Mission creep

This weekend was a parenting doozy. My oldest daughter, Emma, is in sixth grade (middle school) and just finished her second quarter. After the first quarter, my husband Alan and I agreed we would lay off monitoring (some would say micromanaging) her schoolwork to see what she’d do on her own. Our reasoning was that Emma needed to learn these skills now rather than in high school. The result was a mixed bag. She improved a few grades from the first quarter, but downgraded a couple of others. As far as we knew, Emma did not have any cognitive issues with the material, so we deduced that there were several potential reasons for the downgrades: 1) lack of organization; 2) lack of preparation; 3) lack of desire to complete her work in a timely manner; and 4) confusion about her teachers’ expectations. We decided to approach the situation delicately because Emma’s grades came through only a day after we had an “epic fail” as parents in relation to an indoor soccer game. To summarize, we provided what we thought was constructive criticism about her play, which, as any normal sixth grader would, Emma took as a lack of love, support and kindness. My stomach still hurts from that punch in the gut.

As we talked through the grades situation with Emma, it became clear that there was a teacher clarity issue, but also perhaps lack of preparation and lack of fire in the belly to complete the work on time all of which are addressable. Coming on the heels of the indoor soccer game fiasco, however, I had to ask whether we were giving her enough time and energy to address these schoolwork-related skills. In addition to soccer, Emma takes piano and gymnastics lessons, is currently in a school play, and is in honors chorus. While she wants to do all these things, isn’t it our job as parents with school-age kids to only allow her to do what she needs? Her growing sixth grade body is a finite resource and we need to help her manage that resource wisely, even if it means insisting that she give up one or two things. It’s called prioritizing, and she doesn’t yet know how to do it well. So, we have to coach her. We have to ensure she knows that school is first on the list and she can have one sport and one “other” activity. Three things. We have allowed Emma’s interests and talent to “mission creep,” which has in turn limited her ability to shine in any one thing, especially school. Yikes!

It is so hard to prioritize, especially with all the cool things out there to do. And hint, hint I am not only referring to Emma’s schedule. This is true of APPA, of the federal government (in spades), and, frankly, most organizations. Think about some of the most successful businesses they focus on what they do best and only do that. And then they keep improving that thing. The examples that come to mind as I write are In-and-Out Burger and Chick-Fil-A (it’s dinner time, okay?). Make simple, fast food, make it extremely tasty, and provide excellent customer service. But I bet the owners have often been pressured to diversify or provide more options. I’m glad they haven’t succumbed to those suggestions.

In my first few weeks at APPA, I participated in a meeting of an industry organization that is facing a prioritization challenge. The group is focused on electric grid resilience from a strategic perspective. This is a huge, multi-faceted issue that will continue to evolve over time. So, how to prioritize? The first step is admitting that such prioritization is necessary, which, thankfully, the group did at this meeting. The second is to create a process whereby the key strategic needs are identified and then the group’s participants can weigh in on the most urgent of those needs to tackle first. While discussion occurred around these themes, there is as yet no formal way to ensure the feedback will be applied – more work to be done there.

At APPA, as in any membership-based organization, we face a similar challenge. How do we avoid trying to “boil the ocean” (one of my favorite phrases) in favor of rigorously prioritizing our work and avoid mission creep? With more than 1,400 members, we must rely on clear processes, our board’s strategic direction, and vigorous communication to our members about where those priorities lie. This is a work in progress, but it is a priority for me to help us prioritize – I’ll begin by assessing our programs and activities and aligning our efforts with the next version of our strategic plan. Over time, I’ll be holding us accountable to these strategic priorities and communicating to our broader membership why we are doing what we’re doing. I want to give us the opportunity to make straight As. And Emma, too.