September 16, 2020

Looking Inward: What Have We Learned? (Part 2 of 3)

In part 1 of this series, we constructed a programmatic history and timeline of our organization in search of patterns or trends embedded within our aggregate program and resource decisions. The good news about the exercise is that there is only good news. The goal of the exercise is clarity: what we did, why did we do it, and the result. We are not being judgmental at this point. Instead, we need to understand what brought us to where we are today.

Now that we have a clear view of the path, it is time to judge the quality of the journey. Specifically, we are interested in three aspects: a) the degree of consistency in our decisions; b) the lessons gained from our overall experience; and, c) an affirmation of our core purpose.

Strategic Consistency

The bottom-line consideration of our programmatic history is intentionality. Either similar motivations have driven our collective decisions, or they have not. “Similar motivations” are another way of describing a consistent strategy driver. Consistency takes several forms:

  • We made decisions based on the needs of our target population (client-driven).
  • We looked for opportunities to reach new unserved populations (service-driven).
  • We remained responsive to the priorities of our key stakeholders (domain-driven).

A pattern of inconsistency – that is, an organization that employed two or more of the drivers with no overarching logic – suggests unfocused strategic thinking. In my experience, lack of consistency results from a few common phenomena, the most insidious being pursuing those funding opportunities that push the organization to the margins of its founding purpose. Less obvious but just as distracting are the impulses of an entrepreneurial executive director or CEO. To borrow an old adage, just because your organization can do something new or different, doesn’t mean that it should.

Lessons Learned

The second area requires an even wider lens. What we are after in this part of our look inward are those “life lessons” that make us smarter as we move forward. Consider the following questions:

  • Under what conditions or circumstances do we seem to be most-effective?
  • Under what conditions or circumstances do we seem to struggle?

Do we tend to take on too much at one time? Are we too risk-averse? Are we too impulsive? The possibilities are numerous. What matters most is that your organization takes the opportunity to step back, make sense, and learn from its past.

The Organizational Core

Given what we have learned about ourselves, the people we serve, and the domain in which we operate, it is time to construct the foundation on which our strategy will rest. The organizational core is informed by our history and is built around three key questions:

1. Who needs us the most?

2. What do they need most from us ?

3. What are our defining qualities?

If there is something that is the opposite of brainstorming, this is where you need it. The purpose of this exercise is not to expand our thinking, but to distill it down. Notice the emphases placed in the first two questions. First, while you may be available to anybody, the reality is that not everybody needs you equally. For example, if your counseling center is open to the community, yet the vast majority of your clients are court-mandated for drug use, then that is the population that needs you most. This doesn’t mean you stop serving everyone else. However, it does mean that this reality should guide your program and resource decisions.

Second, the people you serve usually need more than you can provide. Recognizing your limitations empowers you to focus your energy, time, and resources on what you do best and benefits your clients most. Michael Porter said it best: the essence of strategy is deciding what not to do.

Third, defining qualities are those characteristics that make you who you are. It may be a competitive advantage in the traditional sense (“we do this better than anyone else”). Or, it may be that you do what you do differently than others. Montessori schools and faith-based organizations are examples of organizations that have distinctive defining qualities.

We are now two-thirds of the way through the process. We have looked back in search of clues into our intentions, and we have looked inward to discern the lessons that give us a better sense of who we are in our essence. In step 3, we begin looking forward in search of the strategic position that builds on who we are and allows us to create the most significant mission impact in the most sustainable manner.

Stay tuned.

Need Additional Assistance?

If you are interested in going deeper into your nonprofit strategy or if you wish to review your organizational strategy more broadly, click the link below to schedule a 30-minute phone or zoom consultation with Mike Stone.

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