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Becoming A Master Juggler

Continuing The Conversation: October 2013

Experiments in MotionWe hear a lot about people in nonprofit organizations “wearing many hats,” i.e., holding many responsibilities at once. I’ve come to think that the many-hats analogy is all wrong – and can even lead to trouble for an organization. Switching hats implies nothing about how the job is done. And when there is so much to do, it’s easy and understandable to fall into the “good enough” syndrome.

Yet good enough can never be a successful operating principle. Donors want their dollars to make a difference; to be used well, not adequately. Evidence to the contrary can quickly dry up funding. And any organization dedicated to good works wants to have the greatest impact possible.

About now you may thinking, but no nonprofit aims to be average, certainly not ours! And you’re right. I don’t think so either. But what makes the good-enough syndrome such a threat is how sneaky it is, how easily the “that was okay” pattern of thinking can creep into an organization. Of course, every activity is not going to be an over-the-top success. But accepting good enough too often can too easily lower the bar so that mediocre becomes the norm.

Instead, I say aspire to be great jugglers – keeping all the necessary balls in the air. I like the juggling analogy because it speaks to standards. For an actual master juggler, there is no such thing as “good enough.” What would that be – only one ball on the ground? The juggler must be watchful of every ball and vigilant about staying nimble and sharp. After all, when a juggler’s standards drop, so does the act.

Similar thinking is vital for nonprofit organizations. How do you keep your standards high – or root out “good enough” from your collective mentality and banish it from your vocabulary when balls are being dropped?

Some ideas:

  • Benchmark: Where are you starting from and where do you want to go? Have a base for measuring progress, both for appreciating modest gains and keeping them in perspective.
  • Take stock: What’s getting done – and how well? What’s being achieved? Make it a mantra that you’re never too busy to assess and evaluate, particularly when your organization seems to be doing “okay.” The event that crashes and burns naturally elicits a how-did-this-happen response. The event that is respectable often does not, when some tweaks might escalate the next event to extraordinary. But if those tweaks aren’t considered – now do you see how acceptance of mediocrity can become de rigueur?
  • Keep watch: Know what’s happening outside your organization too. Who does what you do – and how well do they do it? What can you learn from their successes and mistakes to help your organization do better? From whom, within or outside your field, can you seek guidance for a clear eye and fresh perspective on your organization and how it operates?

 

When your reason for being is to do good, then the goal is always to do it better!