Peter Drucker, the future, and deja vu all over again

Now and then, I return to a book that was influential to my thinking in years past.  Although less revealing than journal entries, the highlighted sections, along with notes jotted in the margins, recall the issues dominating my thinking and my work at the time of the first reading. Frequently, there’s not much distance between what was top-of-mind then and my focus now.

This past week, my repeat read was the now classic work, Managing the Future: The 1990s and Beyond by management guru Peter Drucker. For all that has changed in the world over the past two decades, Drucker’s thoughts on leading in a knowledge society remain as timely as when first delivered. So, too, is his advice on balancing financial interests with commitment to mission.

Here’s a taste of what Peter Drucker had to say.

As a rule, nonprofits are more money-conscious than business enterprises are. They talk and worry about money much of the time because it is so hard to raise and because they have so much less than they need. But nonprofits do not base their strategy on money, nor do they make it the center of their plans, as so many corporate executives do. ‘The businesses I work with start their planning with financial returns,’ says one well-known CEO who sits on both business and nonprofit boards. ‘The nonprofits start with the performance of their mission.’

Starting with the mission and its requirements may be the first lesson business can learn from successful nonprofits. It focuses the organization on action. It defines the specific strategies needed to attain the crucial goals. It creates a disciplined organization. It alone can prevent the most common degenerative disease of organizations, especially large ones: splintering their always limited resources on things that are ‘interesting’ or look ‘profitable’ rather than concentrating them on a very small number of productive efforts.

The best nonprofits devote a great deal or thought to defining their organization’s mission. They avoid sweeping statements full of good intentions and focus, instead on objectives that have clear-cut implications for the work their members perform – staff and volunteers both.  The Salvation Army’s goal, for example, is to turn society’s rejects—alcoholics, criminals, derelicts—into citizens. The Girl Scouts help youngsters become confident, capable young women who respect themselves and other people. The Nature Conservancy preserves the diversity of nature’s fauna and flora. Nonprofits also start with the environment, the community, the ‘customers’ to be; they do not, as American businesses tend to do, start with the inside, that is, with the organization or with financial returns.

As these paragraphs illustrate, Drucker’s wisdom is evergreen and readily recyclable to a new generation of readers. Be it yesterday, today, or tomorrow, the best on almost any topic — including managing well — is frequently deja vu all over again.

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