Fri, February 01 2013

4 questions to ask before checking the box

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

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Filed under:   Nonprofit leadership •

A few years ago, Bonny Wolf told a great story on NPR that goes something like this:

In Chicago, a friend cuts off the end of roast beef before she cooks it.  She does it because her mother does it.  Her mother does it because her grandmother did it.  So one day, the friend asks her grandmother why for years she has cut the end off the roast beef.  The reason?  Her grandmother says, “because my pan is too small.”

I love this story because it tells us so much of how humans think.  We often do as we have always done out of tradition or habit or imitation without questioning why.  We move within our personal frames of reference, over and over, back and forth, until our ways are ingrained and unquestioned.

Established nonprofits and companies create cultures that inadvertently lock in this dynamic.  It is a very hard thing to resist the comfort of checking the same boxes without even asking how they got there. 

Each of my children went through a phase where they asked “why?” about every last thing.  It has passed.  Things get familiar and they don’t feel the need to pose the question.

I think familiarity is one of the biggest barriers to innovation.  It’s why we pay for fresh eyes - like consultants. - to ask “why?”

In the spirit of rejecting the familiar frame we’re given, here are four questions to ask yourself before you check the same old box:

1. Why did we start doing this activity?

2. What underlying purpose does this activity serve?

3. If it’s because of problem, is there a way to solve its root cause and prevent even needing to do the activity in the first place?

4.If it’s because of an opportunity, is there a way to go bigger?

The box may not be needed after all.  There may be better ways to spend your time.

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