Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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What Is Your Focus?

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on June 26, 2013


Are you trying to be too many things for too many people? In drowning prevention we talk about ‘layers of protection’. This refers to the many different ways you need to protect people from drowning and runs the gamut from proper supervision to pool fencing to swimming to lifeguards to education to keeping young children away from water and more – and it requires both proactive and reactive strategies. The problem comes in when organizations try to be all of those things at once without thinking it through.

There is more than enough room for the few large organizations and the literally thousands of individuals and smaller organizations currently dedicated to ending drowning in any number of ways. After all, water is a complex and nuanced environment, one program won’t have all the answers. The trick is to know whether you should be focused on a specific layer of protection or if you can coordinate multiple layers successfully. They require different cultures and leadership. Either type can be successful, but only if you are clear up front about who you are.

Last week I talked about how to set an organization’s culture, with the first step being defining your mission and not trying to be too much. As I said then ‘We are ending drowning’ is not a culture, it’s an end goal, and there are many ways of meeting that goal.

Looking at whether you are proactive vs. reactive can be a critical differentiating point.

Let me give an example. Focusing on education – teaching swimming, teaching water safety, the SwimSafe program – are all examples of proactive approaches – minimizing the chance that someone will get into distress in the first place. Reactive is ‘what do you do when someone is in distress’, which would cover the fields of lifesaving**, CPR, medical treatment for a drowning victim. Proactive and reactive strategies can occur in the same organization, but only if it is the strategies support one another, you have true expertise in the fields, and the combination does not send mixed signals to your target audience.

I trawled through the ‘About Us’ of a number of organizations around the world as I was researching this blog and found a wide range of proactive and reactive goals, and more than a few vague statements. In a few cases the stated goals of an organization seemed to be conflicting, which seemed consistent with the perceived effectiveness of those organizations. It seemed as if too many people were invited to the ‘who are we’ party and everyone’s pet project was adopted to keep everyone happy.

While I’m all for efficiency and focusing resources, sometimes I think that having multiple organizations with a laser-focus on one layer of protection forming strategic alliances with compatible organizations is far better than one-size-fits-all.

How do you decide whether you are trying to be too much or have the right balance? Try the Seven Why Test. Take your one sentence ‘this is who we are’ statement and then look at the list of ‘this is what we do’. Ask ‘why?’ of each ‘this is what we do’. Does it fit with your ‘this is who we are’ statement? Explain. Ask ‘why?’ again. Repeat the ‘why’ seven times. I’m guessing that if there is any ego, sacred cow, or pet projects involved it won’t last past about the third ‘why?’, which may mean your focus is too scattered or you are trying to be something you are not.

It may be better to start up a second organization, with the people who are passionate about a specific issue, and then form a strategic partnership – but get everyone focused on their area of expertise. Yes, more organizations can just mean fragmented effort, but sometimes it means the power and the effect are multiplied.

Think of it as being a football team (soccer to the Americans). Just because the goalie happens to be your good buddy does not mean you put him in striker position, which means your goal is undefended and the skill level might not be the best fit. You assign your players to the positions that maximize your team’s strength – coach them to their full potential and make sure they play as a team.

To end drowning we need work together to be a World Cup team, with every position filled with the best players, all working in concert, but we don’t need every organization to fill every role, sometimes specialization is better. What position should your organization fill?

If you agree, click here to Tweet ‘@RebeccaSaveKids what type of organization are you?  http://bit.ly/17g02Xp #stopdrowning’

**Yes, I know that 95% of a lifeguards role is proactive, educating the public and intervening so that a crisis does not occur, but there has not yet been a significant shift in public opinion that their role is not reactive. I’m willing to bet that the majority of the public still views lifeguards in a reactive role, although Surf Life Saving Mauritius has taken the proactive step of having their volunteers spend 30 minutes of each 4 hour shift walking the beaches and interacting with the public – explaining dangers and talking about water safety. They are proactively educating by explaining and demonstrating their proactive role to the public. A great model to follow!

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