Conversation before fixes

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

This is my final post on the efforts I led to help create a Strategic Plan for my son’s hockey organization. It’s a reflection on how leveraging structured conversation should be the first steps in understanding the problem(s) at hand, before jumping in and providing a solution. And that’s exactly what we did over the past 10 weeks, we started with structured conversations first. What unfolded was somewhat unique in the hockey world and got us one step closer to making a dent in the hockey universe. More importantly, the approach we took to reframe a problem will provide the Board a new way of working together moving forward. Now that the plan is on paper, the onus is on everyone to execute and deliver the plan.

Let’s rewind to the beginning of our journey, and look at our structured conversations. The very first thing I did was conduct one-on-one interviews, collect feedback through questionnaires, and facilitate group discussions to help create understanding and insights. The insights collected, ended up supporting 4 different themes. I’m not sure we would have got there without having this level of understanding. Using the conversation first approach, we ended up with four pillars upon which to build our Strategic Plan:

1.      Coaching Experience – Invest in leadership and development to become a coaching destination that helps produce better citizens and athletes.

2.      Athlete Experience – Provide a fun and safe environment to develop valuable life skills and lifelong friendships.

3.      Family Experience – Foster a diverse and inclusive environment where each family can have a voice and feel a sense of belonging and ownership.

4.      Volunteer Experience – Inspire and attract the best volunteers that can develop and grow with the organization.

With our 4 pillars defined, I broke everyone out into subgroups to go deeper into the insights initially collected. Once we got to this point, the pace at which we worked started to pick up. I think the team became more engaged as they could finally see the progress being made. Part of the engagement came with being in the smaller group settings and part of it came from the process of listening and identifying problems first, before identifying solutions. Too often, we jump straight into brainstorming without truly understanding what the problem is and who is most impacted by that problem.

Too often, we jump straight into brainstorming without truly understanding what the problem is and who is most impacted by that problem.

Through listening, the pillar team created a “winning aspiration” for their pillar. We then turned our focus on the problems that are stopping us from achieving that winning aspiration – both the problems we are experiencing today and what problems lay ahead. Since it would be impossible to identify and work on every problem given our current resources, each pillar team prioritized and identified the most pressing problems. One by one, the pillar teams broke each problem down into very basic components to come up with a single problem statement that helped everyone get on the same page. So many organizations miss this very basic but important first step.

With the problem clearly framed, the pillar team was able to reframe that problem into a question and open up the discussion to possibilities. Thank you Albert Einstein! Flipping the problem into a “How might we…” question is a great technique to get everyone laser-focused on discussing possibilities that are meant to solve the targeted issue. Through rapid fire brainstorming we would collect a lot of outstanding ideas for each problem. We’d then take a step back and ask “To what extend do these ideas relate to the problem at hand?” and “To what extent are these ideas incremental or challenging leaps?”. Truth is you need both, and that’s what we put on our roadmap.

Conversations before fixes, and through conversation we came up with a list of unique solutions:

  1. Coaching Experience – We zero’d in on the pain experienced trying to become, and remain, a coach within the organization. We are now bound to create an On-boarding Program, Coaches Toolbox, Mentorship Program all under a Concierge Service that will help take away that pain.
  2. Athlete Experience – We examined the lack of flexibility within our current programming. Today it is an all-or-nothing choice. This pillar team will be designing options that will provide parents and athletes with more flexibility to customize their schedules under a Program Menu offering. Athlete performance will also be centralized and customized to each player under the Performance Management program and made accessible through an Athlete Portal.
  3. Family Experience – This is where diversity and inclusion will live. There is a lot of work we need to do moving forward, starting with conversation first. Having a more reflective representation of our community will build a stronger organization. It will also provide the organization with more choice for coaches and other volunteers including referees. This pillar will also deliver the First Day Experience, a Welcome Wagon Program and an expanded Social Network to help build and maintain connections.
  4. Volunteer Experience – Getting more people to volunteer starts with clearly understanding the roles and responsibilities of each volunteer position. Simple. Also providing the proper onboarding and support needed to succeed in that position through the Volunteer Toolkit and Mentorship Program. Moving forward there will also be a Retention and Recognition Program to help celebrate all those that donate their precious time to our organization.

At the organization level, our North Star is to “make a dent in the hockey universe”. In order to do that, things need to change at the grassroots level. That starts with changing our mindset from hit, score, win to something more like play, improve, support. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. Reorganizing the Board to align with these pillars will certainly help deliver the initiatives supporting each pillar.

Somehow as we define a new organization, I can’t help think about how the message will get lost on those that fear our kids won’t be competing. Nothing could be further from the truth. You can still have the fun of winning but not the stress, if that’s what drives you. Norway has figured this out with their approach to youth sports. So has Hockey USA and many other countries and programs with Olympics medal counts to prove that it’s working. Canada needs to understand the model we have today is broken, and the only way we can fix it is to start with conversation. Maybe then we can all make a dent in the hockey universe.