Archive for 2013

Do You Think About Strategy?

August 5th, 2013 — 8:54am

I recently attended an excellent presentation about strategy by Professor James Schrager of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Something he said near the beginning has stuck with me. He said when they study great strategists, people who have a history of making really good decisions, they find that they all take time to think about strategy. That the question “Do you think about a strategy?” is a more important one than “How do you think about strategy?”.

When you spend time thinking about where you want to go, and how you intend to get there, you discover opportunities to powerfully influence the outcome.

What problem are we trying to solve?

July 12th, 2013 — 7:19am

Often I’m asked (or ask myself) “What should we do?” and realize I need to back up and ask another question. “What problem are we trying to solve?” I’ve found this seemingly-obvious question to be surprisingly powerful.

Sometimes there isn’t a problem, and we’re just trying to fill space. Sometimes the problem we are implicitly trying to solve isn’t one that actually aligns with our goals. Sometimes we haven’t understood the problem enough to allow our brains to tackle it in a meaningful way.

Gathering relevant data and organized thoughts for a clear and specific formulation of the problem is more than half the battle.

For Best Results Face Losses Quickly

July 2nd, 2013 — 12:23pm

Loss Aversion is one of a few persistent biases our human brains have. Sometimes it leads us to make bad leadership and business decisions.

We don’t like to let go of projects or people we have invested in. We don’t like to admit we were wrong, we failed. Chalking something up as a loss is painful, and we tend to hang on too long in an attempt to avoid that pain.

Skilled leaders promptly confront situations that have “not working out” written all over them.

The Providing Principle

May 29th, 2013 — 6:00am

Everything you provide tells the recipient “you can’t provide this for yourself, so I will”.

If a teacher provides an answer the student is struggling for, it says “you can’t figure this out yourself, so I will”.

If a boss provides management of employee’s workflow, it says “you can’t manage this yourself, so I will”.

If a charity provides basic necessities to a poor person, it says “you can’t provide for your own basic needs, so I will”.

If a charity provides a home for a young orphan, it says “you can’t provide a home for yourself, so I will”.

If a friend provides a hug to a hurting person, it says “you can’t comfort yourself, so I will”.

Which of these are you comfortable with?

In Haiti I drove by a housing development built by charity. I saw rows upon rows of small concrete houses painted pastel shades of pink and green. Next to the entrance to this cluster of homes was a sign with the name of the charity that built them, “Food for the Poor”. Would it not crush your dignity a little each day to acknowledge as you walked by that sign that you are one of “the poor” who apparently isn’t capable of feeding yourself? I’m glad Food for the Poor built those houses. I wish they had put a normal name on the sign, like “Hillside Subdivision” or “Eastview Homes” – or something better that would inspire pride each time a resident walked by.

Sometimes it feels really good to be a provider. We get to feel capable, generous, proud of our good work. Sometimes it feels really crappy to be the recipient of the “you can’t” message that goes along with that provision.

There are some things we can’t provide for ourselves. For everything else, let’s have the courage to say “you can, so I won’t”.

Why It’s Hard to be a Cross-Cultural Nonprofit Worker

May 23rd, 2013 — 3:02pm

I’ve spent a lot of time with nonprofit workers this year. Here’s an observation I think is worth putting into words.

All people are driven by three fundamental needs. Serving in a cross-cultural nonprofit setting messes with all three of them. I think this explains why formerly successful, happy people often struggle mightily in a cross-cultural nonprofit context.

1. We need to feel competent and in control.

Ha! Anyone who has served in a developing country knows this is a laughable idea. Time schedules are unpredictable. You’re less competent than local children at speaking the language. Unreliable infrastructure, government issues, weather, etc. block efforts to achieve your goals on a daily basis. This need gets messed with big time. Welcome to feeling like an idiot whose life is out of control.

Case in point: My friend Joy is an accomplished interpreter for the deaf, and she was successful in a good job using that expertise. Now she’s serving in Haiti in a totally different role, in a language and culture she’s just beginning to learn. A lot of days she doesn’t feel accomplished at all. It’s hard.

2. We need to feel included.

Ouch. International nonprofit workers are left out of conversations in languages they can’t follow. They are left out of cultural traditions back home such as holiday celebrations and important family events. They’re left out of cultural traditions in the field too. They don’t fit in. They are isolated in many ways. This need gets messed with too.

3. We need to feel loved and cared for.

But wait, this is why we serve! Most nonprofit workers I know are deeply motivated to care for others. Knowing they are helping makes all the sacrifice worth it, right? Sometimes it does, but what happens when this need gets messed with too? What happens when the people we are trying to help aren’t making any progress? Or worse, when they hurt us with accusations, theft, or other forms of betrayal?

A friend of mine who leads a poverty-alleviation program in Africa discovered recently that some of the people they serve were stealing from the program.

When we give caring and love to others, consciously or not we want to receive caring and love in return. When we get the opposite, it can rock us.

Things that mess with this need may be the deepest discouragement of all for caring-driven workers, because it strikes at the very motivation to do what they do.

Be Aware

Much conflict arises within and between nonprofit workers as the fulfillment of these three needs gets turned upside down by their experiences on the field.

I think we are best able to serve the way we want to when we are aware of our needs, and our intentional choice to put service first. When we are unaware, feelings of frustration, insignificance, or rejection may sneak up on us. If that happens we become rigid rather than flexible in response to people and circumstances.

Be Yourself

Recognize your need to feel competent, included, and loved. It’s not bad to want all three, we are made that way. Build things into your life that satisfy those needs without displacing your highest intention, to serve.

Lastly, be aware of new definitions of success, and celebrate them.

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