When you should be working different

The self-improvement craze is not new, but it’s certainly back in new and improved versions.  It’s always easy to make fun of any consultant or author who promotes the virtues of heightened effectiveness and productivity.  Meet goals, achieve more, unleash your potential?   Hard to argue with.

But more is not always the correct goal, exactly.  Particularly when so many need to work differently rather than work harder.  This comes up a lot in our engagements with cause related client organizations, and it’s one of the reasons we begin most of our interactions trying to understand the larger purpose of the organizations. This has two useful outcomes: it leads some to quickly realize this is more than they need or want.  We then make our exit, often recommending others who can create the new marketing materials or social media strategies. More importantly, it helps focus others on the real goals.

If an agency serving a vulnerable population—elderly people with disabilities, for example—needs to do more with less, a natural response is to focus on productivity.  This often has the effect of demoralizing people who already feel over-burdened and under-supported.  It is also a lost opportunity.  If the focus is on doing more, it is not going to be on doing things differently.

At a moment like the present, when so many systems of support are in dramatic need of reinvention, that ought to be the first topic addressed. In the world of the marketplace, being on the lookout for a better business model, ways of doing things differently is fundamental.  But we seldom hear organizations that serve a charitable goal speak, as so many  entrepreneurial firms do, of a pivot.  We seldom come across Chief Strategic Officers. Those who support others tend to focus on the needs of their vulnerable clients, not on their own methods and organizational priorities.

Our happy task is to help leaders open a window on a world where questioning received opinions and challenging standard practices is a priority.   As change agents, we know better than most that many have some way to go before accepting this.  When we suggest, for example, that an outmoded development strategy—not unresponsive donors or board members—may be the cause of declining support, it is seldom welcomed.  When we propose adopting a different, more cost-effective approach, regardless of the specifics, we know someone will tell us ‘but that would never work here’ or ‘but we tried that before’.

Disruption is difficult, and it is always important to think through the implications of any significant change, but it’s time to admit that certain behaviors and habits are self-defeating. We have respect for people who are candid enough to say, in one form or another ‘But we’ve always done it that way’.   That is usually the heart of the matter, and admitting it is a key step in helping any group become more comfortable with innovation.

Doing the same things every day in hopes of achieving different results is all too human.  Our work routines are habits—and habits aren’t easy to overcome, but it is always worth the effort.



by Danny Abelson