You Might Be Good, but Are You Great?
'Good is the enemy of great" is the opening of one of the most influential books in contemporary management thinking. As an opening it's pretty arresting. Maybe not up there alongside "A spectre is haunting Europe" or "In the beginning was the word" — but nonetheless powerful. And although originally written about businesses, the thinking behind it also challenges the self-satisfied mentality of those charities that trumpet their worthy mission statements but sometimes ignore their weak results.
The opening is taken from "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don't," one of a series of influential books by U.S. management guru Jim Collins. In "G2G," Collins describes how some organisations grow from being merely good to genuinely great, defining great as "capable of making a significant difference and achieving sustainability."
For charities taking on the "G2G" challenge, even assessing the "good" part is difficult. So "great" becomes very hard indeed. But whether you're good or great, you need to ask if you are genuinely addressing the challenges of poverty, natural disasters, child neglect, social inequality, human rights violations, environmental degradation, etc. Candidly you can only assess yourself as "great" if you achieve your mission — if you have, indeed, reduced global warming, or slowed HIV spread, or guaranteed the nation's heritage is preserved.
At The Management Centre, we're currently running a research project on how to become great — comparing charity programmes, campaigning and fundraising that are trying to make the "greatness" leap. The data isn't all in yet, but already it supports Collins' thesis that "greatness is not primarily a function of circumstance, but a matter of conscious choice and discipline." Below I outline how you can make Collins' "conscious choices" through three practical stages: disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action.
Stage 1: Disciplined people
• Level 5 leadership. G2G organisations have level 5 leaders. These kinds of leaders are ambitious for the cause, the organisation, the work — but not for themselves. They have a fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to deliver results, while displaying personal humility and professional will. What does level 5 leadership mean for current charity leaders — especially the "charismatic" ones? And how do you reconcile this with the growing class of "professional" leaders?
• First who … then what. G2G organisations recruit a team capable of creating greatness. Charity leaders need to make sure they have the right people on the bus — in the organisation — and the wrong people off the bus. This means making tough decisions where necessary. They also need to be sure the right people are in the key seats before they work out where to drive the bus — the overall direction. These level 5 leaders think first about "who" and then "what." In a market where everyone complains about skill shortages, how do you get the right people on the bus? And what does this mean for the organisation obsessed with strategy rather than building human capital?
Stage 2: Disciplined thought
• Confront the brutal facts. G2G organisations are absolutely rooted in reality and the harsh reality of their performance against mission. But this reality check doesn't stop them from having a visionary focus. They believe they will succeed in the end, regardless of the difficulties. Does your annual report, like so may others, boast of your successes but ignore the failed programmes, the poor investments, the weak appointments? What's the harsh truth about your real performance against mission, and do you acknowledge it?
• The Hedgehog Concept. G2G organisations identify their core competencies and strive to be best in those — even if that simply means being the best local hospice charity in Wiltshire. Greatness comes about by consistently applying a simple, coherent concept — a Hedgehog Concept — to your work. This model involves three intersecting circles: what you can be the best at, what you're passionate about and what drives your resource engine. In the charity sector, people spend a lot of time pursuing the "new" rather than focusing on core competencies. What's your core, and do you play to it?
Stage 3: Disciplined action
• Culture of discipline. G2G organisations work in a systematic way. Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and take disciplined action are the cornerstone of a greatness culture. People operate with freedom in a framework of responsibilities. In a culture of discipline, people do not have "jobs" — they have responsibilities. How do you create that disciplined accountability approach in your organisation? How do you combine discipline with the flexibility that staff and volunteers expect in contemporary organisations?
• Innovation accelerators. G2G organisations adopt innovative approaches that help build long-term success. This isn't about buying a new database or creating a sexy website or iPhone app. It is about adopting new ways to deliver services, building new partnerships and facing the changes in society that demand you work differently. Are you investing in the future — in techniques and technologies that might transform the way you work? Or are you simply trying to work harder at businesses as usual?
Collins summarizes his approach with two final ideas you might like to consider. One involves what he calls Clock Building, Not Time Telling. To become really great, you need to build culture and business models — not obsess about bean counting. Often charities work far too hard at matching funder or short-term priorities — time telling — rather than building genuine capacity — clock building. The other idea, crucial to charities, involves creating change within values. G2G organisations are clear on their fundamental beliefs and change everything but these. With clear values you can act flexibly to deliver the great results that your beneficiaries demand of you. FS
Bernard Ross is director of The Management Centre and author of the Bernard Ross Blog. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @bernardrossmc.