Everything that we are grateful for today began as a dream, even an impossible dream. Thanks to the advances of neuroscience, we know that people are moved by dreams. Martin Luther King did not say from the steps of the Washington Mall “I have a plan.” Thank heavens, no. His dream sparked a narrative that would ultimately result, among other things, in the election of the first African American to the highest office in the land.
Humans are hard-wired for a great story. We love hearing them. But we love creating them too. This capacity for story, in fact, is the only thing that distinguishes the human brain from other animal species. It makes us us!
But we downplay our capacity to imagine and create bright futures. We poo poo how powerful we are and how much possibility is at the tips of our fingers. The best times to get glimpses of people tapping power they never dreamed they had is when they face obstacles. Something rises up inside us when we are up against it. Things we didn’t believe we were capable of, somehow, become possible.
Case in point. A 17-year-old boy named Chris Wilson in Baltimore was sentenced to life in prison for murder. A good student, a self-described book-worm, chess player, avid cellist, he saw five of his friends murdered before the age of 17. He witnessed his mom’s boyfriend, a cop, beat her and threaten to kill his entire family. While in prison, Chris’s family shunned him; No one wrote or visited. Though on paper he was supposed to spend the rest of his life behind bars, Chris needed a reason to get up, so he created something he called a “positive delusion,” a story about the life he wanted to lead beyond the prison walls. Building on this, he wrote up a “Master Plan” to make his ” delusion” real. Today, that locked up boy is a free man in his 30s running two businesses in Baltimore, about to attend the Harvard Executive Leadership Program.
Chris’s story models the 7 steps of every successful change effort.
Step 1: Experience disturbance.
Behind every success is a story of failure – one time (or two or three) when what you thought was going to work stopped working, when the big karmic hammer fell. Most of us will not be sentenced to life in prison, but we all get to experience devastation of one form or another – personally and in the context of the organizations we are leading. Discomfort is high. The tools that used to work doesn’t anymore. You can either collaborate willingly with your transition, or be dragged along.
Disturbance is Step 1 on the path to transformation — an essential part of powering you out of maintenance mode and into change mode.
Step 2: Formulate a vision – a positive delusion. Write it down.
From the bedrock of disturbance when you might be thrashing around for answers, turn instead to questions. Questions like — “What might good look like?”
“What would you create if resources were not a constraint?” “What would be different and for whom if our organization’s mission were 100% accomplished?
If your imagination feels stuck in habitual thinking, start (and say yes to) wherever you are. Whatever your first responses to your initial question, you can move up the aspirational ladder by asking “and what would that make possible?”
For example, if a nonprofit executive director of a youth development organization told me her vision was to “have programs run in the black,” I would say “Great, and what would that make possible?” In this way we continue exploring up the aspirational ladder until perhaps we get to a vision like “Kids in our community feel safe and loved.”
A vision is a statement about how the world will be different and for whom. You will know when you get to your vision because your gut says, “That’s it.” Now, write it down.
Step 3: You have your vision, you’ve written it down. Now, you’re tempted to “get real.” Your mind is exploding with all the reasons “you must be joking.” This is your habitual mind trying to put a stop to this off-script original thinking. Breath, and keep going. Ask “What will it take?” or “What are the conditions that would need to be in place for my vision to happen/be inevitable? Write these conditions down.
You may come up with conditions that you may not feel you can influence, but you will also discover conditions that are very much within reach of your influence. It’s all good! You will come upon ideas that you had not thought about before. Write them down.
Step 4: Focus on one condition at a time and reverse engineer with the “what will it take” question, all the way to now. So, if one of my conditions for kids feeling safe and loved is “Families have a place to turn when they are in crisis.” I can reverse engineer by asking, what would it take to create this. Write down all of the steps it would take and circle actions that are do-able in the next year or two.
Step 5: Ask who you might engage to move faster and further than you would on your own. When Chris Wilson went to prison he was utterly alone. He shared his “Powerful Delusion” and his “Master Plan” with the judge who convicted him, he shared it with the prison administration, and he connected with the people all around him by mentoring and being mentored. His vision and his plan made it possible for him to form a community out of nothing. It is the same in any change process. The power of your dream and the credibility of your plan attract people who bring expertise, encouragement, resources, and access to what you need to make your dream a reality. Your dream lights up others’ dreams. By sharing your dream, you are helping others advance as they are helping you to advance.
Step 6: Celebrate small and big wins. The goal cannot be the source of your joy. The journey, the many small wins, the big victories, and the expression of gratitude and the celebration of what you and the people around you are becoming – all of this is gas in the tank to keep fueling the dream. Slow down enough to take moments to remind yourself of the magic of your dream. Build those into every day. Take photos. Collect mementos. Start every meeting with a story of why this work is so awesome. Don’t skip this step.
Step 7: Take stock/learn as you go and apply that learning – adjusting along the way. The Master Plan is only a plan. It’s not bible and verse. It’s useful to notice how you thought it might go versus how it actually turned out, and then to reflect on what that might mean for your plan. Every step in the process and the people working with you are sources of invaluable insight that you can use to your advantage.
You need a bold vision. Without it, you don’t have a way to attract the support you need and to power through the difficult times. You need a plan. Without it, you seem like a dreamer, not serious — the support you do have will dwindle and new supporters you might attract will shy away.
Are you passionate about transforming a problem in your community? Are you eager to see the work you are doing build momentum? Is your organization ready to attract and build a larger community of supporters who will accelerate your progress?
Andrea John-Smith is the Founder and CEO of Scout Finch Consulting.
Andrea helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.
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Copyright March 2017