One of Michael Porter’s most under-used quotes is this: “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” And it’s particularly relevant to charities right now when growing new income streams is at the top of most agendas.
Here’s the problem: it’s rare that I go into an organisation that doesn’t have a long list of new growth ideas, but it’s even more rare that there’s enough resource ready and available to deliver them with any pace. Nine times out of ten, the reason new ideas don’t get off the ground is because all the good people are already busy, delivering projects or buried in the day job.
But when people say there isn’t enough resource, it’s the same as when somebody says “I don’t have time.” What they’re really saying is “It’s not a priority”. The simple reason that most organisations aren’t growing their income half as fast as they could, is that they’re trying to do too many things, and the growth agenda is not the top priority for most of its people. They either don’t understand their contribution, or rightly or wrongly, they believe they have other, more pressing things to focus on.
The two solutions are easy to say, but much harder to do. The first is to stop people doing anything that’s no longer adding value, and the second is to be very, very focused on any new projects you take on.
The reason the first is hard, is that it requires good managers, which can be a problem. A lot of charities, particularly those who’ve grown rapidly, have a weak management layer. They might have a good leadership team, but many of the people below them will have come up through the ranks as the organisation has grown, being given more management responsibility often without the experience and education to do it well. They don’t typically raise issues when things aren’t working; they keep pushing on because that’s what they’ve been told to do, and that’s what they’ve always done. And it’s noticeable that when someone above cancels a failing project they’ve been working on, they rarely react with frustration or disappointment, instead it’s like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.
So, the first question to ask of your leadership team is this: “Do we know, right now, which activities aren’t adding value and which projects aren’t working; and what’s the process for stopping them?” Fix that, and you’ll free up the time to take on new projects that will grow income, improve efficiency and increase impact.
The second challenge is how to choose those new initiatives. While you might have a long list of ideas, you’ll probably find most of the ideas are fairly small and fairly similar to what you’re already doing, and the temptation is to see them as “quick wins”, and to try and do them all. The problem with quick wins is that they’re rarely quick and you rarely end up with a much of a win at the end. Instead, focus your best people on just two or three big ideas, start small and learn fast, and you’ll be amazed at the difference in the progress you make.
So, the second question to ask your team is this: “If we were to stop all the projects and activities that are adding no value, and refocus our best people onto just one or two projects that would really make a difference, what could we achieve?”