Is your organisation too reactive?
I’m not talking about the bush fires you have to put out every day. That’s just a symptom of an under-resourced not for profit or grant funded service.
No, I’m talking about how you tailor and manage the services you deliver by aiming at what is the issue of the moment. For example is your Board, hearing from your members, concerned about housing, so you decide to provide housing support services? That’s not necessarily wrong, but is it supportive of your long term objectives?
In fact you may be making matters worse in the long term. Let’s say you respond to the real need and provide housing support services. You provide a team to help repair plumbing that it not being properly looked after by the housing provider. In time, you even build a few houses and provide them to members on the housing waiting list who have been on the list too long.
What happens then is that the housing provider is not called to account. So they have no third party calling them to account about poor maintenance – you do it for them. Instead of building more houses the housing provider sees that pressure on their waiting lists have reduced, so they save on capital expenditure.
In the long term your housing services have created even less housing, and poor services to the existing stock.
Instead of focusing on the long term, by applying pressure to the housing provider, you have inadvertently made the base problem worse.
The key is in striking a balance between delivering for your members in the short term but focusing on the long term.
Boards (and management) of Indigenous organisations need to have people who can think strategically and outside the square. While being on the Board of an Indigenous organisation brings a lot of pressure on the Director from members to produce a result now, they need to also consider the longer term aspects of their decisions and work on long term strategic thinking.
Board of Indigenous organisations can face barriers to long-term, strategic thinking.
The structure of the organisation and management contracts may be set up to respond to needs emotively, urgently and quickly, rather than consider, as in the above example, the longer term outcomes. This includes the way remuneration is set, the bonuses that might apply, as well as the targets and KPI’s set.
To solely base remuneration on short-term targets is dangerous because short-term results can be manipulated. Even if there is nothing sinister in the manipulation, it sets a focus on just achieving what is needed now, not setting up for the future.
For example if a manager has a KPI of increasing employment of members, they can increase employment by placing people into low-paying, no capacity-building jobs.
If on the other hand their KPI was to increase employment and average salaries of members, then they would have to provide a plan where people were being employed now (short-term delivery) into lower paid training roles, while monitoring and supporting the training they receive so that over time they can be shown to be earning higher salaries (long term focus).
Another barrier to long term strategic thinking is the lack of experience, encouragement and practice.
While this is changing, many Directors of Indigenous organisations, particularly in northern Australia, do not have experience of strategic thinking. This is a generational shift – strategic thinking needs higher education, wide experience, and the experience of being with others who look really long term.
On top of that, the day to day pressures of representing their members with their present and urgent needs starts to take over Board discussion. Most Boards, even while discussing long term issues like setting up commercial ventures, will be discussing short term issues like this year’s profit distributions and what to do with it. The educational process about long term thinking needs to move throughout the Board, management, and members.
Arising from this, selfish behaviour is another barrier. Even in the non-Indigenous sector, there is a great reluctance in any negotiation to find a middle ground. Today, business and political negotiations are about winning. This means that people are encouraged to get what they can get now, rather than sacrifice some immediate return for the future. Why should Indigenous organisations be any different?
One of the reasons Indigenous organisations should be different is because of the impact on their own futures. Somehow they need to resist the world’s trend and go back to their cultural values about protecting country for future generations, and improving the lives of future generations.
Despite these barriers, there are some practical steps Indigenous organisations can take to deliver in the short term but focus on the long term.
Firstly they need to set the tone from the top. The Chairperson needs to be aware of the need for thinking strategically, and asking where a certain decision will take them say 10 years from now. The Board needs to set aside some time to discuss short term needs and their long term solutions. Management should be chosen, and remunerated on their long term thinking and objectives, and encouraged to provide long term solutions as well as short term deliverables like the example above.
Develop corporate culture – the Board and management should talk about long term strategy and the tangible benefits it will bring with patience, to themselves, to staff, and to members. Develop systems, prizes and projects that look to the future while delivering benefits today. The story is about balance – while members get benefits today, they don’t get as much as possible, because some is being salted for much more benefit in the future.
A Board’s agenda papers drive the discussion and resulting actions. So, review the agenda items and the format and content of agenda papers, to make sure that the focus is long term. The Board should spend the right time on important things rather than discuss the minutiae of what colour the office should be painted.
You should review your planning systems. Check what structures you have in place to ensure that you are reviewing over-arching strategy regularly and consistently. For example, how often does the Board discuss and review the long term objectives and strategic plans? What happens after this is done – is it translated by management into short, medium and long term actions all aligned to the over-arching strategy?
At the end of the day, thinking strategically comes from experience. Experience comes from practice. The mother of practice is repetition.
If you create structures that encourage, or even demand strategic thinking, over time you will develop a corporate muscle memory where every decision, program, project and implementation is about achieving long term objectives balanced by meeting the day’s needs as much as possible without diluting the long term focus.
So what do you think? Get over to our website at www.otsmanagement.com.au and provide a comment. Let’s see if we can start a movement to think long term, deliver short term.
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