Begin by Defining the Goal

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 18th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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While I bristle whenever I hear people say you have to talk in soundbites if you want people to listen, or we have to repeat things seven times before it sinks in to people’s brains, sometimes it is just nice to read a short story rather than a tome.  I was reminded of this as I plowed through the original, academic research about one of the tidbits I share below.  As both an academic and the daughter of two journalists, who taught me to write with the goal of communicating, not obfuscating, I think I bridged the gap okay, being academic enough to satisfy those colleagues, and clear enough to make my parents proud.  And my father and I both had a very good laugh when, in his retirement, he was asked to teach academics how to write for journalist consumption, done with the goal of getting media coverage of their work.

It must be working, because “Friends Without Benefits:  Understanding the Dark Sides of Work Friendship,” by Wharton faculty and graduate student, respectively, Nancy Rothbard and Julianna Pillemer, got a lot of play in the media.

We are well familiar with the struggles that many newly promoted individuals have when they are then asked to supervise former peers, and, sometimes, current friends, and we all know the risks of romantic relationships at work.  But “Friends Without Benefits” explores how platonic friendships at work actually can harm workplace productivity and introduce tensions into the workplace culture.  This “dark side” of workplace friendship is problematic, as many find some of their best friends at work.

Interestingly, the downside of friendships at work are things like:  poorer quality decisions, as friends go along to get along rather than risk disagreeing, don’t ask the tough questions or don’t take the time to really flesh out the decision-making process; work takes longer to accomplish as friends are sidetracked by addressing personal, emotional needs before addressing workplace needs; friends covering for the missteps and mistakes of friends; and, of course, the consequences of friends having a disagreement (which, according to one source, happens every 7.2 months!).

In addition, friendships at work can cause cliques and silos, perceptions, of being in with the “right” groups and accusations of favoritism, just like in high school.  And, no surprise in the 21st century, social media only adds to the problem, as the amount of sharing on social media makes the option of claiming friendship so much easier to do.

Making all of this more interesting is that the stage of the friendship makes a difference in some of the “dark side” effects.  Both nascent and thoroughly established friendships pose less of a threat to productivity, as there is nothing really to lose, for example, in challenging a point of view of someone with whom the friendship question is still unanswered or with whom comfort levels are so high you know you can disagree and come out fine on the other side.  But for those friendships that are still in the developmental phase, the willingness to challenge the newer friend, or to reveal a side of you unseen before to that person, may harm work productivity and quality.

As pay for success (or whatever you call it) deepens its footprint in the nonprofit funding space, the for-profit company NPX has introduced an Impact Security and a model that matches traditional investors, traditional donors and nonprofits.  Here’s how it works:  donors pledge donations to a mission area or to specific nonprofits for the achievement of mutually agreed upon impact goals.  Investors buy the Impact Securities and NPX give that capital to nonprofits as upfront dollars to fund their work to achieve those mutually agreed to impact goals.  An independent evaluator determines whether the goals were met.  If they are, the donors deliver on their pledges and the investors receive their investment back with interest.  If the goals are not met, investors are stuck with a loss and donors do not fulfill their pledge.

Sounds like a win-win-win for those nonprofits confident in the caliber of their programs and their ability to achieve promised impact, but a huge risk for investors and nonprofits not sure of their ability to deliver.  While that latter group of nonprofits may “win” in that their failed work was still funded, their reputation for delivering on impact and, therefore, deserving of funding, takes a solid nose dive.

While I have no knowledge of exactly how NPX came about, I can’t help but feel that it is the result of generative thinking, something that too few understand and with which even fewer seem comfortable.   But it is through generative thinking that most, if not all, innovation springs, and, I have a theory, it is generative thinking that, in the end, is the difference between a viable organization and one that is not.  It is why the headline of this Stanford Social Innovation Review article caught my eye:  “Rethinking Six Management Mantras for Better Innovation.”  Because they are simple and easy to understand, and really don’t need the commentary that accompanied them in the article, here are the mantras and their reframing.

Management Mantra #1: Our CEO [and/or any other members of the C-suite] is the visionary and responsible for innovation.
Innovator’s Mantra: All of our staff are visionaries and responsible for innovation. 

Management Mantra #2: We just need to get our brightest staff in the room to solve this problem.
Innovator’s Mantra: If you want the most successful solution, keep your end user (or key stakeholder) at the center of everything you do.

Management Mantra #3: We need to define the problem we are trying to solve.
Innovator’s Mantra: We need to define the positive goal we seek to achieve.

Management Mantra #4: We need a really big idea! Go big or go home!
Innovator’s Mantra: We need a sound solution to a routine problem! Go small for big results!

Management Mantra #5: Let’s start innovating, but we are looking for practical solutions. Because we’re a nonprofit, we can’t afford to entertain ideas that are too “out of the box.”
Innovator’s Mantra: Let’s start exploring the weird, wild, and wrong ways to do things. There’s plenty of time to get practical.

Management Mantra #6: We don’t have time to waste; let’s figure out the best idea and start executing.
Innovator’s Mantra: We don’t have time to waste; let’s figure out the fastest way to test our ideas and fail fast, fail cheap.

Some of these may be scarier for many than others; the cliff from which you are jumping higher than others.  So, I tried to find my “favorite”—that which if you can only make one shift which should it be—but it is difficult because they are all spot on and many are quite interrelated.  But if you understand generative processes, we can take the framed mantras #1 and #2 off the table, as you are already there.  You understand that the more heterogeneous the group engaged in generative thinking the better the results.  Which brings us to reframed mantra #3—and that’s a great place to begin.


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.