Finding ways to pay for organisational overhead is a perennial challenge in many charities, so what would you do if a wealthy philanthropist offered to fund a 30% increase in the salary budget for your corporate centre, indefinitely?
How would you use that extra capacity? Would you use it to step-change quality, increase your reach, accelerate your strategy, or something else entirely?
It’s not as ridiculous a question as you might think.
I was speaking with the CEO of a major charity – a household name – whose organisation has grown rapidly in the last couple of years. The situation he described was similar to ones I’ve seen in several private sector clients. Looking back over their growth, he explained that all their efforts had been focused on keeping up with the demand, delivering their services for more and more clients to the detriment of their infrastructure, and now they were starting to pay the price.
The “growing pains” that he described were a combination of things: processes had become more complex and convoluted, systems were increasingly fragile, and their organisation and particularly their managers, were creaking under the strain. “One of the biggest problems,” he explained, “is the amount of time our managers now have to spend fixing failure and working around the issues.”
I asked him to estimate just how much of their time he was talking about, and after some thought, he said about 25%. Roughly a quarter of all executive and management time was being taken up with ongoing remedial work; leaving 75% for the day job and moving the strategy on. It’s like a racehorse only using three of its legs.
The situation is more common than you might imagine. In 2014 Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebook’s cultural mantra from “move fast and break things” to “move fast with a stable infrastructure”. As Zuckerberg explained in subsequent interviews: innovation was so constant, so unrestricted and so fluid, that almost half the engineering time was being consumed just fixing all the bugs that were being generated as a result, let alone the management time being spent handling the complaints from users and app developers. Discarding one of the world’s most eye-catching mantras, one that had been plastered over the walls of Facebook HQ for a decade, was a huge commitment to change, but it was one that Zuckerberg knew he couldn’t put off any longer without seriously risking Facebook’s future.
I guarantee if you look hard at your own organisation, you’ll find areas – maybe not of the same magnitude, but certainly of the same kind – where constant workaround and remedial effort is draining a big portion of your people’s time. And the reason you’ve not tackled yours will be the same reason my CEO friend had put off tackling his: yes, it needs doing, but it’s hard, messy and complex; you’ve muddled along for months already so you can muddle along a bit longer; and besides, there’s another big opportunity over here that we might miss if we wait.
No organisation should be spending more than one or two percent of its time fixing issues, and my CEO friend knows that if he can crack that 25%, he will effectively unlock a third more capacity for no cost at all. But he also knows there will always other priorities, other emergencies, other opportunities vying to take precedence over fixing the infrastructure, and so, the commitment of him and his team will be pivotal. That’s why they’re currently building their plans, for increasing their impact and reach, entirely based on realising that extra capacity. The new goals, that will be shared both inside and outside the organisation, will be predicated on cracking that 25%.
Strategy isn’t just about deciding what you’re going to do, if anything it’s about deciding what you won’t do, defining the trade-offs you’ll make, and committing to the priorities you’ll stick with. Like Zuckerberg, they’ve prioritised long-term growth, built on solid foundations, over short-term opportunism. Can you say the same?