Five Critical Questions for Every Organization


Organizations are both complex and simple. They are complex in that they are made up of different people, working together to solve difficult social problems that often operate at multiple scales and over long time horizons. Successful organizations tend to grow, which adds to the scope of work, level of resources, number of relationships that must be managed and so forth. Thus growth and success only increase an organization’s level of complexity.

At the same time, the work and life of large and small organizations alike can basically be boiled down to two simple and essential questions:

  • Where are we going?
  • Do we have what we need in order to get there?

With daily crises, new opportunities, excessive workloads and deliverables, and all the other week-to-week strains, it can be easy for an organization to forget or ignore these two basic questions. Here we break these two basic questions down a bit in an effort to help organizations stay focused on the heart of the matter – their purpose and their approach.

1. What are we trying to achieve?

This is the basic Strategy question: what key changes are you trying to bring about in the world? What major goals and outcomes do you want to achieve?

These questions cut to the heart of your organization’s mission, direction, and purpose. They ask you to define the results and outcomes that you will drive towards and they help you, your board, constituents, funders to hold you accountable for delivering on your goals.

Although these questions may seem obvious, it can be easy to lose sight of one’s core mission and goals amongst the daily shuffle. Further, being precise about goals and priorities is remarkably difficult for most organizations, large and small. Very few organizations clearly articulate their major goals and the results and outcomes they are trying to achieve. So, if you can think about this question every day and develop a good and clear answer, you will probably be well ahead of the field.

2. How do we define success?

Once you’ve defined your major goals, the next question you need to ask is how you will know if you have achieved your goals; basically, what defines success? Answering this question is essentially a matter of developing meaningful targets, metrics, or indicators that relate to achieving your goals. This puts your goals into a format that you can use to develop work plans, allocate resources towards, and track progress against across your team and your organization.

Hence, this question lies at the heart of Monitoring and Evaluation – the purpose of which is to measure and track your progress against your organizational priorities so that you know whether or not, or to what degree, you are succeeding.

3. Do we have the right team?

The most important factor to any organization’s performance and ability to deliver on its goals is its people – its human resource team. This is true for all great organizations, companies, or institutions of widely varying sizes, shapes, and purpose. Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, emphasizes that “hiring is the most important thing you do” as the leader of a company.

Building great teams is a struggle for many organizations in the conservation and development field due to limitations in the overall human resource base, and stiff competition for talent with private companies and international organizations that often can offer more attractive salaries and benefits. Further, many local organizations are also driven by highly motivated founding individuals, and remain dominated by that individual in a ‘personalized’ state of existence. But to achieve challenging goals and scale up impacts, organizations need to overcome these shortcomings or barriers and build great teams of multiple talented individuals who work well together and provide complementary skill sets. For any organizational leader, your success depends on your ability to build, grow and manage such teams.

4. Is our resourcing sufficient and appropriate?

The other essential ingredient for any organization’s work is money. Organizations need to fund their work, which includes funding their human resource talent and key infrastructure. Moreover, the funding needs to align with an organization’s needs and interests. Many organizations are preoccupied with the amount of funding they have, but the type of funding is just as important. It is easy for organizations to acquire sources of funding that actually impede their ability to deliver on their mission and goals.

This most frequently happens when: a) an organization opportunistically acquires funding that is not aligned with its core mission, goals, and priorities; b) an organization acquires funding that creates a lot of work in terms of activities and deliverables, but doesn’t provide sufficient investment in overhead or core costs; c) an organization acquires funding that carries complex and onerous administrative requirements, which the organization does not have the capacity (or resources!) to meet. In all these circumstances, funding can actually regress an organization’s work towards its mission and goals.

On the other hand, the best funding tends to be from long-term investors that really understand an organization’s work, are committed to a genuine partnership, and provide core or unrestricted investment that provides an organization with both security and flexibility. Such funders are rare, and any thoughtful organizational leader should make every effort to build those kinds of special partnerships that can make all the difference in an organization’s resourcing. But at the very least, organizations need to ensure that all money coming in is covering the real costs it takes to run a project as well as the organization as a whole (e.g. contributing adequately to salaries, rent, car repairs, etc.) This also means being able to say ‘no’ to funding that does not align with an organization’s priorities or funders who are not willing to invest adequately in basic costs and capacity.

5. Who can we work with?

In the world today, even the best organizations rarely are able to achieve ambitious goals on their own; this is even more the case with smaller organizations operating in a rapidly changing environment.

This brings into focus the importance of collaboration – building the relationships that enable you to leverage the skills and resources of other organizations through identifying and pursuing common interests. Such collaboration is central to influencing the wider social and ecological systems that any organization exists within, and ultimately must find ways of shaping in order to achieve its goals.

Identifying key strategic collaborators, and then developing the relationships that you need in order to take joint actions, is the final fundamental question for your organization: Are you working with the right organizations as collaborators and partners? It requires developing a culture of collaboration, a set of skills around managing relationships, and honing one’s communications skills.

If you don’t have clear answers to all of these questions – don’t worry! Almost no organization has perfect, straightforward answers to all five of these questions. This is partly because for any ambitious, high-performing organization operating in today’s fast-changing world, the answers to these questions are constantly evolving. What is important is to keep these questions in focus, and to carve out the time with staff and key partners to regularly review them through reflection and learning. The more time you spend on these fundamentals, the sounder footing your organization will be on.

Download a printable and simplified version of the Five Critical Questions for Every Organization here.

StrategyJessie Davie