Three lessons I learned from running a poor community group


35 years ago, I found myself the Executive Director of a local youth program. Great sounding title, right? What I learned was that there was a budget of $38,000 per year—including my salary! What I also learned was that there were a myriad of issues which needed to be addressed. What did I do?

Three rules guided my (and later on my staff’s) actions:

·       Set high expectations—a culture of can do, not can’t do

·       Learn how to do more with less and teach others how to do the same

·       Don’t wait for perfection-get moving!

Now, would I have given you these three points if you had asked me 35 years ago? No. It is by looking back and reflecting that these three guidelines became evident—just a quick commercial for the gentle art of reflection!

There is a great activity I use in leadership development training that makes this point. The group is divided into small groups of 5 or 7. All the groups are given the same list of tasks. Each group is also given a packet of resources. The packets vary in the supplies that are provided. Some packets contain an excess of supplies—well funded groups. Some packets contain just enough supplies—adequately funded. Finally, some packets contain not enough supplies—poorly funded organizations.

Almost without fail, in general, the well-funded groups complete the task quickly, but squander resources. The adequately funded groups produce adequate results, while the poorly funded groups almost always produce innovative results using their limited resources in unique ways. They followed these three rules:

Set High expectations—think as if you have the resources and work from there

Start by sharing these guidelines with your team:

·       We have a task and we are going to accomplish it. Our job is to figure out how

·       We are going to plan as if we have all the resources—and the best resource is ourselves

·       All ideas should be welcomed and encouraged by the group

·       No is not an option-tie the project into your mission, into the moral purpose of your group

This begins the development of a “Can Do” culture, as opposed to one where ideas are presented and people immediately start saying why it can’t be done or won’t work.

If you your team starts to go down the road of saying something can’t be done bring them back to the four guidelines above. Keep encouraging them to brainstorm and generate ideas.  Let them know all ideas are welcome. I always ask people to applaud when people make a suggestion. Let them know they and their ideas are recognized, valued and celebrated.

Teach how to do more with less—Necessity is the mother of invention. 

Just like in the activity described above, when you have an abundance of resources, you are not challenged. It is great to have an excess of what we need, but at the same time excess doesn’t promote creativity, in fact it may more accurately nudge toward complacency. We have become accustomed to requesting more resources, and then blaming the lack of resources for our lack of success. Here is a question. If you were given limited or even insufficient resources to accomplish a project, and told if you did achieve the goals set you would get a $10,000 bonus, would you find a way to accomplish the tasks? Most of us would say, “Yes.” So, then it becomes a question of motivation, doesn’t it?

As part of the process, guide your group through an inventory of the resources available. Challenge them to look beyond the usual resource, money. Consider people in your organization, people in their network, people from the community, existing services in your community, etc. Create a chart on a whiteboard or a flip chart that provides a visual for your team lining up identified resources and tasks.

Go slow to go fast, but move

Your plan doesn’t have to be perfect, but you need a plan and you do need to start the work. This doesn’t mean you don’t do your due diligence and produce the best plan you can. It does mean that if you wait for it to be perfect, you will never have a plan. Sometimes we put off implementing, waiting for everything to be perfect, because we fear failure. Fear paralyzes. The time we spend fearing failure is time we are not spending actually doing something.

The secret is to prepare and plan as best you can with the resources available—put the time and work in upfront and then implement—start, but don’t be reckless. Have a goal in mind, while at the same time taking it step by step.  Implement your plan in stages taking time to collect data, evaluate how the plan is going and adjust as needed making sure to celebrate the successes along the way.


Most of us believe that more resources equals better performance—and in some cases that may be true. However resources alone don’t make for success. They must be coupled with a culture of learning and risk taking. How resources are used is just as important as what the resources are. In the hands of innovators and thinkers even limited resources can result in success.

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