Have we Forgotten How to Think?

by Sarah Thrift on December 5, 2013


As I was on a 6 hour drive yesterday, I got thinking about how lucky I was to have to some time to think.

Too often, we are moving from meeting to meeting with insufficient time to think. We become fixed on doing the meeting so we can check the box to say we’ve done the meeting, rather than focusing on elevating the quality of thinking within the meeting.

Which reminds me of a quote by Thomas Edison:

“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”

Few people see thinking as a value. Nor does it cross their mind that they are not thinking and they could be. For example, according to research by Lisa Bloom, young American women purchase twenty times more tabloid magazines than real newspapers.

It takes time and effort to think. Bill Gates famously took two one-week “Think Weeks” a year, with family, friends and Microsoft employees banned from his retreat. The instantaneous nature of today’s technology has created a pressure to respond fast rather than take time to think first.

And when you get down to really thinking, you often have phases of uncertainty and even active confusion, going down many blind alleys before something more robust and meaningful can emerge. Many people want an immediate – albeit inferior – answer.

Which got me thinking! Against the backdrop of these impediments, what can we do to encourage thinking – in ourselves and others?

Arguably, the most important thing is a mindset oriented toward thinking, encouraging good thinking as a core value and priority. This creates the foundation for:

  1. Making good thinking a habit. Being curious about the world around us and letting the desire to read, learn and reflect grow. Putting time in our calendars specifically to think
  2. Spending time with people who think. Listening. Engaging in discussion with them. Asking them how they push their own thinking
  3. Being willing to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty. Immersing ourselves in it, enjoying the messiness of it – jumping in like a child into a puddle. And letting the thinking emerge from there

If we become better thinkers, we can also influence and inspire others to do the same. We can speak up for the importance of thinking, create safe, open and stimulating environments for thinking, and see those we work with as genuine thought partners, regardless of hierarchy.

Good thinking does not just happen. We need to start by wanting to think well and then find ways to exercise our thinking muscle. With practice, we will not only enrich our thinking, but our lives and those of others too.


The Importance of Data for Nonprofit Organizations

by Sarah Thrift on April 10, 2013

knowledge paradigm

When I was a junior analyst at McKinsey I remember being taught the mantra “Cash is King” in a training course on conducting company valuations. For nonprofits, cash – that is to say, the money to realize your goals and serve your users – is definitely kingly. It’s the lifeblood of the organization.

If “Cash is King”, then I’d have data as my prince.

Why am I according such royal status to data? Because it is almost as important for the success of your organization’s mission as cash.

Good data means:

  • Having information to make the best decisions possible
  • Understanding the true impact of programs and services – what works, what doesn’t and critically, making changes to programs accordingly
  • Communicating to donors what their money has paid for and the difference their money has made
  • Let’s look at the first of these: making the best decisions possible.

    In a nonprofit organization, people often feel very passionate about what they are doing – which is one of the reasons why I love working with nonprofits. This passion is invaluable and provides an energy which can make the seemingly impossible possible. I would not want to be without it for anything.

    Yet, it can translate into very strong emotions and heated discussions. Many of us have sat in fractious board or management meetings, where people become increasingly entrenched in their viewpoints and passion and emotion delay or obscure good decision-making.

    This is where data can really help.

    Data provides insight – from identifying the areas of greatest need for the organization’s work to information on whether to invest in a new online fundraising tool.

    One of the smartest businessmen I have ever worked with used to have an uncanny intuitive feel for business decisions. He simply knew where the opportunities were. It’s unlikely that data alone would have identified some of the opportunities he came up with. Yet, he would always listen to data. And if the data didn’t support his case, he’d reconsider.

    If you going to make the effort to collect and/or find data, then you want to do this as rigorously as possible. Be comprehensive in the data you collect. There is never a good enough reason for choosing data selectively to support what you want it to say. This is about being objective and using data to further the organization’s overall mission. And no need to discard incomplete or less robust data if that is all that is available. Just be clear about the gaps in your data so people can make their own judgments from there.

    I’ll return in a future blog to the importance of data for measuring impact and understanding what changes need to be made to programs and services. For now, consider data as your best friend when it comes to making decisions, whether large or small.. The prince who can put your organization in the strongest position possible, with your board and management team making the most effective decisions and fulfilling the mission of the organization.