exploring Targeted Universalism

the view from a plane above a layer of bumpy cloud cover. a sunrise peeks over the scene from the right. streaks of clouds texture the sky. up here, this is what targeted universalism feels like.

Targeted Universalism has fascinated me since I first heard about it on a podcast. john a. powell was explaining a system that he calls “equity 2.0.” In simple terms he uses, the goals are universal but the strategies are targeted. As he says, we should not be trying to close the gap between 55% and 70%. We should be imagining how to get everyone to 100%.

This took some processing for me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to apply equity to my work. Equity is sometimes described as a way to close the gap, or end disparities between races. Targeted universalism acknowledges why racial equity is not popular in dominant culture. For white people who are suffering, they have not felt the righting of wrongs that we say they already have. Some people get indignant when we say that people of color suffer more than them. Targeted universalism says instead that we all have a lot to do. Rather than working to close gaps between racial groups, we should imagine the goal. What should we want everyone to achieve? Once we know the ideal, we can come up with strategies to address what each group needs to reach that goal.

Five Steps for Targeted Universalism

  1. Establish a universal goal based upon a broadly shared recognition of a societal problem and collective aspirations. 
  2. Assess general population performance relative to the universal goal. 
  3. Identify groups and places that are performing differently with respect to the goal. Groups should be disaggregated. 
  4. Assess and understand the structures that support or impede each group or community from achieving the universal goal. 
  5. Develop and implement targeted strategies for each group to reach the universal goal.
    – from Targeted Universalism: Policy and Practice

Groups interested in targeted universalism should engage a large group of stakeholders. You can’t create a universal standard without widespread invovlement and buy-in. With that caveat, I’m going to try imagining the process myself. What would designing this process look like? What might a universal goal look like in the world of food access? How do we transcend but honor racial inequities and historic disparities between groups?

I am going to use the Targeted Universalism primer from the Othering and Belonging Institute as my guide.

questions about effective management

A metal statue of a bear standing atop a small granite pedestal outside a building in Reykjavík. Like this statue, effective managers are calm, clear-eyed, shaped like a bear, and made of metal. It is nice if the manager’s sturdy foundation is also made of granite.

I was recently interviewed by a student taking a class on effective management. So, here is that.

Please describe a typical day at work. What do you do all day?

I’m in a lot of meetings! I am one of three directors in my department, and I supervise 12 people across three teams. There are about 30 managers and directors in the whole organization. I lead or take part in several workgroups. I also have weekly check-ins with my boss and each of my three direct reports. We meet monthly as a leadership cohort, and I meet every other week with my other department leads. I am also in lots of meetings for recurring or emergent issues.

The rest of my work falls into two broad buckets, management and strategy.

Strategy is planning the big-picture stuff. My three teams have different but overlapping areas of focus. I need to make sure they are all on the same page about where we’re going. I also try to have them collaborate across teams as often as possible. I also consult on other people’s projects as often as I can. It’s a chance to align our visions and show them what’s important to me.

Management is important because I have to align visions within my own team. I provide guidance on projects and consult when they are unsure of how to move forward. I review drafts, contracts, and other policy documents relevant to my work when needed. This doesn’t include the more traditional management responsibilities like:

  • approving timecards and expense reports
  • regular check-ins and team meetings with staff
  • communicating our vision inside and outside the organization
  • finding professional development opportunities for staff based on their interests and skills

What are the most critical problems you face as a manager?

I find that as a non-profit we’re always more ambitious than our capacity. Prioritization is a big part of our work. I have to ask, “how critical is this need? Is it urgent or can it wait? Is this a potential learning opportunity for junior staff? Do we have the time to set those expectations to improve their chance of success?”

My teams work in opposite ends of our building, and communication is central to our performance. After I was hired, I noticed that while two of my teams felt they were distinct, their work was very similar. I put in effort from the beginning to get the teams talking and working together more. In a way, this doubled the available brainpower we had to solve problems. We share a lot within our department, but we still have the rest of the organization to talk to! We have a responsibility to define our work for others (or else they’ll do it for us).

What are the most critical skills needed to be a successful manager in your line of work?

Collaboration is the most used skill in my toolbox. I need to be able to guide my teams towards the best decision we can make. That means asking probing questions. After I get a summary from them, I like to ask, “what would you recommend?” Some managers do this so they can lead their employee to the answer the manager wants them to guess. If this is your plan, you’re wasting time. Just tell them the answer if that’s what you want to do. Instead, I ask them questions to refine an approach based on our collective expertise. The goal is not to ask questions with a solution in mind, it’s to think through a problem without knowing what the solution will be.

The other most critical skill I use as a manager is respect. When you’re the boss, you don’t need to raise your voice or be rude to get your work done. I stay professional with my staff, but I still like joking around. I want people to enjoy their work time and value their colleagues.

What are the major reasons managers fail in positions like yours?

Some managers fail when they change their programs without understanding them first. This may happen with new managers who want to prove themselves worthy of the role. Others fail by taking on too much at once, which can burn out their team. Some managers find it difficult to give clear, critical feedback to their employees.

Semi-related, but the most cringeworthy thing a manager can do is call their coworkers “family.” Ugh! The concept of family means different things to different people. Families ask a lot of each other in non-transactional ways that I would never ask of a colleague. I have strong relationships with former colleagues, but none of them are my family. Some people don’t have great relationships to their families. Some people are children or spouses of abusers. Some queer and trans people have negative or traumatic connections to their relations. I want to work with people I respect, without having to make it as personal as family can sometimes be.

What are the outstanding skills or abilities of other effective managers you have known?

All the best managers I’ve known have been active listeners. It’s a fact that you won’t always have the best solution. An effective manager is someone who can listen to others and refine their own thinking on a subject. I take extensive notes when I’m in meetings. I use those to reflect after the fact or clarify what I took from the meeting.

Effective managers must also focus on staff development. My first foray into management in an office was when my boss was out on leave for two weeks. She named me as the interim team lead in her absence. While I was “manager”, we had one minor issue that I was able to work through. This experience improved my confidence and helped me realize I found management thrilling.

I also appreciate when managers can communicate big-picture strategy and expectations. As an employee, I am always curious about the “why” of a task given to me by management. How will this get us to where we want to go? What should this look like when I’m done? Why is this more critical than whatever else I was doing? How does this task fit in with everyone else’s work. Though the hierarchy gives a manager power, managers often fail when that’s all they wield.

If you had to train someone to replace you in your current job, what key abilities would you focus on?

The most important thing I do is understand how racial and social injustice relates to our work. White supremacy and dominant culture created every problem that non-profits try to solve. Racial injustice is present in how we “serve” people in need to how we administer programs. We need to rebuild many of the systems that we exist in.
Another valuable skill I would want in my successor is relationship management. A lot of my work is relationships! Most days I work with at least 20 people in roles across the organization. I need to be able to hear what’s important to them, share what’s important to me, then find common ground.

Strategic ability is important, too. Right now, my team is working to expand the network of partners we use to do our work. I started laying the groundwork for this almost 18 months ago! At the beginning, most of the plan only lived in my head. I had to generate buy-in among my bosses, my team, and in other departments. This means having a clear (but flexible) picture of where you want to go, and then persuading others to go there with you.

//

The last thing I would say about effective management is that everyone has their own style. My style has been successful for me as a brown person navigating a hierarchy built by white people. It’s not successful for everyone, not even other people who look like me. As a man, I am praised for being assertive and direct. I am also not expected to invest in soft skills (like joining the social committee). And when I use soft skills, such as volunteering to take notes in a meeting, I am praised for that too.

We managers have a responsibility to change the professional norms we were born into. We all deserve to work in a place that is inclusive and supportive of us being ourselves.

implementing the advice process: first update

A meme featuring an “Ask the candidates”-style fact sheet between 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The questioner asks, “can cats have salami?” Elizabeth Warren’s photo says “cats should only eat cat food” while Bernie Sanders’ photo says “cats can have a little salami.” This is one of the many decisions that people have to face in their lives. If the advice process was more widely used, cats might be able to vote for president.

I first learned about the advice process less than a year ago. I like the advice process for many reasons. The biggest is that it pushes back on the dominant-culture notion that there’s only one solution to a given problem. In truth, there can be many solutions to a problem. The best solution is more likely to come from a person closest to the problem at hand. It very rarely comes from that person’s boss, or their boss’ boss.

Since then, I wrote a guide for how to use it at a medium-sized non-profit organization. About seven months ago, I launched it in a committee on which I was the chair. This is a quick update on my experience using the advice process to make better decisions at work.

How I implemented it
I lead a large team, but I decided not to launch this process with my employees. Even though I introduced the advice process to my boss, and she supported the goals of this work. The advice process works by design in an ecosystem of distributed self-management. My non-profit is still a hierarchy, with a CEO and a typical decision-making structure. Decisions go up the chain, then they go back down the chain. I didn’t want my first experiment using the advice process to lead to a situation where I have to veto a decision. Instead, I chose to test the advice process in a committee I’m on. Every member of the committee represents a department or team. We are all considered equals, and experts in our fields. It was easier to justify the advice process in a setting where no one held power over another. The committee still operated in a hierarchy, though. The Chief Operating Officer sat on the committee, and could overrule any decision any of us made.

Ranking problems
When we started, we had a lot of issues on the table that were languishing without a decision. I created a very simple ranking scheme that anyone with five fingers can do. I asked each committee member to rank every issue using 1-5 fingers for these two questions:

  1. what is your personal interest or energy in solving this problem?
  2. how necessary is it for us to solve this problem soon?

These two questions helped us get a sense of urgency around each issue we faced. It also allowed us to land some easy wins once we got started.

Blocking a decision
I added to the advice process the ability to “block” a decision. The guidance acknowledges that my organization operated as a hierarchy (for now). In an ideal advice process scenario, the person with the power to veto is someone we would have consulted. With that in mind, we ask that before anyone in power vetoes an idea, they consider the following:

  • does the decision make things worse?
  • are you blocking the decision because you don’t love it? are you blocking the decision because you think your solution is better?

This part of the process has worked well for us, so far. Decisions made through the advice process are often well-reasoned. We know it’s okay if they are not perfect.

Questions of Impact
Another issue we ran into on this committee was the question around impact. Because we are a service non-profit, our recipients are the ones most affected by what we decide. We don’t have an advisory board, and our decisions are much too small to consult a group every time we need to make one. Instead, we say the impact falls most on the team affected by the proposed change. That team’s representative becomes the person who gets to make the decision. It’s also their responsibility to share their decision once it’s made.

What I’ve learned so far
Before the advice process, decision-making was haphazard at best. Someone would ask a question, and then we would talk about it for a while before tabling it for the next meeting. Someone would offer to do research, but that never paid off into real decisions. Using this process, we resolved six issues in five months. These issues had plagued us for at least a year. Once we started making decisions, we realized the decision-maker needed to share. I created a decision-making share-out document to archive our decisions.

Sometimes, many teams are the “most impacted” by a decision. Sometimes nobody was more impacted than anyone else. In these cases, the advice process says that anyone who wants to make the decision, can. Sometimes everyone is busy, but the issue is too important to delay. In those cases, we had to assign the issue to someone.

What I am still exploring
Some of the decision-makers reported difficulty getting started. This is still an unfamiliar practice for most of us. It’s not easy getting used to being the sole decision-maker. While individual consults are easier to schedule, it’s still nice to sit around a table and brainstorm with your colleagues. And as I mentioned above, we need to get clear about who we should include in the advice process. Often decisions can cascade outside a team in ways we don’t predict. But the advice process, like all tools, is not perfect.

I am still very impressed with the advice process. I am still thinking about ways to build the process into a formal hierarchy. I am also curious to see if the process continues when I move on from leading the committee. We’ll see how it goes!

centering people when collecting information

A white lighthouse with a red roof sits against a deep blue sky with streaks of clouds. Like the lighthouse, data collectors sometimes serve as beacons or warnings… eh, I just liked this picture of a lighthouse.

I have a stable job that pays me well. I live in a nice apartment with my husband. We can afford to buy the things we need. My job pays me to provide social services to others, but it’s not likely that I will ever need those services myself. And yet, I am responsible for collecting data from this group of people.

Government and non-profit organizations operate in a racist and classist world. Our culture supports the idea that people in need deserve some punishment for that need. This shows up as needlessly bureaucratic forms, means testing, and othering practices. It also shows up in how we collect information. The questions we ask are often invasive and embarrassing. Many people see it as the price someone must pay to get that service. But we don’t have to do it that way.

People who need help should be able to design for themselves how they want to receive that help. In our world, that almost never happens! So we collect information. Sometimes we collect it because we’re used to collecting it. Sometimes it’s because a funder asks for it.

I ask questions because I want to use the answers to design better programs. I ask myself questions like these:

  1. What information would be useful to share with the person needing help?
  2. What information do I need to do my program well?
  3. What information could I use to plan for the future, or improve the program?
  4. What information do my funders want? What requests of theirs could I push back or negotiate on?

Information I can share
I start with the information that would be valuable to the person receiving services. They might like to know how their A1C levels have changed or improved over time. If they shared their ZIP code, I could make referrals closer to their home. You can also ask people what they would like to learn or know if they take part in data collection.

Information I need now
This category information is different than what a funder might want. The beneficiary of this information should be me and my program staff. I ask, what do I need to keep my program running? I want to know how many people I’m serving. If I know the usual time that people come in for services, I can make sure I have enough staff to support them. I try to work around requests for more invasive data. What would we do with their name and address? If we collect it, ICE could subpoena that information from us. That’s a reality that no one in data collection should ignore. 

Information for the future
This is information I can use to grow or improve my program. Take my earlier example about schedules. If I knew what hours we could be open, I could serve people with busier schedules. This would take me into parts of the community who don’t already come in to see us.

Information for funders
Many funders want to see improvement over time. We scratch our heads for good metrics, then come up with measurements that are hard to collect. I inherited a grant that claimed a weekly class on diabetes could lower patients’ A1C levels in six weeks. This isn’t realistic. It puts needless pressure on the program team and participants. In reality, most funders wouldn’t expect that if we didn’t claim we could do it. We could instead check the program’s impact by measuring patients’ satisfaction. We could test if they’ve learned more about their condition over time. 

I try to do a lot of hard thinking about why to ask a question before I ask it. What will I use the answers for? What answers am I prepared or not prepared to receive? How could I get a more useful answer by asking this in a different way?. How could I learn this without putting it on a survey? What questions could I ask later, when I’m ready to use the information? We questioners hold immense power over people who need our services.