Monday, July 15, 2013

The First Step Is Always to Do a Survey

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Last week, in Accepting the Value of Values Statements, I wrote about my decision to create a values statement for my association, despite some misgivings I've previously shared and still hold.

You see, as much as possible, I wanted to avoid the "values imposed from above" dynamic. This is what the boss wants, so let's agree with him and go back to doing what we were doing before. Instead, I wanted to co-create a document that fairly described the values--and more importantly, the behaviors by which those values could be observed in action--that everyone agreed were most closely associated with success in our environment.

In order to get there, I knew I needed to create a space where honest dialogue could occur. We couldn't just start talking about the ideal without first addressing our current reality. Like every other organization, ours had some warts, and if we pretended they didn't exist, or thought they wouldn't impact our ability to move towards the ideal, the project would be doomed before it even began.

So, as we often do in the association world, I began the discussion with an anonymous survey. Working with a outside facilitator, we crafted the following five questions, and asked everyone to respond candidly to the facilitator, who would compile the results and share them in aggregate and with all individual identifiers removed.

Here are the five questions we used:

1. If you were to list and describe the core values that currently influence the work of the NFPA staff, the ones that actually inform and influence individuals' and the group's decisions and directions, which ones would you identify? Please share no more than five core values below, providing both the value and any explanation or additional description of that value if you so desire.

This was absolutely key to our resulting conversation. I really encouraged everyone to take some time to think deeply about this question before responding. What behaviors--good or bad--are positively recognized and reinforced in our organization? By me? By our staff peers? By our volunteers? And taken together, what core values do those behaviors align with?

2. Think of the future strategic direction and results the staff is asked to achieve. What change (in general) do you believe they most ask of the staff culture? In other words, how would you finish the following sentence: If the staff is going to successfully create the strategic direction and desired results outlined for the future, we are going to have to...

This was a first step towards that ideal. We recognize some things need to change, but where should we start? If we're going to begin moving towards a new target, what should that target look like? And how far away can we place it and still be assured of hitting it?

3. Reflect on each of the core values you listed in your response to question #1 in relation to the desired results and future direction the staff is being asked to achieve. For each of the core values you listed, select the option that best describes how you envision it contributing to the staff culture moving forward.
(A) Preserve as is. It is desirable.
(B) Preserve, but modify its execution.
(C) Remove as a core value. It will not be helpful.

Now let's really zoom in on what's good and bad in our environment. We've described what is, and proposed something new. How do we start moving one in closer alignment with the other? What helps us, what could help us, and what would we be better off without?

4. When you think of the desired results and strategic direction the staff is being asked to achieve, what NEW core values do you believe need to become a part of the staff culture (i.e., those which need to inform and influence individual and group actions)? List each NEW core value below (no more than 3) and add any description or additional detail that explains why you believe this value needs to become a part of the NFPA staff culture.

And what are we utterly missing? What new values and behaviors are needed if we are to succeed?

5. Please share any other comments you have about the NFPA staff culture and how it can be strengthened through the existing or envisioned core values you have noted.

An obligatory catch-all for any other thoughts or comments people wanted to share.

All in all, it was a very successful exercise. I give great kudos to my staff for responding in the spirit of honesty and candor that I sought. Undoubtedly, the anonymous nature of the survey helped, but they still took a risk and were thanked for it. In my opinion, their collective answers very accurately described our organization's current values--warts and all--and provided a solid foundation on which our future values statement could be built.

Stay tuned. Future posts will provide some detail on the survey results, and how I prepared for the in-person discussion that created the draft values statement.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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