Thursday, February 16, 2017

From Stagnation to “Purposeful Wandering”

Organizations, especially nonprofits, often struggle when it comes to making necessary changes to stay relevant, let alone stay afloat. Such organizations battle with organizational inertia, where they are stuck on the same path doing the same thing they have done for years. Organizations that have been caught in this trap for a long time don’t always see the need to change because it has been “working” for so long.
The American Red Cross maintained the same organizational structure for over 60 years (Lorsch et al, 2008)! In the Red Cross case, a series of publicized scandals finally prompted their transformation. The response to calls for change may be “that’s not the way we do things around here” (Brown, 2016). Jeff Snider of Habitat for Humanity International struggled against this attitude in the early 90’s (Slavitt, 1993).

Even if leadership desires change, they may feel paralyzed with no idea of how or where to start. There are many competing demands on nonprofits, and it can be difficult to decide which direction(s) to go. Even if they know the direction they want to take, barriers to implementation and resource constraints are obstacles to change which must be addressed beforehand (Brown, 2016). Some organizations may think they need to know every step of the process before acting. Even if management sees the need for change, they may fear losing their jobs in the process. The organizational culture may not incentivize innovation at lower levels (Hamel and Prahalad, 1989). Any of these conditions can result in the organization failing to recognize and capitalize on opportunities.

Despite these difficulties, there are clear steps organizations can take which will put them on their desired path.

  1. Strategic planning. Strategic planning is number one in this list for a reason. Without a concrete idea as to the organization’s goals and the initial steps needed to get there, organizations flounder and fail to enact meaningful change. This process entails identifying changing trends and how the organization should respond. It also helps the organization look outward and inward to identify internal strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats (Brown, 2016). Strategic planning entails reevaluating goals and to assessing progress on a regular basis.
  2. “Act thinkingly”. The hardest part is taking the first step. Pursuing change involves moving into the unknown with a goal in mind, or “purposeful wandering” (Bryson, 2016). Once the organization begins the process, they have already broken the cycle of organizational inertia.
  3. Increase stakeholder buy-in. Strategic planning should include input from internal stakeholders (board members, management, staff) and external stakeholders (partner organizations, clients). These parties can contribute helpful insights and provide a more complete understanding of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. They also bring enthusiasm, expert opinions, and oftentimes funding and manpower to the table.
  4. Target barriers to change. Operational challenges can prevent innovative projects from reaching their full potential. Great ideas may not be feasible for a variety of reasons. The organization must have enough manpower and funding and must address existing issues in service delivery to set the stage for successful implementation of their strategic plan. They should anticipate possible challenges during the strategic planning process.
  5. Revamp organizational culture. Without support at every level of the organization, big plans for reform can fall flat. Staff tasked with implementation must understand the role they play in the organization’s success. Approaching resource constraints requires a space for improvisation and creativity (Hamel and Prahalad, 1989). In the business world, businesses have succeeded when management has set goals for staff, but given them room to identify the means to achieve these goals (Hamel and Prahalad, 1989).


Brown, William A. “Strategic Management.” In Renz, David (eds.), Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2016.

Bryson, John M. “Strategic Planning and the Strategy Change Cycle.” In Renz, David (eds.), Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2016.

Hamel, Gary and C.K. Prahalad. “Strategic Intent.” Harvard Business Review, May-June 1989, p. 63-76.

Lorsch, Jay, David Chen, and Eliot Sherman. “The American National Red Cross.” Boston: Harvard Business School, 2008.

Slavitt, Andrew. “Habitat for Humanity International.” Boston: Harvard Business School, 1993.