Last week I wrote about a blog entry Seth Godin made in January that examined phrases like “The purpose of society is to maximize profit” and “The only purpose of a company is to maximize long-term shareholder value.”
I once drove home from college at 100 miles an hour. It saved two hours. My old car barely made it, and I was hardly able to speak once I peeled myself out of the car.
That was maximum speed, but it wasn’t optimum.
Systems have an optimum level of performance. It’s the output that permits the elements (including the humans) to do their best work, to persist at it, to avoid disasters, bad decisions and burnout.
One definition of maximization is: A short-term output level of high stress, where parts degrade but short-term performance is high.
This excerpt from his post addresses a number of issues faced by non-profit organizations.
First is the obvious reminder that it is easy to equate optimum outputs with maximum outputs.
This mistaken equivalency is the basis for the whole “X needs to run more like a business,” and “X should be self-supporting or close” sentiment. The work non-profits do can’t be maximized because it involves interacting and responding to humans, not providing products for human consumption. There is a difference between helping someone cultivate their creative abilities and producing the computers, instruments, paint, lighting or fabric that serve as a medium of creative expression.
Which is not to say it didn’t take Crayola a fair bit of time and effort to develop their new blue crayon, but the trial and error mixing chemical compounds can be accomplished a lot faster and with fewer repercussions than involved in trying to use that crayon to express what is inside yourself.
The second obvious reminder for non-profits is Godin’s point that humans are one of the elements that is susceptible to burnout. Optimum output is nowhere near the maximum output staff are capable of but the replacement cost is pretty high.
We are all pretty much aware of these issues because the problem is discussed across a range of forums. Still the press of societal expectations make it easy to succumb to the mistaken notion that maximum equals optimum and therefore if our organization isn’t working to its maximum ability, we are not producing optimal results.