”Survivor” Nonprofit Style

Environments generally change much faster than the organization.

WHAT?!?! I recently read this statement and have since spent hours contemplating its significance. How can it be that an environment - far larger than a single organization - changes more quickly? It just can't be!

But it is true. Organizations change very little and very slowly. And, in paying closer attention, I realize that I am privy to a significant number of organizations whose very existence currently is being threatened by a changed environment. As I've been busy building the internal functions of organizations - leadership, financial resources, evaluation measures, "capacity" - external factors have snuck in like thieves in the night, seemingly intent to kill the organization.

What sorts of external factors am I talking about?

1. The political environment. Examples: Organizations are feeling forced to make decisions not in their own best interest but in the best (or self-serving) interest of outsiders. The "players" in the industry are changing and the organization is not as "in" as it once was. The organization is becoming obsolete as it is shunned by community leadership.

2. The funding environment: Decision makers change (e.g. the comings and goings of elected officials), funders' priorities change and the number of those competing for funds is increasing.

3. The competition (and not always friendly competition, either): There are more players, savvier players, those who "don't fight fair" to capture "your" board members, "your" funders, "your" media attention - all things that no longer are yours.

4. Industry trends: Entire systems are being scrutinized and called to change (delivery of healthcare services). Client populations are shifting and thus presenting different needs (e.g. longer life expectancies for developmentally disabled individuals). The workforce is aging and its long-time professionals are retiring without obvious replacements.

The scariest threat? The fact that most organizations don't even realize there is a problem until it is too late. The typically slow system for recognizing and responding to external change almost assuredly guarantees that organizations will be unable to recover once the downhill slide has begun.

What are the ways in which organizations can combat fatal external factors, and capitalize on those opportunities sometimes presented by the environment?

Organizational Development and Leadership Guru Dr. W. Warren Burke contends that the external environment must be monitored, with organizations gathering as much data as possible about current and future trends. His article, "Leading Organizational Change," Burke says, "It is the change leader's responsibility to see that this data gathering occurs. The need for this is based on open-system theory; that is, the reality that an organization's survival is dependent on its external environment. How well an organization assesses and analyzes its environment has a direct bearing on its degree of success and ultimately its survival."

Burke suggests that analysis of the external be coupled with internal self examination to determine the organization's appropriate response (e.g. a need for change) and to clarify its vision and direction. This analysis and planning must occur prior to taking any action if the organization is to be sustained into the future.

Further warning is provided by Burke to those seeking to meet environmental challenges via organizational change: "A paradox of organization change is that we plan in a linear fashion - step one, two, three or stage A, B, followed by C, etc. But in the implementation of the change, we discover that the process is anything but linear. Organization change, in reality, is a nonlinear process. The change never occurs quite the way it was planned. As interventions are made, organizational members react in ways that are not entirely predictable. In other words, unanticipated consequences arise from the planned initiatives and interventions that then have to be addressed and managed. Resistance to the change is what we usually call these consequences, but organization change is not resisted by everyone. And resistance that does occur rarely takes the same form in different people. In any case, most of the leading and managing organization change is a process of dealing with unanticipated, unpredictable consequences.

"But we do need to plan. We also need to be clear, however, that things will not go precisely accordingly to the plan. So, how do we proceed?

"Imperative is having a vision for the future that generates clear goals. With goal clarity and a broad phased way of planning the change process, we can deal with and manage unanticipated consequences."

Strong Leaders / Strong Stories

Strong leaders have strong stories, and a solid sense of "self" as a leader.  But too often, even strong women view themselves or are perceived as being very good at "getting things done," but not as valuable strategic resources. What can you do to change this?  Find Out More Here