Mission Possible

How to build a successful for-profit organization using the nonprofit values of respect, inquiry, and courageous experimentation.

Over the past year or so, my colleague Dr. Jennifer Aaker and I have discussed her research on public perceptions of for-profit and nonprofit businesses and the impact these perceptions have on consumers’ willingness to engage. Dr. Aaker, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and her fellow researchers have found that the public often sees nonprofits as warm but incompetent and for-profits as competent but cold. But when it comes to consumer engagement—a key ingredient in most successful enterprises, regardless of their tax status—a mix of warm and competent is ideal. So, how can organizations achieve that rare combination in practice?

In my career, I’ve worked extensively in the nonprofit world. I currently serve as president and CEO of HopeLab, which combines research and innovative solutions to improve the well-being of young people with chronic illness, and I previously held similar positions at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation, and the Infectious Diseases Institute. I’ve had the opportunity to see how global leaders in the nonprofit, for-profit, and government sectors manage their businesses and note the impact of their approaches on the consumers of their products and services. As a result, I am frequently asked what combination of attributes enable a successful, high-functioning enterprise—or, in Dr. Aaker’s words, an organization that is both warm and competent and, as a result, able to successfully engage the people it aims to serve. My answer generally surprises those who ask.

I take as a given that any successful endeavor needs smart people who are committed to their work. But that alone is insufficient for success. An organization must also be clear and authentic about its core values and make certain that those values are not dissonant from the personal values of its staff. Successful, high-functioning enterprises find smart people who share core values and are committed to abiding by them even (and especially) when the going gets tough. In particular, I’ve found the values of respect, inquiry, and courageous experimentation to be transformative. But can values-based management work equally well in all types of business settings? And, on a day-to-day basis, what does that really mean?

By respect, I mean a deeply held conviction that every human being deserves respect. When applied to business, this means that you must treat everyone—the angriest customer, the most exasperating colleague, the fiercest competitor, the most difficult vendor—respectfully, even if their behavior toward you might encourage otherwise. You don’t have to like any of them, but you must approach each one with a conviction that he or she deserves respect.

By inquiry, I mean maintaining an attitude of curiosity, even in the face of information, behavior, or other data that might otherwise be aggravating, frightening, disappointing, or, conversely, exhilarating and welcome. Skillful use of inquiry minimizes defensiveness, amplifies learning‚ and paves the way for innovative thinking and creative solutions—both large and small—to difficult challenges. It is also an essential tool in respectfully engaging with your customers, colleagues, and others vital to maintaining a competitive edge and achieving impact. A disenchanted customer presents a fantastic opportunity for learning. And authentic engagement with such an individual can not only improve your product or service, but also turn a damaging critic into an invaluable ambassador for your business.

By courageous experimentation, I mean a willingness to act, not in a rash or mercurial way, but in an informed and decisive one, understanding the information available to you may be incomplete or inadequate but nonetheless sufficient to guide a thoughtful strategy. It means one must act with the full knowledge that one might fail—indeed one will absolutely fail at times—in order to transform the order of things. That’s why it’s both “courageous” and “experimental.”

Worth the Risks

Taken as a whole, these three values are powerful tools in any business or organization. Over the decades, I’ve seen them produce breakthrough solutions to confounding problems. For example, the video game Re-Mission—designed by HopeLab to improve the health of young cancer patients—was grounded in the application of these values. Since its release in 2006, the game has helped the kids who play it to better adhere to oral chemotherapy and antibiotics and to increase their cancer knowledge and self-efficacy. Re-Mission’s success (more than 150,000 free copies have been distributed to 81 countries) has prompted others to work on projects rooted in the idea that video games can be both fun and effective in driving positive behavioral change in health, education, and other applications beyond entertainment.

HopeLab involved teen cancer patients in Re-Mission’s development at every step. To better understand the drivers of and barriers to treatment adherence, we inquired deeply, iteratively, and directly about patients’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about themselves and their disease. In short, we respected them for being the experts they were. Not surprisingly, they responded with candor, insight, and humor, all of which proved invaluable in the game’s design.

Of course, when Re-Mission was first envisioned, it was considered a risky, if not ludicrous venture. Most game developers thought we were crazy to believe that we could develop a fun game in this way, and most oncologists thought we were crazy to believe that playing a video game would elicit real-world behavioral change. This is why courageous experimentation is so important. We did not know whether Re-Mission would succeed, but we believed that it was worth the risks to find out. Ultimately, we tested the game in a rigorous, controlled trial that proved its efficacy, forever changing stereotypes—and opening the door for more “serious” applications—in the health and video game industries. This is values-based work at its best.

As Stephen Covey wrote in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Leadership is not a singular experience. It is, rather, the ongoing process of keeping your vision and your values before you, and aligning your life to be congruent with those most important things.”

Values-based decision-making is hard work. It demands that we be mentally present and fully engaged in and responsible for our thoughts and actions. In my work, I have found it to be effective, powerful, and rewarding. What about you?.

Pat Christen is president and CEO of HopeLab, a nonprofit social enterprise that harnesses the power of technology to promote positive health behaviors in young people. HopeLab’s approach combines scientific research, innovative approaches, and the direct input of cancer patients to produce fun, engaging products that measurably improve their health and quality of life.

The Meaning of Business


In light of the economic crisis, companies have a historic opportunity to transform the way they do business and provide customers with more value-rich, sustainable, and meaningful products and services. With this special series on “The Meaning of Business,” design mind invites business leaders from various industries and disciplines to explore new, innovative models of value creation.

A New Era of Meaning - An Introduction
By Tim Leberecht
Chief Marketing Officer, frog design

Articles in this series