My wife, Liz, likes to putter around the garden. I’m not especially interested, but for her, it’s an important part of how she spends her free time. Not surprisingly, our garden looks pretty great. And yet, every year, she still works to put in something new — this spring’s proposed project was a birdbath.

I have to admit, I was not, initially, in favor of this change; to me the garden looked just fine. But after adding the birdbath (of course we did!) I became a fan. That one change has significantly increased the bird activity in our backyard, something that has been fun for us to watch as we eat breakfast each morning.

There is Always Room for Improvement

Like gardens, organizations can always get better.

Recently, for example, I was contacted by a small museum that was interested in increasing the revenues and profitability of its retail shop. This is not unusual for nonprofits, as they are frequently seeking alternative sources of revenue. Just as tuition doesn’t fully cover a university’s costs, and ticket sales don’t cover the production costs of performing arts organizations, entry fees generally don’t cover the costs of maintaining a museum.

What was unusual about this request, however, is that this shop is already a strong performer. Besides looking charming and well-merchandised when we visited, it out-performs the shops of nearly all of its peer organizations on every significant performance measure.

And yet, when we dug in, we identified several elements where a shift in approach will likely lead to improvements in both top line revenue and bottom line contribution.

Don’t Wait for a Crisis

The very first issue of this newsletter began with a quote: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The idea was simple: a crisis can provide cover for leaders who need to make potentially unpopular changes.

All true. And while it can be harder to drive change when things don’t seem broken (when things are going well, why rock the boat?), you don’t need a crisis to find ways to improve performance.

Some things to think about…

Consider the potential upside.

As you contemplate specific improvements, think about what the benefits might be of each. For the museum, if it were able to get a larger financial contribution from its retail operations, could it avoid having to cut costs on one of its programs? Could it fund an improvement it had been considering?

This kind of specificity in thinking can motivate your team to seek out ways to make the good even better.

Consider your overall approach.

Do you incorporate regular reviews into your planning processes? When you look at quarterly or semi-annual progress assessments, do you test them against your overall mission or goals? Are there any activities that you have continued year after year, without questioning whether the reasons for establishing them in the first place are still valid?

For example, I’m working with an organization that is focused on helping families get out of poverty and reach a sustainable living income level. Some of their programs, begun years ago, have succeeded in doing exactly that.

Their continued support in the original geographic area is still helpful, but now we are questioning whether reallocating resources to other regions still facing extreme poverty might yield more improvement for the money spent. I don’t know the answer — but I do think the question triggers some important thinking.

Consider the time and resources required.

Granted, and as I have written about previously, there is an important caveat to all of this: Identifying and implementing improvements takes time and resources away from other things you might be doing.

So, before you jump in with both feet, make sure that the potential upside is worth the effort. Sometimes, the last 10% of improvement is not worth the effort required to get there.

Reflections

An article in the Harvard Business Review makes the case that encouraging curiosity throughout your organization is an important element in improving performance. I believe that using that perspective — being curious and not taking things for granted, even when all seems to be going swimmingly — can be very helpful.

By bringing a positive attitude to the process, regularly challenging yourself and your organization, and considering possible ways that you can have even more impact, you might be surprised at the potential you uncover.

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