Operational creativity: the mission is in the methods

Why we shouldn’t underestimate the value of creative operations in nonprofits: great program design is nothing if you can’t operate in the spirit of your mission.

I used to think that my interest in things like accounting, human resources, team learning, and collaboration infrastructure was a detriment to my leadership; I thought it was taking away from my writing and strategy work — I look back and realise I was wrong.

One of the most surprising things I found when setting up and running a non-profit was the importance of operational creativity: sure, any decent organisation should have a leadership of ideas people. But what about a leadership which is also very strong in operations. That is, translating all those ideas into action.

Think of it this way: business norms and operational practice cannot be directly translated into non-profit management — hello GAAP accounting I see you! — and they shouldn’t be. Nonprofits are not businesses with foundations as clients, no matter how much they resemble that. So, when I was starting my first nonprofit, it felt important to…

  1. learn the businessy ‘right’ way to do something

BUT I still thought all this was second fiddle to being the organisation with the new ideas about our domain. I underestimated the way that operations and operational decisions have a direct impact on the ability of organisations to align their way of working with their values and in turn have more impact.

So… who cares? Apparently everyone. Almost every day I hear talk about “operationalising values” or questions like, ok sure but “HOW DO WE OPERATIONALISE THAT?”

It’s almost trite at this point.

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Portlandia putting hipster birds on things.

These are fair questions, but then they get pushed to an ops team who are experts in certain aspects of operations but likely don’t have the mandate or the support to invent and execute. Let’s stop with that. Values-based thinkers and leaders have too often ceded operational decision-making to the management consultants and compliance professions of the world. And they have asked their ops teams to be prioritise compliance and efficiency — rather than creativity and organisational values. It’s insulting and ineffective for everyone!

And for some reason, when we treat institution building with disdain, we are surprised when our institutions pull us in a direction away from our values. Why are we surprised? Especially when nonprofits will routinely…

  • Build unhealthy workplaces and then burn out our communities and harm our allies and friends;

I would much rather support leaders who:

  • Innovate in institutional design. No more awkward translations of management philosophy, or assumptions about how things ‘should’ be done because of whatever we hear from business schools. Show me that radical chart of accounts!

We need to value operational creativity and recognise that if we are to succeed we need leadership that understands the issues and can build institutions that deliver in both what they do and HOW they do it. In other words: we need to make operational creativity sexy. And this isn’t just for non-profits. Many values-based businesses struggle to translate their ‘why’ into their ‘how’. And while they do have some distinct challenges to non-profits the logic and importance of operational creativity is still essential.

If you are passionate about tackling operational challenges with new ways of thinking and working that align with your values, please get in touch. I can guarantee that I don’t have the answers — that’s the whole point! But, I’d be happy to explore ideas so we can build the operational norms we need to change our world, one institution at a time.

This is in honour of my compatriots who have nerded out with me for YEARS about how budgets, people management, accounting, tech infra, and workflow matters for our politics and strategy. Thanks to collaborators like: Anneke Victorica , Maya Richman, Julia Keseru , and Elizabeth Eagen.

And to people whose operational creativity I admire: Seyi Akiwowo, Gabby Eldin, Tanya O’Carroll, Gus Hosein, Laurenellen McCann, Lyel Resner, Alice Thwaite, Sabrina Hersi Issa, Vu Le, J. Bob Alotta, Alexa Koenig, Megan Price, Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, Janet Haven , Hanan Elmasu , Toby Jenkins, and Michael Brennan.

Intentional technology @ Computer Says Maybe, co-founder @engnroom

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