The energy of these Harvard Business School professors is amazing. They bound up and down the aisles in our classroom, scribble on about 9 blackboards, and exhibit a dynamic range in their speach and mannerisms, endlessly inquiring, responding, teasing, encouraging and laughing. Every one of them has put on an incredible show.
And it isn’t just a performance, although that is what we have on our mind when the soundtrack to Hamilton seems to be in the background before each session. More than performance it is engagement. This is Executive Education, which means we are swimming in a sea of expertise and experience that only begins with the peripatetic professors and continues with a tsunami of colleagues running nonprofits of every size, description and locale.
That’s me, obviously.
We are 161, with 80 per class session, but we have a residential living team of 8 that meets at breakfast and lunch for group preparation. Every one of these people is amazing. Smart, talented, and full of insights and experiences. My living group hails from four countries and we are already fast friends. As I said long ago, education is more than a two-way street – it is like a highway interchange with multiple roads intermingling and soaring off in new directions.
Four classes every day – four case studies. Here are some of my insights and nuggets from today. The first was “purple windows.” from my classmate Dawn. That is when a funder says they like purple windows and next thing you know all of your nonprofit programs are supporting purple windows. The moral is that donor-driven efforts have the potential to push you off of your mission.
Coincidentally, Beacon Hill – the oldest historic district in Boston – is actually known for its purple-tinted windows.
Some nonprofits operate with a lot of donor direction, like our case study of one founded by venture capitalists, whose appetite for risk and experimentation is legendary. But risk is hard to emulate in the social enterprise world. My biggest takeaway from the VC nonprofit was their confidence in investing in human capital – they focus on leadership more that operations, and we all could learn from that.
Another lesson from the business world is the ability to “fail forward,” the subject of our second case. Failing is hard in nonprofits because our mission is basically to…not fail. But failing, as we learned today, is a learning path in business. As one professor said “I hate to fail, but I love to learn.” How can the nonprofit learn to experiment without “failing” the mission to deliver vital services?
Our third lesson today was on “design thinking,” and coincidentally it was about a Bay Area (where I lived) company working in Lima, Peru, where I did a multidisciplinary design studio six years ago when I was faculty at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. So, I was familiar with design thinking and rapid prototyping, although the “discipline” has grown in the last six years. It is an accordion-like process of expanding and contracting ideas and iterations as you move from an Exploratory to a Conceptual to a Prototyping phase. The takeaway here, next to the importance of inductive thinking, was the importance of keeping ideas fluid and portable. I will take this with me to our Staff Retreat next month.
Not big enough for the Staff.
The final lesson was about entrepreneurship, which was brilliantly defined as “the relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources.” Again, kind of tough in the nonprofit world, but also an essential quality to insure we don’t stay still or complacent.
One question we are asking ourselves two days in: Is there a scenario where a nonprofit is just fine at its current size and operation? So much of what Harvard has been teaching us is about growing the enterprise, going to scale, merging, expanding and exploring. What if we are okay where we are?
I mean, this looks nice – would more be better?
Three and a half more days to go – stay tuned.