Managing change in your organization

Happy New Year!

Many nonprofits follow the calendar year for their fiscal year and annual programs of work. Whether January 1 marked a new program/fiscal year for you or not, this is always a good time to reflect on the horizon and prepare for future challenges.

Is 2013 going to be a year of change in your organization?

If you answered no, and are planning a year of smooth sailing, of status quo . . . your complacency may be naïve and even detrimental. Remember that organizations are dynamic, “living” creatures that are invariably in a state of growth or decline. Changes in the population you serve, in the availability of funding, and in the way that the world is influenced by natural and man-caused disasters are virtually a given. Be careful if you’re planning on a quiet, uneventful year. As the old saying goes, “Leaders don’t coast.”

If you answered yes, you’re probably being more realistic and thus already better suited to success. Change is inevitable, but organizational upheaval is not. If in fact 2013 is likely to be a year of significant changes in your mission, leadership, funding, or operations, here are a few ideas to help guide you through.

  1. Appreciate that change is fundamentally about human emotion and behaviors, and is therefore a very personal event. What constitutes a “major change” is different for different people, including what time and support they need to process the change.
  2. The culture of your organization–the unwritten but critically important folklore– may well represent a major resistance to needed change. Depending on the age of your nonprofit, organizational culture is often about protecting the status quo. Newer board members and newer staff are likely less invested in the culture’s tenets.
  3. For some people, change can be a kind of death–the death of the old way, and birth of the new. It can be helpful to literally consider the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance, etc.) in helping these people cope.
  4. Being ready for change and prepared to accept its challenges should be continuous in every organization. Remember Tom Peters’ line, “Embracing change is not only essential for success, it’s essential for survival.”
  5. Change is not inherently bad, of course. But change usually brings conflict, and how you handle the conflict determines whether the change is positive.
  6. Assume that about 15% of any body of persons will be the “recalcitrants,” the ones who really dig in and resist change in any form. This is a fact of human behavior, not an inherent weakness. As possible, attempt to understand what their fear is about the change. Put them in a position that is inherently more stable, if that is possible, and help them see an individual benefit to the new chapter. Putting change in the recalcitrant’s own context may be able to nurture their acceptance and buy-in. If this person is a valued part of your organization, it’s surely worth a try.
  7. A critical time in organization change is “the neutral zone,” the time between the old reality and the new reality. Depending on what your organization is doing (buying a new building, adding a major program, merging with another entity), this zone of time may go on for months. Your skills as a leader are critical here in keeping lines open, keeping enthusiasm rolling, parsing the challenge into do-able deeds, and celebrating along the way.
  8. Obviously candor and transparency are key to maintain morale. Keep everyone informed along the way to the absolute extent possible. Embracing organizational change is sort of like jumping on a moving train–not everyone gets on board at the same time. You’ll need to deal with a “pot-stirrer,” if you have one, who is encouraging others to stay on the platform with him or her.
  9. Even if your board and senior staff are energized and excited about the new changes, appreciate that program staff and volunteers may not be. They may become overwhelmed and fatigued. Your day-to-day operations and program delivery likely has to continue as always. Keep lines open, give all the information you can, and be patient.
  10. If your organization is large enough, consider forming a transition support team, a small group of staff and perhaps one board member who are well-liked, effective communicators and good listeners. This team can be very effective, but of course you must make it clear that they are not the decision-makers–they are the deliverers of the facts. This group’s role is to continuously gauge and help address the key issues, the buzz, and the rumors that will invariably evolve.