Brightside at Harvard: An inspiring intellectual feast

Anand Shukla, Brightside’s Chief Executive, has been sponsored by the Harvard Business School Alumni Club of London to attend the Harvard Business School course Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management and to go on a study tour of other organisations in the US. He will be writing a blog posting his thoughts and reflections during the course and study tour. Here he reveals what he has learned in a whirlwind week so far.

Reading the comments of support, interest and encouragement following my first blog about the non-profit strategy course at Harvard has been surprising, lovely and humbling.

They have also inspired me to keep my commitment to write a series of blogs charting my experience. Given how intense the course is proving to be, I have since wondered how wise that was. But a commitment is a commitment.

I first heard about the Harvard non-profit strategy course a few years ago from friends who had attended and urged me to do it (thanks in particular to Matt Stevenson-Dodd from Street League, Carol Homden of Coram and Thomas Lawson of Leap confronting Conflict for their advice and encouragement). And they were right when they told me I had to do my reading in advance (even if there is a World Cup on). While it has been an intellectual feast, it has been full on – from the off.

The days are long (7.30am start to 6pm finish), intense and joyously stimulating. The course structure is based around real life examples of organizations – about 20 in total – used as starting points to bring issues of strategy that leaders may face to life. Each case is about 20-25 pages long, with appendices including budgets and performance metrics, and you are asked to answer a number of questions about the case. Days begin by discussing the cases with your study group before a 90 minute seminar led by the professor where key points are discussed. There are 162 social enterprise leaders from around the world, and learning from them is a huge part of the overall experience.

The engaging, intellectually stimulating (and very funny) introduction by Herman Leonard set the tenor for the course. His rousing call to arms reminded us that social enterprises are dealing with the hardest problems, often with the fewest resources and the least powerful structural incentives to achieve social change. Leonard talked of question zero for social enterprises, “what exactly are we trying to accomplish?”, and the theme of organization purpose has been the basis for all subsequent discussion. Nietzsche’s statement “the most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what we were trying to accomplish” is quoted approvingly. In other words, don’t be dragged around by the various interests and pet projects of stakeholders (especially funders).

The case studies are wide-ranging and absorbing. For example, what the Columbia shuttle disaster of 2003 shows about leading an organization that learns from previous experiences (or didn’t in NASA’s case. The similarities with the decision-making process leading up to the Challenger disaster in 1986 are striking). This led onto a discussion about organization culture – and how leaders can create a culture where people can be open about mistakes and problems without being penalized for doing so.

Another absorbing discussion was about Babcom, an Israeli call centre that employs people from all communities and backgrounds (with a focus on empowering Arab-Israeli women) and how its diverse, empathetic culture leads directly to its excellent customer service, which in turn leads to its successful commercial performance.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion about effective ways of making complex discussions in fast-moving, ambiguous circumstances (using a US hospital merger decision-making process as the starting point), and how leaders should structure meetings and decision-making processes depending upon whether you are in decision mode or in discovery mode.

One topic with particular resonance for Brightside has been the discussion on impact. This started on familiar terrain with a well-known strategic framework (logic model:- inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes and impacts), and showed that as you go further along the chain, the performance measures become more ambiguous, less measurable and less attributable.

However, what has given me pause for thought is where the discussion then went – with an argument that you should focus your efforts on where you have most control i.e within the organization, which is much more nuanced than the usual discussion about maximizing impact for beneficiaries.

A constant theme over the first two days has been on how leaders can create the conditions for high performance. Create the conditions for a learning culture where everyone feels able to bring their best ideas forward. Create the conditions where your staff are motivated, engaged and inspired and give them the chance to thrive. And then you will give yourself the best chance of providing the best possible service for your beneficiaries – and positive social impact too!

Clearly a good strategy and excellent execution are necessary, but not the critical success factors. And perhaps counter-intuitively for a room full of social enterprise and charity leaders, the point about the importance of focusing on staff was illustrated by a discussion about venture capitalists whose investment in human capital is a foundational part of their business model.
I could go on. And on. Compressing over 20 hours of discussion and debate into a 900 word blog isn’t straightforward. Two days completed so far, and over the whole week, we will cover the following areas:- frameworks for strategic thinking; design thinking and creating conditions for high performance; entrepreneurship and innovation; leading change; scaling impact and the executive-board relationship. As you can probably tell, I am loving it. More soon.