Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What's Your Apollo Program?

This recent post by Dan Pallotta is just too thought-provoking to let pass without comment. In it, he asks the disturbing question:

What good is it to have a bunch of nonprofits that are able to sustain themselves, if they are only large enough to address .001% of the problem?

In Pallotta's world the problems are homelessness, hunger and AIDS. He's frustrated that literally hundreds of nonprofits dedicated to solving these problems have so far been unable to do so--and he speculates that part of their collective failure is their fragmentation and their inability or unwillingness to streamline and consolidate. Dan pines for a kind of Apollo Program for the social problems he wants solved--a galvanizing vision and commitment of human attention like the one that followed President Kennedy's challenge of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

It's an interesting read, made more so by the 17 comments that follow--many of which are dismissive of Pallotta's perceived idealism and naivete. My favorite commenter says this:

Mr Pallotta: You touch on topics near and dear to my heart. I believe what is somewhat eerily missing from the scene today is a broad based social movement of any kind. I don't want to sould like the old goat I am(!), but there used to be a Labor Movement. There used to [be] a Third Party Movement. There used to be an Anti-War Movement. There used to be militant Gay Activism. There used to be a community control movement. Just to name a few. The point is, the cutting edge of meaningful, provocative social change that is going to jolt the lethargy out of the status quo comes from dissent, protest, good analysis, crisp issues, smart organizing, and mobilization. Non-profits follow, they don't lead. They're a way of institutionalizing gains.


I'm bringing this to your attention because I want to ask two questions.

First--who do you think is right? Pallotta or the commenter? Can nonprofit organizations overcome their inherent focus on their own sustainability and work together to create substantive change and progress for big social problems? Or does that kind of change only come from militant opposition of the status quo, and the more appropriate role for nonprofits is to create and sustain programs that institutionalize those gains? If you think the latter, then don't bother reading any farther. But if you think the former, if you think nonprofits can and should aim higher than the delivery of programs, then here's my second question.

What's your Apollo Program?

We all work in a world where there is constant competition--for resources, for attention, for meaning and purpose. Whatever kind of nonprofit organization you run or work for, there are surely other organizations in your space that are trying to deliver the same or similar services and trying to achieve the same or similar objectives. What is the one overarching goal that all those organizations can and should be working together on and when was the last time you talked to any of those organizations about it?

At one time in our history, our nation was focused on putting a man on the moon and we made it happen. Pallotta would like to focus organizations in his space on ending homelessness, world hunger, and AIDS--and he believes they can similarly do it with the same kind of shared purpose. What could be achieved in your world if all its players stopped focusing on their own success and starting working together to achieve it?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Should Xers Just Quit?

Intrigued by the theme of my own post last week, I did a little more digging on the Harvard Publishing blog and came across this post from Tammy Erickson. It's from March 2008 and it's titled "10 Reasons Gen Xers Are Unhappy at Work." It reads like a manifesto for why Xers should stop banging their heads against the Boomer-built wall of corporate America—a wall, it seems, with only a Millennial-sized door in it—and pursue their own entrepreneurial vision.

Erickson hopes this isn't the case. She states that corporations really need GenX to to serve as our primary corporate leaders over the next couple years. (Interesting phrasing there—evidently just a couple of years until those Millennials get enough of their own leadership cred.) And after her top ten reasons why Xers feel out-of-place and unwelcome in a traditional corporate culture, she concludes:

Is it time to jump off the corporate train? I hope not—at least not for most of you. Corporations really need your leadership. But I understand that we need to create corporate environments that are more conducive to your needs and preferences.

Regular Hourglass readers will see several common themes in Erickson's top ten list. But what I want to focus on is her use of the word "we" in her concluding thought. "We" need to create corporate environments that are more conducive to your needs and preferences.

Who is "we"?

Is it Boomers? Is it the established leaders of today and yesterday who will be creating these new enviorments conducive to the leadership style of their GenX successors? Will they even see the need to champion such a re-engineering of their institutions? With the Millennials coming up so fast and so large behind GenX—and being so much more like the Boomers—isn't it more likely that many will convince themselves not to fix what ain't broken?

Or is it Xers? Is it the emerging leaders of today and tomorrow who will be creating these new enviroments for themselves? Can such a thing be done within the framework laid down by their Boomer predecessors without the support of those Boomers and the support of the Millennials who will be comprising more and more of the workforce?

We all know that there is a tremendous amount of variability at the level of the individual in these discussions. As a result, a variety of corporate environments will undoubtedly evolve over the next decade. But if there are real generational forces at work here, to me they seem much more likely to result in Xers and not Millennials as the next unstoppable entrepreneurial class.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Will Xers Just Quit?

I recently stumbled across this post by Steven DeMaio on the Harvard Businss blog about ways to deal with a looming layoff. In it, he offers some interesting ideas on how to better demonstrate your value to an organization by taking some unorthodox steps to break yourself, and your performance, out of a routine. But what really struck me about the post was his opening line:

I've been surprised by the number of people I've met who, like I did, quit their jobs after the recession took hold last year.

After a little digging, I discovered that DeMaio quit his job in the publishing industry over a year ago in order to pursue some of his long-neglected passions—and has been blogging about his experiences for Harvard Business ever since. His first post on the subject is well worth reading, and I look forward to reading the rest as I struggle to catch up on his journey. It strikes me as rich fodder for anyone who is interested in pursuing their passions—in their current job or in a new one.

And DeMaio is right about the number of people who have taken the same plunge he has. Just skim through the comments (170 at last count!) that followed his first post. You'll find person after person egging him on, telling him they did the same thing he did, that it was the best decision they ever made, and wishing him the best of luck.

Now, I don't know how old DeMaio is, but I'm going to peg him as an Xer based on his photo on the Harvard blog and based on his reference to a grandmother who came of age during the Great Depression. And I don't know how old the commenters are, but I'm going to peg some of them as Boomers, some as Xers, and a handful as Millennials, based on what some of they say about their own lifestages.

It seems clear to me that there are people in every generation who decide to strike out on their own, who figure out that the best fulfillment is the kind that comes with doing what they love, and reject the structured pathways of success that have been hammered out by the generation that preceded them.

The question I have is whether Xers will do this in greater numbers than the Boomers that came before or the Millennials that will come after.

We've all seen the literature about Boomers hanging on to leadership positions longer than previous generations, and about how Millennials are destined to take over all the leadership positions the Boomers do vacate. Squeezed in the middle of those two leadership trends, will Xers decide to take a middle path—rejecting the frenzied competition for the leadership positions in our existing organizations and striking out on their own, like DeMaio and his commenters, to create their own opportunities and institutions?

Wait a minute. Look around. Isn't GenX, in fact, already doing that? Maybe the better question to ask is if GenX will be successful in changing our cultural narrative by staying outside of it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Texting in Church

I'm on the road this week and away from my usual sources of inspiration for this blog, but I wanted to give you something to chew on anyway. I'm attending a conference and one of the people I shared a table with today (a late Boomer) told this true story.

He was recently visiting his grown children in another city and went with them to a service at their church. It was a mostly young congregation (Millennials and Xers) with a young minister (no older than 25, according to the storyteller). At the beginning of the sermon, the minister put a phone number up on the church projection screen and encouraged the parishoners to text him any questions they had. At the end of the sermon, the minister took out his cell phone and went through the questions he had received via text message, answering each one in detail.

My tablemate was so impressed with this technique he tried it the next time he gave a presentation. This was in a business setting, and the participants (mostly Xers and other Boomers) had been told to turn off their cell phones out of courtesy to the presenters and the other partipants. When he took the podium, he told everyone to turn their cell phones back on and to text him any questions they had during the course of his presentation. When he was done, he had his share of questions to respond to—more, he said, than after any other presentation he had ever given.

What lesson can we draw from this story? Try as I might, I'm not sure I see anything more than this—by and large, people of all generations are too bashful to stand up and ask a question in a crowded room.