Answering Question Zero: What is success and how do we measure it?

Herman Leonard, a professor at Harvard Business School, has a concept called Question Zero. This asks “What exactly are we trying to accomplish?” The idea being if you can’t answer Question Zero, then don’t bother with questions 1 through 99!

For social ventures and non-profits this can be a difficult question to answer simply and communicate succinctly. Especially challenging is the need to manage, measure and balance financial success, mission or community impact and ongoing organizational sustainability.

I have been writing and speaking about this topic for a while – at Social Venture Institute at Hollyhock and Social Tech Training in Toronto, with the Demonstrating Value Project – and most recently at the Vancouver Net Tuesday event in November.

Over the years  I have developed some techniques, and incorporated the best I have found, to help non-profit, social enterprises and social purpose businesses answer this question. Ironically, through another series of questions! Questions like:

  • What kind of story are you trying to tell?
  • Who is the audience?
  • Are you speaking the right language for that audience?
  • Are you measuring your mission or your activities?
  • Do you have the right balance between time and space in your measures?

Over the next few posts I will be going into more detail on each of these questions. For now I’m very grateful to Guacira Naves from Online Strategy for posting a video recording of the presentation here. Many, many thanks Guacira!

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:–-part-iii/


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