Organizational Poetry

June 10, 2013

Dodge Poetry Program directors over the years have spoken and written about a quality of poetry that separates it from the other arts – an extraordinary power of compression.  Single words or lines or images or phrases in poems can carry a weight of meaning and emotion that can make your jaw drop.  In the thrall of a great poet, you think and feel, “No one could have said it better in any other way.”

I had that feeling a few weeks ago at the wrap-up of the Dodge Board Leadership series, though the “poetry” came from an unlikely source: a scholarly work on leadership and organizational change.

The room was full of Executive Directors and Board Chairs of nonprofit organizations.  They and several of their staff and Board colleagues had committed themselves, beginning last October, to a series of meetings designed to help them lead their organizations effectively in very challenging times.  Now we were at the end, looking for ways to translate ideas and theories and notions of “best practice” into action back at home.

I offered a phrase from University of Toronto professor Michael Fullan.  In his book, The Six Secrets of Change, he advocates for purposeful peer interaction and learning in relations to results.

Here was language as compressed as an Emily Dickinson poem.  Purposeful peer interaction and learning in relation to results. It struck me as the nine-word answer to the question of how to put into effect all the lessons learned from the entire series of workshops:

  • purposeful reminds us that everything is grounded in mission, and that time spent clarifying why our organizations exist comes back later to save us time and spare us confusion.
  • peer interaction can’t happen unless organizational structures, habits, schedules, and physical space allow it to happen; all these are the results of our choices.
  • learning in relation to results can’t happen unless we have figured out what results matter to us.  Suddenly in our final workshop we were back where the workshops began, with a focus on formative assessment practices designed to improve the work, not judge it.

The Board Leadership series as a whole had presented visions of results to strive for: in assessment practices; in Board policies and practices of all kinds; in strategic planning and financial management; in the relationship between Board Chair and Executive Director; in fund-raising.  What Fullan’s phrase did was put those results where they belong – not as vague hopes but as specific goals, not as things to talk and think about when we pause from our work, but as the concepts that should animate our daily work.  As Fullen further comments, “Successful organizations see working and learning to work better as one in the same.”

Fullan’s words may not be as immortal as “Out, out brief candle…” or “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” but organizations that follow his advice are likely to be around a long time.  With the touchstone of clear purpose, with the practice of protecting time for peer interaction, and with the focus of that interaction on results that matter, those organizations are more likely to perform – and adapt – in ways that advance their missions and build a better New Jersey.  That is the ultimate gift that the Dodge Board Leadership series, so ably led by Wendy Liscow and Elaine Rastocky, offers.