Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why We Avoid Change and What To Do About It

Dire realities for nonprofit organizations make change difficult-- and in some cases, nearly impossible. Let's not sugar coat anything here. Nonprofits are afraid to lose support or money. They are afraid to embrace the Herculean effort needed for change because planning, organizing, executing and evaluating is exhausting. They are afraid to shake things up because the majority of them operate without excess. Change isn't easy, but it can be unworkable when money controls all actions and the budget is tight. It's also not easy to shift away from the status quo at an organization because habits and leadership styles can become so ingrained that no one knows the root of the problem. Heard this story before? So, what's the magic bullet? How can an organization make change less difficult?Perhaps it lies in establishing a set of cultural norms up front.

For example, here's a list of five preventative cultural norms that an organization can adopt to be more amenable to change--more flexible, more prepared and happier with a constant state of flux:

1. Establish a culture of confidence
In a 1989 interview for The Harvard Business Review, Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of General Electric shared what he felt made him successful. Statements like: "Insecure managers create complexity, real leaders don't need clutter," (p. 112) and "don't get paralyzed about the 'fragility' of the organization... the best way to play your hand is to face reality--see the world the way it is and act accordingly" (pp. 113-114) are examples of the style of thinking that Welch and his team used in their working environments. Welch talked about candor, processes that focus on change and a commitment to a stimulating, free and adaptive atmosphere. All of these characteristics must be cultivated up front and they must be priorities for an organization to capitalize on the tide that change can bring.

2. Cultivate a culture of strategic intent 
A strategy similar to Welch's, outlined in the Harvard Buisness Review by authors Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad focuses on intent, strategic intent precisely. Strategic intent "is stable over time," it "sets a target that deserves personal effort and commitment," and it "captures the essence of winning" (p. 64). Challenges always stretch an organization, but if the working environment encourages competitive focus, an ongoing sense of urgency and appetite for quick adjustment, staff will find themselves more nimble and capable of quick adjustment.

3. Practice a culture of optimism

In the article Transformational Leadership, author Kim Cameron notes a number of optimistic mindsets that can be practiced and expected--on a daily basis at any organization. "Create preferences rather than respond to existing preferences," "focus on things-gone-right," "continuous improvement" and "offensively pursuing high-quality" (pp. 4-5). An organizational culture based on these tenets is to sure to be more comfortable weathering change.

4. Support a culture of variation
Kim Cameron's article also made a number of succinct references to how an organization creates readiness for change. Training and retraining staff members, changing up personnel, discussing opportunities and threats and using a new language to define old problems are all ways that an organization can enhance their change preparedness (pp.7-8). Doing so will provide staff members with the skills and tools to adjust to instability with less friction than doing so without practice.

5. Insist upon a culture that plans
David Renz et. al note in The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management that organizations with a strategic plan soar above those without one. The strategic planning process in itself brings staff, board and the community together in a way that anticipates change--and prepares for it. Strategic planning is a specific way that any organization can increase their preparedness for the future, which might just make the unknown a little less scary.


Cameron, K. (1991). Transformational leadership. In Developing Management Skills. New York: Harper-Collins.

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.

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