Five Strategies for Proactive Project Management

strategyHave you ever dreaded the sound of your cell phone ringing, knowing that it brings yet another crisis or question that pushes your organization into confusion? Reactive organizations seem to be very common, especially among underfunded, overworked nonprofits and government agencies. It’s hard to get out front and steer the wagon, when the wagon’s always on fire. Here are five ways to become more proactive in your management style:



  1. Lighten Your Load – Evaluate your existing programs and services and quit doing something that takes great effort but does not provide much profit or support your mission well.
  2. Look Back – Review your original master plan or any existing plan documents. Do they contain ideas that were good but not pursued at the time? Add them back in the mix.
  3. Get Help – Bring in a facilitator to help formulate a strategic plan that includes specific action items. What will you do next, who will oversee the task and when will each task be done? Strategic plans without “next steps” that are easy to pursue often end up as an exercise in frustration instead of the guiding document they were intended to be.
  4. Measure Progress – Develop a logic model (see the Kellogg Foundation PDF document on this), or a clear set of measurable objectives that inform your action plan. Defining desired results moves vague goals and strategies from theory to practice and provides a way to prove what you’re doing has value.
  5. Meet Regularly – Report progress toward objectives on a monthly or weekly basis to keep everyone abreast of what’s been accomplished or any changes that might affect results.

We were in Japan visiting colleagues and doing a little training at the Whole Earth Nature School, and found that the entire staff would meet each morning in a standing circle and talk just a few moments about what they were doing that day. Identifying each person’s daily tasks made a clear statement that what everyone does is important to the function of the whole.

Weekly meetings may be enough for most organizations. Keep looking back at the annual operations plan and measurable objectives and report on progress at each meeting. It’s good to have a wall or bulletin board where action plan progress and logic model performance is visibly reported in easy to read ways. It can be put up on a visual dashboard or as a virtual dashboard on an intranet site where staff can check it even if working from home or a distant office.

Finding the money to bring in a facilitator or planner can be a challenge, but it’s usually money well spent. Government agencies sometimes have year-end money and spending it on a plan may be more useful than buying more things to put on the ground. Nonprofits often find that local foundations will help them with financing a plan if the effort will make the organization more sustainable and less likely to need emergency help in reaction to crisis management. Even if you employ a planner on staff, an outside facilitator can help focus the group’s efforts and keep discussions moving forward. But whether you choose to develop your plan in-house or by hiring outside help, make sure your planner or facilitator knows how to help you develop measurable objectives and a clear action plan.

Being proactive instead of reactive keeps you on a more efficient path towards achieving your organization’s goals. With the start of the New Year, it’s a good time to think about how you can adopt and implement more proactive strategies. If you need help, let us know.

Best wishes for a very HAPPY and PRODUCTIVE NEW YEAR!

– Tim Merriman

Happy Holidays

DSC_0178We hope you are enjoying holidays of your choice this week with family and friends.

Mele Kalikimaka

Tim and Lisa

How and Where Do We Learn?

thirdspace5Fareed Zakaria had an interesting discussion this past Sunday on his CNN GPS show about the educational gap in America. His guests, Teach for America Founder Wendy Kopp, Sal Khan of Khan Academy, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and former New York City school administrator Joel Klein made up the panel. Their discussion was an amazing analysis of American education and how it stacks up, but there was a missing link that I will address in this article.

The US ranks 17th in reading, 26th in math and 21st in science in the world according to recent PISA exams that compare achievement among students in diverse nations. Kopp and Friedman commented on a school in Shanghai that ranks at the top in achievement. Kids there go to school 50 days a year more than children in the U.S., a startling difference in the amount of education. Is that the difference? Perhaps it is part of it, but it’s not the whole story.

Klein emphasized that technology is an aid but not the solution for more effective teaching and learning. We need better teachers, with better training and better pay. Wendy Kopp suggested that school system leadership is important. Shanghai uses top school administrators to train and serve as mentors for other administrators.

Friedman made the point that professional development for teachers in Shanghai involves some 30% of their time. Teachers communicate with their students’ parents two or three times a week by phone or email. The level of engagement with parents is much higher than in traditional US schools.

Another difference is that athletics are not a major function of school life in the top achieving nations as it is in the U.S. Those other nations rely on private athletic leagues to support the market demand for athletics for young people.

Klein emphasized the need for dramatic change in how the education system works. But he still didn’t land on what I considered the missing component of the discussion. What do American children do with the rest of their free time? Do they play video games, participate in sports, hike trails, spend time in museums or volunteer at a nature center?

Zakaria wrote in his book, The Post American World, that school administrators from those top-achieving nations admire how children in the U.S. exhibit critical thinking and problem solving skills. Some of those skills are learned in the classroom but many are learned during free play or in non-formal settings, such as zoos, museums, aquariums, nature centers, science centers, boy scouts, girl scouts, etc.


At these free-choice learning sites we hope to inspire children, not teach and test them. We want to turn on that bright light inside a child’s brain that drives them deeper and deeper into understanding the world, history, art and real life. It is contextual learning in most cases with lessons that include real places, live animals, growing plants and hands-on experiences.

I think the missing link in the study of education systems is the lack of conversations at all levels about the importance of intermingling free-choice learning with formal education. I spent 17 years in administration of a professional development organization for interpreters and guides, but had very little engagement with formal education and public schools. This was no one’s fault and everyone’s. It just wasn’t an area of emphasis and so the finger gets pointed at all of us for choosing to stay in our comfortable silos and allowing field trips to be the only overlap between formal and informal education.

I hope American administrators of education and free-choice learning find real chances to talk about the overall impact of what we do and how we work together better. Education of children is the net effect of what happens to a child growing up, not just the daily experience in the classroom.

-Tim Merriman

Science Interpretation – A Different Approach

Museums and science centers are great places to introduce kids to science.

Museums and science centers are great places to introduce kids to science.

I started my career as a biology teacher and honestly enjoyed being in a high school classroom as a teacher. But I found jobs at an outdoor learning center and a state park early in my career and never found my way back to the classroom. Over time, I slowly discovered the difference between science education and interpretation.

Schools, science centers and science agencies quite reasonably hope to teach people about some of the most important concepts in science. Standardized exams in school ask questions that revolve around those important basic concepts. But parks, zoos, museums, nature centers, aquariums and science centers introduce science to people in leisure settings where there will be no test. Are we attempting to “educate” people in these non-formal settings? Research on retention of information suggests that people, even if engaged in free-choice learning, do not always carry away much information from these settings.

Nature is a great place to introduce a child to the wonders of science.

Nature is a great place to introduce a child to the wonders of science.

Interpretation is unique among education-related fields in being focused on creating connections to content rather than specific information retention, in most cases. We want to inspire our guests to learn more on their own and deepen their understanding of ideas, ecosystems and processes. We want to influence their attitudes in hopes they will want to know more about science or take some action related to revealing the mysteries of nature and the universe. And research suggests that if we are truly successful in getting people to think more deeply about our subject, they may remember very little specific information. Their minds are more engaged in thinking about where they are and what it means to them.

If we truly engage people and get them to think, they might buy books at our store, sign up for a behind the scenes tour, visit another museum or science center or become a volunteer. They may be inspired to choose a career or change their behavior to demonstrate their deeper understanding of environmental or social issues. In my view, those are better reflections of engagement than remembering facts. A person who is turned on by good interpretation learns much faster on their own, digging into the subjects that delight them in ways they enjoy on their own time, long after their encounter with the original speaker, program, or exhibits is over. He or she might watch TV shows on science, read books, take trips to unique ecosystems, explore with field guides or technological aids, or become advocates for science-related topics.

We need to encourage more young people to become scientists or to become supporters of science. Scientists can help by becoming better communicators, focusing more on engaging their audiences rather than lecturing, getting them to think more than remember, and lighting a spark of interest that may flare into a new passion for the world around them. Parents can encourage their children by simply taking them out into nature very young and spend time in nature centers, museums and science centers. We live on a beautiful planet and a career in science is a journey of joy and wonder.

-Tim Merriman

Program Scope Objectives, A Measure of Success

After my talk, half or more of my audience will want to hold or touch the bull snake. (my objective)

After my talk, half or more of my audience will want to hold or touch the bull snake. (my objective)

If you’re an interpreter or guide working on the front-line of an agency, organization or tour company, how do you evaluate your success on a daily basis? Is it the number of smiles you receive, the volume of the applause, the “good job” comments made by your peers or supervisors?

More than a dozen years ago we were training guides in La Paz, Mexico, and we asked them to identify measurable objectives for their programs. Maria Elena Muriel identified exactly what she desired after doing a turtle program on a beach. “More than half of my guests will stay and help clean the beach of plastic bags and trash.” She was asking cruise boat tourists to help clean up a Mexican beach when likely none of them took the tour intending to volunteer for maintenance work. What she found was that the quality of her program and the simple request at the end of it encouraged people who now felt connected to the sea turtles to help clean up the beach. Her ability to get people to think and care had a very direct and measurable impact.

If your purpose is solely to entertain, then many interpretive programs would fill that bill. But if your purpose is to support the mission of your organization then you may want to go beyond entertainment. To measure your success, you may want to include a request for people to do something that demonstrates an attitude shift that takes place as a result of the program. How can you measure success in a single program, guided hike or tour? First you have to identify what behavior is desirable. What will guests do differently if you are effective with your message? Here are a few suggestions for objectives you might have for a specific program, bearing in mind that any one program might reasonably have only one or two objectives.

XX % of my audience will sign up for an additional tour or program

X people will become volunteers in our program

X people will sign a pledge to recycle at home or take part in a conservation effort

XX % of my audience will make a donation of $5 or more

XX % of my audience will take information on future programs or donor opportunities

XX people will stay after the program and ask questions

XX people will sign up for a voluntourism project

XX % of my audience will sign a petition before leaving

XX people will buy a membership before leaving

My guide tips will average XX$ per person on the tour

XX people will buy a book or books I recommended in the program

When I served as director of a non-profit nature center, I always took a stack of membership forms to a public presentation and used magic markers to stripe the edges of the stack with a distinctive series of marks. Then I could ask our bookkeeper to count the number of returned envelopes with two blue stripes on the lower right edge of the envelope. I could compare the results with the total number in the audience. I could test the effectiveness of my appeal for members at every single talk I gave. Our nature center relied on memberships and donations as a major income source and we became skilled at getting them as a result of presentations to civic organizations.

Some people object to having such measurable objectives. They may feel that trying to measure their “art” takes something away from it or that it is enough to be satisfied by the warm fuzzy feeling that they performed well and the audience seemed pleased. But I hope that most interpreters will want to know that they are advancing the cause of their organization. I did not go into this work to be entertaining alone. I want to encourage people to make better choices in how they treat each other and the environment. Those results can be measured, but it means I have to think about how I might measure my success every time I speak or lead a tour. I hope you’ll do the same.

– Tim Merriman