Bubble Chamber CIC

The Four Horsemen of Social Enterprise

It may sound a bit over-dramatic to refer to the big issues facing social enterprises as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” but, having spoken to hundreds of social enterprises in the last few years, I feel justified in doing so. These four evils can scythe down everything in their path, stopping you in your tracks and having a serious effect on your impact as an organisation.

What shall we call them? How about:

Confusion

Famine

Failure

Ineffectiveness

Not quite as hard-hitting as the original four – Pestilence, War, Famine and Death – but it’s just as deadly when these marauders invade your business.

What do I mean by them?

Well, Confusion is A Lack of Clarity about your strategy and where you’re going as a business. This is the deadliest of all because without it you can’t go much further and your decision-making, your ability to take advantage of opportunities and deliver impact will be clouded by confusion and, ultimately, inaction.

Famine, in a business context, is A Lack of Resource, which means that you just can’t achieve what you want to, even if you’ve got your strategy sorted out. This can apply to time, talent and, of course, money. You have to be fully resourced and sufficiently funded or the going will be, at best, slow and soul-grindingly frustrating. In the absence of having unending resources at your fingertips, it’s vital to maximize those you do have.

Failure can mean lots of things but here I mean it as A Lack of Enterprising Culture. Social Enterprise leaders have expressed to us many times that they sometimes feel alone in developing their business as just that – a business, where sustainability and even, dare I mention it, profit are key features. This problem can be found even among CEOs themselves who, despite the commercial acumen they undoubtedly have, sometimes still shy away from seeing themselves as business leaders.

And, if it’s not coming from the top, you can’t expect anyone else in the organization to be switched on to the harsh realities of surviving in the world of business. A key to tackling this is developing what we call The Core Habits of Enterprise – Effective Communication (Understanding, Being Understood, Challenging and Transforming Conflict), Plan Do Review, Personal Productivity, Coaching and Being Comfortable with Numbers.

And then Ineffectiveness is A Lack of Social Impact. We’re all in the social enterprise sector because we want to make a difference but how easy is it to prove that you’ve done that?   You can work incredibly hard over many long hours but what does it all amount to in the end? What we find is that there is a lack of clarity on how social impact is actually defined and measured. I’m not talking about spending 1000s on measurement, just something that is appropriate for the scale and complexity of your organisation. Understanding the impact and change will ultimately ensure you deliver better quality services and provide the evidence for your communications and for funders, when you’re seeking investment.

So, taking all of these issues together, we can see that good intentions are all very well but are not enough. They have to be backed up by systematic planning and a set of solid foundations that mean your business is sustainable and the difference you make is real and long-lasting.

Where do these Four Big Issues come from, you may ask? I haven’t made them up. Talking to many, many social enterprise leaders over the last few years, my colleague Ben and I have heard these concerns repeated again and again. On Purpose, who also work with social enterprise leaders, have based their CEO Programme around very similar concerns, based on research they’ve carried out on the sector.

These issues stand out as the biggest challenges that face social enterprises and come from real-life entrepreneurs who are struggling to make that vital difference. So often, soc ent leaders we talk to are in danger of becoming disheartened or overwhelmed by these all-pervading issues.

And these challenges are not confined to the social enterprise sector. All business leaders face them and that is a vital point to remember: Soc Ents are in the same boat as everyone else and trying to survive the same conditions that entrepreneurs are facing in the commercial arena. The aims may be slightly different but we’re all subject to the same forces of nature in all its destructive power.

These Four Horsemen of Social Enterprise have given us the pillars of what we do at Bubble Chamber.   Our approach to business growth is founded on:

  • clarity of purpose (the starting point for everything that follows)
  • developing an enterprising culture throughout the organization
  • scaling up and becoming sustainable
  • delivering social impact

If you can hear the distant thundering of hooves, don’t ignore them but talk to us about the tools we use to help you un-horse these devilish riders and build a positive and effective future.

PS  If you’re wondering about the picture, it’s from the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but it could have been taken in some offices we’ve visited!

Running (Your Organisation) with Purpose

So, somehow my brother-in-law persuaded me to run a marathon this year. Beer and bravado probably had something to do with it. Now, I’m not built like your traditional runner but I’m really enjoying some serious mileage each week.

Apart from the physical challenge there’s the mental aspect of cranking out those miles. To help with this I went back to a book I read a number of years ago called ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, a classic by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. He’s a bit of a legend: 25 marathons, 11 novels and some crazy ultra marathons.

I’ve decided to take a proverbial leaf out of the book – that is if you substitute being a novelist for being a social enterprise coach and consultant.

When working with organisations, we always start with the personal and organisational purposewhy are we doing this? If we don’t get this right then the business is simply not going to work. So, taking some of my own medicine, I’ve had to think about why I’m running, if I’m to have half a chance of getting through this marathon and that scary thing called the ‘wall’. I realised I need to get some focus.

Craziness, fitness, raising money for charity, challenging myself & wanting to get a faster time than my brother-in-law are a number of reasons that spring to mind. But thinking this through, it’s not clear as some or all of these are relevant and valid reasons.

This is a common mistake organisations make when they are not clear and have too many “whys”. When pushed, I would say the main reason for me to run is that, having got to the other side of 40, I want to challenge myself. Having defined this, I now know that I should be planning for the THE BIG RESULT, that is the marathon.

Back in Enterprise life, if you know why you are doing something, where you want to go to (Vision), and where you are positioning yourself in the market, then devising a growth strategy becomes a lot easier.

A good organisational example of not knowing why they exist, which is close to my heart, is that of Newcastle United Football Club. From a fan’s perspective, the club has been directionless for about eight years now. Some would say they do know the “why” – the club just acts as a shop front or giant billboard for Sports Direct and the owner’s passion.

Other “whys” include making as much money as possible (another passion) through buying cheap young players with high sell-on values, while just staying in the Premiership and getting stupid amounts of TV money. And, at the same time, cutting the costs of running the club to the bone.

Another key thing about purpose is aligning it with the different stakeholders involved. In Newcastle’s case, the fans want a team that at least tries, provides some entertainment and is a good representation of the region. The players know it is just a stepping-stone to getting sold to another club, so there’s no loyalty. Fans, players and the people who run the club all have different purposes.

The result of this? Well if you know the current state of football, you can look at Newcastle and see we’ve got one giant mess of an organisation! Not knowing the “why” has led to numerous mistakes in sales, marketing, operational, finance and people strategies.

The club is certainly not growing. The owner and board do not understand the marketplace. Even the owner’s purpose of using the club as a shop front for Sports Direct seems less than logical, as a poorly run and performing club is not the best brand advertisement. Or so it seems to me.

Well, rant over – perhaps a long run this weekend will run it off. Another 18 miles to ponder all things Strategy and Social Enterprise!

Peer Power – the value of Leadership Groups

What is the value and relevance to social enterprises of Peer to Peer Leadership Groups? In the commercial world they are well established; members can pay in excess of £10k a year to be part of one. So, how can they work in our sector?

Firstly, let’s look at what usually happens at the meetings? Most run on a set format – an expert speaker, followed by an issues session and the chance to network. 121 coaching outside of the meetings is becoming an increasingly popular addition. All of these elements derive value for the group members but it does require a half-day commitment each month.

The obvious value of the format described is:

➢ The expert speaker, who can give great insights into a wide range of business practices that allow you to grow your enterprise

➢ The issues session is a valuable chance to get insights into how other leaders would solve your problem, all in a safe and trusted space. This is often called “The Board You Can’t Afford”

➢ Networking is a chance to develop business opportunities and grow your network

➢ Coaching where you work with an experienced business coach to develop specific areas of your enterprise in detail

So, given all this value, why has the concept not taken off fully in the world of social enterprise and the charity sector? I think there are four key reasons (if my points appear provocative, I think we all recognise at least some of the issues involved in trying to develop sector talent). They are:

1. A reluctance to pay for anything and viewing talent development as a cost rather than an investment.

2. Charity leaders feeling they have to get permission from their trustees,who are risk adverse to spending money other than on delivery.

3. You don’t have the time. Sector leaders are notoriously time-poor, some of which can be justified but smarter working can help.

4. Ego – the feeling that you have nothing to learn from anyone else.

To alter these attitudes requires a change of culture and mindset. Now, that shouldn’t be too difficult, should it? After all, the social enterprise sector is built on the principles of cooperation and mutualism.

Bubble Chamber have teamed up with CAN to run a peer network within their Mezzanine operation. It proves the power of peer support and the impact it can have on growing individuals and organisations. Contact us if you’d like to be a guest at a future meeting.