Practice Makes Perfect

In the continuation of the discussion inspired by the book Outliers the idea of practicing harder and better than anyone else was proposed as a key to success in Pete Carroll’s 60 Minute interview. Coach proposes that the most prepared players are the ones who succeed on Saturday even though they are not always the best players. The NCAA proposes time restrictions on the duration of athletic practice for student-athletes so the very ability to reach the 10,000 expertise hour threshold proposed by Gladwell (see Lonesome Dove post) is hindered by regulation. Much of the extra training takes place on personal time- weight training, film review, sports therapy, etc. How do you maximize the effectiveness of limited practice time? What does your team need to do that is most fundamental to its collective talents? There is a story about putting the ‘big rocks‘ in first (worth the read if you have not already). Are you putting the big rocks in first and then working with the pebbles and sand or is your practice/day/meeting run by the sand and pebbles? I believe that more than one great meeting has reached a single important decision and had far more impact than a meeting that considered many inconsequential issues.

Measuring Success or Something

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”

John Allen Paulos, The Way We Live
 The New York Times Magazine, May 16, 2010

There is a fascination with measuring our progress or lack there of in all facets of our lives and those of the organizations that employee us.  Many of the fundraisers in the nonprofit world keep track of the number of donors, the dollars contributed, the average size of gift, the number of donors who increased or decreased their gift, and the favorite category of LYBNTs (Last Year But Not This).  I am reminded of Jim Collin’s example in, Good to Great and the Social Sector where he highlighted a cultural organization that measured success by annecdotaly tracking number of taxi drivers who recommended the organization’s programs when they drove out-of-town guests from the airport to downtown.  The Robin Hood Foundation in New York employees an economist full-time to measure the potential impact a program might have on the future earning power of youth living in poverty.

A key conversation Mr. Paulos highlights is the subtle shift that weighted criteria can have on the final ranking.  It sounds simple but in fact many of us are so desperate to quantify our cause’s impact that we gobble-up the data without thinking about its context.  As Mr. Paulos suggest, “counting and aggregating- have important implications for public policy.”  

What if we asked the following questions before we every looked at the bar graphs, pie charts and reports, ‘What did we intend to measure?  What assumptions did we make?  What criteria did we use?  What flaws are inherent with the data?’


I just returned from a four-day Second Grade spring trip that culminated with an overnight at the Pocatello Zoo.  Speaking with the zoo administrators at the end of the trip, they told us that Pocatello Zoo is one of ten in the nation that focuses exclusively on native animals found in the state of Idaho.   The animals in captivity are ones that cannot survive in the wild due to injury or other constraints.  To put the market in context, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums estimates that there are 2,400 animal exhibits running nationally.  

When considering ways to stand out from the crowd and enhance your competitive advantage consider the Pocatello Zoo.  By focusing on native species they are no longer in direct competition with the rest of the zoos in the region.  There is no need for a new tiger or giraffe which come at tremendous cost.  They are educating the public about what one can expect to find in the very hills and valleys behind the zoo.  A subtle paradigm shift from the traditional zoo changed their market.

Photo Credit: Pocatello Zoo Website

Field Trip

Do you meet in the same room every meeting?  Do people sit in the same chairs?  Is the format of your agenda the same each meeting?  Do the same people make similar reports?

Sounds like it is time for a field trip.  Why not partner with a peer organization and hold a joint session of the boards and staff?  Take a tour of one of your programs in action.  Have a participant in the program lead the tour.  Meet in a new location- remember when the classroom teacher would take the class outside on a perfect day in May?  Walk, ride bikes, take a rafting trip down a section of river your organization protects.  Connect in a new way and the results will be spectacular.

Executive Session

Executive sessions of the board can be dangerous.  They are mysterious.  The board meets alone unless they invite outside members to join them.  Executive sessions put the staff on edge.  Executive sessions are where candid discussion takes place and then the board comes back and make some wild decision.  Executive sessions are where a CEO’s fate is decided. 


Executive sessions are regular features at the end of every board meeting.  If they are used as a way to give the board a reflective moment.  If they provide an opening for a board member to ask ‘the stupid question’ that everyone in the room wanted to address but nobody felt comfortable to inquire about during the regular meeting.  It is a moment for the board to pause and think about all the content they just absorbed during the regular course of business.   It can be an opportunity to ask the CEO what keeps them awake at night.  Or it is a chance to meet with an auditor and get their perception of the organization’s finances without the CEO and CFO in the room. 

How does your organization use Executive session?  Is it scary or enhancing?  Does it benefit the board or divide the organization?  Executive sessions can change an organization.

Photo Credit:


I am involved with a small foundation that provides scholarships to youth so they may attend events that will have profound impact on their character.  There are three grant cycles during the year.  Invariably a youth group will forget to submit an application during there preferred grant cycle and contact us after the funds have been distributed.  Some of these groups are organizations the foundation has historically funded and some are new.  I am often find myself trying to accommodate the late applications but inevitably the size of the grant these tardy applicants receive are deeply discount compared to what they might have been awarded if the organization had applied on schedule.

How firm should grant deadlines be?  Ultimately, it is the youth who are impacted by fewer scholarship dollars since the funds are restricted and do not go towards general operating expenses.  If the foundation is trying to achieve a mission of adding value, is it best to stand firm on principal or better to increase the number of opportunities?  Is it better to benefit the intended recipient or sharpen the youth organization’s attention to detail?

One Call, That’s All

“One call, that’s all” is the motto of a local personal injury attorney, a plumber, and a window cleaner in our community.  I am sure there are more businesses who use the catch-phrase.

It makes me wonder how many social sector organization’s catch their clients, donors, volunteers, interested community members on the first call.  I often hear from volunteers who say it took many calls and even a personal visit before they were assigned a volunteering opportunity.  Donors who wish to ask a few questions before making a contribution speak of playing automated telephone system hopscotch.  Individuals calling to enroll in programs share colorful experiences of trying to complete the registration process.

The attorney catches the client on the first call because it means a potential windfall.  Why are many social sector organizations not meeting the same standard?  If you are congratulations, it is part of your competitive advantage! 

Connecting Your Tribe

I spoke with a colleague today who works for an organization that has traditionally created content.  The business pushed information out.  Recently the company decided to change their brand and position themselves as a key resource for survivors.  Now social media is being used to help survivors connect with each other.  For the first time the members of the tribe can speak to each other.  The organization is suddenly the center of the conversation.

Are you helping your tribe speak to each other?  How powerful would your cause be if you could help facilitate a broader conversation?

Dream Team

Yesterday’s financial market crash and recovery makes for dramatic headlines.  The system appeared to free fall for a few minutes and technology took control.  Tied into the market volatility is the impact of Greece’s debt.  Charlie Rose’s interview of Martin Wolf of the Financial Times brought to light observations about forming an ideal partnership.  He suggested that the original group of countries that founded the European Union (EU) made sense.  The core countries were connected to each other by similar cultures, geography, manufacturing, and markets.  When the EU expanded and additional countries were introduced to the union, there was a significant shift in the selection criteria.  Mr. Wolf’s point is that bringing Greece into the EU did not make sense as the Greeks shared little cultural, manufacturing, or market symbiosis with the original members.  Now that the Greek economy needs rescuing, Germany is challenged to find a compelling reason save Greece during its economic emergency.  The core members’ primary motivation is to save the EU simply to manage their own fate.

This real-time example is a reminder to set clear criteria.  Partner with organizations that are going to serve the team’s interest in both positive and challenging environment.  The current uproar around the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s marketing venture with Kentucky Fried Chicken reminds us that partnerships are not always simple.  Consider asking if the partnering organization ‘contribute more’ or ‘take more’ from a collaboration?  Are there conditions where the partnership is ideal?  How do you honor the criteria by which a partnership was entered?  How will you measure the effectiveness of the union?