Don’t let people tell you what to do!

Yes, yes, of course, we’re in the new world of the porous organization, where we’re supposed to listen and be responsive and all that good stuff.

But the reality is, if you listen to your members, your customers, your employees, especially if they’ve just been surveyed, you’re going to get a laundry list. By which I mean an undifferentiated list of anything that people could possibly think of for you to do for them. It’s not a strategy.

Now, of course that’s what happens when we do research on needs, or ask for suggestions (OK, if you’re Dr. Oz, something different happens).

Ask me what I want, and don’t give me any constraints? Don’t make me make tradeoffs? Sure, I’m going to ask for the moon. And I’m also going to be unable to imagine ideas beyond the box I’ve already put you in, most of the time.

So, what do you do?

Well, you think of research in the context of overall strategic thinking – not a substitute for it.

If you already have the laundry list in hand:

  • Keep decision-making to the right group of people. Gathering input is one thing. Deciding what the right strategy is for the organization, and figuring out how to make that happen – with resources, people, and political will – is quite another.
  • Listen. Really, really listen. If you are arguing against the list, are you being defensive? Try to lower your defenses, and listen again. Are things being raised that you just viscerally hate at first glance? Isn’t that interesting. Don’t jump first to what you have to do about it. Just try to absorb first.
  • Scan the list for gems. Sometimes someone makes a connection that you’d never in a million years have made on your own. Don’t let it get lost among the vague suggestions to “expand collaboration” or “improve communications.”
  • Don’t confuse available information with good information. You don’t want to draw general conclusions based on a very small sample, such as the people who showed up to a focus group. Be cautious about overly-general interpretations.
  • Involve people in the solutions. Can employees themselves look at implementing some of the ideas identified? Is there any good reason not to get that process going?

If you don’t have the laundry list in hand yet, but want to do some kind of consultation process before making decisions:

  • Decide: what are you asking, and why? Are you strictly gathering general opinions? Do you want to get guidance on how to make certain trade-offs? Do you want to use the process to uncover volunteer leaders, or increase engagement with the organization? Those objectives should drive how you consult, who you consult, and what you ask them.
  • Don’t pretend. Be clear from the outset who’s making what decisions. Be very careful in setting people up to do things like voting or prioritizing if their agreements aren’t actually binding.
  • Commit. Just the act of asking people a question changes the relationship. It’s the organizational Heisenberg principle. And the more innovative and consultative the process is, the higher expectations will get about what changes will result.
  • Create a continuous loop. For any consultation or research project that engages people, you should think about how to communicate the results before you even start.

If you’d like to talk about how we can help you figure out what to do with your laundry list of ideas, or generate your own, please get in touch.

Image by Hey Paul Studios, used via Creative Commons license.

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.