One of our many case studies during the coursework this week had to do with Design Thinking, and it got our group to thinking about how well designed this course – Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management – has been. In addition to the supercharged professors, they carefully make use of the most important learning resource in any institution – the other students.
We come from four countries and represent a dizzying diversity of organizations. As I mentioned in the last blog, one of our tasks this week was Peer Consultation, where we each present a strategic challenge in our organization to the other 7 in our living group and hear their advice. This is another brilliant design move on the part of HBS. If you want to get insight into your problems, ask someone who doesn’t know your organization. Plus, each of these 7 people are brilliant leaders themselves.
Here we are right before the first Peer Consultation. The basic idea: You have a one-page statement of your challenge, you present 5-7 minutes, then you turn around and listen while the group discusses what you should do. It was incredible – these people think so fast, so strategically and so forcefully. You can’t help but get incredible insights.
The view while you are turned around and they are talking about you
Then we added a twist as we completed our first review of Corinne – Sevaun started a list on the big sheet and asked everyone to say what Corinne was. We did it with all 8, and by the end we had these big sheets of affirmations. Not only did you get wonderful insights into a strategic challenge, you got affirmation, something that does not happen everyday to people in our positions.
We are called Team 67 since we are Living Group 67 and we are all fast friends at this point. It has been a great privilege to spend this week at Harvard, and I am very grateful to the Harvard Business School club of San Antonio for making it possible. I am also grateful to the incredible professors, the challenging and insightful case studies, and the analytical frameworks I have gained. But mostly I am grateful to be able to work with 7 brilliant, insightful, powerful and balanced executives in close quarters for a week. Cheers to Mark, Corinne, Dawn, Chienye, Greg, Jorge, and Sevaun!
Hard to keep up with this schedule! We have four case studies per day and today we also have our peer consultation, where the other 7 people in our living group provide feedback on a strategic challenge within our own organizations. That should be fun!
I will dutifully explain how this is my financial stability plan…
One of the great advantages of a course like this is taking the time to look at organizational issues analytically. This is extremely difficult within the everyday. Plus, the faculty here are giving us excellent frameworks that help us perform these analyses, as I explained in the previous blogs. One of my favorites from yesterday was a triangle that helped diagnose problems within a labor force. It involved intuitive categories like Capability (skills training, etc.) and Motivation (involvement in mission) but added the key category of License. License is what you are allowed to do. License gives the staffer agency and some autonomy, which provides positive feedback to Motivation and ultimately to Capability.
My other big takeaway from yesterday has to do with the purpose of an organization. Feature this:
The purpose of an organization is to reduce the friction that comes when people work together toward a shared goal.
More to come…
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 one of only two people in heritage conservation – 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.