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
  2. recognise that this wasn’t ‘right’ for a values-based organisations
  3. …and then create something new that ticked the boxes ‘professionally’ while also fortifying organisational values

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.

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;
  • Govern our institutions like they are corporations, leading them to prioritise fundraising and growth over impact and people;
  • Abstract our field behind credentials, and professionalise it beyond recognition. Which, in turn, excludes people that have the creativity and focus to actual get meaningful things done;
  • Replicate toxic management practices, resulting in leadership teams that are as monolithic and inequitable as those in the private sector.

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!
  • Invest heavily in others to develop as leaders. No more narcissists with a breathless team of project managers trailing behind them trying to make meaning of their whims. Relatedly, let’s cut the CEO crap.
  • Design new, values-aligned methods for managing old problems. No more corporate cosplay, with out of touch boards meeting once a quarter to preside over a living, breathing institution.
  • Deliver through institutions, not through the power of singular personalities. No more scaled passion projects, more building of teams and organisations.

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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