Perhaps they have to go from Boston to Phoenix and they go ahead and build as well to Los Angeles.  This is because late in the game you can score extra points by drawing new routes and some cities in particular (Los Angeles being an example) come up a lot.  This is an “if you build it they will come” approach, to quote the movie Field of Dreams. 

So too in nonprofits, sometimes when launching a new program, you just have to go the extra mile and do it, even if there’s not yet funding attached.  Build the program and then go out and seek funding for it, rather than the other way around.  I’m not saying always do that; you have to evaluate the level of potential benefit and financial risk.  But on several occasions, I’ve seen organizations grow dramatically in their impact by taking leaps of faith like this at key junctures.

And there you have it – five lessons for nonprofit leaders from Ticket to Ride.  I can now play the game some more without feeling guilty.  And if anyone is playing it online and looking for an opponent, just email me and we can set up a game. 

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How much input should we seek?

February 15, 2017

Filed under: Consulting,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:27 pm

When starting to talk to a potential strategic planning client, one of the first questions that comes up relates to the level of input they are seeking to solicit as part of the process.

I’m specifically referring to input from those not on the board and staff.  I take it as a given that no strategic planning process is likely to achieve its desired purpose if board and staff – those responsible for implementing the plan — aren’t given significant opportunities to provide input throughout the planning process.

But once you get beyond the board and staff, there is no right answer to the amount of input worth seeking.

Some factors that argue for more expansive input include:

  • Input can increase the commitment of those solicited to the organization.
  • Input from those who have significant control over the organization’s future success will help make it more likely the resulting plan will be one they support.
  • Input may generate critical information about the external lay of the land you will be facing.
  • Input may allow you to hear views from constituencies you’re trying to help that aren’t already adequately represented on your board or staff.
  • Input may help you generate an assessment of how those not on the organization’s “inside” view the organization.

Counterbalancing this desire for input are other factors:

  • Input is costly — it takes time and, if a consultant is collecting the input, money.
  • Input can give those being solicited unrealistic expectations regarding their degree of say in the organization’s future.
  • If you generate too much information, it may be hard to assimilate all the information in a meaningful way.
  • Input can have an opportunity cost if it gets in the way of your ability to ask the person being solicited for some alternative use of their time that’s more critical.

So how decide?

There’s no scientific answer.

You’ll need to think hard about the factors arguing for expansive input and weigh them against the others.

It can be helpful to have someone write up an initial plan for input that tries to find the sweet spot, and then have people react to that plan.

 

 

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Tips for “Virtual” Meetings

May 11, 2016

Filed under: Board Development,Consulting,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 5:22 pm

In my consulting work, I’m involved in a lot of “virtual” meetings, often as the facilitator.  By virtual, I mean not in-person, so using the phone and/or internet.

I also participated in many virtual meetings over the years running a statewide conservation organization and being on the board of a national network of similar organizations.

I’ve learned some lessons over the years of some things to do and to avoid when planning for virtual meetings.

Before identifying those lessons, it’s important to underscore the two most important challenges posed by virtual meetings.

    1. It’s super easy for participants to be multi-tasking during the meeting.  That could be something else they’re working on or it could be scanning their facebook or twitter feeds.  How do you get their full attention.
    2. Unless it’s a small meeting with everyone on video, you lose out on most of the social cues that come in an in-person meeting, such as body language.

So if you have a virtual meeting to plan, how do you address these challenges?

First, plan ahead for video technology and don’t take it for granted.  There are many free options, such as Skype and Google for reasonable-sized video meetings.  (Editor’s note from 2020: since I wrote this in 2016, Zoom has become my go-to tech for virtual meetings).   If you’re trying a new technology, do a dry run with guinea pigs.  And make sure someone else other than the facilitator is prepared to deal with any technical glitches.  With that said, if people won’t have access to the internet or if video is just not feasible, you can still run solid virtual meetings by phone.

Second, have an increased energy level as facilitator.  It’s human nature to pay more attention when someone is energetic in their tone of voice.  Pump people up with your attitude.

Third,  take extra steps to make sure everyone is engaged.   There are lots of ways to do to do this.  Ideas include:

  • In setting the agenda, try to give as many people as possible an explicit task during the meeting so they’ll see the value of being fully involved.  Aside from leading on particular topics, other tasks include serving as scribe or timekeeper.
  • At the meeting opening, set the explicit groundrule that people won’t be multi-tasking during the meeting.  Included in that groundrule: they shouldn’t mute their phone unless they’ve been forced to participate somewhere with outside noise.
  • Use round robins to hear briefly from everyone on key topics.
  • If it seems like there’s not enough engagement, ask someone who hasn’t spoken in awhile what they think.
  • Explicitly ask people if they agree and ask them to say so out loud.

Fourth, as each agenda item wraps up, be explicit about what was decided and who has agreed to any follow-up task.   And then as the meeting closes, go through every person and ask them what follow-up tasks have fallen to them.

Lastly, get the meeting notes out ASAP.

Of course, all of the above presumes the meeting is otherwise well-organized.  If a meeting would be poorly designed in-person, no amount of attention to its virtual elements will overcome that.

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Keys to hiring a consultant

March 14, 2011

Filed under: About My Work,Consulting — jonathanpoisner @ 1:06 pm

Okay, one key.

Here’s something I kind of knew when I was hiring consultants, but really appreciate now that I’m wearing the consultant hat.

It’s best to be explicit why you’re hiring a consultant, even if it may seem obvious to you.

I generally find people are looking for consultants for one of three primary reasons.

  1. They simply lack the time to do something on staff, so they contract out.
  2. They lack the expertise within the organization, so they are looking for expertise from the consultant.
  3. The nature of the project requires an outsider to be a neutral facilitator of some process.

In general, I find I can be a more effective consultant if I know from the very beginning what role (or combination of roles) they are seeking from the consultant.

A strategic planning process that explicitly calls for me to offer up some of my expertise will look different than one that’s solely about having a neutral, outside facilitator.

If the project involves something staff could do, but lacks the time to do, that too provides useful guidance on how my work should be structured.

So be explicit folks!

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