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Connect, Then Ask Without Shame

Nonprofits must always be asking for support.  The majority that fundraise for their budgets craft compelling proposals to foundations, generous individuals, and government funders.  Those that advocate for change ask for our attention and our actions. From my very first months in my first nonprofit job, where I was involved in fundraising, I learned from my mentors the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) practice of relationship cultivation leading up to "the ask."

Here is a wholly fresh take on the art of asking, in the form of a phenomenal TED talk by the musician Amanda Palmer.  She's talking to her fellow artists, but I think her insights fall into the "general instructions for enlightened living" category and certainly have relevance to nonprofiteers.

She says: Connect. Then ask without shame.

Connect.  Then give people the opportunity to support your work.

Connect.  There are people who will gladly underwrite what you are doing -  and who will be grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Asking isn't always easy, but there is a way for it to feel fair, meaningful, and connected on both sides of the table.


The Daily Coffee Check-In

'I'm too busy to plan' is one of the most unhelpful things we tell ourselves when we're overwhelmed with work. By buying into this mistaken belief we deny ourselves what we most need when we're buried in work: a little space to gain some control, perspective, and relief. It can take as little as 15 minutes to rise above the chaos and map out your day, and you don't need to lock yourself in a room with a whiteboard to make it happen.  I've written before about the morning meeting with yourself, which involves taking the first few minutes at your desk to get a handle on what's ahead.

Starting even earlier in her day, a client of mine does her daily planning ritual each morning during her subway commute. She calls it The Daily Coffee Check-In.  A parent who directs a national program on 3-day-a-week work schedule, she has to be strategic with her time in order to accomplish her work without it spilling over into her non-work days.  So, every workday, as she juggles her coffee on the train, she fills out this checklist:

The Daily Coffee Check-In:

1) What’s lingering in my mind?

2) What do I need for meetings today?

3) What must I accomplish that can’t wait until the next day in the office?

4) When can I devote time to this? Should I reschedule anything?

5) When do I need to leave today? What time may I have tonight/tomorrow if absolutely necessary?

With these five questions, she enters her day with clear intention, a sense of her bigger picture, and a plan for getting her work done.

Inspired by my client, I set out to design my own Coffee Check-In.  I came up with this:

Sarah's Coffee Check-In:

1) What's on my schedule today?  How do I need to prepare for each appointment?

2) Which non-urgent project(s) do I want to make some progress on today?

3) What must I do today in order to feel today was a success?

4) When will I take a lunch break?  When will I complete my work for the day?

5) What one thing have I been putting off that I will finally address today?

What questions would be on your morning coffee check-in list?

Drawing Digital Boundaries in an Always-On World

If you’re like most people, you’ve responded to work email while on the grocery check-out line, on vacation, and in bed. Increasingly we are always at work unless we make a conscious decision not to be. As a workflow coach to busy professionals, I get to see both the benefits and challenges of our ever-shrinking, instantly-syncing and always-buzzing technology.  The plus is that we can work from anywhere, anytime; the drawback comes when we are working everywhere, all the time.

The truth is that your inbox will still be accepting emails when you die. Will you choose to live in your inbox 24/7, or will you step away from time to time and be present in the messy, physical, relational world?

We have to get really good at choosing when we’re working and when we’re not. The radical act of unplugging – of intentionally turning off our devices for a few hours, days or even weeks – can have profound effects:

  • Coworkers will see that you place boundaries on your time and adjust accordingly.  By not responding to work emails after a certain time of night, on the weekends, or on vacation, you signal that you respect your own time and that of your colleagues.
  • Loved ones will appreciate your undivided attention. A dinner without text messaging and a day outside without email will not go unnoticed.
  • You will grow to enjoy the alertness, calm, and productivity that comes from focusing on the present moment without attending to a blinking device.

If turning off your devices for even an hour seems like an impossible feat, here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • What parts of your life could you experience more fully if you were to unplug?  What are the consequences if you don’t unplug?
  • What one technology habit, if you changed it, would make the biggest positive impact on your life?
  • Where in your day, week, or year, is it most important to you to you carve out time to disconnect from technology?

No one else will draw these boundaries for you.  The only person who can stop you from answering email 24/7 is you.  So, where will you draw the line?

The One Planning (and Focusing and Decision-Making) Tool I Couldn't Live Without

  Three years ago at the Selah Leadership Program, I was introduced to a planning tool that I've used every single day since.  This magic tool?  POP.

The POP Model was developed by organizational consultants Leslie Sholl Jaffe and Randall J. Alford.  POP stands for Purpose, Outcomes, and Process, and it's a simple and effective tool for keeping yourself and others focused aligned in almost any context.

Purpose answers the question, why is this important?  

Outcomes answers the question, what do we most need to accomplish?

and Process answers the question, how will we accomplish the outcomes?

It is easy to see why these three little questions have so much resonance.

  • Purpose fuzzy?  You are likely to find yourself spinning your wheels, lost and not sure how you got where you are.
  • Outcomes unclear?  Team members may be working toward different goals, reducing the group's overall impact.
  • Process ignored?  You'll find yourself in the middle of a dead-end meeting, wondering why there is so much talk and so little progress toward what you really need to be getting done.

POP In Action

To use the model, articulate the Purpose of what you are taking on, your desired Outcomes, and the Process for how you will get to the outcomes.  In some contexts it is beneficial to use POP on your own, and in others it can be a powerful tool for aligning a group.  POP can be the basis for a 5-minute back-of-the-envelope exercise, or an all-day, organization-wide planning endeavor.

Say you have an upcoming meeting with your staff to plan your big 2012 fundraising event.  Before the meeting, you might sit down and take 5-10 minutes to sketch out a POP for yourself:

  • Purpose: The purpose of this meeting is to kick-off planning for the 2012 fundraising event.
  • Outcomes: We need to leave this meeting with:
    • Clarity around who will spearhead each major piece of work.
    • A decision on if we will hire a marketing consultant or handle that in-house.
    • An understanding on the part of the Development team of the Board's expectations for how much $$$ this event will bring in.
  • Process:  In order to get to these outcomes:
    • I need to think about who I believe should take on each major piece of work, before the meeting.
    • I should look at that research we did two years ago about marketing consultants so I can go into the day with a ballpark figure of how much it would cost to outsource.
    • I sh0uld also have a conversation with my Development Director to make sure he understands the Board's target for this event -- that way he can help me get his team on board during the meeting.
    • Finally, I need to design an agenda for this meeting that will produce the outcomes I want -- so that we don't get lost in the weeds.

POP is a powerful tool to use in meetings. The meeting facilitator can either lead the group in collaboratively defining the meeting's Purpose, Outcomes and Process in real-time, or can bring a pre-defined POP to a meeting and solicit group-buy in.  A meeting where the whole team knows the POP -- why we are there, what we are trying to get to, and how we will get there -- is a meeting worth everyone's time.

POP can be used at the beginning of projects -- Why are we taking on this project? What do we want to accomplish by doing it? How will we accomplish that?  And, it can be a test of alignment, mid-project, when things seem to be drifting off course -- Why were we doing this project again?  What were we trying to accomplish?  How can we get back on track?

For me, the power of POP is in slowing down and thinking about what I really want to get out of the effort I am putting into a meeting, a project, or a partnership.  In a group context, going through the POP process can reveal hidden assumptions, biases and leaps in logic that would otherwise derail the group down the line.

It is no exaggeration to say that I use POP every single day.  I may have even POP'ed a vacation once or twice!   Try it out, and let me know how you experience the simple power of POP.
Want to learn more about applying POP in your organization?  Learn more about working with me.

The Most Important Meeting of Your Day

My clients often struggle to balance busy schedules that are packed with meetings.  So, it may come as a surprise that many find relief by adding one more appointment to their day. What is this magic meeting?

It's the morning meeting with yourself, and it may be the most important meeting of your day.

The morning meeting with yourself can be short - 10 to 20 minutes.  It should be the first thing you do when you start your work day.  Here's your agenda:

  1. Assemble Your Tools:  Start with a blank piece of paper, your calendar, your task management system (to-do lists), and your browser open (but don't go into your email yet).  Take a deep breath.
  2. Eyeball Your Calendar:  What's on your schedule today?  Is there anything you need to do to prepare for today's appointments that you haven't done yet?  If so, make a note of it on your paper.  Now glance at the next two days on your calendar.  Anything coming down the pike that you need to prepare for?  If so, make a note of what you need to do, or block off time on your calendar to prepare.
  3. Review Your Tasks:  Look over your task lists (if you practice Getting Things Done, this would be your Next Actions and your Waiting Fors) .  What absolutely must get done today?  Make a note of it.  What should get done today?  Make a note of these things too.  If you have open blocks of time, what will you work on?
  4. Scan Email and Voicemail:  Do a quick once-over of your email for "hot" items and listen to your voicemail.  Take note of anything that changes your plans for the day (a cancelled lunch or an emergency conference call) or that contains an action that absolutely must be done today. Note these.  Do not answer emails or return phone calls at this point (you're in a meeting, remember?).
  5. Start Your Day:  Take a deep breath and think about the day ahead of you.  Review your cheat sheet of must-do's once more, noting anything you neglected to capture in the steps above.  Take another deep breath, and get to work!

The reason this meeting is magic is that it gives you a chance to set your own agenda for your day before the madness begins.  Unlike overly detailed work plans, it allows you to adjust to shifting priorities day-by-day.

This meeting won't take things off your plate or clear your schedule, but it will enable you go into your day with a sense of clarity about what's ahead.  With this clarity, you'll feel more grounded in saying "no" to people and distractions that would derail you from your priorities.  And, you'll be less likely to suddenly remember that thing you meant to do today when it's 5:30 PM and you're getting ready to wrap up.

You will find that once you start your day this way, it will quickly become habit and soon you'll intuitively know what you need to review to feel good about starting your day.  This meeting is not a substitute for doing a regular, in-depth review of everything on your plate, but it is the best way to make sure you are on track for today.  It's a great way to start your day.
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Guard Your Time with Defensive Scheduling

Sometimes it feels like our schedules happen to us.  What seems like a relatively calm week on Monday gets jammed with meetings and phone calls by Thursday, and all of a sudden there's no time to do all the work we know we need to get done. Most often, it is the "important but not urgent" tasks like planning, relationship-building, and big-picture thinking that get squeezed out when schedules get tight. This can create the feeling that we are flying by the seat of our pants and not really attending to everything that needs our attention.

While none of us has complete control over our schedules (we must cede time to superiors, funders, and unexpected events), we could all find a little more wiggle room in our calendars if we practiced proactive, defensive scheduling.  Here's how.

Time Blocking Block out time in advance for the important projects that you would otherwise neglect in the rush of everyday work.  If you have a board meeting in six weeks, schedule two hours of prep time three weeks from now so that you don't find yourself scrambling to prepare the day before the meeting.  If a conflict arrises, be sure to reschedule this time block as you would any other meeting.

Meeting with Yourself It's impossible to keep work flowing without stopping from time to time to step back, take stock, and course correct as necessary.  Most of us will need to review our current work load weekly and take an even bigger-picture look every month or two.  Schedule this meeting time with yourself -- a weekly hour or 90 minutes to review your current work, and a bi-monthly big picture check-in -- and then defend against all who would seek to impede upon this time.

Time Batching In any given week you may have  work to do on 7 different projects.  Rather than flitting around from task to task, project to project, give yourself chunks of focused time each day to work on a single project.  Maybe on Monday you devote time solely to projects 1 and 5, Tuesday is all about project 2, Wednesday it's 3, 4 and 7, and so on.  Rather than staring down 7 projects at once and scattering your attention amongst all of them, you will make significant progress on one or more project each day, adding up to a much more productive week.

Playing Nicely With Others Meetings scattered throughout the day and throughout the week can leave little solid time for at-desk work.  To remedy this, set scheduling boundaries on meetings, such as: no meetings on Tuesdays, (or, all meetings on Tuesdays), no meetings after 3 PM, or only phone meetings on Friday.  You won't be able to hold to these structures in all cases, but you will probably be surprised how much agency you do have once you start asserting your meeting boundaries.

Give Yourself A Break No more back-to-back meetings!  After every meeting, you need time  to capture, process, or reflect upon the outcomes of your last meeting before starting the next (if only for a few minutes).  What's more, your body needs to stretch, eat, use the restroom, take a walk and generally renew itself after a period of intense focus. Give yourself 20-30 minutes between meetings to take care of these essential tasks.  Otherwise, you risk losing ideas and actions generated in your last meeting and you compromise the quality of your attention going into your next meeting.

Say No Probably the #1 thing that you can do to defend your schedule and create more time for yourself is to simply say no.  No to attending that meeting when your colleague could do so; no to that extra committee; no we cannot pursue this funding opportunity given our current workload.  The incredible thing about saying no is how much it frees you up to do a better job at fulfilling the commitments you say yes to.

What are the biggest time-eaters in your schedule?  What strategies do you use to defend your time? 

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5 Questions for Deeper Self Awareness in Sticky Situations

Deep self-knowledge -- an awareness of our own thoughts, feelings, behavior, and motivations -- is one of the cornerstones of thoughtful leadership, yet it is often neglected.  In the rush of everyday work life, with its cascading opportunities and challenges, we can easily forget to keep our "selves" in mind.   Yet, whether you pay conscious attention to your self or not, you are the person driving everything you do. Being aware of what is driving you and how you are showing up to others is especially important in sticky situations -- whether it be a conflict with a coworker, a disagreement with your partner at home, or a misunderstanding with a friend.  We can become so reactive and responsive to the other people we are tangling with that we don't examine what's going on with our own selves.

Here are five questions to increase your self awareness when things get stressful.  To use them, you first need to acknowledge that you are in a sticky situation and decide to step outside of the mess for a minute.  Once you do that, take a deep breath and consider the following:

How is this situation exposing my limitations to  myself or others?

What underlying beliefs or values are influencing my experience of this situation?

What effect am I having on others?

What's going on in my body right now (pulse, breathing, muscle tension, how I'm sitting/standing)?

What is my role in this situation?

(update: see a great 6th question in the comments - and add your own!)

These questions matter, of course, because the only person one can truly change is oneself.  In sticky situations, our focus is often squarely on the other person -- what they are doing, saying, and thinking. By focusing on yourself for even a few minutes, you will be able to reapproach the situation with greater clarity, calm and insight.  Give it a try.

What questions do you ask yourself when you are in a sticky situation?