It’s seldom one or the other, but it could be

Either/or thinking drives me crazy, which helps explain my frequent dissents into madness (professionally speaking). Almost weekly, an exhausted executive director, overwhelmed development staffer, or out-of-breath board member gives me that “deer in the headlights” look when I suggest that the organization try walking and chewing gum simultaneously (metaphorically speaking).

“Which should it be?” they ask.  “Direct mail or in-person solicitation? Annual fund or a campaign? Lots of small gifts (wide) or a focus on major donors (deep)? Congregations or individuals?”

“Both/and, as much as possible,” I reply.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that both (or all) strategies deserve equal time, resources, and promotion. But there’s wisdom still in the old warning about putting all eggs in one basket — and not just for the fundraising program. Across the whole of organizational life, it’s seldom one way or the other, regardless the issue.

Consider, for example, a piece in Harvard Business Review about executive search, another list-topping topic for nonprofit boards. In lieu of the usual home-grown vs. import either/or conversation, the HBR article points to  “inside/outsiders.” The concept originated with Joseph Bower’s 2007 book, The CEO Within: Why Inside-Outsiders are the Key to Succession Planning.

NEITHER ENTIRELY FISH NOR FOWL

The Harvard Business School prof describes these special souls as “people from the inside of the company who somehow have maintained enough detachment from the local traditions, ideology, and shibboleths that they have retained the objectivity of an outsider.” It’s Bower’s observation that “insiders do better, often much better, than outsiders when stepping up to the top job.”

But not always.

Crises sometimes call for startling interventions, and the cool objectivity that only a detached outsider can bring. But more often it is the inside-outsider who can really make a lasting difference. That is why succession planning remains a core task for existing CEOs, and a key element of their legacy. Chief executives should get to work early on developing potential successors – and they should look for inside-outsiders who can manage that vital balance between continuity and change.

So if you care about your organization’s well-being (and my sanity), eschew either/or thinking.  And regardless the goal  — more money, a new leader, a planning model, etc. etc. etc. — “beware of anyone who suggests that there’s always one preferred route to take.”

Comments

  1. I am convinced that parallel thinking, along with some other key leadership skills, can be awakened and enhanced, but seldom taught as an acquired skill. This is an excellent post.

    • I agree, Mark. Some people seem not to have been built for juggling tasks. Others can’t handle ambiguity. An organization can live with such folks in mid-level slots, but when it’s the CEO who sees the world through either/or eyes, everything slows to a crawl.

      Thanks for the affirmation.

  2. Schwew. I’m glad I can handle ambiguity! This is encouragement to keep thinking in the parallel.

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