Technical Assistance: What’s on Your Leadership Bookshelf?

June 4, 2014

I have been thinking about adult learning — and its workplace extension, organizational learning. What’s the best way to promote them in an age, and in a region, where everyone is so busy all the time?

One way is to recognize some principles that are built into the Dodge Board Leadership Series itself:

  • Learning is sequential and cumulative;
  • Learning requires review and reflection;
  • Learning is social and interactive.

And another is to adopt and actually practice a principle between the workshops:

  • We learn by doing. As Terry Doyle writes in his book Learner-Centered Teaching, “the one who does the work does the learning.”

I am full of admiration for the dedication and intelligence and hard work of the Board and staff members who just completed the Board Leadership Training series, many of whom attended a majority of the eight workshops that extended from October to May. But I am aware of how difficult it is and will be for them to follow these learning principles back home, with their colleagues.

Most organizations are just not set up for ongoing learning, and, as we joked at the final workshop, those who return from workshops all charged up can expect to be ignored or marginalized until they calm down, or give up, or forget what they were excited about in the first place.

Real learning on an organizational level requires time allocated for it, and prioritization of material, and a change in the mindset that regards time spent learning together as time spent away from the organization’s real work. On the contrary, I believe that the wise use of what I call mission time — time spent together being sure we know where we are headed and what success will look like when we get there, and asking what we need to learn and/or do to get there — takes the “real” work to a much higher level of effectiveness and accomplishment.

The Foot-Long Bookshelf

One of the concepts I love when I think about how to use mission time is that of the Foot-Long Bookshelf. Here’s the question:  If you had only a single, foot-long piece of bookshelf, and the books you put on it would be instantly known and well-understood by the staff and board of your organization, what would you put on the shelf?

Some will be about the field in which you operate: health; the arts; education; the environment; social services. And in the spirit of “the one who does the work who does the learning,” I urge you to propose those books and essays (and blogs and videos) to each other.

But it is also helpful to have a shared vocabulary and conceptual framework for organizational life and for the systems in which you find yourselves. This is what the Dodge Board Leadership Training Series tries to do, and here, too, I urge you to suggest candidates for that precious foot of shelf space. What book would you want everybody who staffs and governs your organization to understand so completely that the knowledge or practices it contains would become second-nature to them?

Let me share some of my choices:

  • Nonprofit Lifecycles by Susan Stevens. This choice is no surprise to long-time Dodge grantees.  Indeed the Foundation has given away hundreds of copies of this book over the years, and we still use it to kick off the Board Leadership series.
  • Change By Design by Tim Brown. After reading this book, you never again look at a problem in the same old way. Instead you turn it into a design project, where you search for the overlap of Desirability (the most important element), Feasibility (what is humanly, technically, culturally, and politically possible), and Viability (what is affordable).
  • Switch by Dan and Chip Heath. The subtitle says it all: How To Change Things When Change is Hard. Which is almost always.  The Heaths offer a three-part metaphor that helps us understand how the intellectual, emotional, and environmental dimensions of change act and interact.
  • Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley. Wheatley liberates us from the burden of expecting we can actually control the systems we are in, and their outcomes.  Instead, we can focus on what makes a system (including our organizations) reach their highest levels of functioning: good information and good relationships.

Of course, in the real world, choosing a book and putting it on the shelf doesn’t magically install its contents in the minds of your colleagues. But maybe choosing a title, making time for reading and discussing, and doing the work together that learning requires will be magic enough.

Please respond below to this blog post with your own choices for the Foot-Long Bookshelf.

David Grant was President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation from 1998 to 2010. He now lives in Vermont and consults with mission-based organizations around the world.

Image at top courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Magnus Manske