Tim McCarthy and the Business of Good

Newsletter: Living With Chaos

Nov 15, 2010 7:29:00 AM / by Tim McCarthy

Non-profit organizations and the people they serve are, by definition, chaotic and so one must settle on good coping strategies and diverse partners to deal with chaos effectively. [more]

Living with chaos of one level or another is what we all have to learn to do.

In our regular lives, chaos can be caused by the lightning fast changes in technology such as the internet and social media. We could be stumped by a currently disorganized work environment. Or our life could be in tumult due to a sick or addicted relative.

“Maturity of mind is the capacity to endure uncertainty”, says John Finley.

Said another way, living with chaos requires patience and resolve.

I bring this all up because our Non-Profit Director, Bill Leamon, and I have been swimming in a pool of uncertainty for over a year now.

It seems the more we try to define how best to achieve our mission (serving those who serve the poor) the more it eludes us. There are a couple of reasons for that.

The first is that it is not acceptable to us that we follow the road more travelled. We believe that philanthropy and social service do not need more bleeding hearts with some dough.

Which leads to the second issue: big-hearted but self-interested philanthropists are causing a lot of chaos in the business of good.

To be kind, philanthropy is an inefficient business. And since engaged philanthropy is a relatively new and growing “industry”, there are a lot of fakers out there, both on the donor and service provider side of things.

The sheer number of people who talk the talk but are unable (or unwilling) to walk the walk has created a social business epidemic. That is, this category that we are trying to carve our niche into is overloaded with thinkers and planners but very short on searchers and doers.

And so here are Bill and I, insistent about not turning into another foundation of thinkers and planners and yet we want to be careful to land on our structure thoughtfully.

And so we read voraciously; interview anyone who will see us and go to any conference and meeting that might have learning for how we might eventually “serve those who serve the poor”.

We also make mistakes as fast as we can, getting behind projects and partners in pilot form to see what works and what doesn’t.

It was much the same in my original business, WorkPlace Media.

I didn’t just want to deliver coupons like everyone else already did in that $65 billion category. I wanted to find a unique and effective way of doing that (business) and we were comfortable in being smaller and slower at first but ultimately being more effective and efficient.

And what we ultimately did was carve a heckuva niche by building a 900,000 employer geo-coded database that could reach 70 million people via their paycheck or inbox.

But what few people know is that we ran down many dead end paths to get there. (Ask me sometime about our failed products named SchoolPlace, ChurchPlace and TravelPlace.) ☺

And so I guess I should not be surprised that it will be just as hard to find The Business of Good’s most effective and efficient niche in social business. It's just that being aware of this now doesn’t make it any easier. Done right, building an innovative concept is drudgery.

Our team recently took a behavioral survey. It measured how each of us rates on the behavioral characteristics of flexibility and creativity.

On the far left of the flexible continuum is “stable”; on the right is “open to change”.

On the far left of the creative continuum is the need for process; on the right is “hit me with whatever you got”.

I scored on the literal extreme on both counts – flexibility and creativity. That is, I was found to be totally open to change and you can hit me with anything you got.

So I asked our teacher, “What does this mean”?

He said that I am comfortable with ambiguity, perhaps moreso than anyone he’s ever measured.

Somewhat confused, I said, “Is that good or bad?” He said, “Well, if there’s chaos, you’re the person we need. You won’t get freaked out and will help us patiently sort through the mess”.

With a great sense of pride, I said, “that’s pretty cool, I’m unique”!

To which he said, “I suppose so, but if I’m working in a functional situation, I wouldn’t want you anywhere near it!”

And so I’m thankful for our team – Bill and Alice and Kelly – who all rated much better on stability and process and therefore will eventually be able to drag me (and us) into being a functional organization.

So what’s my point?

  1. We all must learn to deal with chaos, both personally and professionally.
  2. We’ll do better to work on how we deal with chaos – which we can control – than whining about or believing we can somehow make chaos go away.
  3. When learning to live with chaos, choose your partners well and make sure they demonstrate traits different than your own

Tags: Monthly Newsletter, Professional Growth and Development, Organizational & Operational Excellence

Tim McCarthy

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