I’ve been reading a lot about strategic planning and organizational change lately. Never mind that these topics resonate with me; something bigger is going on. The recent Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) featured Dan Heath, one of the authors of Switch, a book devoted to strategies for organizational change. While just a few years ago there were no workshops on this topic at the NTC, in 2011e there were at least four. Here’s my two cents: It’s about fucking time.
In the prehistory before I became a full time consultant (nptechery), I worked for a few organizations while they were engaging other consultants to lead strategic planning processes. Having read books on leadership, served as a member of a nonprofit board, and been executive director of a nonprofit, I was thrilled at all the signs of something happening: surveys, interviews, group meetings, ED promises, new committees, Harvard Business Review articles photocopied and left on my desk… Mmm, tasty!
What I realize today, and with the benefit of hindsight, is that very little was what it seemed. The leaders of one organization were using the strategic planning process to help push the COO gently out the door. The expression on her face at those group sessions on ‘Key Result Areas’ wasn’t concentration, as I surmised. It was resentment or ill-concealed rage. They big shots did a good job of mining the consultants for time management tools, while never believing for a second the garbage about everyone having a voice. It turns out that the verb ‘listening’ also refers to a soul-crushing process of pretending to care while wasting employees’ time. Who knew?
Quite a few people knew. That’s why there is so much literature on strategic planning and organizational change. It’s the ‘dieting’ book shelf of the nonprofit world.
I remember another senior staff meeting at this other job. We had these great phone calls with consultants, and then four of them showed up at a senior staff meeting to explain all about the process the organization would undergo. They were never heard from again, and within a year more than half the people in that room weren’t working there any longer. What happened? My unconfirmed theory is that there were so many obvious management problems that some funders and board members forced the director to ‘do something.’ And this lasted for as long as it took for the director to claim that he gave it a try. (Most memorable quote: “stop being so collaborative.”)
All organizations have to contend with gaps between status power and expertise. At some point, the best solutions or insights come from those with less power. Not because power makes you soft – though this does happen. It’s because the less power you have the more likely you are to specialize in tasks that the folks upstairs are committing the hours to learning. That’s why bosses have been known to ask secretaries to print all their emails out.Not learning how to use email is, in spite of it all, a mark of high status.
A consultant with McKinsey once told me the secret of her work: to ask junior staff for advice, select the best bits, and charge up the wazoo for a nifty report recycling those ideas in jargonese. Imagine a world where ideas from junior staff travel effortlessly up the chain of command, only to be rewarded with acceptance and recognition on a case by case basis. Now forget that world, because it will only drive you crazy while living in this one.
A better idea is to read Switch If you haven’t already. This amazingly easy read assumes the reader does not have enough power to change things coercively, by dangling rewards and punishments. Like me, you’ll have to rely on friendly persuasion strategies and tactics. The time for telling consultants what you think so they can steal your ideas is over. Its now time for the subtle manipulation of your colleagues and bosses while reminding yourself that your current job is just a stepping stone on the way to building a personal brand. And that you might just be someone else’s stepping stone as well.
But seriously. The current wave of interest sweeping the nptechie world for all things strategic and change-y is a good thing. After all, change is too important to be left in the hands of the executive directors, board members and consultants. Developing a shared language about these matters is key to sharing ownership, all of us together, in the success of our projects and missions. Its about getting the best price in exchange for your ‘buy-in.’
Now that’s change you can believe in.