The three things you do best

I’d finish introducing myself, I’d explained what Acumen did—mission, vision, strategy, successes.

The person across from me is focused, intense, and attentive. He nods. He looks me straight in the eye, and says, “That’s great. So tell me, what are the three things you do better than anyone, the three things you do best?”

What a great question.

Not “what do you do?” or “what do you do well?”  Not “what motivates you” or “what keeps you up at night?”

Cut through it all and tell me what your organization does better than any other.

You can imagine telescoping this question to multiple levels: your entire organization, your team, your freelance offering, you as a professional.

What are the three things you do best?

You need to know this if you’re going to write a mission statement, or a website, or an annual report.

You need to know it if you’re drafting your budget for next year or your five-year plan.

You can even imagine structuring an open 360 team review this way: get your team together, ask each person to describe what they think are the three things they do best, and ask each other member of the team to answer that question about everyone else, discuss.

On whatever level you choose to answer, it’s a cut-through-the-fat way to explain who you are, what you do, where you shine, and, most important of all, the promises you always keep.

What are the three things you do best?

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Note: one of the three things I do NOT do best (or at all) is figuring out how/whether to migrate my Feedblitz RSS feed to Feedburner, and simultaneously deciding if it’s high time to migrate this blog from WordPress.com to WordPress.org. If you (or someone you know) does either of these things best, could you email me to let me know? I could use some unbiased advice, especially since FeedBlitz has taken down its migration guide.

 

Driving at Night

I remember a conversation I had last year with one of Acumen’s East Africa Fellows.  We were talking about the faith it takes to walk an unknown path.  He shared that his father used to tell him, “You can only see a little ways in front of you when you’re driving in a car on a road in the dark of night, but that allows you to see far enough to eventually find your way to town.”

Much of what the world needs us to do is to walk untrodden paths. This requires more than just courage in the darkness.  While we only need to see a bit in front of us to travel far, it’s also true that we could have the brightest lights in the world and, if we have no idea where “town” is, we’ll never get there.

How do we balance knowing and not knowing? How do we avoid getting paralyzed – by trying to plan out every unknowable step along the way – while making sure we have a sense of our destination?

Part of the answer is imagining success.

Meaning, while we can only plan our next set of actions (as far as our lights can see), we can force ourselves to imagine what we will do when that step works out. And the next step. And the one after that.

Imagining this path of success helps me avoid becoming overwhelmed by a really nasty, thorny task that’s standing right in front of me.  It’s easy to say “let’s just get this part right, and we’ll figure out the rest if this bit works,” but that’s a big mistake.

Instead, walk all the way down that path of things going the way you hope they will, so that you can have the important and difficult conversation that starts with, “Then what?”  As in:

  • “We will succeed in getting key players in the organization to make the tough choices that they’ve been resisting.” “Then what?”
  • “Response rates on our new mobile phone survey will be high, and we’ll get new data that will be relevant to our driving repeat sales.” “Then what?”
  • “The big article that we’ve just submitted will get approved by the editor.” “Then what?”

Force yourself to figure out what happens when things go right, so that when they do you’ve got the next three steps lined up and you can step on the gas.  Otherwise, tomorrow’s victory will be a brief one.

Solving big thorny problems

I like to divide big thorny problems (aka “the fun ones”) into three parts:

  1. The easy bits
  2. Parts that will be hard to get done, that will take a lot of work, but where directionally I have a pretty good hunch about what the answer is
  3. Parts where I truly do not know the answer

I often find that the trick to making progress on these sorts of problems is to think about them as if everything in the first two buckets is solved.

For example, imagine you (as I am) are trying to transform your organization into one that systematically produces insights worth sharing, in order to transform your own work and the work of your peers.  Clearly, this is a big, thorny problem.  And there are limitless things you can do to work on this problem.  That’s your first challenge: where to start, and how to spend your time.

This is an idea we’re working on at Acumen – in order to “change the way the world tackles poverty” we need to push on our own ability, globally, to synthesize what we’re seeing on the front lines; turn what we are seeing into insights that drive how we make and manage investments, the types of funds we raise and deploy, how we invest in leaders, etc.; and share what we are learning with the world.

The core, hard parts of this problem that are staring us in the face are: how we go about creating the process and the ongoing culture change required to make everyone a more integral part of producing insights?  How do we take the amazing experiences and observations that are living in people’s heads, globally, and help get these ideas out more regularly in a more synthesized, formed way that can drive our own strategy and influence how we share what we are learning with the world?

When I was talking to my colleague Venu about taking this all on, we agreed, counter-intuitively, that all of that important work feels like a “bucket 2” problem.  Meaning, we don’t know exactly how to do it, it’s a lot to do and a long road ahead, but on some basic level we know how it will be solved, what the solution will feel like, and what the result will be if successful.

The part where we really didn’t know the answer was: imagine if we had, at our fingertips, a deep reservoir of our best insights – on everything from how cold chains could be improved in rural, developing markets to how to build business models with cross-subsidies that drive inclusiveness and reach to the poor – what would we do with those insights to drive large-scale improvements both in how we do our own work at Acumen and how the world at large addresses issues of poverty?  Yes, we know that we would share more of what we are learning, in blogs and articles and op eds, at conferences and the like, but that really doesn’t mean much.

If what we’re talking about is driving real change through insights, then the big questions are far beyond whether it will be valuable to have stronger, more codified insights on what we are learning on the front lines of the fight on poverty – of course it will.  But, before we start, we must be clear on how we will drive change once we have this deeper well of insights.  Will we drive big new initiatives like creating an Acumen publishing imprint akin to the McKinsey quarterly; will we start a large-scale global consulting practice to share insights with peers and those interested in getting into the space; will we create a filtering and voting process whereby the best ideas that bubble up are shared with a group of potential funders who will be given the opportunity to put capital behind the opportunities that have been surfaced?

None of those ideas is real, yet, not even a little bit.  But I’m sure we’d never get to thinking about them if we didn’t give ourselves and our team the piece of mind of knowing that we will pull off the hard bits, and it’s the unknown bits that we have to wrestle with from the outset.

If we put off the work on figuring out these sorts of truly big, truly hard questions in deference to the big but sort-of-known questions, that on some level we are putting off the hardest, most important work for later.

This Leads to This

We get rapid-fire requests every day, and often end up beating them back with a stick.

As in: can you….write a quick response here? ….help this new potential Board Member better understand the program that you run? …meet with this journalist for 45 minutes? …share your 200 word biography for this conference? …write the first draft of our next quarterly newsletter? …give the team a 60 second update on what you’re focused on this week.

Most of the time, when we’re asked questions like this, a quiet internal narrative takes over, often with a dollop of panic: “I need to be really complete” “I’ve gotta to show them I’m on top of things” “So and so will be mad if I don’t include something about their work” “Why are you asking me that question????!”

Put another way, so often when we’re in the “answering the question mode” we feel put on the spot, and our deep desire to “do a good job” takes over in a way that shuts off any real sense of strategy or purpose.

The antidote to this natural response is to get into the discipline of saying out loud (or just to yourself):

I would like THIS (update, letter, email, 1-on-1 conversation, speech) to lead THIS person to do THIS.

Each and every time, I have the chance to start with clarifying, to myself, that this thing I am doing will create, for a small number of people (maybe just one), a specific response, a specific change, a specific action. Achieving that change is the purpose of what I’m doing.

*phew* that helps.

Step 1, then, is being able to say what that change is in what kind of person.

Step 2 is, for every word you write or say, for who you look at, for how you stand, for how you dress, for the words you choose, and, most important, everything you decide not to say…every thing is in service of that single purpose. Everything utterance that doesn’t help you achieve that goal becomes extraneous or, worse, undermines that purpose.

Here’s a nice test: when we brief someone on your next _______ (speech, email campaign, fundraising meeting, brief at the staff meeting), what do we tell him? If we dive in to “here’s how we do this, this is the content we have to cover,” we’re failing the “this leads to this” test. Whereas if we start with, “we’re trying to reach THIS kind of person to tell them THIS part of our story so that they will do THIS,” we are very much on the right track.

And every time someone on your team says “can we stop talking about this purpose stuff and just get on to creating the _______ (document, email, video, etc.) you’re well within your rights to say, “Actually, until we know what we’re trying to do here, I’m pretty sure that’s the only conversation we should be having.”

What do you want?

It’s actually very easy to communicate what you’d like someone to do.  The NY MTA does it simply, with a bigger box.

Metrocard

Of course this applies to web design, IRS tax forms, etc.  But it also applies to how you fundraise.

The most subtle, ever-elusive dance in fundraising is between relationship-building and “closing the sale.”  I find that, by and large, new fundraisers have to learn to invest more in building relationship, providing value to others, and being ambassadors within their organization for potential donors.

At the same time, you always have to be ready to answer the questions: “What’s most important to you?” or “If I’m ready to donate, what should it be for?”  There’s almost never any harm, even at the outset of a relationship, to be very clear about what your priorities are and how someone can be most helpful.   That’s not trying to close the sale too early, it’s knowing what your priorities are and giving someone clarity.  That’s never a bad thing.

If you don’t let them know (or worse, if you don’t know) what you hope they’ll do, how can you ever expect them to figure it out?

And if you’ve ever gone into a fundraising meeting without your top priority ask in mind, you’ve broken this rule.  I know I have.

I hate my microwave

I moved last year, which was a lot of work but has ultimately been great.  One of the small drawbacks of the kitchen in my new house is that there’s no good space for a microwave, so our only criterion we had when buying a microwave was that it be as small as possible.  We found a suitable-looking Panasonic “Inverter” microwave on Amazon – small, a polished stainless steel look, good-enough customer reviews, inexpensive.  It’s terrible.

Panasonic inverterBy way of background, my favorite button on my last GE Profile microwave was the “Add 30 seconds” button.  This button not only had the right increment (now that microwaves are so powerful, 30 seconds is a more relevant measure than one minute) but the “Add 30 seconds” button actually started the microwave.  You hit just one button and the thing turns on.

Contrast this with my Panasonic.  It has a big knob that you turn to add time, poorly solving (because it over/undershoots too easily) a problem I didn’t have in the first place. The microwave does have an “Add minute” button but it’s one in a grouping of five of tiny indistinguishable buttons, one of which is a “More/Less” button that as far as I can tell does absolutely nothing.  The “Start” button is in that grouping as well, just as tiny as the rest of them.  What a mess.

I’m sure the Panasonic design team doesn’t think they’ve made a terrible microwave.  They’re probably proud of all the tricks their gadget can do.  And I suspect that there’s a microwave power user out there who might appreciate the refinements – though I suspect it’s still poorly designed from a user experience perspective.

The interesting question of course is how Panasonic succeeded in willfully ignoring the most common use case for 95% of their users 95% of the time.  Instead of stopping to figure out what they actually wanted their microwave to be good at, they chose instead to show their customers everything they could make it do.

Easy and trivial to chuckle at this sort of thing, except that this unwillingness to make real choices is everywhere, and it’s reflected in decisions big and small.  It’s why most nonprofit appeals and stories are indistinguishable from one another.  The message is, “we do lots of great things, we’re happy to talk to you about it, but mostly here’s a story that shows that the work we do has heart.”

Without deciding who you want to make happy, where you want to be great, you end up in an indecisive morass of nothingness.

Need proof?  Look at the next five nonprofit newsletters you get in your inbox.  Four of them won’t have a breath of life in them, a whiff that they were written by an actual human being with a voice and a personality.  And the one out of five that actually stand out for having a real voice still will often fall in the trap of 18 ancillary links and articles and “follow us” links and job postings and donate buttons and…and…and…because we may as well put that all in there if we’re sending the thing to 10,000 people.

As usual, the team at IDEO.org shows how to get this right, and reminds us that Swiss Army Knives are good at almost nothing.

(p.s. sadly it seems that the Microwave Oven Standard UI Project never really got off the ground.)

IDEO.org

More or deeper?

More is:

  • The hunt
  • Acquisition costs
  • Onsite blog traffic
  • Splashy PR
  • Small bets
  • Millions of followers
  • Friends and admirers

Deeper is:

  • Relationships
  • Low churn
  • RSS subscribers
  • Specialized media
  • Big bets
  • 1,000 true fans
  • Allies

Neither is better or worse, but  (there’s always a “but”)…  BUT one of these has to be your dominant strategy if in fact you have a strategy.

(And if your answer is “both” then it’s time to reread Kevin Kelly’s original post about 1,000 true fans, starting with,”To raise your sales out of the flatline of the long tail you need to connect with your True Fans directly.  Another way to state this is, you need to convert a thousand Lesser Fans into a thousand True Fans.”  I can think of few things more dissimilar than the actions you’d take to “run out and find new converts” versus “convert a thousand Lesser Fans into a thousand True Fans.”)

So which one is it for you?  And why?

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The simplest nonprofit ven diagram ever

I presented today to an amazing group of 30+ summer interns and new hires who are about to start working for Acumen Fund, E+Co, Root Capital, Agora, IGNIA and Endeavor – all organizations that are supporting entrepreneurship in the developing world to promote economic development and poverty alleviation.  The training was organized by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), run by Randall Kempner.

I’ve spoken on enough 3-person panels that I’ve come to realize that the best gift I can give the audience is to leave them with one concrete, meaty thought they can take away and chew on.

So here it is, with the world’s simplest ven diagram in support of my big question:

How much overlap do you (future leaders in this sector) think there is between these two circles?

Ven A


It’s such a simple question to ask, and the group is smart enough to know how they’re supposed to answer: there’s a good deal of overlap.

But push yourself a little.  Is it what’s above (A), or is it (B) or (C)?

Ven B

Ven C

So we know the “right” answer to the question is definitely not (B), possibly (A) but maybe it’s (C).

But what we know isn’t necessarily how we act. How can you suss out what’s really going on in your organization?  Here’s a list of questions to get you started:

  • How much senior management time is spent on strategies for raising capital?
  • What percentage of her time does your CEO spend fundraising? (<10% / 30% / 50%+)
  • How much Board time is spent on this?
  • Do you have a Board Development Committee (yes/no/sort of)?  How much does it raise?
  • How much integration is there between the people who raise capital and the “program” folks?  (None/Some/A little/A lot)
  • Is there an obvious difference in the quality of staff you can recruit for capital raising functions vs. everything else in the organization?  (Yes / No)
  • Is there an obvious difference in the prestige of the different roles within the organization? (Yes / No)
  • Is it possible to be a star performer in your organization if you haven’t proven you can raise money? (Yes / No)

(Please, take this set of questions, develop them further, and use them to shake things up in your organization or at a nonprofit you love).

My take: there’s a huge amount of white space between how we analyze this question and how we act as a sector.

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