Managing in a Time of Change

By Matthew Ditchfield

“Learning is not compulsory…neither is survival.”
— W. Edwards Deming

Change is coming, but who is driving it?

There is a risk in changing what we do. It could go either way, make things better (hopefully) or worse. We know that change can create more work; in the short term, at least, we know it will.

The challenge facing the non-profit sector is not change in and of itself. We choose to change things all the time, and when change is focused on improving the experience for the communities we serve, our tolerance for the inconvenience, fear, uncertainty, and extra work is easy to rationalize. Change becomes uncomfortable for our sector, however, when it is imposed on us with little notice.

Professor Robert Slavin, of Johns Hopkins University, writes, “The only way for non-profit organizations to not be a slave to changes in funding policy is to create a movement so impactful on society that it influences policy in its own favor.” Very few organizations have achieved this to date. We recognize that the design and delivery of social services, health care, education, and other public services are among the most contentious areas of society. While party platforms seek to differentiate the offerings of each candidate, the resulting policy and programmatic changes that result must be managed carefully and communicated to clients and other stakeholders as they are rolled out.

“Our only security is our ability to change” — Dr John Lilly

Change management is a wonderful term that is bandied around with increasing frequency. Leading change, however, is a far more complicated process than we may think. When asked to predict the result of externally-driven change, it’s human nature to reach for extremes. “It’s gonna be great!” or “The world’s gonna end!” tend to be the most common—and ultimately, not very useful—polarized reactions.

Leading change requires more objectivity. Leaders must look beyond the initial crisis to where the organization will be at the other side of the short-term turbulence. So, how do we do that? Well, according to Deming:

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.”

Those in leadership positions typically have the benefit of a greater lead time to the impacts of organizational change and, therefore, they have the opportunity to shape the pace and direction of information flowing to their teams. Many are tempted to overshare—thinking that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’—giving all the details and no context or answers, which may leave operational staff feeling swamped with strategic ‘what ifs’ that they have no control over. Others prefer to share nothing, which can generate wariness and erode trust.

Informed Change

Managing the flow of information is essential. Showing a glimpse of a big picture during change can help reassure the team that the leadership has it handled. This works best when there is effective communication about the ‘here and now’ and the next step for each element of the organization. This reassures your team that there is a process and we will go through it together, stage by stage. Beyond much more than this, leaders run the risk of appearing to ‘think out loud’.

The most effective leaders work with their teams to understand the standard process that they have in place for managing organizational response when there isn’t a disruption coming. When a change process occurs, staff have a map to follow; they’re reassured that leadership has a plan in place to deal with it. These teams then become experts in change—so that change management becomes part of the culture and the normal operations rather than a call to panic.

Developing a cohesive change management strategy and communications plan will position your organization well to develop through periods of change and emerge as a stronger, more effective entity. Other important elements are creating a distributed leadership model and organizational feedback loops. Building this critical infrastructure enables teams to “go with the flow” of constant change rather than be rocked by it when it inevitably comes.

What is your experience with organizational change? We’d love to hear from you.