Ahead of the Chief Strategy Officer summit in San Francisco, May 7 & 8, we spoke with David Wittenberg, Director of Financial Strategy at World Vision US, a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide with $1 billion revenue in the United States.
As Director of Financial Strategy, Dave provides strategic decision support to World Vision executives to achieve greater impact from their biggest bets. Dave brings a unique blend of traditional corporate investment analysis and behavioral economics developed over the course of more than 300 major strategic initiatives in a variety of for-profit companies and not-for-profit organizations. He held extensive responsibilities across a wide range of industries as an advisor to CEOs and CFOs in capital investments, strategic analysis, M&A, and other major decision. From these experiences Dave developed a highly effective, disciplined, yet flexible framework that enables teams to unleash their full capabilities to generate better solutions, wring out hidden waste, and deliver superior returns. He received his MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and served as Visiting Assistant Professor in Finance and Business at Pacific Lutheran University.
What's unique about World Vision's strategic finance?
What's unique is a focus on the execution of the strategy. Organizations put intense effort into Strategy Development (setting the right direction) and Project Management (doing projects right). But organizations may not have strong disciplines around the middle step of Strategy Execution, or "doing the right projects." A focus of my work at World Vision is applying a strategic finance toolkit that drives the maximum results from our strategy… making the best use of our resources.
What are the challenges of successful strategy execution when you're a humanitarian organization?
One of the greatest challenges in moving from the for-profit sphere to the nonprofit sphere is that it's much more difficult to define and get an organization-wide buy-in on the definition of success. In a for-profit company, while we wrap our mission statement with wonderful ideal, at the end of the day the mission of a publicly traded company is to maximize shareholder wealth. And we have Nobel Prize winners who have helped us determine how to define, measure and determine the difference between 'some' profit and 'enough' profit to achieve our cost of capital and maximize wealth versus destroying shareholder value. That same objective, quantified guideline does not exist once we move from for-profit to nonprofit of any kind, whether it is a global humanitarian organization or an educational institution or even a government. We can attract people who have fabulous passion and skill, but without a common definition of success, an organization can be pulled apart in a score of different directions. Because it's less concrete it can be more difficult to find that common definition of success and implement an effective strategy.
Most strategies end up failing to achieve what they set out to do, what can be done to make them successful?
Recognizing that our conventional approach of identifying how to deploy our resources for a maximum impact has many hidden flaws. These flaws are so severe that the best solution is often never surfaced and second-rate solutions seem like no-brainers. As a result, leaders do not get the information they need when making their biggest bets so resources are squandered and opportunities are squandered.
What traps do companies tend to fall into when they're creating and implementing a strategy?
The first and one of the greatest pitfalls is charging ahead with the first plausible solution rather than recognizing that most innovative ideas usually come in the third or fourth round of brainstorming - but we rarely have the patience for or the commitment to that because once we have what we think is the right idea, our energy and enthusiasm for seeking something even better drops off dramatically.
What kind of changes do you think needs to be made to the workforce mentality to make them more effective at embracing change and new strategies and new innovations?
It generally has to start with leadership's desire to find better strategies when their current approaches and practices are wholly insufficient in meeting the demands of today's competition.
Can we get any teasers about what you're going to be talking about at your presentation?
I'd have hoped the title itself (The Triumph of the Mediocre) is enough of a teaser!
If I was to give just one more teaser, it would be that I will talk about recognizing that we have more than three decades of coming to understand the flaws in human nature. We've come to understand there are many rational flaws in how our customers make their decisions, but we think that when we walk through the doors of our workplace we and all the rest of our team are suddenly immune from all those same blind spots, biases and shortcuts. We really need to accept that we are all flawed, adorably so!
Hear David's presentation at our Chief Strategy Officer summit in San Francisco, May 7 & 8.