There Are No Shortcuts to Any Place Worth Going

Nonprofits have never had so much to do with so much at stake, so we understand the impulse to respond and act quickly. But we also know that the wrong shortcut can put you on a road to nowhere. That’s why it is critically important to balance action orientation with the thinking and preparation to give strategic direction to that action.

The world is growing ever more impatient, and its problems increasingly urgent, so it is no surprise that organizations are feeling the need to make change faster. We know it is important to facilitate this, which is why we developed a real-time approach to strategy development and focus on providing clients with practical tools to get the job done. But at times we need to remind organizations we work with that the work does, in fact, take time to get done right. It brings to mind this quote from American soprano Beverly Sills: “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”

In a past blog, “In Forging Partnerships, Avoid Putting Form Over Function,” we described an experience in which a merger committee with whom we were working wanted to settle decisions about their new organizational structure “and worry about the details later” — the “details” being nothing less than the strategic rationale for merging in the first place! Our advice was to resist the urge to pick a structure before deciding what that structure would be expected to achieve. Yes, it takes time to articulate the direction the new organization will go. And it takes time because it is often messy, requiring prospective partners to unpack the interests and assumptions they each bring to the table. But it is this critical work that lays the foundation for a successful structure to take hold.

We encounter a similar tendency, in some of our strategy and business planning projects, for clients to want to hurry to produce a written plan before having done the thinking or making all the decisions upon which the plan must be based. Good plans are more than just “wish lists,” they are built on a set of specific assumptions about what work will be done and how it will get done. Taking time at the outset to surface these assumptions, and to test their veracity and build in contingencies as necessary, enables more sure and rapid execution down the road. We empathize with the pressure nonprofits are under, particularly when key funders or board members are asking to see “a plan.” But it is important to distinguish between process and product: the plan is simply a document capturing the results of a focused decision-making process.

Nonprofits have never had so much to do with so much at stake, nor has the push for visible outcomes and rapid results been greater, so we understand the impatience. But we have also seen examples when shortcuts taken may have led to a road to nowhere — or perhaps resulted in quicker resolution in the short-term but a total unraveling in the long-term. Our feeling is that “one step forward, two steps back” is not the way to get anywhere.

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