Tag Archives: enterprise

In search of competence…as a business strategy

27 Aug

I jokingly said during the general election earlier this year that I wasn’t so much in search of excellence (a la Tom Peters) from the parties but in search of competence. An old joke that I stole from a voluntary sector leader giving a speech: but like all the best jokes, it has a big grain of truth in it. I was reminded of this, listening to the HBR podcast the other day. The HBR podcast is a mixed bag: quite often it features management consultants who have invented some new thing about big companies in order to sell themselves to the same big companies, who largely trundle on as they did before (recent examples of this genre include “how to survive being labelled a star” (we’ve all been there) and “reduce organisational drag”, both of which are consistently moments away from disappearing up their own fundament). The title of the last episode caught my eye though: “Basic Competence Can Be A Strategy” (link is to the transcript of the podcast). 

It’s an interesting listen/read – largely about management, and how people think they are all above-average, and how many are simply missing the fundamentals. Setting an agenda for meetings, taking actions and following up on them, washing your hands before surgery, taking the time to ensure people understand or know what the plan is…and so on. It reminded me of another book on a similar topic, the Checklist Manifesto (by the wonderful American healthcare writer Atul Gawande) which, as the name would suggest, largely promotes the checklist as a way to ensure things get done: in the right order, and that nothing gets missed. This can apply everywhere – when people call Social Enterprise UK, a list can ensure we don’t miss anything key (do you want to join? Do you want to be signed up to the newsletter? Here are the organisations that can help with x and so forth).

I was also reminded of it by the nonsense that is the NFL GamePass in Europe right now. For the uninitiated, NFL is the organisation that runs American Football in the US; I’m a fan, so I enjoy watching the games. You can do this illegally via streaming, but I have paid for the GamePass app which is  (or has been) a great way of watching and moving between games every Sunday. It’s not a cheap product, but it works really well, and so I’ve been happy to pay for it. I’m also such a fan that, along with some other social enterprise types, I’ve been going to the American Football games in London for about a decade.

In their wisdom, ahead of this season, the powers that be at NFL / NFL UK have decided to licence GamePass to a new European developer / promoter (a new joint venture created by Bruin Sports Capital and WPP). Unfortunately, in their wish to, I assume, squeeze more dollars out of the game, they have managed to create a product that a) has fewer features // b) costs the same // c) doesn’t work for many on the platforms they previously used // d) can’t be paid for in instalments. Additionally, just for fun, they’ve thrown in some major errors on payments (some people want to pay and can’t; some have been charged and aren’t being refunded). And for the cherry on top, there has been no communication from the people who made the decisions.

Setting aside personal irritation, (I’m waiting to see if they can sort it out before putting down any £), this is a great example of how basic competence is key to business. None of this is complicated: if you are changing something that works, give yourself enough time to make sure the replacement works; don’t remove payment options (that actually lose you customers); don’t change key useability of things without letting customers know in advance; and don’t be silent in the face of a barrage of emails, social media and fan forum criticism. And yet, it can be missed in the search for the next big thing, or on what other stakeholders (Investors? New business partners?) think is important. We all have our own equivalents of the new app, or the change to existing systems; & our own examples of taking the eye of the ball of the basics.

The lesson isn’t ‘don’t ever change’, obviously – small improvements and big leaps of new strategy are crucial at different times to businesses growing and staying relevant. But changes bring risks: and where they affect your main customers, they are critical. The lesson for all businesses is to plan well, do the basics, tick the things of the list, and constantly communicate with your customers. They are the heart of your business, and neglecting them is, well, incompetent. 

[image by the wonderful thisisindexed.com ]

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11 essential social enterprise & entrepreneurship reads

30 Apr

I was happily scanning Twitter the other evening and came across a tweet from charity luminary Martin Brookes who asked “Charity types – can you recommend good articles, books or thinkers on what modern/21st century charities should look like, please? Thanks.” It’s worth checking out the answers from people more plugged into current charity thinking in response to the tweet. A couple of links that I’ll be following up on include articles on digital futures and ethics particularly.

I threw in a few suggestions, more from the social enterprise perspective, and it got me thinking about what would be the books that I would recommend to someone trying to get good insight and practical thinking for their social enterprise, responsible business, enterprising charity or new ethical start-up. So here are the ones that I rate, use and draw on myself.

1) Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits
Written by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod, this follows the Good to Great template of Jim Collins and tries to establish the key factors that make a successful charity or social enterprise. It’s obviously US-centric, but there’s plenty of interest here that still stands up a full decade after the first edition (it was updated in 2012): on leadership, on how to inspire advocates, on earning income (in pursuit of mission) and on combining service with advocacy.

2) Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
Tim Harford is best known for his Undercover Economist colum in the Financial Times, and for being at the helm of the excellent More Or Less statistics podcast. This book is well worth a read, too, though – because at a time when social sector organisations need to a) test out new approaches b) have constrained resources and c) have no idea what is round the corner, being able to adapt is critical. There are important lessons here on how to ‘bet small’ with new ideas, on how to be resilient, and how to respond to changing conditions.

3) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
This book by Susan Cain has had me thinking more deeply about the ‘workplace’ and ‘team’ than probably any other in recent years. Social enterprise is about inclusion and accessibility, and we rightly focus on the track record of better representation of women, those with disabilities and those from different ethnic backgrounds. But this book too, at its heart, is about inclusion – of those who learn, work, communicate and contribute differently. As someone who chairs networks, convenes groups, facilitates workshops and tries to build a team and foster a culture, it’s a hugely relevant and important read. Unless you’re not interested in how you get the best out of everyone in your organisation…

4) Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck
I read this a long time ago, but still go back to its core essentials. The Heath brothers have written a couple of books since (about making decisions and about making a big change) but I think both pale compared to this, their first, which focuses on how to get messages across. For many in the social and ethical business space, this is a key area – we still underinvest in marketing, we still struggle to refine and articulate a core message (either for individual enterprises or as a movement) and yet we have the best stories: of transformation, of change, of the future. There’s some good practical advice in the Heaths’ SUCCESS formula that’s worth taking note of.

5) The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout
Beth Kanter is one of the most engaging and informative writers on all things social sector (aka non-profit) in the US. For many years, she was my go-to read on social media meets social sector, and this more recent book focuses on self-care – of individuals and organisations. As the oft-repeated saying goes, survival rate is meant to refer to the enterprise not the founding entrepreneur – and the swiftest route to not creating impact is to burn yourself and your team out. Thinking about that from the start – and what a similar approach might mean for your organisation – make this a good, healthy read.

6) The Social Entrepreneur’s A to Z
Whichever way you look at the data, there is a growing number of social and ethical start-ups being established by a whole range of people. And an almost equivalent number of intermediaries giving support, advice, business plan frameworks, funding, investment and legal structures advice. At Social Enterprise UK, we also have a rewritten and re-designed start-up guide coming soon, to respond to the level of demands and enquiries we get. For a more personal perspective and one that I think rings true from what I’ve seen in our world, I recommend Liam’s book – it’s real and honest about the anxiety, about the money, about the basics and about much more besides for budding (and current) social entrepreneurs.

7) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist
Underlying the growth of social enterprise and hybrid business models is an increasing understanding and acceptance that the way that capitalism and business is run currently is simply not working. I wrote about some of the aspects of this in my recent post on an inclusive industrial strategy (value, productivity, growth, resources), but there are people who’ve been giving substantive thought to this for years. Kate Raworth is one of those – someone proposing what economics and economic thinking should look like in the future. If you want some intellectual heft and academic clout to back up your arguments, start here.

8) Estates: An Intimate History
Social mobility, creating opportunity and the myth of meritocracy seem to me like some of the central challenges and problems we face. This book by Lynsey Hanley is a memoir but one with universal learning and appeal, particularly on how the physical walls and barriers are matched by psychological ones. A must-read for anyone wanting to get a personal insight into housing, employment and opportunity in modern Britain.

9) Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business
One of the central premises of social enterprise and, even more so, co-operatives and mutuals is that it puts employees, the community, and beneficiaries (or service users or whatever other synonym you want to use) at the heart of the business in a different way: in the governance, in decision-making, in the design of programmes and so on. But this premise isn’t always carried through, and I think there are still lessons to learn from other sectors. This book shares learning from some businesses big and small, and from years of customer service and satisfaction research: good insights aplenty.

10) What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
In this space where charity meets business, where money meets mission, the trade-offs between the commercial and the social are always at the forefront; indeed, they are at the centre of many of the main debates and areas of contention in social enterprise. This book by Michael Sandel is a brilliant exploration of how far the commercialisation and marketisation of our society can and should go – and what those limits mean for the world we want to live in and want to build. Thinking to inform your day-to-day.

11) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
A final dose of reality. It’s long been my view that much of success in social enterprise (indeed, in most things) is down to passion and perseverance. The imported myths of Silicon Valley incubation and super-speed scaling apply to only a small sub-set of (mostly tech-based) social businesses, and most of the other successes have passion, perseverance and commitment in common. Combined with luck, timing, and a great team, perseverance is as critical a thing to have in your locker as anything. And now there is research to back up this view – which provides the solid underpinnings to this book, which should give hope and succour to every entrepreneur who is battling to not only stay afloat but do more and do better.

Happy reading!

The Future of Doing Good: 7 thoughts

3 Jun

besogoodA couple of weeks back, I attended the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Future of Doing Good’ event. If you haven’t come across this yet, they are convening and ‘catalysing’ a conversation which aims to step back and think about what the future of doing good looks like – this is important for their own work, but also for the whole of civil society or, even more broadly, society in its entirety. Or as Dawn Austwick, Big Lottery Fund’s CEO puts it on her introductory blog, it’s a chance to think about how we might achieve “a radical rethink of the way people and communities can shape and improve their lives“. They also commissioned a journalist, Sonia Sodha, to do an overview report on the Future of Doing Good as part provocation, part summary, part mapping of some of the main things to think about. I found it a very interesting, if occasionally frustrating read: which may be inevitable when you are trying to cover such a lot of ground in a relatively short report.

 The event itself aimed to continue, expand and grow that conversation. Below are a few of my reflections both on what we heard, and on what I think should be one of the main focuses of work going forward.

Firstly, I should be honest and say it felt incredibly indulgent for me to spend a day away from work just having a conversation – with no clear remit, plan of where it will go, what it might lead to, or whether it would (ultimately) benefit our members. I was glad I was there, but plagued by a constant nagging awareness of the to-do list and the operational realities in what is now a very lean and busy team. I don’t know if others felt the same: what I do know is that this itself demonstrates one of the challenges we currently have – my internal reaction was a microcosm of the current reality: strained (human) resources, an urgent mindset and an increasing divide between those with money and those without: more parochially in this sector as well as in society at large.

Secondly, there was lots of the discussion of relevance to social enterprise – we were given cards with some of the main trends / areas to think about, and these included: creating opportunity from austerity, blurring of organisational boundaries, people driving change, new ways of resourcing, , environmental change, cross-sector working and so on. If this is the future, then social enterprise and entrepreneurship will continue have a significant role – and should be at the centre of people’s thinking, not in the margins or afterthoughts. And that this needs to not be all about individuals – but about networks, about teams, about recruiting great people (millennials, yes, but also those ‘finishing’ their first set of careers at 65 or 70), about investing in better systems, about incentives to collaboration and more.

Thirdly, there was a lot of ‘the future is sector-less‘ chat. As long as we’re ‘mission-led’ it will be OK. Which I go with to a point, but as I said on the day, that blurring of boundaries is being matched by a growth in transparency and actually a growing interest in ownership (and who owns what). It’s fine to say you are mission-led and (plan to) reinvest your profits, as one of the speakers did, but when you can look up their accounts & governing documents before they finish speaking and (if one wished) share that with the world…well, we are operating in a different time: good intentions aren’t good enough. And anyone reading the papers about, to take two topical examples, BHS or Land Registry, might actually think that who owns assets and how they treat them has never been a hotter topic.

Fourthly, I think new technology (is it new anymore?) rightly featured highly: there is little doubt that increasing digitalisation is having a really significant effect on many organisations and programmes (my example above about transparency being one). It’s hugely significant for membership bodies such as SEUK where I work – we now convene, facilitate, broker, advocate, campaign, use data, communicate and promote in totally different ways. But there still seems to be a lot of superficial jargon being lauded over more reasoned, complex thinking. In the last week alone, I’ve read about ‘impact derivatives’ and a ‘refugee impact bond’ – I may not understand either and both may prove wonderful, but I can’t help feeling that, at times, the product name or intervention is coming before any recognised need for it or clear sense of how it will work. Collateralised debt obligations for social value can’t be far away. Karl Wilding and I started the day joking about proposing an ‘uber for charity’ only for ‘uber’ to be the most used word of the day (without any notable reference to the fact that Uber-type platforms arguably entrench inequality, for all that they bring us in convenience & excellent technology).

Fifthly, I was struck by the really interesting conversation about anger – how the original drivers of charity and social entrepreneurs were (are?) anger and injustice, but that now they feel increasingly dissipated by a focus on scale, organisational professionalism and managerial effectiveness. I think there’s truth in that, and there is a challenge to us all to maintain and foster our activist and campaigning edge – the balance between working to change the system from within and from outside, perhaps. It also struck me that, when people were talking about truth to power, the Big Lottery Fund itself is arguably at least as powerful than most government departments now.

Sixthly, it was interesting to listen to a lot of the conversation turn to local systems and place-based change (Immy Kaur from Impact Hub Birmingham was spot on with her thoughts about key leaders across sectors driving change, I thought, as was Diane Coyle saying that system change didn’t happen top-down). I entirely agree: it’s increasingly clear that the mayors of big cities have the most interesting jobs and portfolios and power. And that one of the effects of austerity in central government combined with various pieces of devolution is that Whitehall has diminishing relevance. The most important work we do (such as the Social Enterprise Places programme or our Health & Social Value work) is all with and through local partners, trying to change things in local areas.

But it requires infrastructure, particularly because devolution can actually mean aggregation at regional or city level (as things join up into ever bigger bodies…) – and I was amazed (at least in the conversations I was in) on the lack of discussion about local infrastructure. The sector seems, largely, to have spent nigh-on 7 years analysing the problem in as many different ways as possible without genuinely committing to trying new approaches and solutions (NB – of course not true of all!). We are piloting a whole load of different approaches and joint deals with local networks and partners to try and work out what might sustain us all: what does a lean, local, effective, cross-sectoral infrastructure look like? and how is it resourced? Given the huge need for such networks and organisations with the way things are heading, it should be front and centre for foundations and those thinking about where they put investment. And let’s act not analyse on this one: we know what the problems are, and there are solutions and great examples out there.

Finally, I ended the day in a really interesting conversation about money (who pays) with a range of colleagues from a diverse range of backgrounds (charity, infrastructure, youth, foundations, entrepreneurship etc). It was a more tangible, realistic conversation that covered a lot of interesting ground. For me, the main thing I took away was the ongoing need to maximise the opportunities and value from all of the assets we either have already or can influence now and in future: which means everything from the small charity switching to CafeDirect coffee through to how a foundation manages its endowment; from a big social enterprise providing a standby facility to a smaller peer through to big charities and universities buying social in their supply chain; and from a local council applying social value across all its services to a company using its reserves to invest in new innovation.

It is these last two which for me have to be key elements of the Future of Doing Good. Place-based plans and approaches will only work with significant investment and innovation (in the real, rather than novelty sense) over the long-term in (new) infrastructure. And we will only be able to tackle the problems of the future if we mobilise all our collective assets and resources and skills towards them. That is a future worth trying for, and to start building now.