Friday, July 23, 2010

What Were You Thinking?

Consulting, Collaboration, and the Value of Difficult Questions
During the winter of last year, we had our first bout of hard learning during the collaboration process. Our grant, as originally drafted, focused the bulk of our energies on the outright compacting and relocation of business offices and integration of selected business systems for both the Saul Mirowitz Day School and Solomon Schechter of St. Louis.

Lesson #1—Decision Making is Both Subtle and Critical
Once we took a breather from the celebration of having won an Avi-Chai grant, we got a few quick lessons in process. Our schools are physically separated by all of ten minutes, yet we lived in very different worlds. One is just coming out of startup phase, while the other is solidly in its “middle age.” One relies heavily on professional staff for most functions, while the other uses a sweep of lay volunteers, staff and outsourced services. Even our decision making was different, with the Heads of both schools and their board members playing differing roles in driving the course of daily operations.

As we prepared to move from concept to strategic planning about how to implement the grant, we noticed these differences in a very obvious way. One school of thought wanted to move straight forward, reinventing business systems that would serve both schools. Another felt this was unrealistic, and zeroed in on the component of our grant that involved joint utilization of technology that would enable us to function more effectively. As the pull between these two options became more palpable, we realized that we would need some good facilitation support, as budgeted in the grant, to focus our next step.

Lesson #2—The Answers Aren’t Always so Obvious
From the outset, our two schools had involved a partner in the role of CAJE-St. Louis to accompany us in the grant process. CAJE-STL’s Executive Director, Sonia Dobinsky, had moved through the paces of our discussions, serving as our central spoke of communication and ad hoc business consultant. She suggested that we bring an outside perspective who could help us to break through the impasse as we moved towards action. We looked towards the corporate community, seeking a facilitator who had broad experience in both the business and for profit worlds. Our facilitator was very efficient in her use of time, convening several high level conversations as well as on-site visits to both of our schools. When we joined for a face-to-face debriefing, she led with this question: “What were you thinking when you proposed a back office merger? I would never have reached this conclusion independently if I looked at your operations.”

While we coughed a few times, it was the best advice we had received to date in the collaboration process. We needed someone who could look at our operations from a high level of elevation and zero in on the highest return areas for our work. Based upon our consultant's input, we are starting with shared technology and business systems. After an admittedly slow start, we just received contracts for an SAS (software as subscription) online suite that will accommodate critical donor relation functions, school management and seamless integration with our current billing software. We will reach a level of quality in our business systems that we have never before approached. Best of all, the contract came in nearly $10,000 lower then it would have cost us to implement separately.

Moving Ahead
In the end, it was hard for us to have an outsider come in and challenge our assumptions. While our “what were you thinking moment” caused chagrin, we can now see that we’ve been well served by moving deliberatively, by working to clarify the needs of both schools and by making sure to spend each dollar of our grant to maximum effectiveness. We’re pleased to be moving forward with the knowledge that we are headed in the right direction.