Despite the popularity of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why,” leadership groups often have trouble staying at that level. Think of a time when your board or leadership team was meeting and someone brought up a new idea for a new program. It’s likely that without a lot of discussion about why you should or should not do the program, the discussion jumped into how you would do the program.
Is this new initiative strategically important?
I was working with an organization and another organization had come to them with an idea for a partnership. The senior leadership charged with managing the strategic direction of the organization assembled to consider the proposal. Rather than staying in the ‘why’ – why should we enter into this partnership? Is it in alignment with our mission? Does it support the goals articulated in our strategic plan? Will it help us reach a key audience? Will it build our brand and reputation? Does it capitalize on our core competencies? Will it help us strengthen key capacities? Will we be filling an important gap in the market? Instead they skipped right over those questions and had a long discussion about how the partnership could work. Who would be involved? When would be good timing to get started? So the key question of whether the partnership was important for the organization was missed.
Why are we working on this project?
Too often when teams start working together on a project they make the same mistake. Without talking about why they are assembled, what is important about the project, what they each bring to the project, they jump to project management. They start outlining and assigning tasks. This is why I find the Drexel-Sibbet model of team development particularly useful. It reminds the group to start with why. Its second stage considers who is in the group and takes some time to get to know each other. Only after why and who has been answered is the group truly ready to shift into what and how.
So the next time you are starting something new – considering a new idea for a new program or initiative or starting a new project, spend some time discussing the why. Why is this important for us? And if there is not enough ‘there, there’ when you answer why, remember you can also choose not to pursue the new idea!
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A Buddhist monk, a leftist guerrilla warrior and a technology executive walk into a bar called Changes. “Ah the nature of change,” the monk says, “the world is always in flux, permanence is an illusion and attachment to permanence is the cause of suffering.” The leftist guerrilla replies, “But Mao said there must be a great leap forward.” The tech executive says, “Fast Company says change is happening faster than ever and we must always be the next big thing.” The bartender shrugs her shoulders and asks how each of them is planning to pay for their beers. “Everyone with ATM money again?” she says, “Go somewhere else to make your change.”
Can you manage change?
Sorry for the poor attempt at humor. People talk about change management and say that that is what they do. But can you really manage change? I believe you can be intentional about moving toward change. Yet saying you are managing change gives an illusion of control that I do not think is real in dynamic human systems. Organizations are human systems and are describes as “intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, [and] meaning-seeking” as Meg Wheatley described. While you can force change on people, I do not believe you can force people to change.
There typically is a spark that initiates the change. This could come from outside the organization – a crisis, a major shift in the market, a new mandate or regulation. Or it could come from inside the organization in the form of a vision championed by either formal leaders or through a bottom up effort of informal leaders.
Focusing the effort
When done well, the organization will take advantage of the spark by being intentional in focusing the change effort. Is the organization ready to change and makes the best of the challenge or opportunity? How will leaders choose to invest the time, energy and resources into envisioning and implementing change? What new structures need to be created to support the desired change going forward?
Creating organizational change intentionally means taking time to thoughtfully design and engage in meaningful dialogue. Does the past need to be mourned before a new beginning can be imagined? Is the environment safe enough for people to bring their whole selves to the endeavor? If not, what will increase those conditions of safety?
Systems of support
Once the change is implemented –whether it is new goals and aspirations envisioned in a strategic plan or implementing a new technology system or building a new program – ensuring you have systems in place to support the new change and allow it to take hold is key. Identifying, harnessing and sharing stories of success can be a powerful way to help the change stick.
What change are you trying to make in 2020? Let's talk about them
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.
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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.
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