Tools in Action: Center for Story-Based Strategy

We are proud of our Tools for Transformation, but never more so than when we see them in action. It’s great to see social change leaders and organizations increase their impact with the help of our tools, and the new innovations, practices, and ideas that surface along the way.

The Center for Story-Based Strategy has been using our tools to redesign their work-planning and workflow systems, and the change has had a dramatic impact on the small organization. Thank you to Bernice, Patrick, and Christine for sitting down to tell us about it.

Bernice w flip chart

Bernice Shaw, Operations Manager for the Center for Story-Based Strategy, showing off a flip chart about transforming blind spots.

Aligning organizational practices with social justice values

The Center for Story-Based Strategy (CSS) works to harness the power of narrative for social change. They believe communications can be a force-multiplier for organizing, and they partner nationally to provide training and consulting services around story-based framing and messaging, and a narrative power analysis.

CSS started in 2002 as SmartMeme, and changed its name in its 10th year. At that time, an intention developed to transition from a nimble, project-focused group to a more holistic, sustainable organization with a deeper level of planning and structure behind it.

As Executive Director Patrick Reinsborough said, “We needed to do our own work internally so that we can do a better job as a movement accelerator. We’ve always been strong on principles, but STP helped us strengthen our practices to be in line with that.

The organization has a distributed leadership model, with strong social justice and anti-racist values. CSS is founder-led, but they are planning for an eventual transition, cultivating the leadership skills of its talented and diverse staff.

The staff at CSS all speak fluently about the Wheel of Change, and their internal change efforts have been successful in no small part because they have thoroughly thought through each of the three domains.

Center for Story-Based Strategy's take on the Wheel of Change

Center for Story-Based Strategy’s take on the Wheel of Change

“We have deep values as an organization,” said Program Director Christine Cordero. “How do we make sure they are reflected in our systems and structures, our behaviors and practices?”

Christine was introduced to some of our tools during a Rockwood Leadership Institute training in 2010. Patrick had us on his radar too, but it was Operations Manager Bernice Shaw who found our tools with a Google search and really ran with them.

In August 2014, CSS took a three-week “pause” from program work to focus internally and do a deep dive into organizational culture and systems. That’s when Bernice started using our tools to change the way CSS manages work plans, workflow, and staff meetings.

“We are the cult of DARCI and POP”

The two tools at the center of CSS’s new world order are two of our favorites as well: The DARCI Accountability Grid and the Fabulous POP Model.

DARCI is a way to delegate roles for a project and track who is responsible for what. It’s an acronym for Decider/Delegator, Accountable, Responsible, Consulted, and Informed. Similar models are widely used in corporate workplaces, but less so in nonprofits.

The POP model stands for Purpose, Outcome, and Process—three things that you should make a habit of identifying before doing virtually anything of substance, be it a brief meeting or phone call, or a major project or campaign.

Bernice and CSS created a POP and DARCI grid for every project, and they continue to do so as new opportunities arise. They keep careful track of these on BaseCamp along with their work plans, updating whenever things shift. Weekly staff meetings (which get a DARCI and a POP of their own) are organized around DARCI, as each staff member discusses the projects they are accountable for, and knows what they need from other team members.

Basecamp screenshot

A screenshot of CSS’s Basecamp account shows how they use DARCI and POP in planning weekly staff meetings.

Routine use of these tools has created a culture shift in the organization. Thinking through the POP before any meeting stops unnecessary meetings before they happen, and a DARCI for every meeting means nobody goes to meetings they don’t need to be in.

DARCI helped put CSS’s value of shared leadership into practice, by empowering staff and articulating roles within and across projects. DARCI helps clarify the distinction between collaboration and decision-making. Weekly staff meetings used to be up to two hours long, but with a tighter DARCI lens, they’re often just half an hour long now.

“Micro-managing doesn’t really happen in our organization anymore. To micro-manage is actually really difficult now,” says Bernice. “DARCI discipline also makes overcapacity clear – you can easily see if somebody has too many ‘A’s on their plate.

It took a few months, but now that the habit is ingrained, there is no going back. Bernice is a huge fan. She proudly says, “We are the cult of DARCI and POP. You’ll totally hear us say, ‘Wait! We can’t move forward without a DARCI!”

Recently CSS staff were involved in a solidarity action with #BlackLivesMatters in Oakland, and thanks to their disciplined practice of using DARCI and POP for all projects, they were able to smoothly shift internal deadlines to accommodate the immediate organizing needs around the action. Christine is in blue in this photo.

That’s one of the great benefits of good planning – it makes it easier to adapt quickly when unplanned opportunities arise.

The CSS Toolkit

While they were working on their organizational culture, Center for Story-Based Strategy developed some helpful “gamification” tools of their own. Each staff member has a “Pause Card,” pictured below, which they can play at any time during a meeting if things are going off-track. Pause Cards normalize the sometimes-awkward need to name and address a problem within a group.

Talismans (Christine’s talisman, pictured here below her Pause Card, is “breathe”) are personalized reminders to help each staff member stay balanced and to prevent “getting into the weeds.” Talismans work well with Pause Cards, as a personalized way to transform out of the situation where a Pause Card has been played.

A Pause Card and Christine Cordero's talisman, reminding her to breathe and invite curiosity.

A Pause Card and Christine Cordero’s talisman, reminding her to breathe and invite curiosity.

CSS also took an honest look at their organizational “blind spots” — the bad habits they sometimes fall into that can undermine the work. For each blind spot they thought through identifying symptoms, and antidotes that would get them back on course.

Staff are on alert to recognize blind spots when they’re happening and interrupt them with antidotes. For example, when someone is feeling overwhelmed or stretched too thin, they know they will be supported in shifting deadlines and deliverables to make more space. This isn’t a sign of weakness — addressing blind spots is a core organizational value. CSS focuses on one blind spot per quarter to transform into a strength.

CSS blind spots and their antidotes

CSS blind spots and their antidotes

All together, these practices have created a major culture shift at the Center for Story-Based Strategy. The organization has moved from a culture of over-working to focusing on reducing bottlenecks, increasing workflow, and prioritizing holistic outcomes. Our tools and the ones they created for themselves have helped create new habits and behaviors that express organizational values of transparency, shared leadership, accountability, and effectiveness. Staff members feel empowered and on their game, and it all shows up in the work.

Advice from Bernice

Operations Manager Bernice Shaw has some advice to other organizations looking to adopt these tools.

Our biggest obstacle was the assumption that focusing on “process-oriented” systems would result in inefficiencies. But when we were finally open to challenging our own assumptions about this, we found the exact opposite to be the case. Here’s an example: when we do POP at every meeting, the “Process” often becomes our roles and a draft agenda, the “Outcomes” are our list of takeaways/next steps, the “Purpose” keeps us on track in the meeting, and the entire POP itself is a baked-in evaluation metric! You’ll see the efficiencies right away.

Bernice observed that the work just gets better when the organizational culture starts to feel inspired that things are being done “right,” as everyone enjoys increased autonomy and agency in their work areas.

It’s important to have group clarity around expectations and roles from the outset. Bernice points out that DARCI can only work in practice if you’re tracking the decisions you make and changing and updating your records accordingly. Everyone has to be able to see all the up-to-date DARCI roles at any given time. CSS uses Basecamp to track and share all their work plans, including the POP and DARCI for every project.

Finally, Bernice recommends a casual, low-stakes entry point to introduce a new tool to other staff. Start where you’ll be guaranteed success, then “bake it in to what you do consistently, and keep practicing!”