As practitioners, we often rush to solve problems. We want to pin down the causes and make things better. In nonprofits and philanthropies, there is merit to this impulse — and there is often misdirected energy.
Our first impulse is to isolate a problem, describe it, quantify it, and develop initiatives to take the pressure away. For example, the public policy graduate students I work with are generally trained to start each policy brief assignment with a “problem statement.” Instead, I urge them to step back, ask good questions, and accept uncertainty for longer than may be initially comfortable in order to get at the real problems1.
Taking time to probe for deeper information on history, and focusing on context as well as gauging the level of true urgency, helps to frame better inquiry and focus energy where it matters. As an evaluator, our research team often starts with one relatively straightforward question from the client, such as, “did the program work”? By pausing to problem-solve, and carefully listening to the response, we end up with answers to multiple questions about the community, organizational culture, and relationships.
The rewards of a suspended diagnosis and deeper investigation are almost always worth the wait. The housing and community development executives whom I coach through NeighborWorks America spend a lengthy amount of time identifying and defining the true gaps for the organizational changes they want to make. Their precision plays out in some of the most successful strategies and results I’ve encountered.
Pushing back on one’s instinctive diagnoses – and inviting yourself and others to question assumptions – is important because, so many times, these assumptions simply reinforce one’s own world view, and then drive strategy that follows suit. NeighborWorks also employs a useful tool called “Assumptions vs. Knowledge” where you and your team rate the certainty of your hunches on a scale from 1 to 4 (from gut instinct to substantial evidence), and figure out whether or how you can turn assumptions into knowledge to shape strategy over time.
In my own work, I rely on curiosity, encouraging my clients to ask a lot of questions of people both inside and outside their organizations. Yet, at some point, one needs to make an informed decision and begin the work. In these moments, take a moment to consider the history that got you to this point, the voices that are not being heard, the assumptions you are making, and your best and worst outcomes (see Diagnosing the Real Problem for more detail). Invite in the bravest and most curious people you can find – those who will challenge you — and listen to the alternatives.
Getting the diagnosis right – or even closer to right – means that your strategy will have a much greater chance of success.
1 David Block calls this the “real” problem vs. the “presenting” problem (Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, 1981)