There is a saying called Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to consume the available resources.” Which is to say your entire team will always be busy and your entire budget spent. The question is how do you ever do something new? Starting anything means stopping something, and that is often a lot harder than it sounds.
In our nonprofit strategy work, we often hear leaders bemoan the difficulty of freeing up resources or concentrating on fewer but more important things. The status quo has a healthy immune system. The “corporate antibodies” swiftly move in on attempts to make way for the new.
If you don’t recognize this dynamic in your own organization, ask yourself if the following are true:
- No one knows when, by who, or why some of your programs were started in the first place.
- None of your programs have ever missed their goals (possibly because they never had any).
- The actual words “but we’ve always done it that way” are often a winning business case.
If you answered yes to any of the above, it may be time for you to start stopping some things.
Long-winded saxophone solos were jazz great John Coltrane’s trademark. Criticized for this by Miles Davis, Coltrane said: “I just don’t know how to stop.” To which Miles replied, “Try taking the horn out of your mouth”!
It’s a funny quote, but also an insightful one. It reframes the problem as something (in this case pretty obvious) actually solvable. Organizations that succeed with strategic priorities do the same. They refocus from activities to outcomes. In other words, asking not “why are we doing X, Y or Z?” but “how do X, Y, and Z create the strategic outcomes we want?” Strategic outcomes are not measured by work that got done, but by change in the business or world that moves the strategy forward.
One way we encourage folks to look at outcomes is on a “triple bottom line.” The first of these is Impact – how big of a splash does something in the market, the community, etc. make. The second is Alignment — how closely is something tied to the top-level strategies of the organization. The third is Value – how much does it deliver in revenue or other quantifiable contributions.
The key to success is to agree on what the bottom lines are before you make resource decisions.
In the words of the great philosopher Meghan Trainor: “Thank you in advance, I don’t want to dance. (Nope).” Successful organizations focus their strategic planning on the outcomes they want and how they will measure them, instead of all the things they want to do. As a result, they have a clearer view of things that are not delivering for them and an easier time saying no to them.
One large organization we worked with reduced their dashboard goals from more than thirty to six over time. By linking the budget process to the six top-level goals, things without impact or value were not resourced. This happened as a matter of principles established in advance, not on a case-by-case basis.
It is not easy. The example above profited from strong leadership, board partnership, and sustained planning discipline. The fruits of this effort are a powerful focus on things that matter, the ability to shift resources among them as things change, and a level of organizational clarity that keeps everyone aligned when change happens.