You don’t often hear the term “court sense” when discussing the leadership of nonprofits. The term comes from basketball, describing the ability of a player to see what’s developing on the court, at all times. They have a game plan, but they also have to adjust on the fly, studying their opponents’ behavior and seizing opportunities as they arise.
For me, court sense is the alert, action-oriented posture that a sport like basketball demands for success. When managing organizations, my childhood experience playing 23 regulation games in 5th grade instilled court sense in me — the ability to pay attention to and manage more than one thing going on, and to adjust to fast-changing variables so as to predict where the next opening or opportunity might be. In the nonprofit sector, “court sense” means understanding the broad environment that impacts your organization.
It’s valuable to take time regularly to step out of your comfort zone, and out of the weeds of daily tasks and pressing issues. A good leader is constantly looking for what is likely to impact the organization’s future, both internally and externally.
As we near the November election we face a great deal of uncertainty. It’s time for you to practice your court sense, to try to prepare for every eventuality — not just next month, but in the months that follow. This could be a brutal challenge: nonprofits are still adjusting their Covid-era strategies, and now they’re faced with additional, potentially momentous, sea-change.
Your job is to look up, look forward, and look around. Be ready to react to changing conditions and threats, and to identify new opportunities to innovate and to take risks. To thrive in a complex world, you can’t just slog forward every day checking off boxes in a linear fashion. You have to anticipate problems, process new information, and adjust your strategy. I call this “systems thinking.” And systems thinking requires court sense.
Porpoising for Early Warning Signs
It’s easy just to tell people to anticipate and make preparations for change. But how should they approach this challenge? One technique that I use I call “porpoising.” Think about a porpoise, repeatedly diving deep into the ocean and then rising to the surface, gathering information at all levels. Porpoising is designed to unearth valuable information, whether in the short term or for the long haul, both internally and externally. Porpoising points to a culture of observant listening—and enables you to “hear” sounds of trouble before you learn about it through official channels.
As a manager, periodically “porpoise” beyond your immediate team and talk to diverse groups of people at every level of your nonprofit. Seek to understand by asking simple questions: What is going on here? Is the organization in your way? What external challenges are you facing? How do you think we could address those challenges?
The key is to listen respectfully so that your staff are comfortable sharing what’s going on and are giving you actionable information. Encourage them also to porpoise, to listen carefully, to be alert to what’s going on within their group, as well as outside the organization.
In my experience, you can always find a reason to talk to anyone that you want to. Porpoise beyond your internal staff teams, to clients, to suppliers, to donors and funders, and of course to your board members. You can even porpoise with other nonprofits to gain valuable insights and to leverage their knowledge and expertise.
As you consider different November outcomes, ask the tough questions. What changes do you anticipate with a new or re-elected government? How could this impact the economic environment we all face? How could it affect our ability to deliver services?
Have a Deliberate Plan
Set a goal to become an expert porpoiser. I had a plan every week to touch base with different parts of my organization.
While strategic decision-making always includes risk, developing your court sense and regularly assessing trends will help shape your instincts and reflexes. It will inform the way you lead and how your staff and board think and work, make decisions, deliver services, and relate to clients and donors.
What changes do you anticipate with a new or re-elected government?
How could this impact the economic environment we all face
How could it affect our ability to deliver services?
I invite you to share this newsletter with your associates, your family and friends, and to order a complimentary print or digital download of my latest booklet. Please visit Applied Wisdom for the Nonprofit Sector: Eight Practical Insights for Leaders.
To your success,