Fencing Wish List: Pronouns

This is the final of four posts in which I’m expanding on the four areas I listed on my candidate info sheet, which I think are crucial for USA Fencing  to address:

These are not so much separate items, though, as different aspects of one gigantic puzzle. With the exception of the fourth item, which may well happen on its own as the other three are addressed (though I think there is much we can do deliberately in that direction as well), you make any major changes in one area and the others will be drastically affected.

So while I’m tackling each of these areas in separate posts, there will inevitably be some redundancy among them, because so much is so interrelated and interdependent.

Become a “We” instead of a “They” organization.

You can tell a lot about an organization by the pronouns people use to refer to it.

For all too many of its members, USFA is currently a They whose overriding goal is to wreck their competitive opportunities and ruin their lives.

  • THEY make me fence in the same pool as my teammate, even though that’s how the rules say it’s supposed to work.
  • THEY don’t book the flights referees want or pay officials on time.
  • THEY create schedules with conflicts that make me choose between two events that I want to enter.
  • THEY keep changing the rules.
  • THEY won’t tell me when my event will be done so I can fly out on the same day I fence.
  • THEY triple-flight my saber event or double-flight my foil or epee event so I have to spend too much time sitting around waiting.
  • THEY keep holding tournaments in cities I don’t like in parts of the country I don’t like traveling to.
  • THEY keep choosing hotels that are too expensive.
  • THEY won’t let me fence in the championship just because I forgot to enter by the deadline.
  • THEY keep assigning crappy referees to my pools.
  • THEY make it too hard to figure out what the rules are.
  • THEY won’t do what I think they should do.

It’s much easier to think of a dysfunctional organization as a disembodied entity acting maliciously against you. I’m not immune to the tendency—THEY’ve paid me much later than events I’ve worked, THEY’ve messed up my flight reservations, THEY’ve published schedules that were harder to run than they needed to be, THEY’ve changed the rules in ways that make tournaments more difficult to run.

But THEY are scores—even hundreds—of individuals. We’re a pretty typical subset of the general population—some highly accomplished, some less so, some passionate about making everything work better, others just trying to get by with the least possible effort. The problem with thinking of this eclectic group of individuals as a THEY is that an impersonal THEY is not something that can be changed or redesigned or improved. THEY can only be coped with or survived or avoided, and eventually it’s easier for the rest, the non-THEY, to give up hope of anything different, to decide that attempting anything else is a lost cause.

That’ll kill an organization fast.

Solving some of the problems I talked about in my previous three posts can help us become less of a THEY organization and more of the WE we need to be if we’re to survive our current muddle and thrive. We need to be more transparent and responsive as an organization, more competent and responsible. More than that, we need to develop an attitude, a sense of belonging among our members, a belief that we all have a part to play to improve USA Fencing, that we get the association we build together.

A former colleague in another nonprofit a couple of lifetimes ago was an absolute genius at making this happen. Someone would accost her, ranting about something or other they were unhappy about: “You people need to [do whatever was needed to handle whatever the problem was]!” My friend would ask a couple of questions, make a comment, and then ask one more question: “When do you plan to start working on that?” Somehow, without realizing how it happened, the infuriated ranter would find himself in charge of the project he’d not even realized he’d proposed.

We got some of our best volunteers that way.

But it only works when you’ve got a culture that enables participation, where the participants believe that what they can do will be valued and make a real difference. That’s the culture WE need to create.

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Fencing Wish List: Tournament Structure

This is the third of four posts in which I’m expanding on the four areas I listed on my candidate info sheet, which I think are crucial for USA Fencing  to address:

These are not so much separate items, though, as different aspects of one gigantic puzzle. With the exception of the fourth item, which may well happen on its own as the other three are addressed (though I think there is much we can do deliberately in that direction as well), you make any major changes in one area and the others will be drastically affected.

So while I’m tackling each of these areas in separate posts, there will inevitably be some redundancy among them, because so much is so interrelated and interdependent.

Create a tournament calendar and structure appropriate to our fencer demographics.

This is an easy post for me to write. I’ve worked a lot of tournaments in the last 15 years—local club  and circuit events, divisional qualifiers, section championships, regional events, and national events. I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t at each level, and I’ve had plenty of time to think about how we could improve almost every aspect of our tournaments, and along with that time, plenty of fencing people to bounce those ideas around with. We’ve changed a lot in how we run tournaments: some of those changes are obvious, like the change of software to Fencing Time or the standardization of venue layouts to pods of 4 strips. Others, like changes to BC internal procedures for managing events, are mostly invisible to competitors.

This is also a difficult post to write. I’ve fairly firm opinions about changes we still need, and I’ve more than a few victims who’ve asked me a simple question about tournaments and been inflicted with a lengthy lecture in response. Once you get me started on tournaments, I can go on for hours, a phenomenon with which several of my tournament roommates are familiar. (At least they are usually BC people, who tend to do the same.)

Since it’s no secret that I think our national events are too big, I’m not going to spend any time rehashing what I’ve written before here and here and here and even here, for example. Instead, I’m going to list some of the things we can’t do because our national tournaments are so large, and follow that up with a few ideas that we ought to be considering to replace our current tournament structure.

  • Scheduled finals. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve attempted to schedule and showcase the final rounds of NAC and championship events. The idea is that with scheduled final bouts, the local organizing committee (LOC) or sports commission can promote the tournament to attract local sponsors and local spectators.  An LOC like that in Detroit could work wonders with scheduled finals to promote their local clubs and the sport in general. But with our huge events, we can’t reliably schedule finals at times convenient for local TV news crews, or when we do try to schedule finals, some minor early slowdown cascades through the day into a 2-hour delay. (Always makes me think of what a CHP friend told me years ago, about how a single car slowing 10 mph at the right time of day on the SF Bay Bridge can result in complete gridlock on the bridge a couple of hours later.)
  • Training, part 1. You’d think giant tournaments would offer lots of opportunities for training new tournament personnel, but for BC, at least, it’s the other way around. Most of our trainees are familiar with basic tournament operations, so what they need is hands-on experience with national procedures. We’ve learned over the years, that trainees need to be additions to regular staff, so they can be paired with someone who they can observe and then be observed by. Our huge events, though, are so tightly scheduled that we can’t allow trainees the little bit of slack, the slight extra amount of time they need to do tasks themselves, and because of that cascade effect, we can’t afford to let them make what would be minor, relatively harmless errors at smaller tournaments.
  • Training, part 2. At last season’s JOs board meeting, I presented a BC recruiting and development plan developed by a small group of experienced national BC staff, complete with timelines for developing training materials and workshops, a BC website, and lots of other useful goodies. We’ve not made much progress with it, though—far less than we’d expected to have completed by now. (Other areas within USFA have the same problem.) Why? Because the people with the knowledge and experience to do the work are the same people who work national events (and regional events and serve as division officers and regional tournament organizers and/or officials), and we’ve also got jobs and families and for some peculiar reason even take non-fencing vacation days now and then. If we could train more people, we ‘d have the time and energy to train more people.

Which brings me to tournament restructuring. The USFA is at the stage of its growth where we’ve got too many competitive members for our current tournament structure—too many entries to fit into our traditional number of national tournament days. What we need is a structure that we can grow with, so we won’t need to keep inventing a new structure every 15 or 20 years as the old one becomes too unwieldy. Some ideas I’d like to see us considering:

  • A permanent national top level. This could be championships only or include a series of national tournaments like the current NACs. Either way, entry would be determined by points and limited to a predetermined number of competitors, ideally 160, which with an 80% promotion rate would result in a DE table of 128. This would make the schedule, staffing levels, and equipment needs predictable and consistent, and allow us to return to a whole range of venues we can no longer currently use because they are too small. This would also allow more effective promotion and showcasing of our top-level competitions, eventually even paying spectators eager to see our increasingly popular sport. As the sport grows, this top level would remain stable and adjustments to the tournament structure would be made at the intermediate and lower levels without necessitating a complete overhaul.
  • True regionalization. Eventually, I think we’ll need to go to a true regional structure, similar to the way divisions and sections used to work. The current disparity in size and competitiveness of divisions (as well as the old sections) requires realignment with our current demographics, though. Given the size of the United States and the longer distances between fencing centers in many parts of the country, there will never be geographic parity throughout the country, but we can certainly do better than we do now at achieving some sort of competitive parity. Several sports use regional affiliate associations to create their structure—we need to investigate how other sport NGBs have negotiated this stage of growth.
  • Tournament operations spun off from the national office? We should consider which tasks are best-suited for the national association to perform and which can be delegated to other entities. Both the ROCs and the SYCs are beginning to show that large NAC-size tournaments, with the proper standards and support, can be effectively organized independently. Eventually, we could bid out all national events to independent organizers and let the national organization concentrate on developing materials and resources to support the overall infrastructure of fencing—coaching development, club development, regional affiliate support (finances, website development, etc.). With the national organization providing guidance and resources, the divisions (or whatever lower level we have) could and should play a much larger role in identifying and developing new coaches and officials.

If we go to smaller national events, license tournaments to independent organizers as ROCs and SYCs are, or both, we’ll have to make up the revenue lost from tournaments fees, with an entry head tax, a percentage of tournament revenue, sponsorships and grants, or—more likely—some combination of all of these. Again, we should look to see how other NGBs generate their revenue.

Last in the series: “We versus Them

Fencing Wish List: Governance

This is the second of four posts in which I’m expanding on the four areas I listed on my candidate info sheet, which I think are crucial for USA Fencing  to address:

These are not so much separate items, though, as different aspects of one gigantic puzzle. With the exception of the fourth item, which may well happen on its own as the other three are addressed (though I think there is much we can do deliberately in that direction as well), you make any major changes in one area and the others will be drastically affected.

So while I’m tackling each of these areas in separate posts, there will inevitably be some redundancy among them, because so much is so interrelated and interdependent.

Create and manage an appropriate and effective governance structure.

I hardly know where to start about USFA governance. The most frustrating aspect for me is the committee structure. As the current chair of the Tournament & Tournament Services (formerly just Tournament) Committee, an “additional principal committee” of the board, I’ve had a difficult time determining what my job is. There is no current written description of the Tournament Committee and its responsibilities. My predecessors in the position had served on the TC before they were appointed as chair, so they at least had some experience with the way the committee worked. I came in cold, knowing nothing except what I’d heard in random BC discussions at national tournaments while waiting for pools to come in. After I was appointed, I asked—clearly something I should have done before I accepted the appointment—what the TC’s top priorities should be. I was told that I would figure it out, just as my predecessors had.

So the past two-and-a-half years have been something of an adventure. I’d already known that the TC had far less to do with tournament site evaluation and selection than it used to, to the point that I know as little about which cities we’ll be going to next season as any other USFA member. (And believe me, I’ve asked—the TC still believes it can offer useful site selection advice, at the very least.) I’d known also that the TC worked with the High Performance Committee to create the event combinations for national tournaments based on the HPC’s determination of competitive development needs. But by the time I became TC chair, the HPC was long gone, and its eventual replacement, the National Team Oversight Committee (NTOC), was not functioning at the same level. It’s now gone entirely, and a Sports Performance and Development Task Force is at work on recommendations for replacing it.

Committee chairs have recently been asked to write charters for their committees for the board to review, but the committee problem is not simply the lack of written descriptions of committee functions. We are also missing guidance for the interaction among committees and between committees and the national office. To take just one example, there is no established process for creating the national tournament calendar for next season—nothing that says whose responsibility it is, who should be consulted, when it should be done, who needs to approve it, etc. The TC was asked to propose event combinations (the dates and cities are currently considered the responsibility of national events staff in the national office), but deadlocked after nearly six months of discussion. What’s so hard? Partly, it’s a matter of numbers—some events are too large to be combined with the same events we used to be able to combine them with, so we simply can’t fit all the events we used to fit into the 28 days of (non-SN) competition we have to work with. Partly, it’s the lack of guidance as to whose needs should take priority. Do the scheduling issues for international fencers in Division I trump the developmental needs of those who will become our international fencers in the next couple of quads or those vying for Veteran teams? How much should the needs of NCAA and other collegiate fencers be considered? What about combinations that are difficult to hire appropriate referees for, like Division I/Youth—how much weight should that be given? In the end, after seemingly endless but always civil discussion—none of us failed to see the legitimacy of any of the others’ views, we simply split on how all these various needs (among others) should be prioritized. (The 2013-2014 event combination puzzle has now been taken up by a board task force.)

I’ve thought for several years now that our current committee structure, created for what was essentially still an amateur organization, is outmoded. To stick with the tournament issues with which I am most familiar, tournament governance is fragmented among several committees: the TC for BC hiring/development and national tournaments (plus for handling eligibility and format issues with local and regional events); the ROC Committee for its regional events; the Youth Development Committee for SYCS, RYCs, and general youth policy; the Veterans Committee for the interests of 40-and-up fencers; the FOC for referee hiring and development, and rules; and the Tournament Oversight Committee, created originally to coordinate the ROC and Youth regional calendars, as well as other duties which are unclear (at least to me).

In recent years, this fragmentation has only become worse—when a problem arises, it’s much easier to create a short-lived task force to address that specific problem than to figure out where it should fit into the governance structure and whose ultimate responsibility it should be. What tends to happen is that the task force studies its assigned problem and issues a report back to the board, which may or may not act on its findings. When such action is taken, the odds are good that within a few months it will cause some other problem that will need to be solved—with yet another task force, perhaps.

Many of our problems cannot be solved by any one committee—half a dozen or more committees and several departments within the national office would need to coordinate data, needs, goals, and finances to develop a viable new tournament structure based on the competitive membership we have now instead of our demographics of 15 years ago. Since I’ve been its chair, the TC has introduced what are admittedly imperfect and incomplete proposals for restructuring our tournaments at all levels in hopes of sparking the serious discussion needed to develop that necessary new structure, but have barely drawn attention to the problems that need consideration within our whole association in order to solve.

But I forget—there’s now a Tournament Structure Task Force at work on the problem.

At least it’s a start.

Coming up: Rethinking our tournament structure.

Fencing Wish List: Intro & Finance

In the Election Candidates thread over on fencing.net, several board candidates have responded to a question about what three things USA Fencing has done right and what three things they’ve done wrong over the past year. I’ve no lack of opinions but I find myself a bit put off by the form of the question—one of our continuing habits organizationally is to resort to the quick fix to handle a specific issue without addressing the more fundamental problems that create all those specific little issues in the first place. Making that quick list seems too much like the short-term mindset we’ve been falling back on for so many years.

Having said that, of course, I can refer you to my candidate info sheet, which contains a list of the four—that’s four, not just three (and five is right out!)— areas I think USA Fencing needs to address:

These are not so much separate items, though, as different aspects of one gigantic puzzle. With the exception of the fourth item, which may well happen on its own as the other three are addressed (though I think there is much we can do deliberately in that direction as well), you make any major changes in one area and the others will be drastically affected.

So while I’m going to address each of these areas in separate posts, there will inevitably be some redundancy among them, because so much is so interrelated and interdependent.

Let’s start with the money:

Get our finances under control.

The USFA is in much better shape financially than I would have thought possible a year or more ago. Financial reports are more frequent, more understandable, and based on what I know of my own corner of the organization, more reliable. We’ve got a real finance director (and with Keri Byerts, one who knows  fencing!) and control processes now that are actually being used. But if I had to choose a single step that’s made a huge impact on both our finances and the attitude with which the board and staff approach our finances, it would be Sam Cheris’s approach to budget variances, which should not have had to be an innovation: any increased amount in one area must be offset by a decreased amount somewhere else.

Assuming we continue on the same track (not necessarily a safe assumption given our recent history), we should be operating on a stable financial basis within a year or two. But we need to be sure—since we are now in a world where we’re fielding complete teams instead of just a few athletes in a couple of weapons—that we plan our Olympic quadrennials carefully, so that we can fund our athletes properly for each Games and not dig ourselves into a Olympic-size financial hole as we have for the past few quads.

A financially stable NGB with a demonstrated ability to manage its spending becomes a much better target for grants and donations and sponsorships. I hope we continue the work we need to do to get there.

In a sense, our recent financial woes were caused by our success—and our failure to think about what that success means for the future. For too long we’ve focused on our year-to-year finances, or at best, a quad’s worth of budgeting. But think about our growth—while our competition entries have more than doubled in the last 15 years, we haven’t developed new referees or other officials at anywhere near the same rate. And what about coaches? The old Coaches College, the USFCA, and Michael Marx among them have provided some useful training to those already coaching, but they haven’t done much to increase the number of new coaches entering the sport.

Individual entries for SN in Columbus will be well over 7,000, even allowing for withdrawals and no-shows, and it’s entirely possible that entries for next year’s SN will be over 8,000 if we don’t change our tournament structure. We’ve already got a virtually inflexible schedule, with unavoidable conflicts in some weapons; if we wanted to bring Division I, either a NAC or the championship, back to SN, we’d have to either add days or drop other events. There’s not much that we can do with those numbers, aside from shaving a couple of minutes here and there by tweaking procedures.

Over the past two or three quads, as I and my predecessors warned of the consequences of our growth, a countervailing attitude was always that we shouldn’t worry—we should encourage more growth, because more members and more entries mean more revenue, and the more revenue the better. So now we’re locked into a revenue model under which our events are becoming more and more unmanageable while we need the income they generate. Our ability to manage tournaments in the best interests of our athletes is being seriously compromised by our revenue needs.

This cannot continue indefinitely. (I currently think the odds of our being able to create a workable schedule for the 2014 SN or to staff it once we have a schedule are no better than even.) What will we want USFA to be able to do in a decade or two, when our membership is 40,000 or 60,000? Will we still be running NACs? Championships only? Will we have spun off tournament operations to regional affiliates in order to focus on coaching education and  club development? Whatever we decide has implications for our revenue model, because we need to be able to fund whatever we decide we need to do.

More on these possibilities in my next few posts.

Next up: Governance