Every organization development and strategic consulting project begins with a discovery stage. A time to research and hear from stakeholders and constituents. A time to hear stories about the past, assessments of the present and aspirations for the future. Depending on the project the exact focus will differ.
How effectively is the group working together?
Organization development projects focus on how people are working with each other – what is going well and what are the rubs that are getting in the way of the group being effective in achieving its purpose. The consultant engages in an action research project which could involve observation, interviewing key stakeholders, running focus groups and surveying wider audiences.
Capturing the current state
In the case of strategic planning, the consultant also digs into past work – past strategic plans, other research, basic organizational documents such as by laws, financials, organizational charts, board minutes, work plans, etc. The goal is to begin to get a sense of the current state of the organization. With this grounding in what the organization has documented, the consultant will then dive into talking with stakeholders – through interviews, focus groups and surveys.
Sifting for Nuggets
The next step is to synthesize all this data. This step can be overwhelming when you are sifting through piles of interview and focus group notes to look for the significant nuggets. But once it comes together in the form of themes the gold starts to shine through.
Gift of Listening
One of the real powerful aspects of all this work comes through the interactions with the people you interview, listen to in a focus group, ask for feedback in a survey. Too rarely in organizational life are people asked to reflect on and talk about their experience within the organization. Each interview is an opportunity to be a gift of true listening.
The sigh of recognition
Sharing the synthesis of the research is the point of truth. When you succeed in accurately capturing what you heard and your highlights resonate with the people whom you gathered it from – you can often hear an audible sigh of relief and recognition. “You really heard us,” is music to my ears. The act of being truly heard and seen empowers people to stand in their lived experience and then take action. This could be to face a difficult challenge or have a difficult conversation. This could be to dream bigger for their organization and start envisioning how to take action towards it.
Conversely, when you share the themes with the group and they do not want to hear some of the feedback, lots of different reactions can happen. Denial and dismissing the information. Questions and challenges about your methodology. Getting stuck on one point and spending lots of time arguing about it. Sometimes a project then gets shut down. This is unfortunate for a couple reasons. The organization expended resources gathering information with which they are not ready or willing to deal. More importantly gathering data often raises the expectations of those involved in the input process. They may then be more discouraged after the process than they were before if they see no action taking place.
The Power of Data Gathering
Either way – whether the information prompts the relaxation that comes with – “oh I am not alone – lots of other people think like I do but we just have not been discussing it,” or “no way, you are wrong – that is not how our team functions…” Something powerful happens. The group will not be the same afterwards. Be ready for change when you ask for input.
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Staff turnover is usually described in terms of its costs. The loss of institutional knowledge. The time and energy it takes to find a replacement. The burden on those who are left behind who have to take on urgent tasks while juggling the rest of their responsibilities. Yet when someone leaves creating a vacancy on your team, you can use this moment as an opportunity.
Look before you jump
You may be tempted to hurry into the hiring process, dusting off the old job description and posting to every place you can think of. Instead take a breath and a moment to think about what has changed since the person who had been in the role started.
What’s different now?
Start by asking yourself and your team a few questions. How has the role morphed to fit the departing person’s particular skills and talents? Are there aspects of the role that someone on your team would be excited to take over? What would they trade for these new responsibilities? What else has changed? Within your organization? With the constituents you serve? The wider political, economic or social environment?
Get the team involved
Use it as an opportunity to even reimagine everyone’s role on your team. Rather than simply doing this reorganization yourself, involve your team in the discussion. This will make it more likely that they will embrace any new role that is created. One way to do this is to have a conversation with each team member. Find out what skills and talents they want to develop and what new responsibilities they see themselves taking on, as well as what responsibilities they feel like they have outgrown.
Create a responsibility wall
This type of reshuffle will likely create a bit of a domino effect. Each person on your team will likely be impacted in some way. Another way to involve the team in reimagining the distribution of responsibilities is to create a map of your team’s work. Ask each team member to write their major tasks on post its (using the one task per post it rule). Consider assigning each team member a color. Put them up on a wall. You will likely notice that team members are doing similar work that they may not have realized. How could the tasks be clustered differently than you are doing now? Are there natural groupings that you did not realize before? Do you have good alignment with each team member’s strengths? Before diving in, decide whether there are any non-negotiables that should not be put on the table – or the wall in this case. Set your ground rules of what is in bounds and what is not up for grabs.
Want to be in the conversation that results in this reimagining instead of facilitating it? Inquire about a coaching session and we can talk about how I can help.
Sustainable nonprofit organizations stay strong by paying attention to five key areas – vision, mission and strategy, leadership, communicating value, revenue generation, and engaging stakeholders.
Organizations that fail often are tripped up by trouble in one or more of these areas. They allow mission-creep. They fail to generate sufficient unrestricted income to support the on going operation of the organization as well as new initiatives. They fail to tell a compelling story of the work they are doing and the impact it is having. Their leadership becomes insular and stops engaging with stakeholders, often assuming they already have a good sense of their needs and wants.
Vision, mission and strategy
A compelling vision of how the world will be different because of your work is not enough if you do not couple it with specific strategies to achieve that vision. Organizations are stronger when they invest the time and energy into periodic strategic planning – taking a step back to assess their current state and set a limited set of goals for a three or five year period. But this is also not sufficient. Those larger goals then need to be translated into the organization’s annual work plan. Both volunteer and staff work needs to be tied to achieving those larger goals. Those work plan goals are ideally “SMART” – specific, measurable, assignable, relevant and time bound.
The organization’s long-term health is best served when there is shared leadership between the staff leadership and board. An organizational leadership who discusses strategic issues, has clear goals that they are aiming for and makes sure that they have access to good information and data when making decisions positions the organization for success. A key role of leadership is also to ensure that staff has access to the tools and resources they need to effectively do their jobs.
Becoming internally focused is a mistake that is very easy for organizations to slip into when confronted by the rush of the urgent. There is a creative tension between your leadership holding your vision and setting strategic direction and ensuring that you are also engaging with the constituents you serve. Taking the time to see the world from their vantage point and understanding their needs and their pain points. Without this, the organization may waste time and resources creating programs and services that are not relevant to the constituents they aim to serve.
A truism in the nonprofit sector is “no money, no mission.” This saying reminds organizations that they will not be able to pursue their mission for long with no resources. While a nonprofit does not pay dividends to share holders, it can have programs that are profitable. It can – and should -- be profitable – or have net assets in nonprofit accounting language at the end of the year. An organization with a break-even will constantly struggle to remain financially viable. Leadership needs to understand the organization’s business model, including its revenue engine. What is the mix of revenue sources – both traditional fundraising and earned income that build the organization’s capacity over time? Relying solely on grants endangers organizations because most often those funds are restricted to a specific purpose. They support (and create) work but do not necessarily support the organization overall.
To raise funds from individuals and from organizations, organizational leaders need to be able to effectively communicate the value that the organization produces. What are the compelling stories that demonstrate your impact? Have you defined how you achieve your impact, including the outcomes of your work? Are you measuring that impact so that you can demonstrate the change you are affecting?
Use this Organizational Sustainability Assessment tool to see where your organization is strong and what needs attention.
Would you like to talk more about how this applies to your organization? Inquire about a free coaching session.
This is the fourth part of a series of posts on the mistakes organizations make in strategic planning. In previous posts, I have explored a number of mistakes that organizations make. These include plans that:
Not Allocating Enough time
Some organizations make their process and plan too complicated. While others go in the other direction by under estimating what is needed for a strong planning process. They do not allow enough time and do not allocate enough resources to support the process. This can lead to a rushed process that results in a superficial analysis. This often ends up with business as usual – even if there is a grand vision – because there was not sufficient thought put into the implications of the plan.
Not really wanting to change
Rushing the process can also be a symptom of the most fundamental reason a planning process will fail – not really wanting to change. If influential stakeholders do not really want to make the changes that some are advocating for in the organization. Or if they are not willing to make hard choices, the plan will likely fail.
Are the stakeholders are truly bought in to the new vision? Or alternatively – people want change and yet are not willing to do the things that would get them there. The desire is not enough. It is like saying, “we want to be innovative, we just don’t want to do anything new.” There may be lip service to change but underneath the commitment is not there.
Often times people bemoan ‘resistance,’ demonizing the people they label as resisters. There is often talk of how to overcome resistance. A better approach is to investigate what is motivating the resistance. Approach those who are working against or just not working towards the envisioned changes and talk with them. Learn about what is going on with them – what are their fears and hopes? There often are good reasons for their resistance and addressing their concerns can strengthen the plan. There may be more common ground than you realize.
So what will increase your likelihood for success?
Want to talk about how you might apply this at your organization? Book a coaching session.
This is the third part of a series of posts on the mistakes organizations make in strategic planning. The first reviewed how plans lacking buy in from key stakeholders usually end up gathering dust on the shelf as well as how to avoid that outcome. The second explored how some planning processes do not ground themselves in real data, relying instead on anecdotes. I also discussed how visioning can sometimes go too far, creating plans that lack connection to the organization’s actual capacity. In this third post, I will discuss two additional mistakes that get in the way of an organization having a successful planning process.
Getting overly complicated can show up a few different ways. Sometimes it’s the process itself. Organizations trip themselves us when they try to tackle too many strategic issues through one planning process. The process gets bogged down. People forget why they started the process in the first place. At the end of an overly complicated process, people are often so tired that they have little energy to implement the wonderful plan they have just created. Keep your focus on 2-3 major strategic issues and keep the process moving for success.
The plan itself can also be overly complicated. A strategic plan that ends up too long and too detailed often tries to nail down all the actions steps in advance. The big ideas get lost in the pages and pages of graphs and Gantt charts. Keep the strategic plan itself simple – a few pages with 3-5 big goals that will orient the work of the organization. The details should go in an implementation plan, focusing on the first year’s work plan.
Failure to operationalize
Failing to operationalize the plan is one of the most frequently mentioned challenges by consultants working with organizations on strategic planning. When your strategic plan is not connected to your regular management practices, you set yourself up for failure. Staff and volunteer work plans need to be driven by the large strategic goals with details on what action steps will move the organization closer to those goals. I worked at one organization at which a lot of effort was expended to connect volunteer groups actions to the strategic plan. Yet the strategic plan had no impact on staff work plans. This practice missed a key element to increase the likelihood of the plan’s success.
Budgeting is a second key area for operationalizing the plan. Remembering that a budget is nothing more than a plan in numbers, when the budget does not support the strategic goals then progress is unlikely. Are new initiatives being adequately supported with investment?
Be sure to create a process for monitoring progress and making tweaks to the plan as needed. Staff and volunteers should be reviewing it regularly, acknowledging and celebrating where progress has been made and adjusting as appropriate.
Keep it simple
So keep it simple – both in your planning process and in writing the plan itself. Think about how you will operationalize the plan and integrate it into the your regular management practices at the beginning of the process.
Want to talk about how you might apply this at your organization? Book a coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.