Five Crucial Questions

Posted by Joan Ulmer on January 4th, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

0 comment

“Do more for more with less.”  How often do we hear that suggestion, primarily from funders, but also from board members and even executive directors?  To promote doing more for more with fewer resources presumes you were either previously wasting money, spending more than you should have been and/or you don’t care about the quality of services you are providing and the results you are achieving with your clients.

There are, however, some incidences where less is more.  For example, putting less policy and unnecessary specifics in bylaws is always good.  Giving employees fewer directions as to how you want them to get to the end goal (and more clarity on what the end goal is) leads to happier employees.  Board members being less engaged in day-to-day operations is another definite win for doing less.

I was reminded of another instance where more can be less:  Peter Drucker’s five questions.  Drucker, considered by many to be the “father of modern management,” did not live a mantra of “more is less.”  Hugely prolific in his teaching, writing, lecturing, etc., he has taught more to many great leaders than an army of management consultants.  Yet another example of less is more.

While not a Drucker groupie, there are most definitely pearls of wisdom that any leader or aspiring leader would do well to take to heart.  One of his most salient is his message to leaders:  know thyself; once known, don’t try to change yourself, but rather work with what you have got.

But, of course, knowing thyself is a continual process, not a once and done.  Continual introspection and assessment of oneself, and one as a leader, is a must for all successful leaders.  There is an implied humility in this approach to leadership that those who are more arrogant would be well-advised to note.  There is in Drucker’s understanding of leadership the recognition that leaders do not have everything that is needed to be a great, let alone a good leader.  There is the recognition that all leaders, even the best, have gaps, have missing skills, fissures in their capabilities.  These “flaws” are by no means fatal if known and recognized.  Once accounted for, good and great leaders surround themselves with those who will fill the gaps and complement the strengths.

But I promised the five questions, an example of where a lesser process can produce invaluable strategic and generative output that too often we get through complex strategic planning processes.  As we kick off the new year, with promises, stated and not, of doing all things better, leaders would be wise to take their organizations through the process of asking, and seriously answering, Drucker’s five questions.  A question a month gives ample time to engage all, deeply reflect, assess, etc., with time remaining in the year to implement desired change.

Question 1:  What is our mission?  This is not a question answered by a simple read of the official mission statement and heads bobbing in support.  This is a question that demands stepping back and asking what is our purpose?  What do we seek to achieve?  Why are we important?  What is our value add?  Too often, organizations allow their mission statement—that most public promise—to become background noise rather than front and center.  As a result, too often, the work we do becomes mechanistic in the same way that the statement has.  Answering this question brings our purpose back to center stage, and, in the process, allows all who support that purpose to recommit.

Question 2:  Who is our customer?   Addressing this question reveals the sources of so many problems and disconnects.  That starts with getting past the foolishness that only for-profits have customers. Drucker actually takes this question to three levels:  who is our primary customer? Our secondary? Our tertiary?  If different people or groups of people in an organization see different people as the primary customer, how is it possible to make smart financial, programmatic or fundraising decisions?

Question 3:  What does the customer value?  When designing a program, most organizations start with what they want to do rather than what it is that the customer values and needs.  If the answer to the first of Drucker’s questions is that your organization’s mission is to serve staff, then you are fine doing what staff and board think would be best to do, or what they think the client values.  But, if the organization’s purpose is to do something for those not employed or volunteering at the organization, it is best to understand what it is that your customers value and need.

Question 4:  What are our results?  Having ridden the evaluation roller coaster in the nonprofit sector for 40 years, I know that our sector has not always been as enthusiastic about truly knowing our results as Drucker would have liked, and as the for-profit sector has done consistently.  This question requires an answer based on data, not feelings and assumptions that because you are a nonprofit and nonprofits work for good ends, therefore our results are good.  While that may have worked during the times we were down in the valley of the roller coaster, both the requirement of, and a true understanding of, evaluation seems entrenched in our sector.  Without knowing actual results, rather than hoped-for results, how do we know what we should be doing, and whether we have a right to be doing anything at all?

Question 5:  What is our plan?  These questions aren’t academic exercises, not intended as navel gazing.  While the process is wonderful, it is actually what we do with the output of this process that moves organizations forward.  The answers to these questions lead us to what is next:  how will we use what we have learned in this process to progress. What must be our next steps?

Next steps?  Ask the questions.


The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.