Raymond Shih

This is the fourth part of the six-part blog series  ‘Building the Business of Grand Challenges Canada’

The other part of deciding what to do is deciding what NOT to do. This is important for any organization to define in order to make tactical decisions. As not-for-profit organization we have to achieve impact with limited resources and therefore, this second half of the equation is especially critical.

By setting collaborative grant processes as a clear operational priority, it quickly became apparent that other areas will not be the key differentiators for Grand Challenges Canada.[1]

Our organization values leaders and we made the decision to not hire anyone who we felt could not demonstrate leadership in their respective fields. For example, while we put a lot of effort into building a best-in-class team to deliver on all things grant-related (program teams, finance, and communications), we could not afford to invest heavily in non-core activities, like general information systems or payroll. It is simply not feasible (or desirable) be a leader in all areas.

Rather than bring in staff that would not demonstrate leadership in non-core areas, we made the decision to outsource those parts of the business. Outsourcing can be an effective model to reduce costs, improve tactical flexibility, and improve focus on core competencies. However, outsourcing does not mean “out of sight, out of mind.” Outsourcing may actually increase costs and risk if not effectively managed. Therefore, we tried to identify service providers that fit culturally with our organization, identified explicit goals for any outsourcing or consulting relationship, and applied a consistent methodology to making decisions so that everyone could agree when the process was working effectively or when changes were necessary.

An example of this approach has been our experience implementing a performance management system. Being a publicly funded organization at the late startup phase, we had two concurrent needs that we needed to address. The first was to have a way to easily compile and report the various projects and initiatives we work on for external reporting to evaluators, auditors, board of directors, etc. The second was an intuitive performance evaluation tool for staff and managers for internal use.

Rather than hire a reporting analyst and a human resources manager, we instead worked with GrantBook, an external consultant specializing in cloud-based computing, to select a new cloud-based solution called Small Improvements that does both functions.[2]

We left the experts at Small Improvements to figure out how to best compile information about our activities and transmit them internally and externally. This allowed us to concentrate on our mandate to drive global health impact through our programs.

By deciding on what our desired core competencies would be, we were able to improve operational effectiveness by devising tactics (like outsourcing) to minimize resources spent on non-core activities.

The other rule we follow is to break our own rules when it makes sense.[3] For example, having a large Summer Student program does not improve operational efficiency or improve our ability to deliver grants collaboratively. A large group of interns requires a significant amount of time to evaluate, hire, train and manage. However, in order to inject fresh thinking into our organization and help develop the next generation of global health leaders, we continue to feel that this well worth the effort.[4]

B-schooler, do-gooder and ace networker, Raymond Shih believes in telling the Grand Challenges story like a B-school case study in his tongue-in-cheek style. Follow the six-part series here and reach out to him on Twitter @RvShih.


[1] Executionist tip: An excellent way to visualize where your organization can provide value to its stakeholders is Michael Porter’s Value Chain model. By plotting where you intend to add value on the visualization diagram, it can quickly become apparent where your investment and resources should be focused. And no, I do not work for Michael Porter.

[2] Executionist tip: I am no expert in selecting technical solutions but I do have a few pieces of advice.  When starting a selection, it always pays off to spend some extra time to: 1) Identify the purpose of any solution and the scope of the ensuing project 2) identify technical requirements 3) define the selection criteria 4) identify project risks and mitigation strategies. Too often, people implement solutions based purely on referral without properly articulating the problem(s) they wish to solve.

[3] Creating a rule to break a rule is like applying the time travel concept in a movie.  It just doesn’t make sense but sometimes you have accept it in order to move on.  Admittedly, it’s also a bit of a cop-out by the writer.

[4] We also just love the enthusiasm and energy they bring.  This is a virtual shout-out to all the great interns we have had so far!