Embracing Complementary Opposites: Learning When to Loosen and When to Tighten

By Todd J. Sukol
Reposted from Mayberg Foundation Blog
http://www.mayberg.org/new-blog/2018/9/5/embracing-complementary-opposites-learning-when-to-loosen-and-when-to-tighten

Recently I was working with colleagues at the Mayberg Foundation, preparing a presentation about our approach to entrepreneurial philanthropy. As we spun out some of the core operating principles we wanted to highlight, two of them struck me at first to be at odds with each other. The first had to do with the ills of over-bureaucratization. The Mayberg Foundation invests in passionate, driven, committed people. We have seen so many times that visionaries often become stifled while working in rigid organizational environments. This destroys their creativity and motivation. In order to innovate, experiment, learn and iterate, social entrepreneurs require nimble, adaptable environments. On the other hand, we are also staunch believers in the importance of proper organizational infrastructure. Those who work closely with me have heard me say time and again that all exciting ventures require three not-so-exciting counterparts in order to amount to anything real: structure, support and accountability. Process counts. As one of our trustees recently put it, “instinct only takes you so far.”

Far from being contradictory, the need for quick, nimble decision making and the need for well defined processes are great examples of complementary opposites, each as true as the other — and each requiring the other. With too little process even the best ideas remain empty dreams forever. With too much process creativity gets squeezed out, destroying the very experimentation that represents the nonprofit and philanthropic sector’s most important role in meeting society’s challenges. The key, as a former advisor of mine told me many years ago, is “knowing when to loosen and when to tighten.”

And that brings me to our Foundation’s own commitment to constant introspection and improvement. Our growth over the past several years has forced us to professionalize and operationalize in order to handle the volume of good work with which we have the privilege of being involved. And at the same time we remain as dedicated as ever to our ability to pivot quickly and shift gears, remaining approachable and open to new ideas. To be sure, this is a tough balance, something that requires constant attention and adaptation. We discuss this openly and frequently among staff and with our trustees and beneficiaries, constantly tweaking our systems, balancing structure and creativity, discernment and openness, strategy and passion.

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