Using research to help create the future

This week the International Association of Missionary Aviation has its annual meeting in Idaho.  GMI board member Jon Lewis is the plenary speaker.

Five years ago, GMI played a significant role in IAMA’s annual meeting, as we presented the results of a multi-year research project looking at the present and future of mission aviation.  The idea behind the FlightPlan project was that global mission was trending away from an emphasis on overcoming physical barriers and moving toward an emphasis on overcoming political, cultural and religious barriers.  In such a world, what might be the appropriate – or potential – roles for the people and tools of the mission aviation community?

A cornerstone of GMI’s 184-page report was a set of seven prospective “models” for ministry.  These models emerged from an analysis of conditions and needs in mission and in general aviation – but also by looking at innovative enterprises in sectors that are “near neighbors” to mission aviation:

  • Organizations on the fringes of the mission aviation sector, such as Wings of Hope, a non-sectarian group that was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Commercial entities that complement or parallel mission aviation, such as air taxi service and fractional jet ownership.
  • Organizations in the supply chain of mission aviation, such as aviator training schools and small-aircraft developers like Quest Aircraft.
  • Organizations that deal in similar activities to those of mission aviation, such as the global logistics industry and the UN’s World Food Programme.
  • Organizations that could be viewed as competitors to mission aviation, such as the Aga Khan Development Network, which sponsors community air service in the spiritual “Tension Belt” of Africa.

This near-neighbor approach is a systematic, intentional way of developing viable new models for business or ministry.  We didn’t think this up on our own; we borrowed the concept from Kim and Mauborgne, the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy (who are said to have built on ideas from Clayton Christensen and others).  They say:

The process of discovering and creating blue oceans [new models and markets] is not about predicting or preempting industry trends.  Nor is it a trial-and-error process of implementing wild new business ideas that happen to come across managers’ minds or intuition.  Rather, managers are engaged in a structured process of reordering market realities in a fundamentally new way.  (pp. 79-80)

That quote captures the kernel of using research in strategic planning.  Are you engaged in that process?

For the FlightPlan project, we used the process to identify seven models that organizations could use to challenge their strategic thinking and focus their strategic planning.  These included:

The Agile Provider: In a world where change is constant, this provider (or network) is ready for anything – broad and acute needs, short- and long-term deployment, people, skills and/or cargo. The Agile Provider has the resources, processes, flexibility and drive to deliver many resources in many places, on many scales, for many purposes – with the ultimate purpose of representing Christ to the world.

The Nation Developer: This knowledgeable organization assists in the development of transportation and communications infrastructure in nations that have a combination of spiritual needs and capacity-development needs, with focus on nations that have not been open to traditional forms of Christian witness.

The Field Opener: Because places remain where Christian workers – and thus the gospel – face physical barriers that prevent or delay access to God’s word and the Church, this provider (or network of providers) efficiently develops air access in remote areas, paving the way (sometimes literally) for others who are good spiritual and financial stewards of the access provided.

The Tribal Advocate: As tribal peoples direct the development and application of technologies to meet their current and future needs, knowledgeable Christian individuals and groups assist and advocate for them, honoring their decisions and partnering with them in carrying out their priorities and achieving their goals.

The Microaviator: A missionary, church or national church planter who uses one’s own plane as a personal vehicle to get from place to place quickly and safely, or who hires an air taxi service to do so. Microaviators typically use very small planes to do their work. They consider themselves missionaries first, aviators second. Microaviators may also include churches that charter business aircraft to transport short-term teams.

The Business Creator: An enterprise that uses business-as-mission strategies to establish aviation-related commerce, jobs and influence in cities and villages in less-reached areas. Independently, or in partnership with nationals, the Business Creator improves livelihoods for believers and unbelievers, builds goodwill, sets a positive example through faith and lifestyle, and creates natural evangelism opportunities.

The Resource Broker: This provider obtains, enhances and deploys valuable time and technology resources for aviation as they become available. The Resource Broker skillfully identifies, evaluates and capitalizes on resources that may be donated, loaned, salvaged, purchased at auction, etc. This low-cost, high-value approach enables the deployment of resources at an affordable cost for end users. Known for good stewardship and the ability to utilize resources that do not easily fit into traditional suppliers’ systems, the Resource Broker monitors aviation needs and opportunities to determine the best way to deploy resources.

Click here learn more about the FlightPlan research project and to download an executive summary of the research.

There are many ways to do futures planning and scenario research.  A good link to many resources for ministries is Jay Gary’s Christian Futures Network.

I know of at least two mission organizations that have done their own futures research with a high level of skill and intentionality.  One is Mission Aviation Fellowship, whose former COO David Bochman did such a project as part of his doctoral dissertation.  Another is Pioneers, though neither project has been published, to our knowledge.

What about you?  If your agency is interested in researching possible and preferable futures for your organization, let us know – GMI Research Services will be glad to help.

Four rewards, four challenges in rebranding

 

 

 

 

A few days ago I participated in a panel discussion at the Evangelical Press Association conference here in Colorado.  Moderator Jon Hirst of Generous Mind was the moderator; other panelists included Keith Brock of The CSK Group design firm and Phil O’Day, who is less than two weeks away from the public launch of CAM International’s rebranding to Camino Global.

My fellow panelists offered some great ideas for the audience – and the audience did its share, too, with some great questions and comments.  Here are four rewards and four challenges of the rebranding process I’ll remember from the session:

Reward of Rebranding 1: When everyone buys in.  Keith told a story of working with a hotel chain on its rebranding process.  Several months later, while staying at one of the hotels, he asked a desk clerk about what the brand meant to him.  Keith was delighted to hear the clerk enthusiastically talk about the hotel’s emphasis on making memorable moments for guests – demonstrating a core objective identified in the rebranding process.

Reward of Rebranding 2: Better “elevator conversations.”  Phil mentioned how quickly people – including prospective missionaries – assess their interest in an organization.  Representatives of CAM International typically had to begin discussions by talking about the past (by answering “What does CAM stand for?”) rather than describing the agency’s vision for the future.  With the rebranding, reps can make much better use of their first 30 seconds.

Reward of Rebranding 3: Alignment between internal identity and external image.  Some people feel that emphasizing marketing communications is inappropriate for those doing God’s work.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Effective communication is about people receiving a message in the way that the sender intended.  Rebranding requires a commitment to knowing what your message is – and to understanding (and measuring) how audiences receive that message.  It’s not about flash and cool; rather, it’s about others sharing our understanding of ourselves.

Reward of Rebranding 4: While mission organizations do compete with one another for recruits, in the end they are working toward the same purposes and therefore often cooperate.  Phil mentioned that he spoke to several organizations that shared their experiences about rebranding: Crossworld, WorldVenture, Christar and others.  I also spoke to other organizations when GMI was first considering rebranding, and what they shared was very helpful.

Challenge of Rebranding 1: Considering what to do with valuable elements of the existing brand.  Keith mentioned this, which resonated with me.  A key GMI asset has always been the www.gmi.org website, which has always had strong search engine optimization due to links from many other mission sites.  GMI’s consideration of a name change revolved around options that would enable retention of the acronym.  In the end, we opted not to change the name, but instead to emphasize a new tagline that elevates research alongside mapping – and to feature gmi.org as a secondary logo.

Challenge of Rebranding 2: How – and how long – to engage in dialogue with those who oppose the change.  Phil mentioned that it is important to allow constituents to express their views and to let them know that they are being heard.  You can’t ignore or dismiss them.  (I know of a mission organization that fully reversed its brand change because the field staff refused to use it.)  However, at some point you have to agree to disagree and move on, working to sell the majority on the concept.

Challenge of Rebranding 3: How to address sub-brands.  One question came from someone who manages a sub-brand of a large organization that is phasing in a new brand.  Keith responded by talking about the importance of having an intentional strategy for how – and how much – to tie sub-brands together.  Depending on your needs and objectives, you may want much, little or no unifying elements across sub-brands.  He mentioned his work with Focus on the Family and its spinoff organization CitizenLink (formerly Focus on the Family Action).  Both organizations are tied to the same mission, but the original brand is functionally nurturing and the newer brand is functionally confrontational (my word, not Keith’s).  In Focus’ case, decreasing the perceived association between the two brands was useful for both.

Challenge of Rebranding 4: How to Communicate Effectively, not Extravagantly.  Getting the word out to constituents about the change is important.  However, non-profits, and especially mission organizations, run the risk of overdoing communications.  Most people understand that brands have value, but that value only ties indirectly to mission fulfillment.  I mentioned a conversation this week with a woman who supports a missionary through an organization that recently rebranded.  After receiving multiple letters and glossy brochures from the agency, she began to wonder about how well the administrative portion of her gifts were being spent.

If your mission agency is looking to rebrand, I recommend that you connect with Jon or Phil about their experiences (Jon helped direct HCJB’s rebranding to HCJB Global a few years ago); contact Keith about full-service strategy and creative; or contact GMI for ideas on researching your identity and image.

Meanwhile, let us know: What challenges and rewards have you experienced in rebranding?

 

Visual projects need visual research. Case Study: GMI logo.

Are you using stories visually?  If so – or if not – check out the Visual Story Network to discover the power of visual stories.

Which brings us to visual research.  When the output is visual, it helps if the input is, too.  Rather than using words to tell a designer what her work should look like, visual research shows the concepts and elements that can be easily adapted into visual communication.

There is a lot of psychological theory underlying representative aspects of visual design.  While it helps to know why something works, sometimes it is sufficient just to produce something that works.

Some forms of visual research are highly sophisticated; others are accessible and usable for almost anyone.  For an example of the latter, check out Visual Explorer.

Some simple, informal visual research – nearly a decade old – turned out to be influential in the design of the current GMI logo.  As you read the story, think about ways that you could apply visual research.

For many years, GMI used this logo:

To some, it said, “We aspire to be the IBM of the mission world.”  To me, it said, “The world as obscured by a Venetian blind.”

We sometimes paired it with the tagline “Helping the Church See.”  I guess the logo could represent our helping the Church to see God’s world by opening the Venetian blinds of ignorance.  But no one wants to be told he or she is ignorant.  And GMI’s technical skills go well beyond adjusting window treatments.  Why not take the blinds down completely, open the window and climb through?

In 2010, after at least a decade of talking about it, GMI finally took the initiative to rebrand.

There’s a tangential story that I’ll mostly skip over about the debate over a potential name change to something other than Global Mapping International.  In the end, GMI opted to emphasize its well-known acronym, paired with the tagline: Strategic mission research and mapping. 

We had done some simple research on the GMI brand back in 2003.  The first step was interviewing staff to get their input on the personality characteristics of GMI.  In words.  Some wanted to talk about what GMI did, but we fought to stay focused on who GMI was in terms of personality and values.  It would have been good to include some of our resource users and other stakeholders as well, but we were less interested at that point in external image and more interested in internal identity.

Eventually, nine themes emerged that were mentioned frequently through the use of related words:

  • trustworthy
  • informed
  • supportive
  • innovative
  • stimulating
  • adaptable
  • engaged
  • pragmatic
  • accessible
  • courageous
  • compassionate

We revisited this list during the design process, using a simple online survey with the board and staff to prioritize the characteristics – that prioritized the characteristics in the order listed above.

But the input was still purely verbal.  The designer took the old logo and the personality elements, then went to work on a new concept, seeking to retain a connection to elements of the old logo.  Here was the first draft I saw:

I liked the way that a data/technology element was incorporated, but I felt that the image offered little warmth and a bulky font.  It communicated “trustworthy” perhaps, but definitely not “accessible,” “adaptable,” or “compassionate.”

I was one of many who were given an opportunity to offer feedback on the design.  In addition to the comment above, I mentioned a piece of visual research that we had done in early 2003 to follow up on the personality characteristics that we had identified.

Our visual exercise involved a few hundred logos, some from ministries and some from commercial organizations, printed and strewn across a conference room table.  Staff members were asked to select logos that captured each of the personality characteristics identified in the interviews.  I analyzed the selected logos both by characteristic and as a group, looking for patterns or trends that might help to capture the full set of personality traits.

Visual elements that popped up frequently included silhouettes, question marks and a particular combination of colors.

I wrote to the design team:

When we did our visual tests way back when, the colors most often paired with blue were gold and black.  Would like to see a treatment that incorporates those – perhaps using them in the map border and in a scattering of the data ovals.

Unfortunately, I was living overseas and did not have a copy of the research “report” with the visual input to show the designer what I was talking about.  The document was only three or four pages — a few paragraphs of analysis interspersed with selected images taped onto the paper.  It existed only in hard copy; I never got around to scanning it.

With input from many people, the designer had to choose which ideas to incorporate.  The second attempt seemed to be a step back:

One issue was the skewed rendering of the continents relative to the oval representing the globe.

In my response, besides noting that issue, I asked the design team to locate the 2003 visual research report and try at least one design using the blue, black and gold combination.  I also wrote:

I would also like to see us at least consider rendering the GMI in lowercase in the main logo.

This was also supported by the visual research.  I mentioned three reasons for trying lowercase:

  1. To help communicate Adaptable and Accessible – hopefully not at the exense of Trustworthy and Supportive.  After all, if Intel and AT&T can use lowercase text in their logos…;
  2. To reflect a sense of servanthood and credit-sharing that has been a hallmark of GMI’s work in partnership with others; and
  3. To create room to give a nod to Innovation and Stimulation by stylizing or coloring the dot in the “i.”

The next version revealed that the designer was listening:

Now I thought we were getting somewhere.  In his email delivering the artwork, the designer mentioned reviewing the visual research (and admitted that he chose to substitute gray for black — which makes sense for high-tech applications).

This concept received positive feedback from almost everyone, so the process moved to refinement.  Several options and variations were considered, along with various color combinations.  As it turned out, the winning logo was indeed a combination of blue, black and gold.

Why those colors?  The standard color psychology interpretation holds that blue provides trust and dependability, black reflects strength and authority (plus clarity on a white background), and gold implies wisdom, along with generosity of time and spirit.  Deep blue and gold are also complementary colors on the color wheel.

I also felt that the logo represents a simple story about GMI does and why: GMI brings forth insights from information to support others in bringing the light of the Gospel to a dark world.

To go further, GMI produces and is engaged with data, organizing and interpreting it to draw out points of insight.  The data is drawn from and often describes the world.  The insight helps advance the work of revealing God’s light to the world.  Our work is supportive, so lowercase “gmi” is at the bottom.

I didn’t expect to get a logo that told a story, but I think the power of telling that story will be meaningful in communicating GMI’s work.

The logo may seem a bit busy, but then, so are we – so even its weakness fits.

Sometimes research projects have little impact on decision making for various reasons – changing conditions, political or financial considerations, a leader’s preference, or something else.  But in this instance, a simple visual research project spoke into the project in meaningful ways.  (It was much later when I noticed that the continents in world map appear in silhouette, another theme from the research.)

Think about ways that you may be able to gather image-based information for your visual projects.

Simple Survey Idea 4: Don’t give the answers away

Do you ever “give away” answers in your surveys?  I’m talking about subtle (and not-so-subtle) signals that can lead to bias.  Here are a few errors to avoid:

Pandering

Several weeks ago I refinanced my house using an online lender.  All ended well, but there were a few glitches along the way – a key email with documents attached was apparently lost and I had to prompt the company to follow up with the underwriter.

The day after closing I received the following survey invitation from the mortgage processor:

Subject: I so appreciate YOU! Please help if you can I am so close to being # 1 in the company having “GREATs”…

Thank you so much for being an amazing customer to work with. I greatly appreciate all your help to get your loan taken care of. I hope that you feel I have given you “GREAT” customer service. My managers would love to hear what you think about my performance as your processor. If you do not mind, please take 1 minute to fill out the 1 question survey to help me out. We are always looking for “GREATs.”

Apparently customer-service ratings at that company are used in compensating or rewarding mortgage officers.  That’s fine.  But the question it raises is: Why would the company – which cares enough about satisfaction to tie it to rewards – let the person being evaluated pander for good ratings in the survey invitation?

You may have seen a more subtle form of this:

Thanks for coming to the SuperDuper Missions Conference.  Weren’t the speakers and worship music great?  Plus, over 300 people responded to the challenge to give or go.  Hopefully you were as blessed as I was.

Say, I would love to get your feedback to help us make future conferences even better!  Here’s a link to the survey…

It can be hard to contain enthusiasm when asking for post-event feedback – especially if you sent out several enthusiastic pre-event emails.  But if you want honest input, commit to avoiding remarks that suggest how the event should be evaluated (or how you would evaluate the event).

It Must Be Important Because They’re Asking About It

Most people have encountered surveys with leading questions, designed to confirm and publicize high levels of support for a position on an issue.  Like this:

Are you in favor of programs that offer microloans to lift women in developing countries out of the cycle of poverty with dignity through sustainable small businesses, with local peer-accountability networks to ensure loan repayment?

Even if you have read articles about recent studies suggesting that the link between microfinance and poverty reduction is tenuous or non-existent, you might be hard-pressed to answer “no” to the question as worded.

But there are other, more subtle ways that organizations can “suggest” certain responses.  Telling people in the survey invitation that the survey is about microloans can encourage people to overstate their interest in that topic (as well as leading to response bias in which interested people are more likely to respond at all).  Better to say that the survey is about strategies for poverty reduction or (broader still) addressing key areas of human need in the developing world.

This lets you gauge interest in your issue by mixing it in with several related issues, like this:

From the following list, please select up to three programs that you have been involved in, or would consider becoming involved in:

__ Well-digging programs to help provide a consistent healthy water supply

__ Community health education programs to teach villagers basic hygiene

__ Microloan programs to help women grow sustainable small businesses

__ Literacy programs to help kids and adults gain life and career skills

__ Legal advocacy and awareness to stem human trafficking

__ Theological education programs to equip first-generation church leaders

__ Sponsorship programs to sustain the education and nurture of at-risk kids

The rest of the survey can be about microloans.  But before tipping your hand, you learn about interest in that issue relative to other issues — and even the correlation of interest among issues.  Plus, you can use survey logic to excuse non-interested people from follow-up questions that don’t apply to them.

You can go even further to mask your interest in the survey issue, even while asking several questions specific to that issue.  Before starting the battery of questions about microloans, include a statement like this:

“Next, one of the above topic areas will be selected for a series of follow-up questions.”

The statement is truthful and adheres to research ethics — it does not say that the topic will be randomly selected. But it leaves open the possibility that those who sponsored the survey may be interested in several types of programs, not just microloans, encouraging greater honesty in responses.

Unnecessary Survey Branding

However, these approaches still won’t work if the survey invitation is sent from someone at “Microcredit Charitable Enterprises” and the survey is emblazoned with the charity’s logo.  There are many good reasons to brand a survey to your constituents, starting with an improved response rate.  But sometimes, branding can be counterproductive.

If objective input is key, consider using an outside research provider in order to avoid tipping your hand, especially since research ethics require researchers to identify themselves about who is collecting the data.

Allowing Everything to Be “Extremely Important”

Another way that researchers can “give away” answers is by letting people rate the importance of various items independently.  Take this question, for instance:

In selecting a child-sponsorship program, how important to you are the following items?  Please answer on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is “Not at All Important” and 5 is “Extremely Important”:

1    2    3    4    5   Sponsor’s ability to write to and visit the child

1    2    3    4    5   Receiving regular updates from the child

1    2    3    4    5   On-site monitoring of the child’s care/progress

1    2    3    4    5   Written policies regarding how children are selected

1    2    3    4    5   Annual reporting of how your money was used

All of those are important!  The question practically begs respondents to give each item a 5.  Will that information help the agency?  Maybe for external communication, but not in deciding which areas to promote or strengthen.

Instead, consider this alternative:

In selecting a child-sponsorship programs, how would you prioritize the following items?  Distribute a total of 100 points across the five items.

Or

Please order the following five elements of a child-sponsorship program according to their relative importance, from 1 “most important” to 5 “least important.”  You can use each number only once.

In most cases, relative-value questions will produce much more useful data.

Are there other ways that you have seen surveys “give away” answers to respondents?   Or avoid doing so?  Let us know about your experiences and ideas.

Back to College – a week @biolau for #bmc2012

I’ve been blessed to assist several student mission conferences with evaluations and planning research.  But until last week, I’d never actually attended one in person.  Not as a student.  Not as an adult.

So, my impressions of the Biola Missions Conference 2012 come unjaded – but also with no basis for comparison.  Take them as you will.

Here’s what stood out to me:

  1. The amazing level of creativity and production values of the young adults.  I have often heard people talk about the sophistication of today’s young people in regard to media.  They have highly developed filters, they are tough to impress, etc.  But that’s about their reaction to content produced by others.  Last week the content that students created themselves was on display.  And I was impressed.
    Dance, drama, visual art, poetry, film, music, oratory, cuisine, fashion – creativity seemed to be everywhere, all the time – and always expressing a passion for God and for mission.It’s one thing to attend a professionally produced plenary session with creative stage lighting, choreographed dance numbers, moving testimonies, etc.  But upon leaving the assembly hall, I walked past sidewalk artists in the process of creating scripture-based chalk drawings, then past elaborately decorated booths to advocate for and educate about peoples in unreached lands.  I caught the aroma of African food in the air as I walked to the end of campus.  There, the line stretched around the building for Global Awareness, a series of interactive role plays where participants might find themselves in the midst of a Somalian hostage crisis or a Chinese house church.

    Now, wowing a guy who barely falls on the fringe of Gen X may be a low bar.  So, check out these examples of their work and tell me what you think.

    Biola is close by Hollywood, and I met at least two students who hope to shine their light in the entertainment industry after college.  That may have had something to do with the emphasis on art and production.  But I’m still amazed that the whole thing was pulled together in the spare time of people taking a full load of classes.

  2. A student-run event has its glitches – but it also has great educational value.  I encountered half a dozen bumps that would never have happened at a professionally run event, but each of them represented a lesson in project management that won’t soon be forgotten.  And the event staff were accessible and eager to address issues when they arose.  They don’t deserve a complaining spirit from me.So, I’ll mention only one incident, and that just to share the smile it brought.  During the Welcome Tea for mission agency reps, a student leader said, “For those of you staying on campus, I hope you remembered to bring bedding.”  Note for next year’s conference: consider including that detail in the pre-event info packet.  As it turned out, my student host (and I think many others) provided sheets and pillows for their missionary guests, generously trading their beds for four nights on the floor.
  3. Staying in the dorms is a bit of an adventure for a 40-something guy, what with students’ odd hours, having to climb over a bookshelf to get into the loft, and sharing a bathroom with 30 people.  Still, I would do it again in a heartbeat – and not just to save money on a hotel room – because several of my best conversations with students took place there.  Definitely a shot-in-the-arm to interact with talented, God-fearing men with big dreams and passion for the Kingdom.

If any Biola students or others considering long-term cross-cultural service are reading this post, I’d be honored if you would be willing to give your opinions a few times a year on mission-related issues.  Sign up for our Mission Research Panel here.

It’s also a great time for college students who want to apply their skills, passion and creativity in mission research for a few months to apply for a GMI internship.  Send your resume to info@gmi.org.

Looking forward to attending and speaking at Biola again next year!