Leadership Development

Start Small

A small hiccup can have results that are more like a bad stomach virus if you go too big too fast. It's "Go big, or go home!" right? Not so much.

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The 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series is for insane people. Each of the four races is 155 miles over seven days. These annual desert races are in Chile, Mongolia, Namibia, and Antarctica. I know two people who have run all four deserts, and yes, they are a little crazy.

A few years back, I climbed one giant dune in Kashgar on the western edge of the Tarim Basin, home to the Taklamakan Desert in China. I thought I would die from less than an hour in the blazing hot sun and the dry, hot dusty air. 155 miles?

If I trained with my friend over time slowly and strategically increasing my distance and adverse conditions, I might get to the big, hairy, audacious goal of a desert race. One does not wake up one day and decide they will run a race of that caliber in the next few months. You start small and build to that place over time, experiencing evidence that you can go bigger because you did smaller first.

The idea is to do the micro before you go macro. Create a test model that has a trial period so that you know what works and what doesn’t on a smaller scale. A small hiccup can have results that are more like a bad stomach virus if you go too big too fast.

Here are six elements to consider when starting a new program, or pilot project to solve a problem. The encouragement is to start small so that these elements can be well established and your work successful.

Sound Parameters
Characteristic elements and boundaries of a program or pilot project are important for defining that work. What do you desire to accomplish, for whom, and where? These boundaries help with your focus. As much as you want to make the big, wide world a better place, you can’t handle the big wide world yet.

For instance, the parameters for your program might be a specific need for a particular demographic in a specific geographic area being met: homeless families with children in the southwest part of the county will be provided direct partnerships to nurture and empower them to self-sustainability.

These parameters can be tight or more broadly established. Here I am encouraging tight parameters for a start-up. Bringing down the scale and scope allows easier assessments and adjustments leading to a greater chance of success. Also, the resources needed are less for smaller versus bigger, probably leading to a faster start.

What makes these parameters sound? They are based on reason, sense, or judgment. The parameters are not arbitrary. What parameters will help us test what we need to test, teach us what we need to know, and provide the greatest chance of achieving the goal?

Sustainable Product
A product can be a physical good produced or a service provided. Either way, that product results from the necessary elements coming together in just the right way. For this article, a product is primarily about a program or pilot project you desire to launch to meet a problem-solving, community-developing goal. What is your deliverable? What is the specific need that you are seeking to meet?

Sustainable means the product can continue to be produced and provided. You can continue to deliver your goods or services because they are still needed, and the resources necessary to do so are available. Sustainability includes the delivery system which is part of the process

Buy-in also feeds sustainability. This buy-in is an investment. Investments are usually made with an expectation of a return on investment (ROI). Investment desires a win, so when a community has bought into a program or pilot project for their benefit, they will help sustain it with volunteers, dollars, networking, and other necessary resources. They will also let you know if it’s not successful through complaints or not showing up.

This issue of sustainability is often a roller-coaster in the nonprofit, NGO, and human services world. If what you do isn’t income-producing but resource-demanding, sustainability can become the product. Mission creep is easy when paying the bills is the focus. Don’t do that. How to stir up funding streams and other resources is for another blog. Just don’t sell your product short.

Solid Process
How do we produce the desired product? The process is a clear series of actions that lead to the desired product and can be duplicated. From start to finish, what are the steps, the elements, and the connections? What leads to what leads to what…? The more details you get down the more you will find. Ask who, what, where, when, why, and how questions and write it all down. Don’t forget how your product will be delivered.

Solid means it is not ambiguous. Processes related to people need flexibility that is built in intentionally and is not accidental. A bridge or a stadium can be solid, yet move a little so it won’t crumble with all the movement it bears under. Processes and systems need to be solid to ensure faithfulness to the parameters and product, yet flexible enough for

Once you think you have all the necessary steps for the process determined, have others look at it. If it makes sense to them and no glitches are found do some test runs. Test runs will let you know if something is not right. You can put a bicycle together or prepare a loaf of bread for baking and be convinced by the look of things that all is well. Looks can be deceiving until the bicycle moves and is ridden, or the bread is baked and eaten.

Stable Partnerships
What relationships are necessary for your product to work and be delivered? As you think of your process whose knowledge, skills, and connections do you need? I encourage you not to approach these relationships as quick use and disposable where you get what you need and move on. Always see relationships along the way as long-term and reciprocal. These are partnerships.

Stable means their commitment is not wishy-washy. These partners are committed to the success of the product. Partnerships are part of the buy-in principle related to sustainability as described earlier. Shared purpose doesn’t necessarily mean equal load. Think of a building. Some supports are load-bearing and others are not. Every support is significant for the structure to be what it is, whether holding up a wall or the roof.

One of the partnerships is the person being served. Customer service acknowledges that without the one served, there is no one to serve, whether retail or human need response. No matter what the product, it is always about the people. Are they there and do they want what you have?

Succinct Policies
Policies can be utterly overwhelming. These are guidelines and rules for operation, especially the working relationships. How do we work together? Policies help create and protect the atmosphere for every relationship and successful product delivery.

Clear and simple is better than cluttered and complex.[i] A policy has a point to be made. Is there a better or easier way to make the point? Does the point even need to be made for your work's success? The answer to some of these may depend upon the nature of the relationship. More trust, less policies. Less trust, more policies.

Time and experience tend to be the way policies balloon. Sometimes it is CYA (cover you’re a**). That’s the nature of the litigious society we live in. Sadly, this may be needed for the general customer base. Clarity of expectations is important. Just be sure the language is clear and not abundant legal terminology.

Scalable Prototype
A prototype is a test model, evidence that the idea implemented works. Are the above elements in place? Do they all accomplish what was planned and what is needed? Can they all be recreated? Do you have what you need to expand to a new geographic area or group of people?

Scaling differs from starting from scratch because you have worked through the details. When you duplicate, the learning curve will not be as steep. You have already created the product, process, partnerships, and policies around certain parameters. Now you can adjust some parameters to take your work into new places of impact.

Established and duplicatable elements don’t mean hard knocks and challenges won’t happen. When parameters change, recipients and resources change. Scalable doesn’t mean you quickly and haphazardly set up a new “storefront.” That built-in flexibility I mentioned earlier? This is one area that it was built for. As needed for the new parameters, what can you adjust in your product, process, or policies without changing the desired result?

We can dream big, but when we start working through the details, we realize bigger is not always better. Starting small may be the wisest move when launching a new community impact model. Small can also make the idea seem more doable and give you the courage to act on the dream. If what you imagine is a real need, do it. Just don’t try to run a desert before you run a single dune.

Action Points

  • What program or pilot project have you desired to start but haven’t? Create a dream journal for the idea and begin to unpack the details utilizing the elements of this article to guide you.
  • Who do you know that would resonate with your idea? Get some time with them to share and discuss possible next steps.
  • Do you have a program or project that you tried before and it wasn’t successful? Taking the above principles, what can you learn from that experience? Can you make adjustments and relaunch smaller and wiser?
  • What have you implemented successfully and it’s time to scale up your prototype? Assess the parameters. Is there a need? Who and what do you need to scale up?

[i] https://www.boisestate.edu/policy/policy-writing-guidance/. This was written to guide university departments on policy writing and provides some great principles for what can feel complex.

Do you desire to strengthen your CharityTracker or OasisInsight network to new levels of collaboration and impact? Reach out to Chuck today to schedule your conversation: chuck@simonsolutions.com

ED645C80-CA25-41C2-8B6E-A6E7FA346EC1_1_201_aDr. Chuck Coward serves as Community Impact Specialist for Simon Solutions, Inc. Chuck has invested over 35 years in fostering human and community development from a variety of places and roles, including as a pastor, non-profit Executive Director, Director of Development, businessman, consultant, university professor, The Struggle Coach, and the founder of Entrusted Foundation. Serving to make people and communities stronger is his great passion. Chuck is the proud husband to Anita, dad to four, and granddaddy to eight.

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