Monday, March 21, 2011

Analysis Cannot Answer the Question “Why?”

In my last blog, I made the case for the value of organizations setting their visions and goals without cluttering their minds with the constraints of the current reality – which are usually identified in a SWOT analysis.  Today I offer a different perspective on the same theme.

Systems Thinking pioneer, Dr. Russell Ackoff, was a Senior Fellow at Maryland’s Robert H, Smith School of Business during the years I have served as the Academic Director of the Executive MBA program there.  Russ passed away more than a year ago – just shy of his 90th birthday – but he made a real impact on my thinking during the years I was privileged to know him.

Earlier last week I was preparing for an EMBA session on “Applied Systems Thinking” and I was reviewing some of my notes from one of the seminars Russ taught at Maryland a few years ago.  I came across this quote in my notes:

            “Analysis cannot answer the question, ‘Why?’”

For Russ, the question “Why” was fundamental to his approach to Systems Thinking.  “What is the purpose of the system/organization?  Why are you here?”  Once that is answered clearly, then a complete system can be designed to fulfill the purpose.  But without a clear answer to “Why,” you can never be sure if you are doing the right thing.  And if you end up doing the wrong thing, it does not matter how well you do it.  Russ would say “Doing the wrong thing righter, just makes you wronger.”  It’s like driving the car faster on your way from New York to California, when you should be heading to Florida.  You are just getting further away from where you should be going.

Here are some of the fundamental questions that I suggest organizations answer before they start analyzing their situation – using SWOT analysis or any other analytical tool:

Why are we here?

What do we stand for?

What difference do we want to make?

What are our dreams?

What inspires us?

I suggest that the staff and boards of organizations create ways to have dialogue about these fundamental questions.  And once you have a “draft” of the responses, expand your network to engage other stakeholders to share what you have come up with and ask them for their input.  Let them enrich the dialogue.

I am blogging today from the annual conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.  In no other area of nonprofit operations can this idea of setting your dreams and aspirations be more important than in the area of fundraising.  Some fundraising professionals have told they want to find ways to be more “inspirational” when they meet with major donors.  My suggestion:  Get clear for yourself on what inspires you and share it in an authentic way (e.g., don’t try to sell it).  Then find out what inspires the donor.  Share your dreams with one another.

Visions and dreams of making a profound difference are what lead to transformational gifts in fundraising.  Visions and dreams stir the soul.  It was Longfellow who once wrote:

“’Let us build such a church that those who come after us will think we were madmen’, said the old canon of Seville . . .  Perhaps through every mind passes some such thought, when it entertains the design of a great and seemingly impossible action . . . This divine madness enters more or less into all our noblest undertakings.”

Maybe we need to tap into our own “divine madness” more often to lead our organizations to breakthroughs in Mission Impact.

Has your organization asked these “Why” questions of its staff, volunteers, stakeholders recently?  If not, try it sometime soon and find out what is in the hearts of your colleagues.

If we don’t ask ourselves these questions – as organizations or individuals – we run the risk of drifting in the path of least resistance.  And “drifting” doesn’t sound very inspirational at all.

For more ideas on how you can lead breakthroughs in your organization, follow this blog and check out my web site at   You will find free resources you can download, including a Breakthrough Strategy Workbook that you can download at no cost.  You can also check out my book, Mission Impact:  Breakthrough Strategies for Nonprofits, and buy it if you are interested.  And you can follow Sheehan Nonprofit Consulting on Facebook.


  1. Thank you for your book and this blog! Today's post reminds me of a book one of our interns brought to our attention, "Start With Why"--a great book that reminded us to always check our motivations (we applied it as we developed our annual operating plans). Simple concept, but we often assumed the "why" and skipped over to the "what"...and ended up all over the place eventually. Glad to see you suggesting the same thing!

  2. Thanks Caoline. Start with Why sounds like a good book. Glad you found the blog to be helpful!