Tuesday, January 29

The Golf Ball

Did you know that professional golfers don't actually see the golf ball when they tee up? They have been trained to focus on their swing--not the ball. Where the ball goes is use as feedback on how well they swung. As one golf instructor pointed out, "When you see someone standing over his ball studying it, you can be sure he'll have a poor shot."

What does this have to do with organizational performance? Too many nonprofit organizations have made finances the golf ball. The more they fixate on money, the worse their performance is. Their "swing"--delivery of programs and services to achieve their mission--is negatively affected. This is not to suggest that a healthy financial picture is unimportant--but it should be viewed as a reflection of how well the organization is doing in meeting its customers' expectations.

Organizations that deliver value to their stakeholders are more likely to see that value reflected in a strong bottom line. Chasing potential revenues is sure to produce the same poor performance as standing over and focusing on your golf ball. When you listen to your constituents about what they expect from you and then focus on creatively and clearly delivering on those expectations, you are more likely to succeed.

Monday, January 21

Taking Your Work Seriously

When I was about seven years old, our family visited a hospitalized friend who had suffered a nervous breakdown. On the way home, I remember asking my dad what causes a breakdown. He replied that nobody really knows for sure, but it's less likely if you have two things: belief in something larger than yourself and a sense of humor.

How true that is for organizations as well as individuals! Organizational leaders can lose their perspective, forgetting what's really important--their purpose and their people--and focus on the trivial, meaningless, or negative. Ask yourselves, "If we had visitors who had not read our company literature, but just observed what we do and how we do it, what business would they conclude we are in? What would they think we value?"

Try it yourself--review the meeting notes for the last year of your board or team meetings and notice where the most time was invested. Not long ago, for example, I facilitated a high stakes planning meeting for a school district. Their focus was on building projects--not as a means to the end of improving teaching and learning (never mentioned), but for the "lasting legacy" of their leadership it would provide. Interestingly, the walls of their conference room were adorned with beautifully framed photos of each of the district buildings.

Moving from the Midwest to Washington, DC many years ago, I was struck by a noticeable difference in perspective: Midwesterners tended to take their work seriously while not taking themselves too seriously. Washingtonians, on the other hand, tended to take themselves more seriously than their work. If this is even partially true in your organization, it may be time for a recalibration. Believing in a purpose beyond the "bottom line" and rekindling a sense of humor may just prevent your organization from suffering a breakdown.

Sunday, January 20

A Good Organization Is Never Done

"A Good House is Never Done," declares iconic interior designer John Wheatman in the title of one of his books. He believes that good homes are always evolving to reflect the changing interests, experiences, tastes, and needs of their inhabitants. The same can be said for good organizations--their leaders never consider them done.

My experience with organizations is consistent with many recent studies of organizational performance--the highest performers never rest on their past accomplishments. They systematically and enthusiastically examine feedback on performance to see how they can improve. They regularly survey their changing internal and external landscapes to discover what has changed and analyze how it might affect them. They scour the horizon to see what might be emerging so they can consider its implications, then move thoughtfully and swiftly to take best advantage. They celebrate accomplishments while simultaneously setting more challenging goals.

Continuous improvement is a way of life in good organizations, not just a slogan. In their quest, they never stray from their organizational dna or "essence" nor from tried-and true principles of change--much in the same way that Wheatman encourages design clients to hold fast to their own sense of style while applying the basic design principles upon which his work is built.

My father instilled in me this achievement perspective. "Forward ever, backward never" became a personal mantra to learn from mistakes yet not become so risk-adverse that nothing new is ever tried. A "mistake" is merely information to use to make wiser choices. Peter Senge's concept of a "learning organization " is the same as what my dad taught me--all data is good if it is used to make smarter mistakes in the future.

Organizations who don't ever see themselves as "done" have a resiliency and continue to improve under conditions in which others struggle. Apply Wheatman's philosophy in your own organization and watch performance soar.

Wag More, Bark Less

"Wag More, Bark Less" read a bumper sticker I noticed the other day. Great advice for organizations as well as dogs and people. Too often, organizational leaders don't realize how their actions are shaped by negative (as well as erroneous) assumptions about people. When they believe people need to be managed, monitored, and motivated, their distrust comes through in everything they say and do. And they often find plenty of evidence around them that "their people" live down to their low expectations.

My experience--and the evidence of the highest regarded researchers--is just the opposite: the vast majority of people want to do meaningful work. They want to know their contribution to the whole is needed and appreciated. They want to know what is expected of them, and want the authority, resources, and skills to succeed. They want to do what they do best every day, and be compensated fairly.

If the people in your organization don't seem to be giving their all, perhaps you should wag more and bark less.