“Share everything." – Harold Jarche
Words of advice on work and learning in the network era from one of Community Forests International’s hometown mentors.
Taking this to heart at CFI we’re making an effort to share all of our ‘trade secrets’. Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s the future. Sharing our methods enables others to replicate our success or adapt these techniques to their own work. Some in our network in turn provide feedback, sharing personal knowledge and experience of their own to help us further refine our approach.
It’s a form of mutual aid, and it reflects a shift of mindset from one of scarcity to abundance that disrupts conventional perspectives on work. It’s also a great way to drive innovation.
Tesla Motors knows this. The company dropped patents on its cutting edge electric vehicle technology a couple of years ago because making the knowledge open source ultimately meant the advancement of electric vehicles . That’s good for Tesla - an electric vehicle company - and good for everyone else on the planet too. The more, the more.
In the spirit of sharing everything, I have outlined the ‘CFI Process’ below. This is the approach to project design and development that the team has built collectively over the past two years. It draws inspiration from many existing models and tools, with our own innovations added as necessary. It’s not perfect, but it works pretty great for us and it’s a living process that we continue to improve based on emerging knowledge and experience.
We hope you find some inspiration here – and please let us know if you have thoughts on how we might take this model to the next level.
The CFI Process
The CFI approach to project design, the method we use to develop ideas as a team and move them towards reality, is a 5 step process. Although in practice it’s not strictly linear there is a clear progression from one step to the next as follows:
- Problem Statement: Clearly define the problem
- Ideation: Identify the opportunities within the problem
- Evaluation: Choose a preferred solution
- Plan: Chart a course to bring the idea into reality
- Workflow: Be adaptive and seek continuous learning
1) Problem Statement: Clearly define the problem
As a non-profit confronting social and environmental challenges, Community Forests International is a problem-solving enterprise almost by definition.
A clear problem statement helps to focus our attention and get the whole team on the same page at the outset of a new project. This is a pretty standard tool and there are lots of great resources out there to guide you through crafting a strong problem statement. From our experience the most important considerations boil down to the following:
Verify all your assumptions. Everyone has biases and it’s natural to give disproportionate weight to certain observations over others. It’s important to make sure that your assumptions are always tested so that you don’t end up trying to solve the wrong problem, or worse yet – trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.
Choose a problem you can actually solve. Ambition is great, but everyone needs to be strategic with their energy and sometimes that means not biting off more than you can chew. When framing a problem it can be helpful to start with a larger challenge and then to slowly whittle it down to more manageable pieces. This makes the larger challenge more ‘actionable’. By opting to take smaller strategic steps forward you are ensuring tangible progress, which helps build momentum for the next step, and the one after that, and so on. To be honest this is something that we struggle with at CFI – but we’re beginning to choose our battles more wisely. Network mapping, using tools like Kumu, helps to paint the big picture and to identify your strategic role within a larger movement.
Don’t leap to solutions. We all have our favourite answers and run the risk of becoming married to a particular solution before the problem has been properly defined. I get it, solutions are just more fun to think about. But this can lead to a backward methodology in which the problem gets distorted to rationalize a predetermined solution. There will be plenty of opportunity to explore solutions, but first things first the problem needs to be defined with as much clarity and objectiveness as possible. Save your answers for the next step!
2) Ideation: Identify the opportunities within the problem
Now that you’ve achieved clarity on the problem, it’s time to let the ideas flow.
At this stage we turn the rules from the previous step on their head. Instead of restricting ourselves to the hard facts of the problem (present reality) we encourage free, expansive thinking on possible solutions (the future we create). The importance of this shift in thinking can’t be overstated. Narrowing the focus is critical when defining a problem, but when it comes to developing answers cultivating permissiveness is invaluable. More on problem-focus vs. solution focus here.
At Community Forests International we always strive to identify the opportunity within a problem, which is just another way of saying that we maintain a positive frame of mind when thinking about solutions. For example, rather than spending energy fighting against the things we feel are wrong we instead concentrate on championing the positive change we believe in. Rather than getting stuck on the negative details of the problem, we envision a future scenario where those problems are solved - and then explore many possible pathways to get there.
When exploring possible solutions it’s helpful to have a template to quickly jot down the essential, high-level points of a new idea. We use a tool from the start-up world called an Idea Canvas to capture flashes of insight and to share early stage solutions with the rest of the team. There are many variations of the Idea Canvas, and you can find Community Forests International’s own iteration here. Feel free to use, share, comment, and adapt as you see fit.
3) Evaluation: Choose a preferred solution
Every organization has its own unique culture and dynamic that reflects the character of the people working there. At Community Forests International we are fortunate in that ideas are never in short supply. It’s often the opposite actually – too many great ideas competing for scarce resources.
The challenge then is not coming up with good ideas but choosing which ideas to prioritize over others. This is where evaluation enters our process and helps us separate the wheat from the chaff. A really simple tool to inform team-based idea ranking is the 9-Square Evaluation.
The 9-Square is a two dimensional grid that weighs the potential impact of an idea vs. it’s cost and complexity. It’s can be a very subjective tool, but it’s good for providing a quick and dirty appraisal. Ideally you want to prioritize those ideas that score towards the top left – the ones that can achieve the highest level of impact for the least amount of investment.
Of course there are limitations to this sort of decision-making and it’s important to note that we only use 9-Square to inform a deeper conversation. Sometimes passion and intuition trump efficiency and metrics. The critical thing is for the team to achieve a certain level of consensus on the best path forward, and standardized group evaluation can help with that.
4) Plan: Chart a course to bring the idea into reality
‘’Ideas are cheap, execution is everything.’’ - Chris Sacca
With a preferred solution in hand the real work begins – fleshing out a complete strategy to bring an idea into reality. At CFI we’ve modified a popular tool from the business world called a Project Charter to structure project planning and workflow.
The Project Charter dovetails well with the preceding steps because you begin by plugging in the 1) Problem Statement and as much information as possible from the 2) Idea Canvas and 3) Evaluation. From there you build out a research plan, set parameters including scope and duration, develop a budget for all costs associated with project delivery, and then set a number of key milestones linked to a timeline for implementation.
A charter document not only helps to further refine a solution but also serves as a treasury of relevant information and a roadmap to success. You can find further discussion on this topic and an example of a complete CFI Project charter here.
5) Workflow: Be adaptive and seek continuous learning
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson
The best laid plans . . . All plans are great until . . . Take your pick of famous quotes about life throwing adversity in the way of ambition. They exist for a reason.
Flexibility and being able to learn from experiences – including failure – is key to reaching any goal. Over the years CFI has learned the hard way how to pivot on demand, navigating around pitfalls to avoid loosing momentum entirely.
When confronting major challenges to project delivery we keep the end goal in mind and we don’t shy away from reinventing our strategy on the fly. Rarely is a plan entirely destroyed by unforeseen obstacles, and if certain aspects need to be jettisoned we take comfort in knowing that it only makes room for the next good idea.
In terms of managing workflow, CFI is currently using a couple of applications that you or your team might find useful.
- We’ve outlawed email between team members and instead use Slack for internal communications. It’s better for transparency and archiving and we get enough external email as is. Think of it as your own personal messaging service or chat room.
- For project management we use Trello, which organizes each individual project into a web-based board containing task lists and information cards. It’s the sort of thing that takes some getting used to but then all of a sudden it replaces a certain part of your brain and you can't work without it.
Screenshot of Community Forests International's climate change adaptation Trello board
Once again, I hope you found some useful insights here and do let us know if you see ways to improve our process. We like good ideas no matter where they come from.