March 14, 2017

Embracing the Challenge of Change - Afterthoughts

When Pam Raumer invited me to speak at RINA’s client appreciation event on the subject of “Embracing the Challenges of Change,” I don’t think I fully realized just how relevant that conversation would be on January 31st and the degree to which the nonprofit community would need to address the impact of political change within our own organizations.  Regardless of which side of the national debate any individual falls, nonprofit leaders must be both immediately responsive and forward thinking in addressing the long-term impact that the policies of our new administration will have on their organizations, their people, and their communities.  

In striving to serve their constituents, achieve sustainability, and manage growth, nonprofits must always evaluate how external or environmental change stimulates the need for internal change.  Moreover, as we engage in planning, we must also consider how the change we pursue within our organizations affects the broader community.  

As nonprofits, our impulse when facing challenges or threats to our organizations is often to shrink – to cut budgets and programs, rather than to invest in the people and practice that will help us grow – we see deficit gaps rather than opportunity gaps.  We have a tendency to subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy and, as a result, become so comfortable doing things in the same ways we’ve always done them, that we often don’t recognize when they do eventually “break” or could use a tune-up.  

When Sean Parker was interviewed after giving $250M to support immunotherapy research last year, he made a comment that really stuck with me.  Put simply, he reminded us that in the tech sector, there is not just an acceptance but an expectation of failure that allows more entrepreneurial thinking and also increases the potential for success.  In the nonprofit sector, our risk tolerance tends to be much lower.  Our business models aren’t built to accommodate failure as a learning tool – as a result, we are too often surprised by it and spiral into crisis mode.  

A few years ago, a client told me that they didn’t have time to plan because they were too busy juggling.  My response was, “You need to learn how to walk while juggling.”  We always need to operate on parallel paths in nonprofit management (or really in any business) – we need to look ahead and plan for the future at the same time that we’re managing the day to day and addressing the crisis right in front of us.  If you allow yourself to become consumed by the crisis, you’ll never get out of that mode.

Moving your organization from its present state of development to achieve its stated vision of the future requires a certain amount of risk tolerance and a willingness to change, adapt, and innovate toward positive results. Last fall, I attended a conference at which the presenter shared Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons framework for managing change.  It’s a three dimensional way of looking at change management, with all three horizons living in the present, and one that I find very helpful in addressing those parallel paths.

Horizon 1 is identified as the current way of doing things – change happens but in a way that sustains or extends existing systems and behaviors. Horizon 3 is the transformative vision of the future and the systems that make that vision possible. Horizon 2 helps to enable the transition from H1 to H3 and involves innovation and entrepreneurship.

The point Sharpe makes is that all three horizons exist at once and need to be considered as you move forward in implementing the change that will get you to your future vision.  In order to reach the vision of what we hope to be, we need to engage in both H1 and H2 practice.  We need to identify what works about “business as usual” and continue to improve it, while at the same time proactively thinking outside the box and bringing entrepreneurial ideas and methods into our organizations.