Breaking Away from the Herd


In today’s world, where best practice and evidence-based practice and the push to achieve specific performance measures are often heralded (and funded) as THE path to success, it seems we have lost sight of the fact that while these things may be effective in achieving one specific outcome, they are not the panacea for organizational impact or finding new ways to solve stubborn challenges.

I’m not saying there is no value in “best practice.” I think there is. We have trained our staff in six different evidence based practices, and I believe they are an important part of our success . . . but no more so than our willingness to also try new, untested, creative strategies for overcoming our biggest obstacles. When we stop looking in new directions because others have chosen to fund and build rules around following one single path we, in effect, give up on finding new, perhaps better, solutions. Are you willing to sacrifice that possibility for the comfort of following the herd?

As Gary Keller and Jay Papasan noted in their book The One Thing, “Anyone who dreams of an uncommon life eventually discovers there is no choice but to seek an uncommon approach to living it.” Translated into organizational language, if we want to have an uncommon (new/breakthrough/life-changing) impact on those we strive to serve, it is unlikely we will get there by simply following the “standardized” path. We have to break away from the herd and chart our own course. Granted, that sounds great in theory, but it can be much harder in actual practice. For example . . .

Our organization provides services to struggling children and their families. We are paid to provide services to kids. We believe the best way to have a lasting positive impact on a child is to serve the whole family — in fact, the first item on our list of “how we do things around here” says “The client is the family system.” We are paid to provide services to kids. So we have to make hard choices about investing in a new path, one that we believe will yield better results for our young people, even if the current rules and funding are a deterrent to forging that path.

If being successful were simply a matter of following the status quo, we wouldn’t need leaders, just obedient followers. The leader’s challenge is to determine when to follow the proven path and when you need to step out in a new direction — because to do any less would be to settle for stopping short of your mission.

Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and break away from the herd.

Jumping Over the Candlestick


Jack be nimble,

Jack be quick,

Jack jump over the candlestick.

While there are few who would accuse Mother Goose of being a bastion of leadership wisdom, don’t sell the old gal short. Sometimes simple wisdom comes from unexpected places, and many an “expert” could benefit from taking note.

There is so much emphasis today on systems and processes, evidence-based and measured, best-practice and prescriptive . . . I get it . . . funders want to make sure their resources have the greatest impact, consumers want a guarantee that what they are purchasing will have the intended results, and employers want to know that their employees will behave in a predictable manner. The thing is, people (consumers), and the problems they want solved (or needs they want met) aren’t systematic, measured or prescriptive.

I am certainly not saying an organization doesn’t need systems, measures or knowledge of what has been proven effective. Just ask my staff, we have plenty of all of those. I get concerned, however, when the pendulum swings too far toward believing success is only found along a single path. After all, if we don’t challenge ourselves to see a situation with new eyes, how will we ever find a solution to unmet needs?

Sometimes we need to follow in the path of ole’ Jack and be nimble and quick . . . zig when others are zagging, experiment, fail fast and try again. Sure, not every effort will have the intended results, but the willingness to consider a new approach or possibility, and the comfort in shifting course based on changing variables, is the only way I know to successfully leap over a candlestick.

A word of warning — people (funders, monitors, even concerned friends) will likely try to discourage you from “breaking the rules”. Think about it . . . who really thought David would be able to take Goliath down with three small stones . . . a seasoned expert would probably tell Jack jumping over was not an advisable way to get to the other side of a candlestick. Breakthroughs don’t come from following the orderly well-trod path. Incremental change might come that way, but not game-changing advances.

So what’s the answer? Systems and evidence and best practice have their place, and may even be your mainstay as an organization, but I believe you need a few Jacks on staff, too. You need some people who have a knack for disrupting the status quo, who are not willing to accept that this is the best we can do, who question whether conventional wisdom is really all that wise. Carve out a spot for these people, and give them enough leeway to approach something from an entirely different angle. What happens when you do? Well, let’s just say . . .

. . . I’ll see you on the other side of the candlestick!