When Matters

On February 8, the Winter Olympics will begin with the delivery of the first stone in a curling competition. During the 18 days of competition, many Olympic records are likely to fall, because the science and technology of sports performance continue to advance rapidly. Yes, even in curling.

How cool would it be if we saw leaders and teams in the nonprofit and corporate worlds setting new bars of excellence every year? In the nonprofit world, driving to achieve high performance is still a relatively new concept and not yet widely embraced. And in the for-profit world, there’s a huge marketplace of academics and management consultants focused on improving the performance of companies, but we often see good ideas getting little uptake.

featured quote

For example, in a recent McKinsey Quarterly article, Chris Gagnon, Elizabeth John, and Rob Theunissen report that companies often fail to address their organizational health—”an organization’s ability to align itself around a common vision, execute against that vision effectively, and renew itself through innovation”—despite the fact that it’s one of the clearest and most direct drivers of performance. “Given all the data and practical experience that supports working on health, companies’ obsession with the P&L alone continues to puzzle us,” the authors write.

Another area of performance that’s gotten a lot of attention in sports but too little in the for-profit or nonprofit sectors is the biochemistry of our circadian rhythms. Thanks to a new book by one of our favorite business writers, we now see that when we do things during the day can have a surprisingly large impact on how we do them. Dan Pink‘s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing makes a good case that individuals and organizations ought to pay much more attention to our internal clocks if we want to perform at the highest level.

Based on hundreds of studies, Pink argues that “we are smarter, faster, dimmer, slower, more creative, and less creative in some parts of the day than others” and that “these daily fluctuations are more extreme than we realize.” Oxford neuroscientist Russell Foster makes this point vividly when he tells Pink, “The performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be equivalent to the effect on performance of drinking the legal limit of alcohol.”

Those of us who have typical “chronotypes” perform at our best in the morning. That’s when our energy levels, alertness, and positive emotions are on a steady rise and we’re good at tasks involving memory, learning, analysis, communications, decision-making, negotiation, and deliberation. We peak around midday and then, in the early afternoon, our energy and vigilance plummet—leaving us open to major errors. “Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days,” Pink writes. “Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health.”

The clearest examples of this phenomenon come from healthcare. In a large study at the Duke Medical Center, anesthesiologists were four times more likely to commit errors at 4 pm than at 9 am. In a different study comparing colon endoscopies performed at 11 am vs. 2 pm, endoscopists found barely half as many colon polyps in the afternoon. (This is a seriously actionable insight for Lowell, who turned 50 this week!)

So, given these insights, what can we do to improve our performance?

  • Try to avoid making important decisions when you’re in your emotional and cognitive trough.
  • Take breaks during the day, especially in the afternoon. “I used to believe that lunch breaks, naps, and taking walks were niceties,” Pink writes. “Now I believe they’re necessities.” But beware: A nap of more than 30 minutes can be counterproductive.
  • Recognize that teams almost always slump in the middle of a project. To dig out of the slump, set interim goals, publicly commit to them, and have team members picture one person the project will help. “Dedicating your work to that person will deepen your dedication.”
  • Reserve the last five minutes of your workday for writing down what you accomplished. “I’ve been doing this for four years and I swear by the practice,” Pink writes. “On good days, the exercise delivers feelings of completion; on bad days, it often shows me I got more done than I suspected.”

When is a quick read. While it won’t turn you into a gold medalist, it just might make you a bit happier, healthier, and more productive in the new year.

Keep the faith (and reason),

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

  • Our thanks go out to Beth Kanter, one of the best and most influential bloggers in our sector, for highlighting “Small, But Mighty: The PI for Small Nonprofits,” a great new resource that sprang up organically from the Leap Ambassadors Community. In her introduction to a guest post by Debra Natenshon and Karen Walker, Beth notes that the Performance Imperative (PI) was designed for organizations with budgets over $3 million and yet 88% of nonprofits are below that threshold. That’s why a group of ambassadors leaped into action to develop a version of the PI that would help inspire smaller nonprofits to “begin their journey toward excellence even with limited budgets.” If you’re connected to a nonprofit with a modest budget, please give “Small, But Mighty” a try.
  • The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which does a great service by reminding us that not all evidence is created equal, has just completed a three-part series on how government-led evidence reviews sometimes make ineffective programs appear effective. The first report in the series pointed out flaws in the way the Department of Health and Human Services rates home-visitation programs for families with young children: “Omission of disappointing findings from high-quality randomized controlled trials … led to erroneous positive conclusions about the long-term effects of several home visiting program models.” The second and third reports looked at the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse and how it assigns too much weight to findings from small, preliminary studies. The series offers its criticisms in a constructive tone focused on improvement rather than scolding. The authors believe the flaws they identified are entirely fixable.
  • Speaking of the government’s use of evidence, where do things stand with respect to the White House? Nick Hart of the Bipartisan Policy Center sums it up in one word: “confusing.” In November, the House easily passed a bill to advance recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has not given any indication of whether it supports this legislation or the recommendations of the commission. And in December we learned that the Administration instructed the Centers for Disease Control not to use the words “evidence-based” in their fiscal year 2019 budget submission, despite Budget Director Mick Mulvaney‘s official statement that “the Administration is committed to building evidence and better integrating evidence into policy, planning, budget, operational, and management decision-making.” When the Administration releases its budget proposal, we hope it lives up to Mulvaney’s word.
  • On February 6, data scientists, thought leaders, and public policymakers will gather in San Francisco to develop the first community-driven code of ethics for data science. The convener is the Bloomberg Data for Good Exchange, which is harnessing the power of big data to improve outcomes in public health, criminal justice, climate resilience, and city services. We believe that big data, combined with the highest ethical standards, hold great hope for improving the effectiveness of our sector.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance