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There Your Mission Will Be Also

What is it that determines the real mission of an organization? I don’t mean the mission statement that a group of well meaning committee members hashed out over the course of six weeks and laminated into wall posters and web banners. I mean the mission that drives the behavior of the organization day in and day out. What determines that?

Over the course of my one-year sabbatical as an executive coach to nonprofit leaders, I’ve developed a hypothesis regarding the answer to this question: Where your measures are, there your mission will be also.

Measures drive Mission. We know this is true in our work lives. As one of my favorite thinkers, the late Eli Goldratt said often, “Tell me how you will measure me, and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave.” What I’ve discovered is that this is true for whole organizations as well. The measures that are made, tracked and talked about will determine what is done and what gets done. What gets done determines what “mission” is accomplished by the organization, at least to a much greater extent than what gets laminated does. So what?

Well, so nothing. At least if the measures of an organization are in line with the stated mission and desired outcomes of the organization. Every nonprofit has a mission, a reason that the organization exists, a purpose that everything aims to serve. The ideal sequence in the life of a nonprofit is this: First, a need is identified and an effort to reduce or eliminate this need is initiated; Second, measures of the impact of these efforts are put in place and tracked; and Third, the review of those measures directs the continuing efforts and the accomplishment of more and more of the organization’s mission. The first and third steps always happen. Let’s look at the second.

Where measures originate matters. In the ideal case above, the measures are created by the leaders to serve as a direct gauge of the progress toward meeting the organizational mission. More often, measures are created and kept to respond to the outside requests for measures. Boards expect measures, donors expect measures, granting agencies not only expect measures, but tell the organizations specifically what to measure and report as a condition of receiving the funds. This demand for more and more measures has an interesting effect on many nonprofit organizations: huge scorecards. It is not uncommon to find scorecards with fifty or one hundred or more items being measured.

With this many measures, the coaching questions, “Did your organization have a good year last year?,” and, “How do you know?” shouldn’t pose much of a challenge for executive directors. However, these turn out to be hard questions. Invariably, the response to the first question is, “yes, we had a great year last year.” This is probably less because nonprofit organizations found 2011 to be a wonderful year, and more because nonprofit executives are conditioned to be positive and optimistic about the work of the organization. The second question, and I do feel a little guilty every time I drop this one on those I’m talking with, lands like a right hook. Their answers include anecdotes and stories of those that have been helped, but rarely do we head toward the scorecard or examine the measures that the director dutifully tracks month by month. This is a primary disconnect in too many organizations.

(I want to let my nonprofit colleagues off the hook here. While the CEOs of for profit companies would never struggle to answer the questions in the paragraph above, their use of measures to effectively accomplish the purposes of their organizations has just as much opportunity for improvement. In fact, they may face a greater challenge, because while almost no organization exists simply to increase earnings per share or drive up the stock price, those measures easily become an ever-present distraction, keeping leaders from the true missions of their companies.)

Change the measures: change the conversation. The good news is that understanding the direct link between measures and mission gives the leaders of nonprofit organizations a powerful lever to move their teams in a desired direction. Driving the mission by choosing, tracking and communicating the specific measures that are most directly related to the mission will be a key element of great leadership. It won’t be easy, but it will be powerful.

I’m rooting for you.


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Three dimensions to stretch your thinking

I drove to Nashville this morning for some coaching appointments this week. The long, rainy drive gave me a chance to think about thinking. Specifically, I was thinking about ways to stretch how I think about issues, problems, and other interesting things. I came up with three ways to stretch my thinking:

1) Stretch the length of my thinking. Everything we think about has a timeframe associated with it. We may be good at explicitly stating the time frame — I’m considering buying this new car for the impact on my transportation over then next five years. More often, the timeframe goes unstated. I find that if I mull decisions in the context of different timeframes, it invariably stretches my thinking. Consider the car purchase against the value of the money invested and grown over the next twenty years, now I see the question differently. For me, longer timeframes drive better thinking. However, sometimes shorter timeframes can force action on all of those issues that fall in the “someday” category. What do I need to do in the next twenty-four hours toward my goal of writing the great American novel? Have you ever intentionally changed the timeframe of your thinking? I’d love to hear about it.

2) Widen the circle of those involved. I confess, my tendency is to approach every issue first with a how-does-it-affect-me mindset. By intentionally adding other perspectives to the mix, I find that my thinking on most subjects will change. How does this challenge affect my family? My coworkers? The shareholders? How do each of the options affect the community? The nation? The world? The universe? Okay, I can get carried away. The point is: every decision that you or I make will impact others. By intentionally including the impact on a larger group, my thinking and yours will become fuller. Frankly, I’m thinking about you as I write this article. Who do you need to think about as you wrestle with your most challenging issues?

3) Deepen the category of my thinking. There are three broad categories that I find myself using when I think about important things. The first, and by far most shallow, is the product category. What is the product of my decision? Which car to buy. Where to go to college. What to eat for dinner. Who to marry. That’s the product level, and it is where most people spend most of their thinking energy. The second, deeper level is the process level. What steps can I take to come to a decision? What process will help facilitate a good conclusion to this thinking work? The world is full of processes for problem solving. You’ve probably made lists of pros and cons — that’s the kind of process I’m thinking about. If you and others involved can’t agree on the product, move the conversation to process and open up the possibilities. The deepest category is principle. Namely, what principles are most important to serve in this decision? Thinking about principles will provide greater clarity (when you’re thinking alone) and more foundational agreement (when you’re thinking in groups). If you find yourself unclear or conflicted regarding the principles that are most important to serve, no process will lead to a good product. How deep is your thinking? For me, I know that I only go deeper when I intentionally make an effort to consider process and principle.

I hope you’ll try stretching your thinking on important issues along these three dimensions: length, width and depth. If you do, I’m wildly interested in how it works for you. Please share.

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Foundational Resolutions

At the start of the new year and at the start of my adventures into blogging, it seems fitting to share the four central resolutions that I’m carrying into 2012. These are life resolutions, not just a positive intention for the first few days or weeks of a new calendar, but anchors that can sustain me, and you, in any situation. Here are my four resolutions:

1. I am resolved to appreciate creation in all of its majesty, as a gift to be enjoyed. It is all too easy to walk through life without being properly awed by the awesomeness of the world and nature and life. I want to marvel at the complexity and elegance of creation. I want to wonder at ¬†life’s mysteries. I want to be ever moved by the gifts of breath and birds and planets and galaxies.

2. I am resolved to see everything through the clarifying lens of sin and the fall. This world and all of its parts are broken and defective. Like that new remote controlled helicopter, a week after Christmas, amazing in its design and performance, but not quite right after countless crashes and tangles with tinsel. It still works, sort of, but it is not as it should be. Neither are we. It is all too easy to forget that all of us, and everything around us is broken. I never want to find myself blaming the manufacturer for the tinsel in the rotors. I never want to see only the brokenness and miss the beauty — see resolution 1.

3. I am resolved to pursue only wise solutions to the problems we face. In the midst of pain and problems, struggles and challenges, it is far too easy to grasp at straws and turn to fads. There are so many foolish “solutions” offered to the problems of life. I want to go beyond the foolish and faddish and pursue wisdom. Easy answers don’t address the deep questions. Scripture and tradition and wise counsel are much better sources for my pursuit.

4. I am resolved to spend my life making a difference. In a world that has lost its luster and fallen into disrepair, there are solutions born of wisdom. I want to be an agent for the application of that wisdom. A servant of those solutions. It is all too easy to waste the hours and days and months – soon years and decades – with trivia.

I hope these four resolutions serve you as well as they serve me. May you be grateful and gracious, humble and impactful in the new year.


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