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.
I have just finished my first full day at Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management, a weeklong course I am attending thanks to the largesse of the Harvard Business club of San Antonio. The course takes advantage of the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative, which has helped conceptualize and provide frameworks for understanding the different “business” of the nonprofit organization.
As might be expected, this effort has produced some pretty amazing outcomes at Harvard and here is a taste of what we can expect this week: FRAMEWORKS for Strategic Thinking; DESIGN thinking; Entrepreneurship; Leading Change; Scaling Impact, and working with Boards. The best things I got out of the introductory sessions last night:
- As we move from inputs to outcomes in our social mission, we move from auditable claims to aspirational claims. We need the latter because they are motivational, but they are a bear to quantify for donors.
- Nonprofits are three circles in a Venn diagram of MISSION; CAPACITY: and SUPPORT. The sweet spot where all three reside is generally small.
Many of the case studies we are looking at – and today they varied between the space shuttle Columbia, a hospital in Massachusetts, a training school in Pittsburgh and a call center in Israel – could be better understood by following these two frameworks.
Frameworks are important.
My biggest takeaway today involved the greatest challenge a leader is faced with: going against human nature. Our natural human impulse is to seek certainty, affirmation and conformity. What a leader needs goes against our nature: ambiguity, dissent and a process to make the right decisions. It is a questioning, uncomfortable process of constant examination.
My second takeaway is that leadership is, in fact, a process, not a person. It is the process of bringing a new unwelcome reality to an organization and helping them adapt to it. This has brought me back to thinking about strategic planning and the many Board roles I have occupied in my life, and even this blog from three years ago, which references those earlier ones and focuses on the nature of my field – heritage conservation.
Interestingly, I am the only representative of my field – and one of only a couple from the South, out of 161 participants from five continents. And I am very fortunate indeed to be here. More soon.
Not long ago I did a blog about the myriad examples of preserved, adapted historic gas stations. Today let’s look at schools. I remember schools rehabbed into homes from the beginning of my career over 34 years ago.
The Lemont School – front half 1896, rear piece 1869 – converted into residences c. 1980.
The Lemont School above shows how even two generations of school design are easily adapted, since they needed large windows to allow enough light in for instruction – a feature suited well to conversion into apartments or condos. Offices are another easy rehabilitation goal, as seen in this 1874 school in Georgetown, Colorado. (This is from a decade ago – it is rehabbed now)
Schools are a more straightforward rehab prospect than other community-defining buildings like churches and theaters, which tend to have a massive open space inside, although of course more modern schools will themselves include assembly halls and theaters, along with gymnasia. Still, most classrooms are easily made into offices, condos or even retail spaces.
This one is for the birds. I mean The Birds (Bodega Bay, California).
Which brings us to this lovely 1916 school by local architect Leo Dielmann, which was “saved,” or rather “not demolished” 20 years ago when they tore off various additions and built a new school. And then let this one rot. Despite a sturdy concrete frame, the roof was the only wood portion and it turned into a sponge in the last decade. But the walls are there and it is beautiful.
Still the owners – the School District – have pulled a fast one, or more accurately, a really SLOW one. Demolition by neglect. Over more than two decades. Makes it look almost…natural.
Councilman Treviño has been fighting for the school, and our friends over at Ford Powell Carson architects even did some renderings to show how it could be rehabbed.
Many neighbors want to save it, but others have been convinced by the long con that the eyesore is too far gone and must be removed. The real crime here is that no one gets dunned for demolition by neglect – the most common way to deliberately destroy a perfectly usable building. There is also lack of vision – seeing older buildings as obstacles rather than opportunities.
Treviño is fighting a Principal and Superintendent who want to see the building go away, which was perhaps the plan 20-odd years ago. That would be a shame. For the neighborhood, the city, and future resources subjected to the mistreatment of the long con.
Now all the parents are upset because the School District added another fence around the landmark, closing off all open space on the block. This was not due to an incident but the occasion of a structural report that doubted the building’s ability to withstand a tornado.
Yes, really. Can’t make this stuff up! To the long con of demolition by neglect they have added structural scare-everybody-ism. As the first con was strategic, so is the second, because now we have upset children and parents demanding that something be done. Those allies are key, because the structural report itself was a bit of a laugher – it is not clear he even accessed the building! He claimed his report was based on his experience over 40 years. I have to remember that one.
Another structural engineer is taking a look at it through actual inspection and soon we will know what it costs and whether we can find all of the money. Stay tuned.
I am living in an historic building that was moved more than a mile from its original location, from the King William district, the first historic district in Texas.
This is the 1881 Oge carriage house, now located near the Yturri-Edmunds house, which is in its original location near Mission Road. Our San Antonio Conservation Society moved the house here in order to save it. On the same property we also have the Postert House, an 1850 palisado cabin which was similarly moved in order to save it from demolition. In fact, I remember very well in 1985 when San Antonio set a record for moving the largest building that had ever been relocated on wheels, the 1906 Fairmount Hotel. Continue Reading
Full disclosure: Four years ago, I was the Historic Preservation consultant for the Julia C. Lathrop Homes in Chicago, a very important 1937 federal housing project. This past Thursday the Chicago Plan Commission approved the current plan for the project, which I ceased to work on when I left Chicago in July 2012. I took the opportunity to compare the plan to my April 2011 Preliminary Report and to the project at the time I left.
This coming week I will be lecturing about Main Street, a National Trust for Historic Preservation initiative that began in the 1970s as a way to help preserve historic downtowns throughout America in communities of every size. This was in the era when suburban shopping malls had become the centerpiece of American life, drawing attention and dollars away from the smaller shops and services of the old downtowns. Continue Reading
Who doesn’t adore their own adolescent brain?
Eight years ago I wrote a blog with this title, to remind us that we often think our way past reality. Despite our ongoing technological revolution the human mind still has a series of fallback postures that fail to perceive reality but instead distort it – simplify it, really – to make it fit into categories more satisfying to our adolescent brains. Continue Reading