Newsletter – April 12, 2017

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Managing to resist: tips for getting things done in the age of Trump

Hello friends,

One of the most heartening things we’ve seen in these scary times is the energy and effectiveness with which many of you have been resisting the new administration’s agenda coming out of Washington.

And as folks who think a lot about management and how to get things done, we’ve been learning alongside you about what it means to run a team or organization effectively in this period – in short, about how to manage to resist. Some of you are managing in the face of tremendous dislocation and fear (with staff and constituents facing deportation, or critical programs facing defunding), or managing in a policy environment where seismic shifts happen in a day. Others are managing rapid growth – one group saw individual donations multiply twenty-fold overnight – while others have seen exponentially greater calls to action, without more resources.

In this newsletter, we thought we’d share a few tips about managing in this context from what we’ve seen, and at the end we share a few quick questions so you can reflect quickly with your team about what else you might want to put in practice to manage well in this moment.

Tip #1: Name and discuss what’s changing: While broad external changes might be obvious to your team, don’t take for granted that everyone fully understands what those changes might mean within your organization. In this moment, err on the side of over-communication, both about what you know and what’s still uncertain. From a management perspective, it can be helpful to name – publicly, to the whole staff – “we don’t know what all this will mean, but we do know that we’re living in a new era. We’ll try to flag it as we go, but let’s not assume that the way we’ve done things before is the way they should work now.” Then as you see the need for specific things to change, name it again explicitly. For instance, if you’ve had a slow, deliberate hiring process in the past but now need to scale up much more quickly, you might say: “I know we used to take our time in hiring, but now we need to be more in campaign mode. Let’s talk about what that means.”

Tip #2: Create fast cycles of learning: One of the best things you can do in a changing environment is to commit to quick learning and adapting. Each time your team organizes a big rally or puts together a press conference, schedule time the next day to talk about what happened, what you learned, and what that means for next time. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. If you don’t have time for a long debrief, do a quick one while heading back to the office, or carve out 10 minutes in your next check-in. And whether it’s a quick debrief or a longer meeting, keep these headline questions in mind:

  • Review the results – What results did we get and what tactics led to those results?
  • Review the process – What worked, what didn’t, and why?
  • Look forward How should this learning impact the work moving forward?

Tip #3: Expect the unexpected: In a period where the only certainty is uncertainty, take conscious steps to build in flexibility and adaptability so your team is ready to turn crisis into opportunity (“crisitunnity,” as one client calls it). Here are a few ways we’ve seen people do this:

  • Give yourself, and your staff, permission to radically clear your plates. Consider making a “don’t do” or a “hold off on for now” list to identify what you might have been planning that you don’t need to do anymore. Try doing this with your team at a staff meeting or check-in. You might ask explicitly: “What did we commit to do before that we should give ourselves permission to change our minds on?” Do this even if you’re not sure what will come up to replace those prior commitments; in an environment like this, something pressing often does.
  • Designate a rapid response team. Identify who is authorized to respond to sudden developments, and who else should be ready to help. Who will take interviews? Who will give the final okay on a last-minute email to mobilize your members? (One client color-coded their org chart to indicate in yellow the members of the rapid response team. If you are constantly in rapid response mode, consider rotating teams to share the load.) Also, identify back-ups in case the regular decision-maker isn’t available. (For instance, several client EDs of ours have been arrested at protests – they were wise to make a clear plan for who would be in charge in their absence.)
  • Consider making contingency plans. Identify your plan A for work over the next several months, and if feasible think through a plan B in case things change. In a time of uncertainty, it’s easy to feel like the world is entirely unpredictable, but sometimes it’s closer to binary: either the new administration issues an executive order on your issue, or they don’t. Develop a plan for either scenario, which still makes adjusting easier if some unforeseen third path emerges.

Tip #4: Make sure your goals help you focus: Under any circumstances, aligning your team around clear outcomes can be a powerful tool for progress. But, in times of dramatic upheaval, the best strategy isn’t always clear, and it’s hard to set targets when the circumstances are changing daily. Here are a few tips for setting goals that keep your team focused in this context:

  • When “SMART” goals don’t work, pick your focal point. If outcomes that previously made sense are no longer sufficient or ambitious (“get 60 people to the town hall” in an age when you can and need to get radically more), don’t get bogged down setting perfectly crafted, but potentially meaningless, measurable goals. Instead, identify your team’s central aim – or the “north star” your staff should look to even when the exact path isn’t clear. For example, if you’re a civic engagement group, you might say, “Our aim right now is to turn up the heat so much on ‘moderate’ members of Congress that they publicly distance themselves from Trump on immigration. How we get there might shift over time depending on what’s happening and what’s working, but that’s the aim we should be focused on. Let’s talk about how we might make this happen, and when we step back each week, let’s ask ourselves whether we’re succeeding in that aim.”
  • If the strategy is unclear, get into test mode and set goals on shorter cycles to learn what’s working. Come up with your best guesses (and do research when possible) to identify a few strategies to experiment with, then set short-term goals (“for this next rally, let’s see what it will take to get five partners onboard as active co-coordinators.”) Talk with your team about what success might look like and check progress frequently to learn and adjust along the way. (See the tip on fast cycles of learning above.)
  • When your vision is clear, bring a laser focus on a few strategic, ambitious goals. If you already have a clear theory of change that’s relevant to this moment, don’t abandon goal setting. Instead, set a limited number of SMART goals that double down on your vision and give your team the agency and space to prioritize working toward those goals (see the point about radically clearing your plate above). If building a massive base of supporters is critical to your strategy, you might say to your team: “Our number one priority as a team for the next three weeks is to channel the influx of new energy coming in. We want to see 50% of the people on this interest list show up to volunteer this month. If you’re doing work that doesn’t fit that priority, let’s talk about how might get it off your plate for now.”

Tip #5: Enable your people to lead: A major pitfall in moments of crisis is to underutilize people’s potential for leadership. That can happen through lack of role clarity, where people don’t have agency to drive meaningful work, or when we hold too much weight on our own shoulders and think too small about what others can take on. Here are a few tips for building your team’s leadership even in a fast-paced environment:

  • Drink your MOCHA: In moments of emergency response, it’s easy to go to an all-hands-on-deck approach where everyone is engaged on everything. There’s nothing wrong with breaking down traditional role siloes, but now more than ever you want to make sure you don’t waste effort. Our MOCHA tool helps you meaningfully engage a wide range of staff and volunteers by making clear who’s the lead (or “owner”) on what and who are the “helpers.” By doing that, you can avoid duplicated effort or paralysis from lack of clarity about who has authority to lead.
  • Spot more teaching moments: Instead of waiting for the perfect conditions to teach new skills incrementally, build a habit of spotting and making the most of quick teaching opportunities. For example, if you’re a school leader fielding an influx of calls from concerned parents of undocumented children, invite a staff member to shadow a call or two so she’s equipped to share the load. Be explicit about the skills you’re teaching and take time to debrief before having her field some of the next calls.
  • Offer stretch assignments: Right now, there’s enough work to be done that it likely can’t all be done by those who’ve done it before. Look for people who might take on more responsibility than if you were simply developing them incrementally. For example, if you’re planning a 200-person phone bank and the only person who’s led one that big before is swamped fielding press calls, give someone else the chance to stretch their coordinating skills. And, knowing that biases can come out the most in times of stress, bring an “equity lens” to check yourself on what you’re assigning to whom.

Tip #6: Embrace the personal: Finally, as a manager in this environment, you need to focus on the work with great urgency, and to remember that you and your team members are real people affected by it. Acknowledge that the political is personal; that’s why the work is urgent. In practice, getting the balance right might mean:

  • Asking: Different people will be affected by and react to new developments differently. Don’t assume you know what your team members are going through, and don’t ignore their feelings either. Instead, ask: “I know there’s a lot going on these days. How are you doing?” (If you’re one of those managers for whom this feels awkward, you can acknowledge that: “I know I get pretty focused on the task at hand sometimes, but I’d love to hear how you’re doing – these are challenging times.”)
  • Supporting agency: Ultimately each person (including you) should remain responsible for their own emotional well-being even in these tough times, but you can support your staff’s success at self-care. Be up-front about what you need from people work-wise, and give them as much flexibility as you can to do whatever they need to do to bring their best selves – whether that’s taking a walk, leaving to join a rally, or watching Beyoncé videos – and be explicit about it. For instance, you might say, “This is an intense period, and I want you to do what you need to do to take care of yourself. We need the email finalized by Wednesday at 10:00, but within that constraint, please do whatever you need to do to make it work.”
  • Making space: The needs of the moment may be urgent, but don’t let that be an excuse to work people to the bone. Look for windows when you can help your team recharge; for example, the day after you succeed in killing a nefarious new policy initiative, you might say, “Hey, we need to work today to manage the press on this, but by Friday I want each of you to take a half-day to relax, sleep, exercise, or whatever you want.” While this moment is urgent, remember we have a long road to go and need energy for the trek.

Reflection Questions: What should you do with all this? Here’s one idea: set up a 30-minute meeting with your team (your leadership team, or all the staff in your department). After having everyone read this piece, ask:

  • Are there two things from what you read that we should try doing here?
  • Who can own making sure we do that?
  • What other ideas for changing how we manage does this trigger? Should we commit to any of those? And who will share them with The Management Center? :)


Jerry Hauser and Jackson Darling-Palacios
The Management Center

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