Nonprofit 411: Ready, Fire, Aim: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Organizational Development

By Barry Dym, Institute for Nonprofit Management & LeadershipBarryDym photo

These days there is an ever greater emphasis on planning, impact, and measurement.  But the orderly approach reflected in these activities is not necessarily the best way to start an organization or even a project.  Planning is a human activity, replete with human feelings and foibles.  And the world rarely stays still long enough to conform to the conditions we plan for.  So flexibility and nimbleness in responding to changing conditions—both threatening and ripe with opportunity—are among the keys to organizational effectiveness.

If ready, aim, fire is the motto for the planning mode, I want to propose an alternative: ready, fire, aim.  In this mode, ‘ready’ does not mean you have all your ducks in order.  It means that you have a good idea that both turns you on and strikes you as practical.  You think about it for a while, let it marinate in your thinking.  It still sounds good.

So you bring it into the world.  You test drive it to see if it holds the road and has a potentially powerful engine.  In practical terms, you initiate a series of conversations with friends and colleagues who are knowledgeable about the arena you want to enter.  I’m not talking about formal interviews or focus groups.  Just informal conversations with people whose judgment you trust—and who could give you a hand in the implementation.  These are people with experience, with resources, with connections.

By the time you have gotten deeply into the conversations, two things should have happened.  First, you have begun to build an informal team, people you can count on when your idea must be transformed into action.  Second, you should have refined your idea.  It should get better and better.  You should feel smarter and more persuasive when describing the project.  You can even anticipate the challenges.  If you choose the right “consultants,” how could you not improve on your original idea.

In other words, you are already ‘firing.’  What had begun as an idea begins to take on a life that grows with each conversation and with each iteration that follows.

Soon you begin firing with greater confidence.  You talk about the idea as a reality, not as a potential reality.  When I began the INML, for instance, I wrote to friends that it would begin the following October, that there would be a set of year-long seminars and mentorships.  I did not yet fully know the content of the seminars, but I had a pretty good sense.  And the more I talked, the more excitement built.  Here’s a rule of thumb: it is easier to generate excitement in a reality—it will happen…we will launch…–than in a possibility.

Now you move towards concretizing the idea.  You bring together people who will do the work, supporters who will supply the funding.  This is an inflection point.  If development is slow and ponderous, your idea may not have legs.  If you are unsure: people and resources come together slowly, slowly; you will have to set a longer timetable to reach your objectives.  If people and resources gather momentum, be prepared to go with it.

There is nothing so powerful as momentum.  People and organizations flounder during periods of rapid growth as frequently as they do with slow growth or even stagnation.  Be prepared with ideas about how to grow rapidly, and be prepared emotionally.  You will sometimes feel overwhelmed.  There are too many balls up in the air; I’ve never dealt with such a big project; the pace is frightening.  But if you know from the start about this kind of surge, that you will be proceeding with incomplete knowledge, from hypothesis to hypothesis, and from hypothesis to preliminary results, you will be better positioned to succeed.  Of course, having others along who have taken such a rapid rise into the frontier of an idea helps a great deal.  Make sure to surround yourselves with a veteran or two.

There can be negative consequences to moving quickly but also for not moving quickly.   I have known lots of people who wait too long.  They want to have the idea just right.  They want the conditions to be just right.  They want the proper support.  And before they know it, someone else has gotten there first.  Or they have lost their initial passion, which makes it almost impossible to restart.  Or they lose their initial partners and allies.  The point is to seize the day, strike when the iron is hot.

There are lots of people who will cluck, cluck with disapproval.  They will say you are impetuous, that you don’t know enough, that you are ruining what might be a good idea.  You must have skin thick enough to weather their skepticism—active and passive.  Few people will tell you it’s a bad idea, at least right to your face.  But lots of people will “yes but” you until you are dizzy, wondering why they even say yes when they really mean no.  They say that it’s a good idea but not so practical.  It’s a good idea but the time isn’t yet ripe.  It’s an idea that needs to be tested—and tested again.  It might work elsewhere but not in this community, this market, this financial climate.

If you have managed to weather the skepticism and begun building your project, you will encounter difficulties.  The financial model isn’t quite right.  You hired the wrong person.  The market needs to be better primed.  The objectives still seem right but your strategies aren’t quite right.  You need a day-to-day manager to balance your enthusiasm.  All of these challenges can usually be met—if you are open minded all along the way; if you consult with colleagues; if you are willing to change with regularity until you get it right, at least for the time being.

As you can see, “aiming” is a constant, from the start of any project, not a one time thing.  You are constantly taking aim and, based on feedback, recalibrating your target.  That is what every good archer knows.  Learn from the last shot.  This is the fastest way to see if your ideas work and what you have to do to improve their implementation.  Call these efforts “pilot projects,” experiments—no matter—they put your ideas out in the world where reactions to them are real and vivid and informative.


Barry Dym is the founder and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership, now affiliated with Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University.  Among other things, he is the author of Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations and, with Susan Egmont and Laura Watkins Managing leadership Transitions, as well as the prize-winning article, “Utilizing States of Organizational Readiness.” Barry is a finalist for a 2015 MNN Nonprofit Excellence Award in Leadership.