Not urgent, but important

Last week, the Social Innovation Lab has hosted a PhD student, Toby Norman, from Cambridge University who is interested in applying the randomized controlled trial method to BRAC’s delivery activities (More on that later). I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time talking to Toby about some of our first experiments while he was here.  What was great was that, when I told him some of the organizational challenges we were identifying, he’d give me frameworks or examples of how others have dealt with the challenges at other organizations.

I shared with him my fear that the higher level reflection, the “why are we doing this?” and “how does this relate to achieving BRAC’s mission?” often gets lost in the day-to-day of what must get done.  At times we raise these questions, but rarely do we spend time actually answering them, especially collectively.  Each time it doesn’t seem like a big deal, there are other things to attend to, but I worry that it adds up to a lot of doing without a lot of strategic thinking.  Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School that I used to work with, defines strategy as the 1% of the work that dictates where you put the other 99%, but strategy never seems like the thing that must get done today.Toby offered me a matrix that Stephen Covey, author of “7 habits of highly effective people,” that captured my fears quite eloquently.  The x axis is “urgency” and the y is “importance.”  Strategy falls in the “not urgent, but important” category.   Unfortunately, if these types of tasks are continuously put off, more and more, tasks that at one point were not urgent, become urgent.  Maybe “investing in staff development” was once an “important but non-urgent” activity; but when delayed for too long, staff lack the appropriate skills, or leave for other opportunities with better training. It’s not hard to think of the other themes where we could see similar threats if we delay discussion and action: “Financial sustainability,” “increasing adoption of technology,” “Institution building,” etc.

One of the benefits to tackling issues when they aren’t urgent is that you have the “luxury” to discuss, analyze, research, and reflect.  This process enables a more thorough understanding and probably leads to more informed and better coordinated action.  In the long run, it means that one (or many!) can quickly respond to unforeseen opportunities and challenges because the hard work, creating and agreeing on the overarching strategy, has already been done.  The generation of strategic speed, some would call in, instead of haphazard reaction to whatever the world throws our way.

Are you convinced?  What dangers do you see facing BRAC?  Are there examples of how “strategic pauses,” where we tackle “important but non-important” issues, are built in operations?

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