Organizations change. As new technologies emerge, new partners or competitors come out of the woodwork, or new constituencies arise, an organization must adapt to meet the changing landscape. What sounds so easy, however, is often a significant struggle. Why? Change is complicated, messy, and uncomfortable. It’s not a flick of the wand and presto change-o – it involves many intertwined parts. So, when facing change, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Be honest with yourself. Jack Welch calls it “candor” or seeing the world as it is, not as you want it (Charan). Before you can implement change, you must have an honest, realistic assessment of where you are, what your problems are, what resources you have (or can reasonably acquire), and where you want to be. There’s little point in frustrating processes you and your staff recognize if you don't know where you’re starting.
2. Strategize. Even seemingly simple problems don’t always have a clear-cut solution. If you change X, will it affect how you undertake your work? how you or your staff relate to your mission? Are you just getting at the surface? Take the time to strategically plan – to look at the issues you think you’re facing, dig up their root causes, identify their impacts on other facets of your work, lay out internal and external forces at play, and weigh your options (Renz, Ch 9). A full explanation of the process of strategic planning is beyond the scope of this piece, but the underlying message of making strategic, well thought-out choices still stands.
3. Be prepared to invest. Change requires time, money, and often, political capital. Make sure you allow yourself enough time to study and analyze, to develop new processes, to get buy-in from your team, and to let the new processes take hold. It can be expensive, time intensive, and unpopular. But in the end, investing in a change is important for lasting success.
4. Follow the old adage: There’s no ‘I’ in team. Most change will affect more than just you. And most people, even the lowest on the totem pole, probably don't want to be told that their work is being torn apart without at least some input. As you’re analyzing the issues and potential solutions, make sure you’re including multiple viewpoints in the calculus. Your board, the public, your constituents, your funders, your program managers, your street-level team all have valuable and different takes on the situation, and may provide you with some insight you would otherwise miss. And when you consult them, even if their input isn’t followed exactly, they’ll appreciate the opportunity and the respect, and be much more likely to welcome change (Renz, ch 9).
5. Recognize that you may need to change the change. We can’t always get it right the first time around. Part of implementing a change is accepting you need to keep an eye on it. If you make an adjustment that isn’t improving your ability to work on behalf of your constituency or that makes the lives of your staff vastly more difficult, it might be time to adjust. Evaluation of external outputs and internal achievement is key. When you’re ready to make a change, make sure you have a way to test whether or not it’s working, and a process ready to change the change if you find you need to (Hamel and Prahalad).
This list is by no means exhaustive. Change is uncomfortable, and few like to think about it. But when you’re faced with a shortcoming and it’s time to change, keep these in mind as starting points for a smoother transition.
Charan, Ram and Noel Tichy. 1989. “Speed, Simplicity, Self-Confidence: An Interview with Jack Welch.” Harvard Business Review. No. 89513:110-120.
Hamel, Gary and C.K. Prahalad. 1989. “Strategic Intent.” Harvard Business Review No. 89308: 63-76.
Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.