I had the opportunity to catch up with an old friend today and we talked about all things creative, expressive, operations-y, entrepreneurial, and plain-old catch up. (If you’re reading this, hi M.A.!). The last year and a half of blogging about spreadsheets came rushing back (btw this is post #99!!!!!!!!). We traded stories about working in a corporate office building versus pursuing graduate school… what we’ve been up to since the last time we chatted. And then he said something that stopped me in my tracks. It was the phrase, “lean organization.”
A rant that I didn’t even know was in me came tumbling out.
“I need to push back on the term “lean organization” and let me tell you why.”
Next thing I knew, as I paced circles around corporate landscaping, sitting on the occasional bench and tight-rope-walking on the occasional flower bed border, I let it loose. I think it’s because this friend and I have known each other for so long that I could be really honest. And I’m going to be honest here too!
Lean Organization. It has so many undertones. So many codes. So many meanings. When I hear “lean organization,” I hear….
… underpaying staff
We’re a lean organization! We can’t pay reasonable wages / benefits / hire enough staff to do the amount of work that needs to get done. We don’t support work/life balance. We don’t have people in crucial roles, like being a database manager (hiiiiii!)
… undermining other nonprofits
We’re a lean organization! Unlike THEM, we don’t waste money on stupid stuff. (Writer’s aside: A race to the bottom benefits no one!)
… extracting and exploiting labor
We’re a lean organization! We don’t have time for creativity, exploration, or research and development. Everything is about crossing off the to-do list. We don’t build relationships for the sake of relationships. We only invest in transactional relationships that will bring us closer to our immediate goals.
… under-resourcing projects
We’re a lean organization! We don’t invest in equipment like a color printer! We don’t send staff to professional development opportunities. We don’t buy snacks for our meetings. We don’t maintain our database. [I could go on and on!]
… “bottom line” all the time
We’re a lean organization! Everything that doesn’t relate to our sole, short term purpose is frowned upon. We don’t encourage our team to spend time on creative passions, research and development, or experiments. We don’t spend time helping other organizations/movements achieve their goals.
“Thin” organizations are GOOD unlike “fat” organizations which are BAD.
Some alternative phrases
I think there’s some truth under the “lean organization” phrase. It’s true that there are organizations out there that don’t use their funds strategically or wisely. It’s true that we have to make hard choices based on capacity, and sometimes that means saying no to things. But it’s also true that striving toward being a so-called lean organization can be an unexamined (or insufficiently examined) response to fears or threats – rather than a proactive stance toward the kind of organization we WANT to be. Like… fear of judgement or comparison. Threat of losing funding. Competition. Scarcity. Believing that there aren’t enough resources so we are forced to “tighten our belts” (see? more bogus diet culture!). Believing that it is wasteful to have enough or even a little extra capacity. Believing that “fat” is the worst case scenario. Living in late stage capitalism, I don’t blame any of us for internalizing these beliefs. So let’s take every available opportunity to challenge them.
Instead of being a “
lean organization” let’s try some of these new catch phrases.
- We are small, but well-resourced
- We focus on one goal a time
- We use our resources wisely and intentionally
- We approach our work with strategy and spaciousness
- We hone in on what we do best