Be Skeptical, Very Skeptical


If you’re an old coot like me, you’ll undoubtedly remember the great advertising tagline “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” I feel exactly that way about New York Times columnist David Brooks.

I don’t always agree with him. He’s a conservative; I’m a progressive. But I’m always impressed with his wisdom. It’s clear that Brooks is a true lifelong learner whose conservative principles are continually refreshed and informed by new data and evidence from many different scientific disciplines.

This past month, Brooks has devoted two columns to an exploration of the value and limits of data: “The Philosophy of Data” and “What Data Can’t Do.” Brooks’ bottom line: it’s often “foolish to swap the amazing machine in your skull for the crude machine on your desk.”

Do Brooks’s insights, which I encourage you to check out for yourself, fly in the face of Leap of Reason and David Hunter’s forthcoming companion book, Working Hard—and Working Well?

No! I fully agree with the skepticism that Brooks brings to his analysis. I have seen over and over again that data without good judgment is worse than worthless. Take it from a former tech/data nerd: Data is never the decisive factor for whether organizations make the transition to high performance and impact. The mindset of the leaders and the organizational cultures they build to support getting better and better at meeting their core mission are far more important.

And now for some related updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • Because of the value we put on mindset and culture, we’re cheering the work of AchieveMission and its Talent Initiative, which helps organizations develop their leadership muscle for achieving greater social impact. If you’re interested in applying for the spring 2013 Talent Initiative cohort, you’ll need to get on it. Applications are due March 1.
  • It’s not a coincidence that one of the organizations AchieveMission selected to participate in the most recent cohort of high performers is the Children’s Aid Society (CAS). David Hunter singles CAS out for praise in Working Hard—and Working Well as a result of the introspection and focus that its CEO, Richard Buery Jr., has brought to the organization.
  • While we’re on the topic of the importance of the mindset of leaders, we were pleased to see that the talented Jill Vialet, the Founder and CEO of Playworks, was just selected as one of the Irvine Foundation’s 2013 California Leadership Awardees. This short video does a good job of highlighting Jill’s leadership and the culture she has fostered at Playworks.
  • Please sign up today for “Lives on the Line: Why and How Mission-Driven Leaders Are Embracing Performance Management,” a free webinar on March 7 featuring David Hunter and Sam Cobbs, the CEO of First Place for Youth. The webinar is tied directly to the launch of Working Hard—and Working Well (with a launch date of March 5) and sponsored by our friends at PerformWell (Child Trends, Social Solutions, and Urban Institute).
  • Congratulations to Charity Navigator CEO Ken Berger and his team, who have just announced a new rating dimension that will be featured on the widely used charity-rating website. As Ken will tell you, I’ve harped on Charity Navigator’s approach for years, because knowing how much money an organization spends on “overhead” tells me nothing about how effective it is. But with the new rating dimension, Results Reporting, Charity Navigator is taking a meaningful step toward offering information that will give donors an ability to peer into how charities are tracking whether they do what they say they do. It will not do any direct, apples-to-apples assessments of the effectiveness of charities. But in our view, it is a constructive start and will help nudge thousands of charities and their supporters in the right direction. To see how the new dimension is being applied, check out this example featuring our friends at Roca.
  • In my role on the board of the Cleveland Clinic, I have a great vantage point to observe and learn from a nonprofit organization in the vanguard of performance management. We all know that healthcare providers have a long way to go to improve quality and control costs. But hospital systems like the Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic are making real progress, thanks to great internal leadership and growing external pressures. One way hospital systems are making the enormous cultural shift to high performance is by adopting principles from a totally different sector: auto manufacturing. In “The Promise of Lean in Health Care,” Drs. John Toussaint and Leonard Berry highlight healthcare organizations that are using the Lean quality-improvement principles created by Toyota and demonstrating that the principles are “as applicable in complex knowledge work as it is in assembly-line manufacturing.” It would be intriguing to see how the Lean approach could apply to smaller organizations, to benefit many of the nonprofits in human service, education, youth development, etc.
  • GEO has just released “Pathways to Grow Impact,” which focuses on the role that funders can play in helping great leaders grow their impact (and not necessarily the size) of their organizations. The report includes a good section on building the capacity for performance management and highlights some of our favorite high performers, including CEO, KaBoom!, College Summit, and Playworks.
  • Next week, we’ll be reading With Charity for All, a new book by former NPR head Ken Stern which will be released on February 26. We usually don’t tout books that we’ve not had a chance to review, but I suspect it will get a lot of interest in—and perhaps provoke the ire of—the social sector. It’s a tough indictment of nonprofits that don’t pay attention to their outcomes, evidence, and impact. We’re particularly interested in reading the section devoted to Youth Villages, which we believe Stern will present as a strong counterexample that shows what’s possible when you have great leadership.

That’s all for this month. Don’t forget to keep us informed of the ways that you’re reaching for high performance in your own work.

My best,