Use Intelligent Planning to Support Leadership Alignment


by Dr. Ginny Trierweiler, the Mission-Based Leader’s Coach

Every mission-based leader knows the importance of having their leaders working toward aligned goals and objectives. We often re-discover this important leadership lesson when something goes wrong, such as leaders functioning in conflict or a leadership team unable to make critical decisions in a timely way. This may present an opportunity for your organization, but you may need to disrupt things to realize the benefits of it.

One way to disrupt things so you can capitalize on an opportunity is to engage in a planning process. As we addressed in the past, however, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all planning process. When your leadership team engages in an intelligent planning process, you can address exactly what your team needs to address.

How to Use a Planning Process. to achieve great alignment and vitality on your leadership team:

Plan to implement organizational change efforts. Maybe you are phasing out a program that no longer is viable or you are starting a new program. In a nonprofit or not-for-profit organization, major changes may suddenly become necessary due to funding changes. It can be important for the leadership team, and sometimes front-line staff closer to the problem, to come together to plan how to achieve the changes in the best way to protect the clients and the organization.

Surface and problem-solve misunderstandings and key obstacles to progress. As CEO, I sometimes felt frustrated with senior leaders’ conflicts with each other, especially since I tended to interpret them as interpersonal conflicts. However, when I listened more thoughtfully, I realized that many of these conflicts reflected real organizational challenges. For example, the Accounting office was repeatedly complaining about difficulty with receivables from a county agency, which I viewed as purposely making it as difficult as possible to collect receivables.

However, after we took the time to analyze every step in the process, we realized that certain staff held onto an outdated understanding of the requirements associated with this billing, resulting in a failure to get paid for many of our earned revenues. Once we realized that there was truly a problem inside our system that was significantly impacting our revenues, the leadership team was able to solve it. This made a major impact on our financial bottom line and, as a nonprofit organization, that meant our mission and ability to help our clients was strengthened.

Leaders are often impressively capable at working around systems malfunctions and obstacles. In fact, these obstacles may become invisible to leadership, while front-line staff continue to try to cope with them. In this environment, front-line staff can easily feel that senior leaders are unhelpful or, even, a financial drain on the organization. Maybe it’s time to tackle one of those ongoing glitches and get it fixed! Leaders can work through steps to solving an ongoing roadblock and unleash tremendous organizational energy. In the process, they will develop greater capacity as a leadership team to solve problems.

Mine differences of opinion to discover opportunities for excellence. I worked with a school board of directors who wanted a facilitator for their board meetings. Some people felt meetings had become too contentious. Several directors had left over the past year because they felt the organization was going in a direction they didn’t like, or didn’t understand. Pretty soon, it became clear what fundamental differences of opinion existed about the organization’s focus. Once the group dove into these differences of opinion and discussed them at length, they were able to achieve agreement about the organization’s mission and, once again, were working effectively together to govern the organization.

Clear up role confusion. I have observed this to be a very common cause of organizational dysfunction. I have seen front-line staff and middle-managers given conflicting direction from different organizational leaders, resulting in chaos and poor results. This kind of confusion is generally not cleared up by a quick conversation in which one leader tells another “that’s my responsibility, stay out of it.” Often, a more thorough discussion is needed to wade through the complexity of different leaders’ responsibilities and authorities.   This kind of planning conversation can often be most effectively achieved with use of a facilitator from outside the organization.

When you use planning to implement organizational change, surface and resolve misunderstandings and obstacles, mine differences of opinion or clear up role confusion, your leadership team becomes empowered and can function in a more aligned way. You can achieve a point of departure for your organization, power up your communication to staff, board, donors, customers/ clients, and pick up great forward momentum.

 Have you used planning to strengthen leadership team functioning?

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Using your Granddad’s strategic planning process?

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.

Hey, I dearly love my Grampa, who I lost right after 9-11, but I don’t use his strategic planning approach!  Planning needs to be more adaptable now than in the past, and the days of having a retreat just to bond may be over.  Don’t members of a leadership team bond best when they are doing great work together anyway?!

In the last post, I addressed some of the ways strategic planning goes wrong and I argued that most groups would benefit from allocating ENOUGH TIME to the process and securing a FACILITATOR who is an effective leader. Now, I will go more into the process of conducting a powerfully beneficial strategic planning process.   

What is enough time? 

You may have participated in strategic planning processes in the past and felt they were more or less a waste of time.  Maybe you felt like the difficult challenges were being skirted. 

And how often do big, world-changing decisions get made during retreats?   

Rarely, right?

One more question:

Would you rather spend one day on an activity that produces zero real change or spend twice that much time and create something transformational?  

I know what my answer is!

If you want to have a strategic planning process that leads to real organizational focus and momentum, it helps to think of the important phases of the planning process. Instead of viewing the process as a one-day event, think of it as a process with the following stages:

  1. Internal Assessment and Planning. Identify the purpose and goal for the planning process. Conduct an internal assessment to identify strengths and target areas for improvement. Leaders will work harder to develop and implement a plan that is solving a problem they care about.
  2. Initial Retreat. Keep a focus on your mission and desired impact. Allow in-depth discussion on key topics, but maintain focus on the big goals. By the end of this retreat, leaders ought to have achieved agreement on big organizational purpose/ goals and identification of opportunities and identify key questions that need to be answered before key decisions can be made.
  3. Between Retreats Information-Gathering. Explore opportunities for advancing the organization’s mission, get answers to questions, conduct an environmental scan of community needs, potential partners, etc. Seek answers to key questions that must be answered to complete a plan for change, growth, or advancement of the organization.
  4. Second RetreatDecision Time! Complete the strategic plan for advancing your mission. Resolve decisions that needed answers or further consideration. Do as much as you can to complete an implementable plan, with assigned responsibilities, timelines, and indicators of success.
  5. Document and Communicate the Plan. The Logic Model format can work very well to support being very thoughtful about your Theory of Change and it results in a one-page graphic description of the organization’s direction and theory of change. This enhances communication about direction, and supports implementation.
  6. Implement, Evaluate, and Adjust as Needed. Evaluate regularly so that you can determine whether course corrections is needed or when an area needs additional resources and supports.

Strategic planning processes can be a waste of time, especially if you don’t give them enough time, if you skip key parts of the process, or you fail to obtain a facilitator with the leadership skills to guide your leadership team through the tough spots, where there is often a wealth of opportunity.

Bottom line:  If you’re going to invest a lot of organizational resources* in strategic planning, why not give the process the best chance to make a real positive difference?  * If you take 10 leaders off-site for a full-day retreat, that’s 70+ hours of leadership time and that’s a LOT of organizational resources. 

Have you ever been part of a really world-changing strategic planning process?

What made it so powerful?

gt headshot pretty smile 2013Please get in touch if I can help you ramp up your power as a mission-based leader. or 720-443-5056

Posted in Leadership, Management, nonprofit, Planning, Theory of Change | Leave a comment

Avoiding Strategic Planning FAILS

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.


Why is strategic planning so often a waste of time?? When I do talks on strategic planning, this question elicits great descriptions of failures of strategic planning processes, such as:

  • We took 10 leaders off-site and spent a whole day doing strategic planning, but “the plan” then sat on a shelf. We never looked at it again.
  • We planned for changes that made sense but, looking back a year later, most of those changes were never successfully implemented and we don’t know why.
  • We made changes in some areas, but not in others. Were we too ambitious in those areas, or was there a lack of leadership there?
  • We didn’t tackle any difficult issues at our planning retreat. Everyone just keeps doing what they do in their area, and we never gain momentum as an organization.

70% of change efforts fail—why even spend time planning for change?

I hated participating in meaningless planning experiences and I even get upset  hearing about them. Our mission-based organizations can’t afford to waste resources this way!  While conducting a meaningful and productive planning process is challenging, it is necessary to ensure that leaders are leading in the same direction. It is too easy for already-tight organizational resources to be wasted in a nonprofit organization when there’s a lack of clear direction and cohesive action.

Strategic planning can be a great solution for this, but it must be done well. In order to increase the chances that a) the plan will be good and b) the plan will be implemented to great effect, think about the time and energy you devote to the planning process itself.

Even though gathering leaders for a full day meeting is a major commitment of resources, there is really little reason to believe that a one-day meeting will produce a well-considered plan. One day is not enough time to surface, let alone find answers to, important questions. If leaders don’t have enough time to get questions answered, how will they be ready to make big decisions about new directions for the organization?

After years of participating in strategic planning processes as facilitator and participant, I know it’s very important to ascertain the organization’s needs and develop a process designed to help that particular organization gain real momentum.  

PLANNING FOR A PRODUCTIVE STRATEGIC PLANNING PROCESS. MY TOP TWO RECOMMENDATIONS for planning a productive planning process, based on many years’ experience as both a participant and a facilitator of strategic planning processes, are as follows:

  1. Take more time—stretch out the process a bit. Plan to have two retreats, with time in between to give people time to think about what matters most and to give time for getting answers to critical questions before the group makes big decisions.
  2. Use a skilled, external facilitator.  A facilitator who functions outside your organization’s power dynamics can more effectively lead an objective, participatory process.

What to look for in a strategic planning facilitator.  People ask me how to select a facilitator that can produce a valuable planning outcome.  Here are my answers:

  • Clarity of thought and communication. Get a facilitator who thinks and communicates clearly so they can guide your planning process toward a well-considered, coherent, implementable plan that will move your organization measurably forward.
  • Intimate knowledge of nonprofit organizations. It really helps if the facilitator has experience directing nonprofit programs themselves and has intimate understanding of the challenges.
  • Strong interview and assessment skills. In order to facilitate a process that will make a real difference, the facilitator must ascertain, quite quickly through interviews and other mechanisms, what should be the focus of the planning process and what the challenges will be to successful implementation of a plan that will result in a major step forward toward achieving greater impact. Lacking these skills, a facilitator may offer a generic planning process that targets irrelevant areas and, ultimately, fails to move your organization forward.
  • Leadership and strong meeting facilitation skills. Seek a facilitator with strong leadership skills—someone with the ability to be firm, yet gentle.  They must convey respect and high regard for everyone in the room, and for the mission of the organization. If real change is to occur, a facilitator must be able to get permission from the group to challenge assumptions and interrupt individuals or groups in the interest of achieving the planning goals.

You need ENOUGH TIME and a FACILITATOR who is a skilled leader in order for Strategic Planning to make a positive difference.

I would love to hear your strategic planning experiences! Did you have a bad strategic planning experience?


gt headshot pretty smile 2013

If you could use a sounding board to discuss your  nonprofit leadership challenges, let’s talk! 

Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., Board Certified Coach– executive/ business/ leadership coach

Get in touch at or 720-443-5056

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Done well, Strategic Planning creates momentum

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., Board Certified Coach

I work with leaders and managers with a sense of mission for making the world a better place. But, in spite of our great intentions and our skillful leadership efforts, it doesn’t always go like that. 

I have witnessed– and experienced — organizations “spinning” for months and even years trying to figure out what needs to be addressed or how to best address it. At those times, mission-based leaders are not having fun! They’re frustrated at the wasted energy and the inability to meet goals. When it goes on, it causes them to lose the best leaders, managers, staff, and volunteers. What’s more, ongoing failure to meet goals can make it harder to get the resources they need to fulfill their mission.

So, how do you make the decisions that will result in greater fulfillment of your mission? How do you focus your solutions and adaptions to best increase the positive impact of your organization? 

When you find your staff spinning and realize your interventions are not working to get back on course, it may be time to do some planning. As Todd Zenger argues in his Harvard Business Review article Trial and Error is No Way to Make Strategy (April 24, 2015), leaders tend to be doers but, often, thinking is needed more than doing.   

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to planning that works. You need to identify where to most effectively target change interventions to achieve the greatest increase in focus and momentum.  Here are some of the components you may need to target to achieve the organizational shift that’s needed, the building blocks to impact:

  1. A sustained focus toward a clear purpose;
  2. Skilled leaders with the skills to lead for results and impact;
  3. Effective implementation—which requires effective managers;
  4. The necessary resources to get the work done—time, people, money, equipment;
  5. Demonstrated results showing the impact of your programs and services, in order to sustain support, energy, and practical resources for your mission.


START WITH PRE-PLANNING ASSESSMENT. Which area(s) should you to target to increase your organization’s capacity to achieve great impact? If  leaders or staff are spinning, things are stressful and confusing, and your interventions aren’t working, take some time out to consider the best focus for strategic planning at this time.

Does everyone have a clear sense of direction? Is leadership strong, united and working effectively together? Are managers effective in leading effective implementation of programs, projects, etc.? Which would be of most help right now in terms of freeing up energy to achieving greater impact?  Improved implementation – or greater focus and clarity of purpose?

Is planning needed to regain a clarity of purpose and focus so leaders and managers can achieve desired impact?

PURPOSE:  Once you’ve done this internal assessment and determined what your planning process needs to focus on (A, B, C or other), use that to identify the goal and purpose of the planning process. 

WHO? Once you’ve identified the organizational area that needs improvement, who needs to be involved in planning?  Certainly, the leaders of that area need to participate, but what about other key stakeholders? 

The goal is to end up with the smartest, most effective, implementable plan that will make a difference. Who will add to the effectiveness of the plan?  If there are people who could sabotage it if the plan doesn’t make sense to them, think about how you can involve them.

HOW?  Too often, people think of planning as a one-day event.  It’s a great idea to take at least one day out each year as a leadership retreat to refresh goals and relationships, but planning to solve problems and move an organization seriously forward with momentum is not a one-day event. 

You need to give the process enough time if it is to create real value.  More on this– and other challenges to achieving great results with strategic planning– in upcoming posts.  






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Recommended Readings for Nonprofit Managers

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., Board Certified Coach

I love to work with nonprofit managers, helping them become highly skillful, confident and effective in their role.  It makes such a difference for them and for their organizations!  People have asked me to put together a recommended reading list, and I thought it would be more valuable if it were annotated.  So, if you’re looking for readings to help you become a better manager, please enjoy!


Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, 1999. First, Break All the Rules, New York: Simon & Schuster.

The authors report on findings of extensive research by the Gallup organization into what the most talented employees need from their workplaces and one key discovery was that talented employees need great managers.   Without great managers, organizations do not tend to produce great results. They found that great managers must do four things well—select people, set expectations, motivate people, and develop people.

John Kotter, 1999.   John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do, Harvard Business Review Press. A collection of this leadership authority’s Harvard Business Review articles, this book offers an astute assessment of the real work of leaders. Includes John Kotter’s distinctions between management and leadership.

Benham Tabrizi, 2014. The Key to Change is Middle Management, Harvard Business Review, October 27, 2014.   The author studied large-scale change efforts in 56 randomly selected companies in a variety of industries and found that the majority of change efforts failed. They also found that those who succeeded were distinguished by involvement of mid-level managers who were leading change by working levers of power up, down, and across their organizations.



Adam D. Galinsky, Joe C. Magee, M. Ena Inesi and Deborah Gruenfeld, 2009. Losing Touch: power diminishes perception and perspective, Kellogg Insight, November 1, 2009, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Under experimental conditions, researchers confirmed the following hypotheses: a) individuals primed with high power are more likely to demonstrate a lack of perspective-taking and an over-reliance on their own perspective; b) as power increases, power holders’ perspectives are more egocentric, i.e. they are more likely to assume that others’ insights match their own, and c) high-power participants demonstrate poorer empathy, making more errors in judging the emotional expressions of others.  

William A. (Bill) Gentry, 2014. “It’s Not About Me. It’s Me & You.” How Being Dumped Can Help First-Time Managers, Center for Creative Leadership White Paper—First in the Transitioning Into Leadership Series, at   The author points out that many first time managers were promoted because they were very successful at individual accomplishment; and, now, they must learn how to lead the accomplishment of others. It’s only natural that many will fail in this transition. To succeed, the first time manager must shift and expand focus—“It’s no longer about “me” and what “I” can do. It’s about what “you” can do.”

William A. (Bill) Gentry, Paige Logan, and Scott Tonidandel, 2014. Understanding the Leadership Challenges of First-Time Managers Strengthening Your Leadership Pipeline, Center for Creative Leadership White Paper—Second in the Transitioning Into Leadership Series, at Authors identify the challenges of first time managers and report that they supervise an average of 10 direct reports, more than any other level of management, that 58% never get any sort of training to help them in their new role, and that 50% are considered ineffective. In their surveys of first time managers, they discovered that the following were identified as the greatest challenges for first time managers: 1) Adjustment to People Management/Displaying Authority (59.3%); 2) Developing Managerial & Personal Effectiveness (46.1%); 3) Leading Team Achievement (43.4%); 4) Managing Internal Stakeholders & Politics (33.9%); and Motivation of Others (27.1%).

Linda A. Miller, 2007. Becoming the Boss, Harvard Business Review, January 2007. The author argues that first time manager success is extremely important, yet too little attention is paid to supporting this transition. She conducted case studies of the kind of personal transformation that the “star performer” experiences when promoted to management. In this article, she identifies key myths and misconceptions that make this transition difficult for managers, and contrasts those misconceptions with the reality new managers must grasp.

Ernest J. Wilson III, 2015. Empathy is Still Lacking in the Leaders who Need it Most, Harvard Business Review, September 21, 2015. The author reports on a 3-year study he and colleagues at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School conducted to identify the attributes executives must have to succeed in today’s digital, global economy. He was surprised how often the attribute of “empathy” was mentioned and concerned, too, because an unpublished 10 year study of graduates suggests that empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives.



Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, 1999. First, Break All the Rules, New York: Simon & Schuster.

The authors report on findings of extensive research by the Gallup organization into what the most talented employees need from their workplaces and one key discovery was that talented employees need great managers. They found that great managers were all different from each other except for one key insight—they understood that people remain true to their core selves and that managers can capitalize on employee’s talents and strengths but cannot be successful trying to remake people.

Stephen R. Covey, 1989. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Fireside, Simon & Schuster. A classic bestseller, the author encourages individuals to become aware of, and to expand beyond, the narrow paradigms they live within and to develop key habits that allow them to become highly effective. To be an influential leader, Stephen Covey asserts that the leader must: a) focus on critical priorities; b) define the contribution they want to make; and c) communicate so effectively with others that they “not only accomplish more, but also raise the levels of trust and fulfillment within their team.”

Jim Harter and Amy Adkins, 2015. Employees want a lot more from their managers, Albany CEO Briefing, June 9, 2015. Summarizes Gallup report, State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders, which examined the links between talent, engagement and vital business outcomes such as profitability and productivity. Their research shows that managers account for as much as 70% of variance in employee engagement scores. They found that the following supervisee descriptions of managers correlated with higher engagement: open and approachable, helps them set performance goals and holds them accountable for their performance, focused on supervisee’s strengths.

Eric Liu, 2013. Why Ordinary People Need to Understand Power, TED Talk, September 2013. Mr. Liu is a civics educator and founder of Civics University. His TED talk has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.

Jim Whitehurst, 2015. Be a Leader who can Admit Mistakes, Harvard Business Review, June 2, 2015. The author of The Open Organization, Mr. Whitehurst concludes that “being accessible, answering questions, admitting mistakes, and saying you’re sorry aren’t liabilities. They are exactly the tools you can use to build your credibility and authority to lead.”


Jim Collins, 2001, Good to Great: Why Some Companies make the Leap…and Others Don’t, Harper Business Press. This bestselling book reports the findings of a 5 year study asking what distinguished companies that made the leap to great results and those that didn’t. See especially Chapter 2 on Level 5 Leadership—the findings about the kind of leadership required to achieve greatness were surprising.  They found that leaders of the companies that became great possessed both strong professional resolve and personal humility– they were able to focus more on building their organizations than feeding their egos.

Jim Collins, 2005, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, Harper Collins. A monograph to accompany Good to Great, focused specifically on social sector companies such as nonprofit organizations. The content is based on interviews and workshops with over 100 social sector leaders.

Peter F. Drucker, 1990, Managing the Non-Profit Organization: Principles and Practices, Harper Business. Considered the guru of nonprofit organizations, Peter Drucker offers nonprofit managers guidelines for leading a mission-based organization and managing these organizations effectively.

Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Currency Doubleday. This classic lays out the alternative to an authoritarian hierarchy, encouraging leaders to build a culture a lifelong learning in their organizations.


 What would you add to the list? 



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Determine your Organization’s Prime Point to Strengthen your Leadership

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.

When the leadership team of a mission-based organization is strong, that organization is much more likely to achieve great results and meaningful community impact. Without a strong leadership team, the organization may fail to gain great momentum or may lurch from one initiative to the next without ever making the kind of difference leaders dream of making.

You can be much more confident of fulfilling your mission when you build a strong leadership team. Among other things, this requires developing effective approaches for leadership communication and decision-making that allow leaders to lead the organization well.

Strong leadership also involves establishing a prime point—a point that leaders always return to when they face tough choices or feel uncertain about a key decision.  The prime point includes your core purpose and core values. It’s not about everything you do and it’s not about every value everyone can cite as important. It’s about the core values that override everything else when those push comes to shove decisions must be made. The core values should be embodied and apparent in every activity and every decision.

Developing your Prime Point.  It can be very advantageous to develop one sentence that addresses both the organization’s core purpose and core value(s). Convene the leadership team to discuss certain questions to get at this– such as:

  • Does your current mission statement effectively articulate the core purpose and values of your organization?
  • Does everyone on the leadership team agree that this is the Prime Point—that it will guide choices and decisions every time in the foreseeable future? When tough choices and decisions must be made, will that articulated purpose win every time?
  • What about those articulated values?

I don’t want you to get hung up on needing to change your mission statement– I’ve seen too many leadership teams throw up their hands when that work is due to be done!  But if, after some discussion and reflection, you don’t all agree that the mission statement captures your Prime Point, it may be worthwhile to develop a Prime Point statement.  Your Prime Point statement should be easily remembered by everyone and provide a clear reference point. At any given moment when choices must be made about direction, any member of the leadership team ought to be able to state the Prime Point.  And it should distinguish you from other organizations in the community.

Contrasting Examples of Prime Point Statements

Two different examples of Prime Point statements for a Behavioral Healthcare Organization—the prime point of one is to provide services and the prime point of the other is to achieve certain results among their clients.  The question then becomes—if someone objectively observes what we do and how we do it, is this really our prime point?  Is this really the primary guide for our choices and decisions?

  • To provide comprehensive, integrated mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disability services that promote the health and quality of life of all community members.


  • Helping people with mental illness to live full, empowered, self-determined lives in the community.

A School’s Prime Point

  • Helping students from educationally underserved communities develop the knowledge, skills, character and habits needed to succeed in college and the competitive world beyond.


  • Maintaining a learning environment that consistently nurtures the most natural process of development of each individual student and a lifelong love of learning.

A Voter Advocacy Organization’s Prime Point

  • Giving clear, objective information to citizens in our community to increase informed participation in civic processes and create better government for a better community.


  • Advancing justice by ensuring that the judicial selection process is fair and expeditious and encouraging the selection of judges who respect constitutional values and the rights of citizens.

Your leadership team will be stronger in fulfilling its purpose when all leaders can state the organization’s prime point in a simple and straightforward single sentence. When the prime point is clear—and agreed-upon by all members of the leadership team– decisions are easier to make and constructive conflict is maximized while unconstructive conflict is minimized. When your leadership team has a clear and agreed-upon Prime Point, you can more effectively create value every day and achieve the kind of impact you all dream of.


Like to learn more?  Join me at a Colorado Free University class in Southwest Denver Friday, September 11th, 2- 4pm.


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Have you mastered conflict at work? (workshop)

By popular demand, I am offering a workshop to teach leaders how to generate greater engagement and teamwork through masterful management of conflict in the workplace.  

In this workshop, participants will learn:

  • To resolve complex disagreements that distract from the work and the mission
  • Ground rules for minimizing interpersonal conflict and maximizing the team’s emotional intelligence
  • How embracing diversity and utilizing conflict constructively can drive greater engagement and better decisions
  • 4 questions to use to make “mistakes” fuel innovation
  • How to use a proven tool for using disagreement to drive better performance

When:  August 28th, 9:30 – 4:30

Where:  Southwest Denver, Sheridan Public Library

Questions: or 720-443-5056

More info or register at






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Build a TRUE Theory of Change to Ensure your Organization Truly has IMPACT!

As a nonprofit leader, how can YOU maximize the chances that your organization will  achieve the meaningful impact it exists to achieve?

Many nonprofit leaders and supporters sense that their organizations lack the kind of powerful momentum it takes to achieve the big goals they exist to achieve.  One of the best ways to build great organizational momentum for achieving great impact is to build a clear and true theory of change.  At a most basic level, your theory of change identifies your big purpose, what it looks like when you’re achieving that, and the strategies and activities you use to achieve that goal. 

The last 3 posts addressed what a theory of change is, why it’s important that it is CLEAR, and the steps for becoming clear about your Theory of Change.  This post goes on to the next step and encourages you to get honest about the TRUTH of your Theory of Change—answering the question –

Do our organization’s activities TRULY lead to the kind of impact we’re in business to achieve?

In other words, once you are CLEAR about your Theory of Change, you need to determine whether it is TRUE. 

Many nonprofit organizations function for long periods of time with a false theory of change. Organizational longevity doesn’t prove that the organization is making the intended difference. Many nonprofit organizations capture information about the number of people they serve.  And that’s important.  But, demonstrating the provision of services doesn’t tell us anything about how effective the organization is at achieving the intended impact. 

Let’s look at the example of the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program.  I describe its theory of change very simply as follow:   

Lecture youth about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and urge abstinence…

                                                                                                            –>Youth will abstain from risky behaviors

For many years, the DARE program was everywhere.  Millions of dollars were invested. But research indicated it was not achieving the desired results.  In fact, after years of research there was some evidence that the DARE program increased drug and alcohol use!  I knew some wonderful people involved with the DARE program and those research results were painful!

Every nonprofit leader I’ve met wants to make a real, true difference in the world.  But how do we know whether our program is achieving the desired effect?  Leaders can improve the likelihood that their programs are having the desired effect by testing their Theory of Change—even against logic and the information that exists in the world. 

In the case of the DARE program , since the research kept indicating that the program wasn’t working as intended, the adults involved invested time and energy in understanding better how to actually help youth make better choices.  They thought about some of the available information about adolescents.  Here are a couple of facts about youth:  1) they are not inclined to worry about risks as much as adults do, so emphasizing risks with them has less effect than we think it should; and 2) youth are at a stage of life where they increasingly need to make their own decisions– and they tend to rebel against adults trying to impose their will on them.  

The more they looked at it, the clearer it became that bringing in a police officer (authority figure) to warn children and youth about risks was not likely to be as effective as they would like.  In fact, it might provoke the opposite response from the one desired– youth might be more likely to try drugs and alcohol because the adults were telling them not to– and it seems that is how it worked!

Using these insights and insights gained from research on behavior change, they decided to shift the program from a “drug focus” to a “healthy decision focus.”  The new amd improved Theory of Change could be described (very simply) as follows: 

Provide youth with information to support smart decisions relative to sex and substance use.  And teach them skills for resistance and avoidance of unhealthy behaviors…

                                        –>Youth will endorse healthy norms and attitudes for sexual activity and substance use and                                                     demonstrate capacity to resist poor choices

Fortunately, the new and improved program is effective in achieving the desired results.  Participants in the New DARE Program are better able to resist poor choices and make better choices relative to drugs and alcohol (Amy Nordrum, The New DARE Program—This One Works, Scientific American, September 10, 2014).   So, it’s a very good thing they reconsidered their Theory of Change!

So, tell the truth now– how clear and how true is the Theory of Change that underpins your mission-based organization??

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Mission-Based Leadership Coach,,

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STEPS for Building a CLEAR Theory of Change

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Mission-Based Leadership Coach

The nonprofit organization’s Theory of Change identifies its big purpose and the strategies and activities used to achieve that.  Generally, we must be CLEAR about our theory of change before we can have any confidence that we will achieve great, meaningful impact.   In this paper, I will outline specific steps for getting clear about your program’s theory of change.

  1. First, identify the important stakeholders for participating in this discussion.

I was director of a child and family mental health services department when a new managed care relationship required us to reconsider our intensive home-based services program.  The program had traditionally offered intensive services to families of children with serious psychiatric conditions for 1 – 2 years, with a goal to “stabilize” the children’s mental health status.  Lacking evidence that the expensive program was truly beneficial, the insurance company informed us they would consider funding a briefer program– closer to 3 months total.   Therapists and doctors involved with the program were dismayed , feeling they couldn’t be truly helpful to families under these circumstances.  We had to reconsider our theory of change and we wanted the input of various stakeholders —  therapists, psychiatrists, and managers, plus parents, teachers, social workers, and health care providers.  If a 3 month program could indeed be of value, we needed to be very clear what would be the purpose and theory of change for the much briefer program.   If staff had developed a new program without broader stakeholder input, it’s unlikely we would have built a program that would truly meet families’ needs.

  1. Get Clear about your Big Purpose—your mission — the reason your organization exists.  It’s important not to become complacent and assume everyone knows this.  It is surprising how often different leaders have different ideas about the organization’s big purpose—and how much those different understandings produce confusion and organizational dysfunction.

I worked with a school whose leaders said their mission was to eradicate poverty.  As we worked on the theory of change, school leaders came to realize that, in reality, they wanted to provide transformative educational experience and family support services that would increase the likelihood that students from low income households would develop the kind of skills and lifelong love of learning that would allow them to climb out of generations of poverty.  The Big Purpose was still inspirational and, as it became more clear, focused, and actionable, leaders were better identify the strategies and activities that would achieve that purpose—and to avoid distracting activities that lay outside their mission.

  1. Get Clear about Organizational Goals. Narrow your focus enough to achieve something real that is linked to the big purpose and to minimize the likelihood that everyone is working toward different goals.  In the intensive home-based services example, the program goals had to shift from goals of basically eliminating the child’s psychiatric symptoms or the life impact of those symptoms (goals which were rarely being achieved anyway) to empowering the child and parents to manage the symptoms and minimize crises.
  1. Get Clear about Organizational Strategies and Activities for achieving those goals and that big purpose. This is a very important step. Many nonprofit organizations provide a set of services in a particular way year after year without serious reflection on the question of whether these particular services actually are likely to achieve the desired results.  lt is definitely possible to provide millions of dollars of services to thousands of people without achieving the intended goals well at all.  It is incumbent upon nonprofit leaders, most of whom are passionately working for the big purpose, to periodically stop and think about whether the programs and activities they are providing are really even logically linked to the organization’s goals and purpose.

When you have your stakeholders gathered, use questions like these to help get CLEAR about your theory of change and increase the likelihood that your organization achieves great impact.

  1. Discuss the big purpose of your organization and address the following questions:
    • What does that mean to each of us?  Work to arrive at shared understanding, to make sure various stakeholders mean the same thing when they talk about the goals.
    • What does it look like when our purpose is fulfilled? How can we and our supporters know that we are achieving that purpose?
  2. What are our organization’s key strategies for achieving its Big Purpose and goals?
  3. Does it make sense, and fit with available knowledge, to believe that these strategies will produce those results?
  4. What are the activities, services, etc. for achieving the purpose and goals?
  5. Do the activities and services fit within the defined strategies?
  6. Does it make logical sense, and does it fit with available knowledge, to believe that these activities and services will produce those results?
  7. Are there key strategies or activities we ought to incorporate which are known to produce these kinds of desired results?

When your Theory of Change is more CLEAR, you can lead your organization much more effectively, with greater momentum and use of resources.  And, when your Theory of Change is TRUE, you can better ensure that the organization is having the desired impact.  The next paper will focus on ensuring that your Theory of Change is TRUE.  

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GET CLEAR: Build a CLEAR Theory of Change to Build Great Organizational Momentum

By Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Mission-Based Leadership Coach

Everyone knows that nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations exist to make a positive difference in the community.   In fact, each ought to exist to make a particular positive impact. 

But we all know of mission-driven organizations and social institutions in the US which have persisted for long periods of time, with major investments of time, energy, and money without ever achieving the kind of impact they intend. 

Now, with the aggressive movement to demonize the poor in the United States and gut social programs, it is more important than ever that nonprofit leaders do everything they can to ensure that the organizations they lead achieve real, positive impact in the community.  We must work to ensure these organizations make the difference they purport to make– in order to fulfill our fiduciary obligations, to gain real rewards from our work, and to protect safety net programs for those who need them.  

One of the first and perennial responsibilities of mission-based leaders in this regard is to reflect upon the organization’s theory of change—what are we trying to change and how?  When we spell it out, does it even make sense?

Can you think of social programs with strategies and activities that don’t logically seem to lead to the stated purpose? 

I studied teen sexual decision-making intensively for many years and spoke with hundreds of youth to learn what helps and what doesn’t for getting them to slow down and be more thoughtful about these important, potentially life-changing decisions.  That experience led me to be very critical of abstinence-based programs, which I understood to be based on a theory of change that seems to make sense– until you think about it in greater depth.  A theory of change for abstinence-based programs could be simply stated like this:

Lecture youth about dangers (of drugs, alcohol, smoking, sexual activity) and urge abstinence  –> youth will abstain from risky behaviors

It’s easy to understand how well-intended adults could believe in this theory of change, given that it is probably the approach most of us grew up with and we don’t know what else to do.  But, when you study adolescent development and learn how teens think, you realize that they are wired to experiment with adult behaviors, resist adult control, and achieve independence– and that lecturing youth to abstain from risky activities is not logically going to be very effective in influencing them.

When you incorporate what’s known about decision-making, adolescent development, and the most effective ways to influence others, you might develop a theory of change that looks a little less simple but is more likely to work– like this:  

Provide youth with information to support smart decisions relative to sex and substance use and teach them skills for resistance and avoidance of risky behaviors –> youth will endorse healthy norms and attitudes for sexual activity and substance use and demonstrate capacity to resist poor choices

When leaders work to thoughtfully spell out their theory of change, there are many benefits:

  • They can better design programs and services that have integrity
  • They have a better foundation for making good leadership decisions and taking decisive action
  • Supporters can seek programs which have theories of change they believe in
  • It is easier to test whether a program truly works or not

What is the theory of change in your favorite mission-based organization?  Does it make logical sense?

In most cases, we must be CLEAR about our theory of change before we can have any confidence that we will achieve great impact.  In my next post, I will outline specific steps for getting clear about your program’s theory of change

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