New York City – home to one of our nonprofit audit and accounting offices – is also the home of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, held every year at the end of August. The winner that eventually hoists the trophy aloft in Arthur Ashe Stadium is most often a victor in a less visible statistic, too: unforced errors.
As the name implies, an unforced error is the loss of a point due to a player’s own mistake – for example, hitting a routine shot long or into the net. In other words, the opposition did not force you into making an error. You caused the loss of the point all on your own, without any help from your opposition.
One of the keys to winning in tennis is to minimize your unforced errors. This is also an important lesson to apply to the management of your organization. Unfortunately, the business world and the nonprofit sector are both full of examples of unforced errors. Organizations that maintain inventory must strive to keep the correct quantities on hand for various events or seasons, but they might find themselves missing the deadline for replenishing their stock, resulting in a loss of sales. A “pay-what-you-can” restaurant that doesn’t take the appropriate steps to control spoilage will suffer unnecessary expenses. Some organizations even let old equipment collect dust in a back room, instead of using or selling the equipment while it’s still functional. And in any organization, allowing an underachieving employee to stay on the payroll too long is a prime example of an unforced error.
An unforced error will always cause loss, whether that’s a point in a tennis match or real money and resources in an organization. But it’s important to remember that despite our best efforts, unforced errors do happen – we are human, after all. Just as a single unforced error will not determine victory or defeat in a tennis match, it’s unlikely that any one decision or single missed opportunity will cause long-term damage to your organization. By taking reasonable steps to minimize your unforced errors, you can position your organization for success.