Don't Confuse Strategy and Outcome

It's almost a truism that we should judge the quality of a strategy and the projects and initiatives that come from it based on their outcomes. We're results oriented after all, aren't we? Unfortunately using outcomes as your sole measure is usually a terrible way to judge effectiveness. Outcome-based measures are usually the holy grail of performance measurement but if our goal in the end is to make our decision making process repeatable and to learn from past experience, judging solely on the basis of a few outcome data points won't get us very far.

What we need to do is focus on the quality of the strategy and decision-making process that led to the outcome. Our first question should always be whether the process was sound using the available data to make as informed a decision as possible. As Michael Mauboussin shows in his book The Success Equation, there is a continuum in most things in life between skill and luck. Most endeavors combine elements of the two. We can and should use skill to make decisions but in the end luck will act on those decisions in ways we cannot predict. The more complex and multi-faceted the issue and the more players there are involve, the greater the role that luck plays.1

As a result, luck can change the outcome or any strategy or project radically. If we rely on those outcomes to judge success then we will draw the wrong conclusions about the strategy and make worse decisions in the future. Over time we'll see the average outcome get worse.

As a personal example, my parents took me on a trip to the UK when I was 8. I was fascinated by the slot machines in all the pubs and restaurants since we didn't have them where I grew up. After a lot of pressing, my parents gave me a pound to play one of the machines as a way to teach me about how gambling leads to loss. I put in the pound, pulled the lever, and I hit the jackpot. As the coins poured out of the machine I could have confused strategy with outcome. That would have set me on a course to be a life long gambler. Fortunately I got the basic point from my parents without having to read The Success Equation and almost never gamble today. I was lucky not good at pulling a lever.

We obviously cannot ignore outcomes altogether and certainly we need to ameliorate bad outcomes and attempt to replicate good ones. But I urge leaders to probe a bit further. What was the strategy and decision making process you or your team used? Was it well thought out, inclusive, and structured? Is it repeatable? How many data points to you really have? Over a sustained period, a sound strategy and decision-making process will eventually swamp luck.

We all know that soccer and football games can turn on the way a player feels that day or the way the wind blows. Maybe we should have all invested in Bitcoin or listened better to the stock tip in the elevator. Luck plays a big role in life and it is tempting to try to draw conclusions from a single success or failure. Resist the temptation and focus on implementing a sound strategy and planning process. It will serve you much better in the long run.

1Interestingly, he also points out that the greater the collective skill of all the participants, the greater role luck plays. For example, when Roger Federer plays Nadal the role of luck is far greater between these two highly skilled players than it is when he plays an amateur with a vastly inferior skill level. In the later case the amateur loses entirely based on Federer's superior skill.

Cool Things in Government: NIST's Smart Cities Framework

This week we are featuring NIST's Smart Cities efforts and in particular its recently released Smart Cities Framework. Smart Cities has been a buzz word for many years now. While many of the benefits of the technologies behind Smart Cities are compelling: open data, cloud, sensors, analytics, etc., it seems most Smart Cities efforts end up as a hodgepodge of apps or a cluster of projects without any over all framework. You might like one city's pothole app but it isn't a comprehensive and scalable strategy. In other words, it has been a marketing term and not anything tangible or really definable. 

We commend NIST for using the convening power of government to bring together many of the key stakeholders to put some more meat on the bones. We were particularly intrigued about the trade off between things working together (interoperability) and innovation. This is a trade off all of us know about as we get more devices and services from different providers. It's great that my Apple Watch controls my Apple Music but if I subscribe to Spotify, it doesn't work very well. We are seeing companies trying to keep customers in as walled a garden as possible while other companies offer alternative platforms or one off innovations.

This type of walled garden just isn't possible with Smart Cities. The technologies and geographies involved are simply too varied and complex. If a single architecture were imposed it would stifle new solutions. As the report says:

"If you standardize everything you freeze out innovation. If you standardize nothing, you get non-interoperable clusters that are not easily integrated." 

Government has to walk a particularly straight line on this subject making sure to emphasize areas where citizens are ill served by systems that are siloed without favoring certain solutions over others and choking off innovation. The report's recommendation to find a few key leverage points for standardization is a sensible approach.

In the long run we'll most likely see several key platforms begin to dominate the space as it requires a breadth and scale that few companies can provide. It is somewhat analogous to cloud services where Amazon, Google, and Microsoft own the market with several much smaller hangers on chasing behind. In fact it could be those providers who provide the building blocks of the Smart Cities environment. On top of those platforms we'll see an entire eco-system of applications and services that will have varying levels of interoperability depending on the application.

NIST's Framework can provide a baseline from which to watch that ecosystem grow and a way to make sense of the new environment as it emerges. As Smart Cities moves from marketing to deployable strategy, NIST and the stakeholders they have assembled can play a key role in helping communities understand the full range of choices and tradeoffs available to them. 

Leadership is about Hard Decisions

I've become increasingly convinced that good organizational leadership is relatively simple but not easy. In other words, good leadership and management isn't rocket science (unless you work at NASA). You can argue around the edges but most gurus preach that leaders should:

  1. Know their customer and mission
  2. Set a clear direction
  3. Focus resources on the most important initiatives that will get you there
  4. Build a great team to implement
  5. Ensure accountability
  6. Communicate the story and progress of the organization
  7. Learn and adapt as you go and never forget about #1 

None of that is particularly difficult to understand and certainly anyone with an average IQ can do the job. Warren Buffett famously urged investors with an IQ of 150 to sell 30 points. He wrote:

To invest successfully does not require a stratospheric IQ, unusual business insights, or inside information. What’s needed is a sound intellectual framework for making decisions and the ability to keep emotions from corroding the framework.”

Replace "invest" with "lead" and the statement is equally as true.

For example, the number one problem I see government leaders struggle with is canceling and/or taking resources from one project and giving them to another. In almost all cases it is clear that the project getting cancelled is low priority for the organization as a whole. The problem is there is almost always someone leading the project who doesn't agree. That person thinks (or talks his or her self into thinking) that the project is essential. On the surface everyone agrees that the organization should spend its precious resources on its key priorities but when it comes to de-prioritizing any individual project, power, territory, and fiefdoms all come into play.

A good leader has to make the hard call. You can build the justification, show the facts, let the person down easy, etc. but in the end someone is going to get upset. It's one thing to declare you are going to prioritize but it's another to tell someone face-to-face that the project they've led for five years is going away. Doing that in a sensitive but firm way is what great leaders are made of and it will inevitably have a cost. Here are some ways to improve your chances of success:

  1. Build a solid case: When you are redistributing resources any choice gets high levels of scrutiny.  Make sure you can trace your decision to a prioritization process that used objective criteria and involved multiple inputs.
  2. Keep the end goal and customer in mind: It is one thing to decide to move resources and another to sit in front of the person who is disadvantaged by that decision. You shouldn't underestimate the emotional and human element of that situation. But the decision is about more than one person. The customer or stakeholder who will benefit from the project isn't in the room and his or her voice isn't represented. I find it helpful to hold a picture of that representative customer in my mind to ensure I remember why we made the decision in the first place.
  3. Follow the Process: In behavioral economics they talk about the dynamic between your current self and your future self. Your current self might be assured of a decision but your future self can be confronted with doubts that seem compelling in the moment. Process is a defense against this. Construct an objective process in which multiple parties commit to the outcome. That will bind your future self to the decisions that result from the process and minimize the chances that you'll back down at the last minute.



What We are Reading/Listening to

3 Tips for Managing Innovation

We are used to seeing innovators lauded for their brilliance. They are insightful geniuses who see around corners and live ahead of their times. In practice, most innovators stumble into success. Innovation is more about implementation and execution than it is about inspiration. Of course Edison figured that out over 100 years ago when he said: "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration."

It pays to take a more opportunistic approach. Twitter started off as a side project at a podcasting company that had been made irrelevant by Apple. Steve Jobs didn't want apps on his precious new iPhone. Facebook was a social network for Ivy League colleges and Netflix mailed DVDs. Change and adaptation are crucial to success.

Don't discount the importance of ideas. They are the starting point and the motivator to take action just don't stick to closely to those original ideas. As a government leader you should be careful to design your project planning to allow for adjustments and learning. Often the best insights come from ideas that occur during implementation. The original idea doesn't always work but it leads you down a path to something that does. In other words don't spend all your time planning up front.

Many leaders in government make two related mistakes. They demand too much validation of ideas before allowing them to go forward and once that validation has occurred they over-commit resources. Whatever you decide on most likely won't work as advertised so why pretend like it will?

To maximize your chances of success think about yourself more like a venture capitalist. Fund many small proof of concept projects, set up gates that projects must meet to move to the next stage, kill the projects that don't make it, and gradually give more resources and focus on the few that do. A few tips that can help you on the way are: 

1. Establish what success looks like. Think about a successful project or initiative your organization has completed. What made it successful? Customer adoption? Leadership validation? Those factors should be your ultimate measure for success. These are the end goals you are pointing all projects towards.

2. Set the Key Performance Indicators or KPIs. I don't like to think of KPIs as goals in and of themselves. They are simply indications that you may or may not be on the right track. If customer adoption is your end goal, customer interest might be a KPI. That could be number of visits or time spent at a booth, downloads on a website, social media shares, etc. Don't fall into the trap of thinking KPIs ensure success and don't reward or punish projects on the basis of any one KPI. This leads to the problem of gaming the KPI and not all successful projects get to success in the same way. Booth visits might be meaningless for a certain project but downloads might be key. KPIs are simply indications and you should monitor a diverse set of them for hints on the direction your project is headed in.

3. Set formal gates or project reviews that projects must pass through. As the famous investor Howard Marks once said: "Being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong." Even if an idea is great, if you can't prove that it is within a certain amount of time, it is the same as having a bad idea. Few project managers will kill their own projects. You as the leader have to do it for them. Setting up formal project gates that are time bounded and require projects to demonstrated certain outcomes to pass through is a good way to instill some discipline. Where your organization's gates should be is an case by case decision. For example, basic research programs have different timelines than policy offices.

Managing innovation is a dynamic and shifting process and many aspects of managing in a government environment will push back against maintaining this type of flexibility. It's your job as the leader to create the space to allow innovation to happen.


What We are Reading/Listening To

Don't Believe Your Own Hype

One of the primary roles of a leader is to help construct the story of what the organization is and does. Of course, everyone in the organization plays a part in this but usually what the leader says has a disproportionate impact. I've seen organizations transformed or ruined by narratives from leadership. Organizations with bad narratives have trouble recruiting, have low productivity and morale, and hemorrhage talent. Organizations with great stories attract and retain the best and people work hard to live up to the narrative. As humans we think we understand the world through facts but on the whole I've found that isn't the case. As Nietzsche famously wrote, "There are no facts, only interpretations." We really understand not through facts but through stories.

Good leaders understand these dynamics. In some cases it can seem manipulative or artificial  to consciously construct a story but I believe it is essential. If the leader doesn't construct the narrative someone else will and that someone else might not have the overall good of the organization as his/her primary goal. We simply cannot live comfortably without a story to put what we do and where we work in context. 

But great leaders also understand the limitations of the narrative. While stories make rallying a group of people to collective effort easier they also have their downsides. Narratives have a way of reinforcing our biases. A mistake you should learn from can become a noble attempt to defy the odds. A victory due to luck from which you should learn nothing can be portrayed as the inevitable conclusion to a perfectly constructed process. Neither of these stories reflects the truth.

As a result stories can blind you to the wider world. You risk getting trapped in your own narrative. Leaders need to constantly challenge their narrative, look for feedback from stakeholders, and gather whatever knowledge they can about the wider world in which they operate. This is especially important for organizations seeking to innovate and stay on top of trends. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan great leaders believe but verify.

The Frictionless Future

I think I've just seen the future and I like it. Let me begin by saying that I'm a total Apple fan boy and I acknowledge that it is obnoxious to talk about a bunch of expensive electronics that I own. That said, I'm beginning to understand the frictionless world in which Apple wants to encase all its customers. 

Let me explain. I recently got an Apple Watch for Christmas. I thought it was ok. I don't need anyone counting my steps and it mostly seemed like a nice to have with little critical functionality.  It has the time AND the weather. Groundbreaking!

But I was only half right. Recently after a software update the Watch offered to pair with my MacBook. Now when I start my MacBook, the Watch automatically opens it without a password. Soon after I clicked on a link to my son's lacrosse game and the iPhone opened Apple Maps instead of my usual Google Maps or Waze. I accepted it and then at every turn my Watch began tapping my wrist and offering an arrow telling me quickly which direction to turn on the display without having to speak.

I also bought an iPhone X and the Face ID seemed like a neat little feature but sort of gimmicky. Then it started to ask if I wanted to use it to authenticate on all the apps on my phone. Now I open my investment account app, banking app, etc. without a password and without the texted number associated with traditional two factor authentication. My face is now the password and the second factor. That made remembering all these highly secure passwords for apps I might use often but not everyday obsolete.

What I began to realize is that Apple is attempting to construct a frictionless world in which its users navigate with a seamless set of Apple hardware and services. You're Watch, your phone, your computer, your tv, your car, your... all remove barriers and annoyances as each one acts as a gateway to the rest of the world. Movies, directions, music, tv programs, etc. will all be served up seamlessly at the moment of need/request like we all have some sort of magical butler. Apple becomes the gateway and removes many of the frictions we all experience everyday. Can you imagine if your Watch or phone could just autofill all those forms at the doctor's office?

Now of course there are a lot of caveats and issues to consider. The world I describe isn't fully here yet. I've just seen glimpses. It'll take time. There are also the issues of privacy and control. Will we all slip into a Wall-E future with a corporate overlord dictating what we do and see? There's also competition. I don't think Apple will necessarily win this battle. Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. are working to create this or alternate worlds as well and there are some big gaps and flubs that I've seen from Apple as well.

From my perspective though, Apple has a big advantage over its competitors with its ability to control hardware, software, and many services as a single system. It has more of a chance to create a compelling suite of hardware and services.

From a government perspective, there are obviously regulatory concerns but I also think government innovators and leaders need to focus on this same seamless system or suite when thinking about serving citizens. People's expectations will be shaped by Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. and they will demand similar services. Why does someone have to go to three departments separately to get approval for something? Why do I have to use some terrible green screen government database? Why do things seem opaque and antiquated? The private sector will force the public sector to up its game. Maybe I'm wrong but I think I've had a glimpse of that future and it's time for us all to pay attention.

A Game Theory View of the Government Shutdown

As the government shutdown yet again this Friday I was having bad flash backs to 2013. Back then it went on long enough for journalists to start doing thought pieces about the story behind the story. I went back and re-read some of the articles about the standoff and in particular two pieces about the game theory behind the shutdown.

In game theory we strip away the emotions and even the particular issues and look solely at the incentives of the participants. An econ blog at Cornell had an interesting interpretation of the shutdown as the classic prisoner's dilemma from economic theory. Mid way down the page you'll see this a 2 by 2 box giving a plus one or negative one for each outcome (back down or fight) for each player (President Obama and Congress). Because Obama had already won reelection and could not be elected again, it was only Congress who had something to lose. Obama had a winning strategy in almost every situation. Obama only lost if he backed down while Congress chose to fight and that seemed unlikely since he could control his own behavior.

Another view attributed the shutdown to the structure of our political system. The President, the Senate, and the House are all elected for different terms and by different constituencies. Winning a national election is different from winning a statewide election, which is in turn different from winning a particular congressional district. With varying terms, each player has a different calculus. The Senator running for President in two years has different incentives than one running in 6 or a Congresswoman who needs to get reelected. The President has different incentives in his first term than his second.

I think these are both important perspectives and certainly clarify what is really happening from the talking points about any particular issue, but it doesn't explain our current shutdown. The incentives this time around are muddier. Republicans want to appear like they can run the government so a shutdown is bad for them but not that bad so they are unlikely to give up too much. The democrats seem more divided. Many want to take a stand on DACA but others are worried about winning reelection in red states. Still others feel like things are going their way in public opinion and they don't want to risk any blame blowing back to them. Don't mess up a good thing would be their mantra. With a deal for 3 weeks in the offing, this topic will leave the headlines for a few weeks but a final solution is cloudy. 



What We're Reading and Listening To


Listening to:


Government R&D Started at the Very Beginning

Here's a good read if you want to geek out on government R&D history. And honestly, who doesn't? This paper from Dartmouth is a reminder of the often forgotten fact that government R&D and its partnership with industry began with the country itself. Hamilton's Report on Manufactures was one of the very first initiatives of the newly elected Washington Administration. It called for tariffs on important goods, limitations on imports, and for bounties and incentives to encourage manufacturing and certain other industries. I haven't seen the musical yet so I'm not sure if they sing about this one but I doubt it. The report itself was shelved unlike the ones on public credit and for a new national bank but many of the provisions were adopted piecemeal over time. It was also the first shot in an ongoing battle about the role of government in encouraging industry. That debate still plays out today as you can see with the current Administration's infrastructure proposals and trade and tax policy. So if you have time during our potential shutdown, read a little bit about where government innovation began.


Is Your Workplace and Team, a Tribe, or Neither?

Govexec had an interest article calling into question our tendency to talk about our work place teams as families. As the author writes:

"But your coworkers are not actually “like a family.” You’re born into your family; where you work and who you hire involves making choices. And encouraging employees to think of one another as family can have negative consequences.
I first realized the dangers of calling employees “family” early on at my company, when I had to let several people go for performance reasons. These were gregarious people who were beloved by their coworkers, and when their teams found out about the firings, they were absolutely beside themselves. My decision was widely questioned. I realized we had created an environment where the unconditional love and support for longtime colleagues clouded our collective ability to make smart business and hiring decisions. We needed to make a change."

I fully agree with the author's point. Family and workplace don't usually mix too well together.  But the author goes on to endorse the concept popularized by Seth Godin of a workplace being a tribe. I understand and appreciate the point but I prefer to stick with the simple team analogy. Tribe sounds exclusionary and implies some amount of us against them. While a team can have similar connotations, it is more fluid. Members of teams come together to achieve goals but it doesn't imply a life long commitment. You aren't completely defined by a team. You are a member while it makes sense and you move on when it doesn't. As most football, baseball, and basketball fans know, the player you demonize today could be on your team tomorrow.

Not All Innovation Projects Were Born Equal

I often see government programs using  a one size fits all approach to managing innovation efforts. Every project has its milestones planned out three years in advance and of course all the right metrics to prove how appropriate the investment is. It's every project manager's dream. Unfortunately, real innovation doesn't work that way. The rise of agile development, minimum viable products, and quick pivots has made this kind of thinking obsolete.

On the other hand, government programs live in a world of scrutiny. Companies might have some central functions that act as watch dogs but government programs have management, inspector generals, watchdog organizations, Congress not to mention citizens themselves. There are a lot of people looking for things that are going wrong so a litany of failures isn't going to be seen as brilliant pivots based on market feedback. So what is a government leader to do? Long term planning has limited usefulness in today's world and high levels of scrutiny punish those who experiment too much. The key in my view is balance across the spectrum of projects and phases of development.

Successful government agencies and programs manage a portfolio of innovation projects. Some are exploratory and minimize investment while proving out a concept while others have reached the full scale execution phase and require more detailed planning and higher levels of investment. At Corner Alliance, we recommend that government innovators manage their projects consciously as an innovation portfolio based on our research into best practices in public and private research and development. Much as a venture capitalist manages a portfolio of companies, government innovators can provide minimal levels of proof of concept funding and gate further investment based on a few key milestones. We break initiatives and projects into six phases. You can group some of these to simplify this further but this gives you the basic categories:

  1. Explore: This is the broadest type of initiative and largely focused on research and basic information gathering. You are essentially exploring an entire area for what is relevant to your program. For example in this phase you might be asking how the cloud impacts my domain.
  2. Identify: Based on that exploration, you can begin to identify some priority areas that your particular program or area deems the most important and compelling. At this phase, those gaps might not be realistically addressable but they should be priorities. 
  3. Define/Refine: Now you are prioritizing and trying to qualify your key gap areas and assess the feasibility of making a meaningful impact in that area.
  4. Target: In the target phase you are establishing your investment criteria and using them to focus on only the most impactful gaps. At this point you are envisioning actual solutions and project milestones.
  5. Execute: As the name implies, this is the implementation phase. Here you are standing up project teams, letting contracts, and monitoring a development or project implementation plan.
  6. Achieve: In the final phase, you are focused on sustaining your investment if appropriate and assessing the impact and learnings from your projects.

While you might have additional phases or different names for phases, this is a basic list we've found to be effective in government innovation efforts. The key is managing your investments as a portfolio constantly assessing each effort and right-sizing the investment to the appropriate phase. 

What We are Reading/Listening To This Week

All the best reads and listens about government, innovation, and some other fun stuff too.


Listening To:

Planning Is More Important than Plans

I've never heard anyone complain about how short government documents are. In fact its the opposite. You often have to wade through dozens if not hundreds of pages of text to decipher the gist of a document. Most people just don't have the time. Most people don't even read short blogs much less multi-page documents. 

Nowhere is this situation more prevalent than in government strategic plans. They cover 4-5 years or more and run on for pages. After you put in your fifth appendix, it's time for a reality check. It could be that the tech editor and the author are the only two people who have ever read the full document. However, agencies and programs should not take the lack of readers as a reason to stop planning.

First, one of the most valuable aspects of creating a plan is the process of planning itself. In the best case, government leaders are able to talk with customers, stakeholders, and their staff. They seek out information and data from a wide variety of sources. They spend time thinking and prioritizing. These activities are invaluable. The tragedy of 5 year strategic plans is that many leaders view them as one time exercises rather than a way to establish an on going planning rhythm. Circumstances and facts change so the process of planning has to continue in response.

The second valuable outcome of a strategic plan is that page or two that outlines the key functions and goals of the agency or program. That page represents the priorities that leadership has established. I recommend that leaders pull those two pages out and find ways to talk about them every day. Do videos and blogs about them. Put them in your PowerPoints. Live those priorities. Line up your resources behind them. Then while your strategic plan is gathering virtual dust on a server somewhere, you can actually get something done about the priorities. 

A New Year is a Great Time for a Program Gut Check

The beginning of a new year is a perfect opportunity for you to take some stock of your agency, office, or program. As a government leader, you don’t usually have the luxury of new starts and new budgets. Funding is tight and your fastest and most effective way to funding new priorities is to re-prioritize internal resources. I’m guessing that not everything your agency, office, or program is doing is of the highest value to the customer. If you as a leader can’t justify why your organization is doing something, then it’s time for the program gut check exercise. Here's how you do it.

Make a spreadsheet with three columns. In column A list all of the projects and investments you have ongoing within your agency, office, or program. In Column B write in a brief justification for each one. How does that project support a core need of your customer? Do your customers need and care about this program? If so why? That’s the justification. Using a spreadsheet forces you to keep those justifications short and to the point. Next in Column C estimate the resources dedicated to the project. That estimate can be dollars or FTE or some other combination of those or other factors.

Now you’re ready for some analysis. Reorder the projects based on how compelling the justification is. Usually you can find a natural breakpoint where the justifications start to sound dubious-somewhere about two thirds of the way down the columns. You can put a darker black line at that breakpoint. Total up all the resources below that line. Also look at where the highest resource projects lie in the order. If they are close to the black line, it’s important to think about whether they belong above or below that line. Below the line projects are the people, dollars, and other resources you have to build something new and more relevant in the new year.

Of course, there are lots of barriers to harnessing those resources including resistance to change from those working on the projects, but iIt’s more likely you’ll be able to reorient current resources rather than going through the process to find new ones. The key for any government leader is to build a compelling vision for the future and a reason to change. The more compelling and urgent the reasons for change are, the more likely people will be to get on board. If you are telling someone that his or her pet project has to go away they’ll resist but if you say,"We have to free you up to work on a high profile initiative," resistance can become enthusiasm.



Applying a Business Strategic Planning Process to the Individual

individual-strategic-planningEarlier this year, Corner Alliance put key consulting practices – facilitation, meeting design, and strategic planning – to use with two extraordinary high school students. Corner Alliance did this in collaboration with Teamesteem, a local non-profit organization, which helps teenagers become entrepreneurs. To facilitate, Corner Alliance applied our unique strategic planning methodology, often used with public and private organizations, to guide the rising high school seniors through a personal planning exercise. Both the teens and facilitators were inspired by the exercise, and it proved how valuable Corner Alliance’s basic strategic planning methodology can be for identifying short- and long-term personal goals. At Corner Alliance, we view strategic planning as a collaborative effort with clients to identify future goals, initiatives to achieve them, and barriers that might impede success. During a strategic planning session, Corner Alliance’s goal is to facilitate a conversation with the client that helps them clarify their existing ideas and generate new ideas. To do this we ask specific questions about how each step will be achieved, and what resources will be needed for each stage of the journey.  We know that the hardest part of strategic planning is the follow through, or individual accountability. It’s too easy to get involved in the daily “fire drills” and forget to dedicate time toward your goals. For this reason, we advocate individual accountability through regular check-ins and adjustments to ensure success.

We adjusted our strategic planning method to help two hard-charging teens map their paths forward. Corner Alliance facilitators brainstormed targeted questions before the meeting to address the teens’ current state, future goals, action items, and how each could maintain accountability. It was important to develop questions that would not only get the teens thinking but also keep them engaged in the conversation. We wanted this session to be valuable to the teens, one critical step toward reaching their goals and a new skill for their tool box to access when goal planning in the future.

The teens’ goals included going to college, getting good grades, and continuing to run their own businesses. These are not ordinary teens – both are entrepreneurs, with uncanny drive for continued success. Each has already started a company, and one was even featured in Inc Magazine.  During the next year, one of the teens would like to get into the real-estate business while also applying to college. The other participating teen, a young woman who moved to the United States during elementary school, has focused her natural artistic abilities through her self-designed clothing line and photography work. They both have big aspirations and the drive to accomplish them; they just need a little support getting there. That’s where the Corner Alliance strategic planning methodology comes in (pictured above). From the strategic planning meeting three primary lessons emerged. These lessons are valuable for anyone trying to create and accomplish meaningful goals for themselves or an organization:


  1. Think about your end game. Creating goals for the long term can seem overwhelming but it is best to assess what your end goals are first and then identify the action items needed to get there. You want each of the action items to work together, creating stepping stones towards a final target. Many books will argue timeframes but we recommend goals targeted around 6 months, one year, and 3 years.
  2. Accountability is key. The accountability factor in strategy execution is essential, even when developing your goals. Developing tangible, structured goals with objectives and deadlines takes time. Have accountability in place at the start of the goal setting process to ensure follow through. Don’t get caught just fighting fires.
  3. Be flexible. Goal setting is intended to be motivating; it should not create additional stress or barriers. When developing your goals understand that they are targets to aspire to but be open to the fact that your goals may…and will likely…change over time. Don’t use the accountability mechanisms noted earlier to identify failures and point out negatives. Instead, recognize what is working and build from there.

The two teens were great to work with – they were both passionate about their futures and focused on figuring out what it would take to achieve their goals. At the end of the session, they each left with renewed energy and documentation of their planning discussions. A follow-up session is scheduled for January of 2017, where Corner Alliance will help each teen assess the steps that they have taken and adjust where/if needed.  We will meet with the teens to assess short-term accomplishments, identify possible adjustments, and continue planning based on their experiences over the next several months. In the meantime, representatives of Teamesteem are checking in with these teens on a regular basis to maintain the accountability.


Using Prize Challenges In the Government

You may not associate prize challenges as a technique commonly used by the government to accelerate innovation. However, since 2010, over 690 prizes from 98 federal agencies have offered more than $220 million in prize awards. The concept of running prize challenges in the Federal government is not new. Some prizes stem back several centuries, such as England’s Longitude Prize of 1714. This was a time when maritime trade and exploration were unable to accurately navigate their ships. It was a clock maker by the name of John Harrison, who developed a marine chronometer – the winning solution. This unlikely suspect earned upwards of $2 million in today’s currency and revolutionized subsequent marine travel technology. Even the most unlikely individuals create innovative solutions to the world’s most difficult problems. A major benefit of running a prize challenge is being able to expand beyond your usual audience, and attract diverse talent from a variety of disciplines who come together and solve a problem. There, you can find the most unlikely suspects. Some of the other benefits to running prize challenges are:

  • Running a prize challenge greatly accelerates the timeline of finding innovative solutions to the problem at hand. Rather than investing in one group’s ability to solve a problem, such as with a grant, prize challenges invite many different groups to solve the problem resulting in a wider range of innovative solutions.
  • In addition, prize competitions allow agencies to only pay for winning solutions. Perhaps you award first, second, and third place winners, but you do not need to compensate other participants for their solutions. Prize challenges are cost effective in that agencies are presented with many solutions, and can pick and choose the ones that most closely meet their criteria.
  • Prize challenges help stimulate the market and private sector investments. Depending on intellectual property provisions and the goal of the prize challenge, solutions can be further developed and implemented into the market after a prize challenge has ended. Additionally, winning solutions are not the only solutions that may be developed. Runner ups can also be developed further and create additional investment opportunities.
  • Successful prize challenges thrive from cultivating a collaborative community dedicated to solving important issues. Crowdsourcing and open innovation allow for communities to come together regardless of competition. Teams are able to be formed through networking and community engagement opportunities.

There are many benefits to running a prize challenge, however prize challenges are complex and involve much time and effort. They are not a “one-size-fits-all” to every problem out there.

  • Running a successful prize competition requires a significant amount of research, planning, & resources. Unless your agency has an established prize competition team already, internal resources are not typically well-versed in prize execution. Much time and effort is needed in the development of an experienced prize design team to ensure that your agency runs an effective and engaging prize challenge.
  • Stemming from the previous point, effective communication practices between large groups of people are necessary throughout the entire prize challenge process. Fostering a collaborative environment between the prize team, solvers, judges, the general public, stakeholders, and industry leaders is no easy feat. Developing an efficient communications strategy and a considerable amount of organization is vital in making sure everyone is up to speed.

There are many pros and cons to consider when running prize challenges. Successful government prize challenges are most impactful when agencies dedicate the proper time, resources, and expertise to executing the prize. Success is also largely a result of an agency’s ability to effectively recruit and engage motivated solver communities. As the public sector increases to implement this creative approach to problem-solving, ground-breaking solutions may increase the progress and development of our country as a whole.

Prepared for 72 hours. Is it enough?

Most preparedness campaigns share the message that citizens need to be prepared for 72 hours or three days in an emergency—that you need to count on government resources not being able to make it to your household or location within that amount of time. These campaigns ask you to make a plan for reunification and evacuation with your loved ones who may be at work or at school. They also suggest that you prepare a preparedness kit with items such as food, water, flashlights, batteries and even items like a deck of cards. More recently in the current era of social media and the capability to send focused alerts to communities, emergency management partners are encouraging citizens to also get connected—sign up for alerts, join community facebook pages, and know your neighbors. This social connectedness is a strong thread to keep communities together when day-to- day infrastructure and services that we take for granted may not be available. A concerning observation about the 72 hour focus remains that year after year, despite dedicated preparedness campaign investments with tactful messages and delivery, citizens are still not prepared for 7 hours let alone the recommended 72 hours. When it snowed a few feet last year in the DC area (with accurate forecasting), I think 90% of residents went to the store within the first day of the storm to buy the essential items that they should have purchased prior to the storm. What’s even more concerning is that it’s widely recognized by honest public safety officials that in a major disaster (major earthquake, hurricane, blizzard, etc.) that planning for even 72 hours is likely not enough!

If a true disaster strikes cities in the mid-Atlantic at a magnitude larger than our last Snowmaggedon, the big box stores, grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, and banks will not be open. Electricity could be out for days or weeks. With this type of infrastructure down, all local, state, and even Federal government resources will be completely surged to capacity to try to maintain a basic level of public safety in our communities. They will not have the capacity to knock on doors to give people food, water, blankets, or fans.

I am not trying to employ scare tactics by any means, but this is a reality that we need to face and an expectation that we need to communicate. I recommend the following tips to stay prepared beyond 72 hours:

  • Plan to use your electronics but also plan for them to go down. Have backup chargers for your mobile devices charged and ready.
  • Sign up for your local emergency management alert system and join your community Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to improve your family’s situational awareness.
  • Say hi to your neighbors. This seems silly but it helps to build the social fabric of our community and will help you understand what they can help with and what they may need help with in a crisis. You and your neighbors will have to partner to get through a major disaster as public safety will be overwhelmed. You may be each other’s first responders.
  • Gather supplies in your home and make a go bag. Make sure to rotate your food and even water supply once a year or so. Gather batteries, buy a few cheap phone chargers, and flashlights. Plan everything with the assumption that you will not have power or government services.
  • Make a reunification and evacuation plan and make sure your family knows the plan.

There are many helpful lists available (see and many state/local emergency management web sites) with guidance for go bags and preparedness kits. What do you think are the most important items to store to get beyond 72 hours?