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Performance Results Transparency Isn't Just for Citizens

Posted September 16, 2013 4:33 PM by Mark Cutler

In working with U.S. Federal agencies as well as local government agencies, I hear a lot of talk about transparency with respect to strategy and performance measurement.  To some organizations, the holy grail of public performance management is being able to show your citizens and the general public your strategy and the results from implementing it on a regular basis.

While I do not disagree that this is a worthy goal, public leaders should consider the importance of providing similar transparency to their employees across their organizations.  This may sound obvious to some, but you’d be surprised how many organizations don’t share their strategy and results throughout their ranks to make sure employees get it before they take it to the public.

First, striving to share all of your performance data with all of your employees , organization-wide, is a great communication goal and will require the organization to develop several vehicles and opportunities to communicate the data.

Second, communication of performance data and results to employees leads to their better understanding of where the organization is going and how it will get there or, to put it another way, it helps them better understand the strategy.  By understanding, they see how they fit in to the organization’s plans and look for ways to contribute.

Third, better understanding of the strategy by employees leads to greater buy-in to that strategy.  It is hard for people to agree to implement a strategy they have never seen, nevermind understand.  However, if the strategy, data, and results are communicated effectively so that they understand it, there is a much better chance that they will buy-in to it.

Finally, once staff buy-in to the strategy and performance measures, it is much easier to get them to implement it and coordinate that implementation across the organization.  The thinking is that this coordination will lead to better execution, which leads to better results.

Strategy Maps--A Common Language

Posted July 30, 2013 12:36 PM by Ted Jackson

At Ascendant, we have helped a lot of mission-driven organizations.  I've had the good fortune to help many in my hometown (home region?) of Coastal Alabama.  In a small or medium city, or even a big one with a tight knit community, good ideas catch on fast.  What was interesting to me was that all of the organizations we have worked with were dealing with similar issues.  The issues are around transparency and alignment.  The boards and leadership teams were not aligned around the mission because they all had different ideas of how to interpret the mission. The strategy map helped get them all on the same page.

It started when a friend recommended me to a nonprofit that focused on Workforce Development.  The business executives involved all had great ideas and a real concern about increasing their organization's effectiveness.  They tended to agree with each other in meetings, but they kept talking about different things across different parts of the meeting.  It was as if they were good at expressing their ideas, but they didn't see how the ideas connected across the priorities, so they were getting frustrated.  We introduced the Balanced Scorecard and the Strategy Map, and the executives had a framework for understanding and organizing the issues when they spoke of them.  This allowed the organization to stay focused and start achieving some of their priorities.  

In the Workforce Development group was an individual who was involved in an organization focused on Economic Development.  The economic development executive thought that the map was so helpful, he wanted a Strategy Map for that organization.  This organization had many members of local Chambers of Commerce.  It also had an environmental advocate on its team.  The map really helped them realize that they had common goals across the different communities and if they entire region grew, then it helped each one of them.

The leader of the Environmental organization that participated in the Economic development group was also struggling with organizaing its board around its mission in a clear way.  So they quickly embarked on a Strategy Map.  With the development of that map, nonprofits and government organizations related to this environmental group were able to prioritize and focus on its regional planning efforts.  Of course several of the agencies involved with this organization started considering strategy maps as well.

Then the original Workforce Development group started working with its partners to develop strategy maps.  We helped to develop a map for an industrial alliance, and the Executive Director who sat on a healthcare board developed a map for that board on her own.  Of course both groups said how much easier it made their executive team meetings and their prioritization, discussions, and decision making.

After the BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a council was formed to help determine the regional priorities.  Of course these priorities ranged from environmental to economic to workforce development.  What did they choose to help them stay focused and prioritized?  You guessed it by now, a Strategy Map.    

I started working for David Norton, one of the creators of the Balanced Scorecard and strategy map, in the 1990s.  He said back then, (and I'm sure he is still saying it): "There is no common framework or way to talk about strategy."  While I agreed with him, I didn't see a need for a common framework when working with for-profit organizations.  There is no regulatory body for strategy, and so who cared if one company managed one way and a second company managed a different way.  

But in a community with active nonprofits and government organizations, there is a strong need for a common framework and a common language.  It is very fulfilling to watch workforce development, economic development, environmental, and healthcare organizations all being able to talk to each other and use a similar language to set priorities and communicate their relationships and their contribution to making Coastal Alabama a better place to live.  All of these organizations have a similar mission that relates to increasing the quality of life in the region.  Now, with a similar framework, they can see how each of the organizations contributes to the common mission, even as they are in different "businesses."  Think about your community...are all of your government and noprofit organizations working together?


Three Hints for Creating a Unified Organizational Strategy

Posted July 12, 2013 10:10 AM by Mark Cutler

There is a great article by Adam Bryant in the July 12, 2013, New York Times that builds off Microsoft’s recent reorganization announcement to share some successful CEOs' words of wisdom on creating a unified organizational strategy.

Acknowledging that this is very difficult to do, especially within large organizations, Bryant cites three CEOs he has interviewed who shared their keys to success.  I think any organization, regardless of size, can learn a thing or two from these leaders.

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An Unconventional Approach to Increasing Impact!

Posted June 28, 2013 12:41 PM by Melanie Burton

In 2011, the number of volunteers reached its highest level in five years, as 64.3 million Americas volunteered through an organization, an increase of 1.5 million from 2010. (http://www.volunteeringinamerica.gov/) It’s no secret that people love to volunteer – it is afterall a unique opportunity to work with friends, co-workers, and new people to give back to your community or another in need. Like 64.3 million other Americans, Ascendant couldn’t resist the opportunity to volunteer at our ClearPoint off-site in New Orleans last month.

Ascendant’s mission statement is to help organizations increase their impact, and at our off-site last month, we did just that. It was a little unconventional, we weren’t crunching numbers, providing training in our software or offering strategic guidance; Instead, we joined together to provide hands on support to a New Orleans non-profit. It was our chance to see first-hand the types of organizations we help and to provide support in a whole new way.

In New Orleans, we joined with HandsOn to help the Backyard Gardners Network Guerilla Garden where we cleared a community garden plot in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. We transplanted flowers, weather-proofed signage and mulched tree beds to prepare the garden for its upcoming summer events to engage the elderly and youth in educational programming. In total, from just one afternoon, we impacted the community an estimated $1,222.41 in volunteer time, but more importantly we helped create a beautiful space that will be enjoyed for years to come. This community garden will bring the community together, give kids a place to hang out, and support learning opportunities. It will also provide fresh produce to a community that does not have a grocery store. True to our mission, we helped an organization increase its impact – we made a difference. 

Center for Priority Based Budgeting - Annual Conference

Posted June 5, 2013 11:00 AM by Ted Jackson

Ascendant is excited about sponsoring the Annual Conference of the Center for Priority Based Budgeting because this event represents exactly what we are trying to promote--linking your budget to your priorities.  We believe strongly that strategy should be at the center of your management process.  This means that your budget should be linked to your strategy, and thus, you should use the lens of strategy to focus your community resources on results.  Please read more about this conference and if you are a municipality, please register and attend.  We look forward to meeting you at the event.


The 2013 "Summit of Leading Practices" Annual Conference is an excellent source of information about local government leading practices. The Summit will feature discussions, case studies and presentations on priority based budgeting, fiscal health,

civic engagement and high-performance organizations, all topics that are critical to the success of local governments.
Don't miss this opportunity to find out about these leading practice areas, and meet senior local-government managers and elected officials who have employed these strategies in their organizations.

"Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower." - Steve Jobs
July 9 & 10, 2013     Arlington, VA     Hilton Crystal City Hotel

Lincoln "Today's challenges have required local governments to work differently, looking to new and innovative approaches to service delivery, while at the same time reducing costs and increasing efficiency of operation. While "best" practices are always important for managers to follow and implement, it is those "leading" practices-creative and innovative ways to approach service delivery-that hold the greatest promise for us to truly "reinvent" government and the ways we do business..."

Strategic Planning in a Political World, USAID’s Reform Efforts

Posted April 25, 2013 9:19 AM by Dylan Miyake

PBS had an interesting discussion on their website today. In the video, USAID presents a case for changes in the way it delivers food and aid globally. While there are obvious opportunities for extending their reach and operating more efficiently, the change undermines some very powerful special interest groups. Will the idea move forward, or will it die a quick death?

Watch Should U.S. Have Monopoly on Food Sent Abroad to Aid? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.


For USAID’s Food for Peace program specifically, federal law requires that the majority of food aid must be purchased from US farms and transported on US ships. Each resulting box and pallet of food says in bold text “USAID, FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.”

USAID sees this “Buy American” mandate as a burden. By purchasing from US sources, the food must be packaged, sealed and then transported thousands of miles to places like Haiti, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Even with prepositioning aid in high-risk areas, there can be major delays in delivering aid due to the travel time. Additionally, due to the travel time and safety concerns, a significant portion of USAID’s budget goes to transportation and security. And as a third consideration, USAID is committed to rebuilding local economies that are not dependent on foreign aid, but rather rebuilt and domestically robust.

Given the realities above, USAID’s preference for “buy local” regulations seems to align with strategic objectives like improving response times, minimizing transportation costs, and rebuilding local economies. USAID’s website says “Studies show that local and regional procurement of food and other cash-based programs can get food to people in critical need 11 to 14 weeks faster and at savings of 25 – 50 percent.”

From the opposite perspective, US farms and US shipping companies have considerable interest in continuing the “Buy American” mandate. In addition to the pride of delivering “American” aid, there is big business in the commodity and transportation contracts. And because the farmers and shipping unions can vote for the US politicians that write the regulations and budgets that control USAID, these two interest groups hold considerable power. Their profits and their jobs are at stake and they vote accordingly.

Oxfam, a confederation of organizations supporting the changes at USAID, had this to say, “The US is the most generous donor of food assistance in the world and gets a lot of credit for this.  Cutting aid doesn’t make sense, but why might the Administration seek to fundamentally change this program? The reason is that current US food aid programs are excruciatingly inefficient and in some instances counter-productive to helping people build sustainable agricultural livelihoods.”

In light of the inefficiencies, what is the best path forward? How will politicians seek to shape USAID’s triple mandate of providing aid, rebuilding economies, and buying American? Comments are welcome below!







The Vision of Great Leaders

Posted March 18, 2013 3:17 PM by Brandon Kline

All great leaders have a vision.

  • Martin Luther King saw a world of equality regardless of your race, color, or creed
  • Steve jobs had a vision to put a computer in the hands of EVERYONE
  • The Founding Fathers had a vision for a new nation
  • Even Bob Dylan had visions of Johanna

Okay, I may have gotten a little carried away with that last one, but the fact of the matter remains - all great leaders have a vision, and that vision becomes the driving force behind all their work.

Eduardo Carrera also has a vision. He sees the Boys and Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico (BGCPR) positively affecting the lives of every boy and girl in Puerto Rico. This is a vision that is shared from the president of the organization all the way down to the front line employees and volunteers.

By relentlessly preaching that vision, they have cultivated the motivation and buy-in that has helped the organization grow to 11 clubs serving over 11,000 young people annually. However, this growth and forward progress wasn’t always the norm. In previous years, they struggled just to stay afloat and remain relevant in the lives of the Puerto Rican kids. He compared this stagnation to being in a room and having the windows open while it was raining. The water just kept pouring in while they did everything possible with the buckets they had to throw it back out. SEE THEIR VIDEO HERE.

For so long, they could only see in the short-term and by operating under this approach, they were only able to scoop enough water out of the room to keep from drowning. They needed a new direction. A purpose. A vision. A reason for being that was inspiring and so large that it could only be long-term.

Their leader made this new vision very clear to all employees, volunteers, and even the kids. They were going to reach ALL of the roughly 1 million kids on the island. It was this vision that has helped them continue to grow, continue to stretch themselves, and continue to save the lives of Puerto Rican boys and girls. Whew - now that is a vision.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that a vision isn’t just what you are trying to accomplish in the next one, two, or even three years. It’s much greater than that. Take another look at the people at the top of this post (minus Bob Dylan of course). Do you think any of them thought their vision would be accomplished in the next few years? Or even in their lifetime? I doubt it.

I challenge each and every one of you in the mission-driven sector to reflect for a minute or two. What is your vision? Does it inspire you? Does it inspire others? Are you surrounding yourself with people as committed as you are?

As you reflect on those questions, I leave you with a parting quote from Eduardo’s Presentation at MDMS 2013.

“The only thing worse than being blind, is having sight and no vision.”

Mission-Driven Management Summit Photos

Posted March 17, 2013 10:00 AM by Dylan Miyake

A special thank you to all the speakers, delegates, and staff that braved the winter storm to attend the Mission-Driven Management Summit in DC a few weeks ago.  It was an excellent chance for all of us to take a few days away from our daily responsibilities to focus on strategy execution.

Filed Under Conference, Ascendant
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Mission: Possible ... Mission: Accomplished!

Posted March 12, 2013 8:02 PM by Mark Cutler

Phew! Another first week of March has come and gone and so has Ascendant’s 2013 Mission-Driven Management Summit—our 5th annual conference on strategy and performance management for mission-driven organizations.

While we like to think the summit is a success every year, I believe this year we had a fantastic conference at the National Press Club and even managed to put it on in the face of the Snowquester—the early March snowstorm than never really materialized in Washington, DC.

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Practice Makes Perfect in Executing Your Strategy, Too

Posted February 22, 2013 8:30 AM by Mark Cutler

After reading a blogpost the other night stating that to become good at strategy requires practice, I just had to share it because I couldn’t agree more.

The author, Roger Martin—dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto—says that to be an “accomplished strategist” the first necessary element “is belief, the second is work, work, and work some more. This means making strategy choices, seeing how they work out and then learning from them.”  This is what we at Ascendant try to impart to our clients when implementing a strategy management framework like the Balanced Scorecard (BSC).

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