The great chess master David Bronstein once explained how a player found himself in an inferior position. Bronstein wrote each of the player’s moves was adequate, but not the best. As the game progressed, this player slowly but inevitably lost ground to his opponent who was making the best move in each situation. It is difficult to criticize that player, as international chess matches are played at the highest level and under time constraints. A clock is used to limit the total amount of time a player can spend on a game. Chess players know what a harsh taskmaster a time clock can be.
In many ways, a chess game can be thought of as a problem of constrained optimization. A chess player can choose when to spend his precious time evaluating a move, or he can try to save his time to calculate variations in a crucial position. A current commentator, going by the name Matojelic, has a favorite line: “We have reached the critical position. Can you find the killer move?” ( I highly recommend his youtube channel if you want to learn how to play better chess). How do you know when you have reached a crucial situation? It is a matter of skill. Some players will understand the demands of the situation, while others will not. Organizations are like this in many ways.
The Nobel laureate Herbert Simon introduced the term satisficing into management theory in 1956. Simon posited managers will often search until he finds an acceptable solution rather than finding the optimal solution to a problem. Simon championed the idea of bounded rationality, the notion managers did not always have the information they needed to make the optimal decision. While this concept does not apply in a chess game as all of the information is in front of the players at all times, it does apply in the Not For Profit (NFP) world.
Satisficing can be an extremely acute issue for an NFP. It has been said every task in an organization is a function of time and money. While this pithy statement is an oversimplification, it does capture two of the main constraints any organization faces. Funding is often in short supply in an NFP and the organization has to make do on a shoestring budget. The lack of of funds and staffing can severely limit the amount of time a case worker spends with a client. Case workers are often forced to satisfice rather than optimize.
Satisficing can lead to some unfortunate results however. Not having the required time or resources to make the optimal decision, stressed case workers may opt for the “conventional wisdom” when a client decision is required. This is a heuristic of probable success and least risk. The prescribed course of action has had a high probability of success for similar cases in the past and poses the least personal risk to the case worker. There are often few consequences the case worker will suffer if he is mistaken under these circumstances. It is difficult to criticize an overworked and frequently underpaid person who prescribes a course of action based on the conventional wisdom of the organization.
An organization that continues to satisfice over the long run will lose its edge. Eventually, its client base will erode since the NFP will not be able to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack. NFPs come into existence to assist other men and women in the world. it can best do this by performing its mission and making individual decisions in the optimal manner. How can a an organization under this much stress accomplish this?
Relying on the diligence of even the best employee in tough financial circumstances is insufficient for the organization. The NFP needs processes and procedures in place to ensure the success of its mission. An organizational mission statement saying it will give the greatest of personalized service to clients and not provide the necessary resources to its employees is simply not tenable.
An organization must have an action plan in place to assist its employees to make the optimal decisions wherever possible. What does that plan entail? It must critically look at the processes in place and refine them whenever possible. The goal is give each employee additional time to process and analyze information and situations with the goal of striving toward making the optimal decision wherever and whenever possible. Here are some common sense suggestions for steps such a plan can include:
- Streamline processes wherever possible. Eliminate unnecessary procedures. Saving an hour a week per employee saves the equivalent of a work week in a year. Tine is a precious resource. Conserving it for critical decisions is surely worthwhile.
- Provide superior training in technology and processes. Employees lose an incredible amount of time and become frustrated when they are not fully trained in the technology the organization uses. Even worse, they can develop bad habits such as not capturing the correct data for the NFP information system. The employee may simply not know this information is required.
- Provide adequate review of each employee’s work product. We have all heard the aphorism ” You never have time to do it right, but you always have time to do it over.” Adequate review of each employees output will in the long run pay for itself. Mistakes will be caught earlier and the a second pair of eyes on the problem may detect unresolved issues or provide additional insight into the decision-making process. Providing effective review does not always entail adding an additional layer of management. Employees can often check each other’s work.
- Provide continuing education for employees. Employees must know what resources are available to their clients in order to provide all options for their clients. New programs and required procedures are especially important for NFP employees to know about.
- Provide employees with suggested “critical positions”. The organization can help its employees to know where to spend their precious time.
- Encourage employees to innovate and share their innovations. No one knows their job better than the employee himself. Ask them for their input and reward them for great suggestions.
- Always make sure the organization spends some time thinking about strategic issues and process improvement. After all, if everyone keeps doing the same thing over and over again, nothing will improve.
Some of the above suggestions could increase organization stress in the short run. Nevertheless, management of an NFP must think about the long term. A chess player who continuously satisfices will never win a chess tournament and will never be able to recognize the critical position. An NFP should never be in the same position.