Good to Great and the Social Sectors – Why business thinking is not the answer.

In this monograph, Jim Collins applies the Good to Great Framework to the Social Sectors. I was immediately struck by his opening on page 1:

‘We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to “become more like a business.””

‘I shared this perspective with a gathering of business CEOs, and offended nearly everyone in the room. A hand shot up from David Weekley, one of the more thoughtful CEOs – a man who built up a very successful company and who now spends nearly half his time working with the social sectors. “Do you have evidence to support your point?” he demanded. “in my work with nonprofits, I find that they’re in desperate need of greater discipline – disciplined planning, disciplined people, disciplined governance, disciplined allocation of resources.”’

‘”What makes you think that’s a business concept?” I replied. “Most businesses also have a desperate need for greater discipline. Mediocre companies rarely display the relentless culture of discipline – disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action – that we find in truly great companies. A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.”’

I confess that these comments shook my thinking when I first read them but having reflected for some time I have come to agree with them, aligning as they do with my own experience in both the business and social sectors.

Jim Collins uses the 5 Framework issues from Good to Great to develop the specific practices required for greatness in the social sectors. He successfully illustrates the challenges that Social Sector organisations face:

  • Defining outputs and outcomes, and measuring results.
  • Reaching decisions within complex governance and diffuse power structures.
  • Ensuring the right people are on the team.
  • Building an organisation model which links passions, unique contribution and resources.
  • Developing momentum by building success that leads to support and commitment, which in turn builds further success.

Whilst there are significant differences between sectors, especially the profit and not-for-profit ones, it seems that all organisations need leadership teams who are prepared to undertake the hard thinking around what value-adding service they are delivering and to whom, and that they maintain this focus with a ruthless discipline.

Andrew Kearns
Hartswood Management Ltd
Delivering real transformation


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