Big Data, Big Qualitative Data

As someone that occasionally plays in quantitative data world, I know that many quant researchers, including too many of my MPA teachers, place an infallible value on quantitative data over qualitative data. One reason quantitative data is so valued is its simplicity, very little context is needed to make grand analyses, and the bigger the n the better because that just increases your validity, and, after all, it’s not like you have to actually read all of those responses, just push a button and run your regression.

Now having the debate over quant and qual data is not the point of this post, but rather to ponder what to do with big qualitative data? There is no regression to write that will make analysis or recording easy, instead I have to actually read and make sense of all the individual responses, and if I was being methodical than code all of those responses. But when you don’t have the time to code, what is the best use of all that “extra” data? From my sixteen stakeholder interviews, I have scoured through and essentially categorized or coded for a few key topics that have generated and support my recommendations. But now I have pages and pages of transcribed notes that likely have all sorts of nuggets of wisdom for the organization that extend far beyond my project scope. Without just handing over my notes and breaking confidentiality (even if de-identified), I’m a bit perplexed what to do with all this information. I could write a 20, 30, 40-page report with all of the information collected, but that is the last thing this organization needs; in fact, they brought me on specifically to simplify and prioritize someone else’s big, long report. I wish this was a one-time problem, but it is something that I have faced time and again with client processes that involve semi-confidential stakeholder interviews. I still don’t have an answer, but maybe next time I go into a similar process I’ll spend more time with the client reality testing what different outcomes are appropriate for all the “rest of the data.”


Safe Harbors and Captains — The Role of a Board of Advisors

BEST is the first organization that I have worked with that has not only a Board of Directors and a handful of committees, but also has a large and impressive Board of Advisors. Now the duties of a nonprofit board of directors is quite straight-forward and basically in the same vein even across different “types” of nonprofit boards, such as governance versus working boards. However, advisory boards are few and far between, and from my limited experience, no two are all that much alike. The best definition I could find, which came from the private sector, was that board of advisors are “safe harbors” for leaders to explore ideas before going to the board of directors. Basically, I had no idea what to expect with my advisor interviews, or even if my questions would work for them, but I set out on my little ship to see what type of harbor these Advisors were providing to BEST and the Executive Director.

About 50% of my interviews thus far have been with Advisors, which has been very illuminating. Some of these individuals have a clear understanding of BEST’s mission, as well as their role as a brain trust and “big name” to support that mission. While others are generally supportive of what they think BEST is trying to accomplish, but basically said yes to becoming an Advisor because they were asked by a respected friend and it didn’t require attending regular meetings. Creating a group of minimally commitment individuals presents an interesting dynamic for an organization.

Doing a basic SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analysis on this Board of Advisors provides some insight into this model. First, without a doubt the long list of Advisors on BEST’s letterhead is a huge strength for an advocacy organization trying to change policy in the area. A City Council member or Mayor takes one look at this list and knows this is an organization with perceived validity among the movers-and-shakers. To stretch my maritime metaphor, these advisors are quite literally the “captains” of urban political discourse and civic engagement in our community. At the same time, that list goes on everything put out by the organization and it is unclear if every individual supports every action the organization takes, especially as it matures into a broader mission than a single transit campaign. If said City Council member was to call up one of these individuals about a specific statement, would they be informed enough to be able to speak to the position in any depth or with any energy? I’m not sure all those that I interviewed would be able to or, worse, share BEST’s values at such a level that any action by the organization would automatically be supported by them.

The opportunities and threats are equally interesting. There is an undeniable opportunity to increase engagement with these Advisors. Most do not participate on any committees, few attend any Board meetings as observers, and it is hit-or-miss on whether they feel compelled to donate financially to the organization. Plugging them more directly into the organization in these roles could be a huge boon for the organization, so could encouraging a sense of community among the Advisors. Most that I interviewed reported not knowing more than one other person who was an Advisor, the missed opportunities around potential energy synthesis is a real concern. However, the common narrative around these busy, important people being an Advisor is in no small part because it doesn’t require much means that any effort to increase involvement and expectations could back fire. Is it worth shaking the boat?

Stakeholder Interviews: Meetings Matter

With more than 60 interviews under my belt from spring term, I was not entirely surprised to find myself facing another 15-20 stakeholder interviews to inform the case development for my governance project with BEST.  Although I still create my “buckets of inquiry” and brainstorm a couple pages of pre-created questions to fill these buckets, I have also learned that the art of a good interview is walking a line between asking big, broad questions that get the person talking, and smaller, almost closed questions that allow you to establish some common baselines later on.

For this project, my big questions with this first week of interviews have led to some smaller, factual questions. My big questions have focused around how a “grass tops,” advocacy organization with a broad mission but was formed from a very specific campaign engages their supporters for the long haul. These questions have prompted fascinating discussions about what type of action changes policy, the role of representativeness in a community advocacy organization, and whether a “coalition” organization is more or less effective when it is the host of the “table” or fully representing its interests as a “seat” at that table.

Like I said, big questions with big, pondering answers. But also some small questions peaking through the cracks, such as what is the most effective meeting schedule for this organization? That’s right, one of the biggest issues to come forward is dissension around the current meeting schedule and whether or not it is supporting the organization. Sure it’s tempting to just say, “doodle it,” but that undermines the potential objectives that can be achieved through an in-person meeting, beyond just getting through business. For example, many of the newer board members said that they wished the meetings were in the evening so that they might more naturally grab a drink with board colleagues afterwards to build up a sense of team and community. Meetings at 7 a.m., while not interrupting the work day, did place an emphasis on this being all about work and as volunteer board members this wasn’t satisfying their desires to be part of something larger and feel connected to their community.

I’ve always been a huge advocate that “meetings matter,” carefully planned agendas and objectives, clear decision making processes, ensuring the right people are in the room—all of this matters.  So too can something as simple as meeting time. While BEST might not move all of their meetings to the evening based on this feedback, I am highly encouraging that they schedule some of them at a time and place where people might just stick around afterwards to talk off the clock.

Discovering the Big Picture One Interview at a Time

Over the last two weeks I’ve completed twenty interviews with Pasadena Waldorf School (PWS) internal stakeholders, including teachers, administrative staff, board members, parents, and building contractors. Going into this project, we thought this healing process and community conversation was needed for misunderstandings that had come about within the past year. However, there is always more to the story than meets the eyes. It is quickly becoming apparent that this is a very complex situation that extends far further in time and impact than just the last year or just a single building project. Instead, it is rooted in decisions made over a decade ago, furthered by both very constructive and toxic elements of their organizational culture, and exasperated by a perfect storm of largely unforeseeable circumstances. Every person I talk to has a piece of the puzzle and a unique vantage point on the situation, but virtually none seem to appreciate the bigger picture or be able to see the situation from the myriad of other perspectives involved.

I am reminded of the classic 6 vs. 9 metaphor we learned on our first day of Basic Mediation Training with Annie, Carrie, and Anita all the way  back in summer 2013. At PWS, some can only see the outcomes of the last year, both good and bad, and have no reference points to either the process that created those outcomes or the history that influenced their creation. Likewise, those closest to that process and most intimately connected with the history, cannot understand how the outcomes have not been better understood and appreciated. Everyone is frustrated because they cannot see what the other person is seeing in this situation. And unlike the 6 vs. 9 metaphor, there are far more than just two perspectives on this situation. In a vain attempt to map the conflict, I could identify no less than seven unique perspectives or “parties” in this situation.

Given these diverse and deeply rooted experiences, I actually think that I might be one of only two to three people who have had the vantage point of looking down and seeing all of the parts, and recognizing that, like in most conflicts, there are many simultaneous truths—that yes, it is both a 6 and a 9. Helping people to see these simultaneous truths—to understand history they may not have been a part of, to appreciate a process they were left out of, to empathize that the impacts of this situation did not match the intentions—this will be our mantle of responsibility when we facilitate their community conversation next week.