Change is necessary for any nonprofit to sustain itself. As the challenges facing the nonprofit sector become more complex, however, organizations must manage multiple changes at once.
“The world we live in is not the world we used to live in when we can make a choice for 10 or 20 years,” says Bill Pasmore, author of Leading Continuous Change: Navigating Churn In the Real World and senior vice president and global organizational practice leader for the Center for Creative Leadership. “Things change faster so we need to be resetting those priorities based on what’s really happening before we run out of time and resources to respond.”
Many organizations struggle with leading change successfully. A 2008 study by McKinsey & Company found that a staggering 70 percent of changes that organizations take on end in failure, which echoed the findings of a 1995 research study by John P. Kotter, a retired Harvard Business School professor. Since then, research continues to suggest unfavorable success rates in leading change.
“A lot of effort gets put into these things before somebody pulls the plug and says this isn’t working,” explains Pasmore. “What happens in most organizations is that every time your leadership team gets together, there is a new item on the agenda or some other urgent, important challenge that we think we ought to address as a leadership team.”
Of course, there are consequences to making changes when you don’t need to change, says Pasmore. Some organizations have implemented changes to appear hip or keep up with the competition only to learn that the changes were unwarranted and even damaging.
“We’re much too open to taking on those kinds of random changes than we should be, and particularly when it’s an idea that’s presented from the very top level of the organization,” says Pasmore, adding that sometimes leaders become distracted by what other organizations are doing. “Rather than following suit, maybe you should be thinking about what’s good for you instead of just doing what others are doing.”
To lead continuous change, Pasmore recommends four mindsets: think fewer, think scarcer, think faster and think smarter. Here are some ways that each mindset can transform your nonprofit in the New Year:
Professionals who work in the nonprofit sector are unified by the universal mission to change the world. But the mission of some nonprofits can become so ambitious that it is beyond their reach. When organizations think fewer, it means that they have set realistic goals that they know that they can accomplish with concrete steps. Your team must first determine how much change it can handle by assessing what issues in its mission are the most pressing. “You can change the world, but you can only do it if you’re focused,” says Pasmore. “You can’t do it if you’re trying to do everything at once.” Instead, get into the habit of narrowing your organization’s priorities.
Considering that many nonprofits have limited resources, they have to be selective about the time, energy, and money that they invest into certain change efforts. “The resources that exist in the organizations in most cases are already working at their limit in terms of their capacity to do much of anything beyond what they’re already doing with the shoestring budget,” explains Pasmore. By thinking scarcer, organizations can also prevent employee burnout. Pasmore adds, “If we don’t think of it as a precious resource and we just keep asking people to do everything, we’re going to get nothing back.”
If your team is constantly putting off changes or waiting for the right moment to address an issue, you may miss an opportunity to make improvements that can strengthen your organization. Thinking faster isn’t about being reckless. Instead, it’s about being intentional about how you respond to change – even in times of ambiguity. “If you’re slowing down because you’re trying to get it to be perfect, you’re probably wasting time and resources that you shouldn’t be wasting,” says Pasmore. He encourages organizations to take a step forward with the knowledge they have and learn as they go instead of remaining dormant out of fear. “Ultimately, I think it is faster than not getting there at all,” he says. “You need to be changing as quickly as you can to respond to things that are evolving out there. You can’t take so long to catch up that you never catch up.”
Learning is at the core of successful change efforts. It’s important to measure the effectiveness of your strategies for leading change and evaluate the performances of the people who are tasked with leading those changes. “We want so much to believe that we already know the answers to everything and we’re good at everything that it’s really hard to stand back and objectively collect information and allow it to influence the ways in which we operate,” says Pasmore. When you think smarter, you’re making a conscious effort to learn from your mistakes and using data and metrics to help you make better decisions. “If you don’t start the whole process of thinking about change with a different mindset and you keep trying to apply the same mindsets that you have then you’re going to wind up in the same place that you’ve always been,” says Pasmore.
In order to safeguard your nonprofit’s future, your leadership team needs to engage in candid discussions about the kinds of changes that will allow it to accomplish more overtime.
“We need to repeat this process on a fairly regular basis and continue to bring in objective information that makes us question what we are doing as required by the world around us,” says Pasmore.