Confronting The Brutal Facts

by Andrew Kaplan and Sam Gilman
August 9, 2013

Andrew Kaplan '15 and Sam Gilman '15 are Starr Fellows working on building a grassroots organization, Common Sense Action

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”   -- Admiral Jim Stockdale

This is the “Stockdale paradox” articulated by business guru Jim Collins after an interview with Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest-ranking American prisoner of war captured during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was imprisoned for seven and a half years at the Hoa Lo POW camp.  As Collins notes, most of us cannot begin to understand “the depth of personal experience of living in a POW camp,” but the paradox provides a great lesson in leadership.

In the language of social entrepreneurship, this means having faith that you can advance your impact, while simultaneously always critically evaluating your logic model. Do you have the necessary inputs to successfully complete your activities? Do your activities actually lead to the appropriate deliverable outputs? Do your outputs lead to your desired outcomes? Do your desired outcomes actually create the impact you want to have?

Easier said than done.

Eleven weeks ago, we showed up in Washington and began formulating policy and organizing Washington’s tremendously talented and engaged intern pool. We had goals.  We knew we wanted to build a credibly bipartisan youth policy agenda; we knew we wanted to start at least 10 Common Sense Action chapters across the country; we knew we wanted to build momentum to propel CSA into the fall.

Of course, we believed that accomplishing these goals puts us one step closer to realizing the impacts we seek. We hope to advance greater economic opportunity for Millennials and succeeding generations, bring more youth voices to the policymaking table, and engender a shift in political culture that respects principled partisanship but encourages open-minded leadership and decision-making.

But how do you make sure you are always advancing toward accomplishing your goals and realizing your impacts? Plan. Iterate. Confront the brutal facts. Plan again.  Our plans were rewritten, day-to-day and week-to-week as we began to confront our failures.

But how exactly do you confront the brutal facts? Over the course of the summer, we isolated a number of lessons that helped us meet our challenges head-on:

1. Don’t change your goals; change your plans. If you change your goals, you avoid the brutal facts instead of greeting them.  Ask yourself questions.  Why can’t I accomplish my goal?  What parts of my plan aren’t letting me achieve my aim?

2.  Pay attention to your logic model.  Ask the question: how do day-to-day activities advance you toward your desired impact? The biggest mistakes we’ve made this summer have occurred when we’ve lost sight of our logic model.  In the middle of the summer, we had lost our momentum because we didn’t have events scheduled. We were scrambling to do the day-to-day things like scheduling, and we got boring. We stopped talking about empowerment and action, critical elements of our theory of change. We became too much about discussion and dialogue and networking instead of educating, empowering, and taking action.  Then we went back to our logic model, remembering that there are three ways to get your voice heard in politics: money, connections, and numbers. By virtue of being young, we will never have money or connections, but we know that we can have numbers if we organize.

3. Take the time to brainstorm individually, and then brainstorm as a group.  We all rush, especially when we have a lot to do. However, taking the time at the outset to brainstorm individually ensures that more ideas and analyses come to the table. As an added bonus, more timid participants don’t get overshadowed in brainstorms. With four people in the room, you can have four sets of ideas if you brainstorm individually. If not, it is much harder to hear different ideas because everyone has been primed by the first speaker.

4. Be frank and direct with your teammates, but don’t let them beat themselves up. Failures are ugly and it hurts to admit when you’ve gone wrong.  For example, we were so busy doing all the logistics for the AGE Launch that we dropped the ball on the invitation, forgetting to send it out until just three days before.  Isolate the problem, analyze your shortcomings honestly, but compartmentalize failures so they don’t affect future work.

5. Take time to check–in, self-evaluate, and evaluate your coworkers.  We’ve found that it’s hard to be self-analytical when our work is whirlwinding around us.  We used “Pluses and Deltas” (Pluses are positives; Deltas are needed changes) to self-analyze and review everyone’s performance.  First, each of us took ten minutes to write down our individual pluses and deltas as well as pluses and deltas for our peers.  Second, we came back together, shared, and had a conversation that was both incredibly honest but productive because we had created the appropriate space for constructive criticism.

The brutal facts can be hard to face – and sometimes they can be even harder to tease out and find.  We don’t expect to meet every deadline, to achieve every goal, to change the world in a day.  What we must do, however, is keep the faith that we can and will prevail.  In the face of that faith, confronting the brutal facts can become commonplace.