Friday, April 22, 2011

Superhero Brain Dump – how to transform your team

Do you work with Superheros? I do. It is just that they didn’t know it until they had a chance to flex their Superhero muscles.

Staff transitions can be difficult, especially if it is a senior position and particularly when that position is the Director of Fundraising. It wasn’t any different in my organization when I started eighteen months ago. The development department had just come through a challenging time and I think it is okay to say there was a lot of blame, fatique and apathy. Going further into details would be disrespectful to the people who were there, the people who left and the organization, suffice it to say that we needed a Superhero.

One night while I was whining to my husband about how it felt like everyone was expecting me to be the saviour, the Superhero, Craig just flipped it around and said “Make them the Superheros.”

Allright I’ll admit it, there was an empty bottle of Pinot Noir between us so we were feeling… shall we say…extra creative. But the next morning over coffee we revisited the idea and I thought it was still a good one. I looked up the definition of Superhero and found:

“A fictional character of unprecedented powers dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest.”

First I wondered exactly what ‘derring-do’ was and how I might use that word more in everyday life, then I wondered why do these characters need to be fictional? This definition sounds a lot like fundraisers to me.

On Monday I prepared this agenda:
What: Superhero Brain Dump
When: Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Where: Mission Control (aka The boardroom)
Mission Objective: To learn more about what we do, who we are and how we work together
Come prepared to answer the following question:
1. If you were a Superhero what powers would you use to do your job?
For example: An environmental scientist might say they have the Superhero ability to clean water and air by talking to plants

2. What does your Superhero look like? (be prepared to draw it)

3. How does your Superhero contribute to the protection of wild animals and wild spaces in Ontario?

Then I pressed send and nobody said a word for the rest of the week.

Tuesday, September 29th came around and everyone dutifully arrived at “Mission Control”. I started the meeting with what I think is a very important question that should be asked at the beginning of every meeting:

What do you want to get out of this meeting?
Silence. Then finally one brave soul put the elephant on the table:“I want to know what the heck you are talking about.” Great – we now had a tone of candour and honesty. I could start.

I explained my objectives for the meeting which were:

- To try something new and refreshing
- To throw everyone out of their comfort zone
- To shift thinking to a more creative place
- To stop fundraising and to start inspiring action

Then I asked for trust.

Over the next two hours I was introduced to the most incredible Superheros I had ever heard of.

Funder Woman
Super powers: limitless memory about donor details, whenever someone wants to make a donation she would instantly appear before them, expert Raiser’s Edge skills and exceptional donor care.

Herspecia (Funder Woman’s sidekick)
Super powers: Ability to master any heavy piece of equipment like photocopiers or postage machines, psychic ability to learn more about what people need instead of running in circles, able to zap information into Raiser’s Edge.

Elestech Girl
Super powers: Can change into any shape to fit their surroundings, all her powers help other people do their work, the ability to read minds.

Moustical Minor
Super powers: Ability to sniff out donors and prospects, sneaky researcher, able to sniff out knowledge from people brains and enter into database.

Finally me The Integrator

Super powers: Ability to shift 90 degress to see everything we do internally and externally from the donor’s perspective, to quickly see the big picture, to integrate fundraising functions with programming to ensure mission delivery.

We all drew pictures of our alter egos on flip chart and posted them up on the wall. As we sat there we marvelled together at how all of these amazing abilities, when combined, did incredible things. We were able to keep people in jobs, help advocate for better environmental legislation and good policy frameworks, we saved lives by providing habitat and protection for some of the most vulnerable species on the planet and we connected people with nature thereby providing tranquility, peace of mind and better health.

I’m not going to claim the transformation of the team was instant but it was pretty darn close. From then on it felt, to me anyway, like the air in the office wasn’t s thick and that everyone was walking a little taller.

It is possible that this kind of meeting wouldn’t work again, we have tried different things since but it was incredibly fun and extremely worthwhile. As their director I quickly learned a lot about how my staff felt about their jobs and where they needed extra support. I think my staff would tell you they learned how their jobs are critical to the mission of the organization.

The players have changed a little over time and I’m not sure how long the posters stayed up on the walls of our meeting room but that day was transformational for us and I am incredibly humbled to be working with such a fabulous group of people. It is a privilege.

If you think a Super Hero Brain Dump might a good idea for your team, here is a little inspiration:

Thank you for spending time here,


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  5. Modern superheroes, those with abilities out of the ordinary, might also include those with exceptional mental and/or observational abilities as opposed to pure superpowers, brawn or athletic skills - examples might include Sherlock Holes,Comicnity