The 7-S’s of effective organizations, plus cherry blossoms and existential crises

cherry blossomsThe dinner went remarkably well, and for the past three days I’ve been feeling a sense of after-event euphoria. That, combined with the contact high from legalized pot in Seattle, has led to one of the best weekends I’ve had in a while. Now I am at a hotel near the University of Washington, sequestered here this entire week for the Nonprofit Executives Leadership Institute (NELI), a time for us nonprofit leaders to take a break from daily work and reflect on things like adaptive leadership, board engagement, strategic thinking, and how ancient and decrepit we are in comparison to the fresh-faced college students here, who are walking around while texting, oblivious to the world around them.

The course is pretty intense, but I might try to use this blog for some reflections on the key concepts that strike me. Apologies in advance if the posts come too often and clog up your inbox.

Today, among several concepts, we learned of the 7-S Model created by McKinsey consultants ad Harvard Business School and Stanford Business school professors. The S’s are:

Strategy (what actions the organization uses to be more awesome than its competitors),

Structure (who reports to whom, how authority is distributed, is it hierarchical, how departments/divisions interact, etc.),

Systems (processes and procedures like a database, budgeting, planning, monitoring, and rules around washing dishes because it’s disgusting when staff leave them in the sink for days!),

Staffing (recruitment, retention, professional development, do we have the right people, and why is Steve still around when doesn’t do any work and never washes his dishes?),

Skills (the organization’s distinct competencies, developed over years, such as “We are the best in the business at teaching youth to make balloon animals”),

Style (the organizational culture, often led by the people at the top. For instance, does the ED have an open-cubicle policy, or does she prefer to close the door in order to weep quietly by herself?).

Shared Values (written and unwritten values to guide the organization, for instance, “focus on quality” or “customer service above all” or “Let’s just try not to screw up.”)

In successful organizations, these 7 S’s are aligned with one another. When there is a disconnect, it could spell trouble for the agency. For instance, if a Shared Value is Innovation, but the organization fails to take risks and never tries anything new, or if the Value is Quality, but the morons who don’t focus on it keep getting promoted, then it may be a serious problem.

It was good fodder for thought. But the thing that really made me think today was something not in class at all. It was the cherry blossoms. UW has a dozen ancient cherry blossom trees in its Quad. Today, the trees are in full bloom, looking breathtakingly magnificent and smelling like Spring, like happiness, like childhood, like general operating funds. Hundreds of people were in the Quad, including a wedding party that used the snowy backdrops for pictures.

Three other EDs and I walked to the Quad and were amazed by the beauty of the cherry blossoms. “The cherry blossoms are a great symbol of nonprofit funding,” I said. Another ED piped in, “Yeah! We wait for them all year. We cultivate them. Then the arrive and they’re gone in days!” Ahahaheheheh, we all laughed. That’s how we EDs laugh. Then we sighed and scoped around for a bar.

The cherry blossoms, of course, are symbolic of both how beautiful life can be and yet how ephemeral it is. I imagine that many of us choose the stressful nonprofit field because unconsciously we know that life is short, and to get a grip on our impending mortality, we strive to do something meaningful with our time. I don’t think this is a bad thing. There are far worse ways to deal with the existential despair we all feel from time to time.

For instance, grabbing some pimply college kid by their hoodie, slapping them around a bit, and screaming, “Stop texting and look at the cherry blossoms! You don’t know how good you have it! Enjoy your youth, you exquisite fool, for soon it will be gone, and you too shall look like I do. Look at me! THIS IS YOUR FUTURE!”


Discussion questions:

Which S does your organization excel at, and which ones does it suck at?

How much do existential factors influence your work?

How much trouble will I get into if I slap some random college student who is walking and texting?