Your Operations: Are They Efficient and Effective? How Do You Know?

board development and revitalization mission. vision. values strategic planning and policy development the board/ceo partnership Jul 11, 2022
are your operations efficient and effecitve?


We often exist in a bit of a bubble. One need only look at a few of the trends in the not-for-profit sector to recognize that a herd mentality can easily exist. There is nothing wrong with this of course as we do tend to cluster toward the rather non-controversial middle. We attend conferences and webinars to learn about new ideas and trends but also to see what others are doing and make sure that we are not too far out of line.


Couple this with the challenge of “speaking truth to power” and the old shibboleth “…but we’ve always done it this way”, and you have a sense of complacency overshadowing the potential for innovation and effectiveness.


Our response to criticism is more often “yes, but…” than “tell me more.”


I was reminded of this recently when I was reading Paul Wells, who blogs about “politics and culture as though they mattered.” He is well-informed, articulate, and non-partisan (everyone is in his sights).


Wells reminded me of “red teams” which I had read about a few years ago.


“An astonishing number of senior leaders are systemically incapable of identifying their organization’s most glaring and dangerous shortcomings,” Micah Zenko writes in his 2015 book Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.


Zenko consults on “red-teaming” — the practice of setting up internal critiquing processes to guard against fatal weaknesses. 

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From here I am largely quoting Wells but edited for brevity.


The red team acts like the regular staff’s worst nightmare, probing for weakness and ineffectiveness, trying to find flaws, not just errors of detail but of conception and imagination. 


The idea behind red-teaming, Zenko writes, is that “you can’t grade your own homework.” Put less succinctly,


“The dilemma for any institution operating in a competitive environment characterized by incomplete information and rapid change is how to determine when its standard processes and strategies are resulting in a suboptimal outcome, or, more seriously, leading to a potential catastrophe.” 


Leaders always tell themselves they have the fortitude to listen to internal critiques, Zenko writes. Unfortunately, they’re probably flattering both themselves and their regular staff.


Trusting ordinary workplace give-and-take “wrongly assumes that the people who work for these leaders have the skills to identify emerging problems (highly unlikely), that they will tell their bosses about these problems (potentially career-damaging), and that they will face no negative consequences for bringing such issues to their leaders’ attention (rare, since it disrupts the conventional wisdom).”


So, where do you and your agency stand?


Red teams focus on internal operations. And of course, reporting to the Chief Executive Officer. But what about the Board?


How do you encourage open and honest appraisal of operations, performance, and outcomes without it being “career-damaging” or disrupting of your “conventional wisdom”?


We have spoken previously of the Board’s role in developing a culture of assessment. Asking good questions, and demanding data and evidence for outcomes, certainly contribute to that mindset.


  • Have you considered a management or operational review?
  • What would it look like? A hunt for efficiencies, described as a witch hunt? Or an honest effort to see how one could do more with less or a “better” less with less. Would such a review report to the CEO? The Board? Both? The CEO with recommendations to the Board?
  • Have you undertaken a management or operational review?
  • How was the external team constituted? Did you engage a management consulting firm?
  • How was it handled? What were the results?
  • What did you learn from the review and from the process?


What are your main “pain points” dealing with honest appraisals of operations?

What advice would be most helpful to you?
And we always assume that you are asking for a friend!


Get in touch. We’ll address your questions and concerns in an upcoming blog post.



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