For many years I have been a firm proponent of this idea, “Never give a job to someone who will be harmed if they do it successfully.” Apparently, this law is not universally applicable.
I have always believed that the least likely group to solve human rights problems is the Ontario Human Rights Council and that the Cancer Society is least likely to find a cure for cancer. I can recall explaining to my daughter that if I could fix air pollution for $10 per province, the only way it would get implemented is if I did myself. Certainly the authorities would have nothing to do with it because then their jobs would disappear with the air pollution.
Never give a task to someone who will be harmed by their own success. In the 35 years or so that this thought has been in my mind, it has never been challenged by a counter-example among public charities and government agencies.
Until last Sunday.
In the September edition of Discover Magazine, I chanced to read a story about how those running the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation may have put themselves out of a job. They attacked their problem, not only by fundraising, by education and by support groups, but by addressing the fundamental of the problem.
The fundamental is that not enough people have CF and therefore drug companies will not invest the money to cure it. Drug companies can afford to address symptoms but not the cause.
So CFF invested $40,000,000 with a young biotech company with the view to finding the genetic cause and once found develop ways to fix the problem gene, perhaps in partnership with others. 13 years later they look to have done so. CFF also negotiated a royalty deal on anything discovered and so have a source of funds for further research as needed.
Well done! Hands clapping!!
There are two keys here. First – address real problems. Do not try to just soothe symptoms. Second – focus. Find a helper who wants the solution as much as you do and who has skin in the game.
As long as your organization is content with what it delivers and how it delivers it, there will be no change. When you decide to change that and go for opportunity seeking and problem solving, you will need energy and single-mindedness. Buy that in, it almost certainly does not exist in a long-established organization.
In another context like a business, let the older guys supply the money and the younger ones supply the energy and tenacity. Bring in some partners. Everyone can win.
We see business and professional firms that have learned the lesson. It is at best uncommon in charities and invisible in government agencies.
Let’s rethink priorities. If you are a charity, is your structure organized to make the problem go away or to treat the symptoms and make the problem more visible – read as easier to raise money? If you are a government agency is your purpose to make the problem seem more pervasive and difficult to measure?
The old ways will not long remain affordable. It is time to think the problem to its root and address that. Some foundations are already moving that way. Do not go to the Gates Foundation or the Skoll Foundation looking for money to treat symptoms. You won’t get it. You have a better chance if you go looking for 20 or 100 times as much money and have a way to cure the problem. Business people try to fix problems, not make them tolerable.
For health based organizations, think through how much data you have now. The cure is almost certainly already there. Possibly a few brilliant information engineers, like the folks who started Google, could find a different pattern within that data.
That is the real problem. When there is too much information, there is no easy way to gather it together in the right order and without the non-essentials. We need new methods. The build files and discuss amongst ourselves is not an answer when there are hundreds of people and billions of pieces of data involved.
Like the 911 attack. After the fact it was easy to see that all the information needed to prevent it was available beforehand. The problem was that the event clarified how to look at it. That clarification was unavailable beforehand, so no prevention.
I don’t know, but I would bet that the data that could have been used to prevent the attack did not constitute 1/1000th of 1% of all the data available.
Retrospective analysis is easy. Information analysis is infinitely harder in prospect. Sometimes you just need to step back and try to see things a different way. Or maybe hire people who do not know or understand what you do now.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.
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