Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable
Edited by Seth Godin
341 pages (New York: Portfolio, 2005)

It is a cliché of modern management that great leaders “think outside the box.” The metaphorical box is the set of assumptions that people carry around in their heads that stifle creativity. The box bounds the leader’s analysis and vision and makes for cautious behavior – especially when the organization has gotten big and respectable and employs a lot of people.

But some leaders are different. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Steve Case, and Jeff Bezos are leaders who can get their colleagues to be daring and get outside the box. They did it when they started out and, perhaps more critically, they continue to do it today. Their organizations and the people in them “get it”: They know that they can’t pursue business as usual – especially business using the old rules.

Unfortunately, even the largest and most ambitious nonprofit organizations, and their most imaginative leaders, are often hemmed in by the boxlike thinking of the numerous stakeholders they must represent. Some of this is institutional. Private sector organizations can be very focused: They have one dominant goal, one key set of stakeholders – the stockholders – and one measure of performance (return on investment). Out-of-the-box innovations that promise big returns to stockholders can be quickly embraced and infused into a complex environment that shares a common benchmark.

By contrast, the nonprofit world is a place where professors and consultants constantly hear “we’ve never done that,” or “that’s just too risky,” or other versions of what I call the “organizational box.” Part of the problem is that nonprofits have multiple goals and multiple stakeholders. AARP has to seek out and deliver the direct services its members want, the new policies and institutions that society needs (e.g., Social Security reform), and the work styles its staff and volunteers seek, while keeping donors happy about the overall direction of this massive enterprise.

Does AARP’s leadership dare push for controversial legislation if it might upset its members who then burn their membership cards because AARP didn’t do what they want? Will a museum director embark on a bold plan to bring poor kids, immigrants, and minorities into her building if she fears that big-bucks donors may not like urchins running amok among their donated art works?

Unfortunately, the nonprofit world is full of leaders who believe that every new idea needs to “touch base” with all of the various constituencies that might be affected. Key people who might be upset or resistant need to be brought on board first. Boards of directors need to see that donations will not be affected, and that the organization’s brand will not be tarnished by some crazy new idea that didn’t work out.

In the private sector, the mantra is Ready-Fire-Aim!

In the nonprofit sector, it’s Ready-Aim-Aim-Aim-Aim-Aim…Fire (if the risks aren’t too great).

So, how do nonprofit leaders break out of the nested boxes they are in – the mind-sets and the organization walls?

Seth Godin has thought about this a lot. And so have Tom Peters, Malcolm Gladwell, Mark Cuban, Amit Gupta, and a host of others whose careers are built around turning organizations into daring enterprises. To the great benefit of all of us, Godin has rounded up 33 of these gurus and put together their best ideas in a book called “The Big Moo.” Godin wrote an earlier book titled “Purple Cow,” about creating innovative companies. Now he wants to invent the “big moo,” a phrase that means that organizations and their leaders need to “stop trying to be perfect and start being remarkable!” Nonprofit managers and their key staffers would profit greatly from reading this book.

Alan R. Andreasen is a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and executive director of the Social Marketing Institute. His books include “Social Marketing in the 21st Century,” and “Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations.”