Safe Enough for Strategic Change

When associations can’t satisfy current member needs much less achieve a bold vision, they have to do the hard work of redesigning their organization.   

They might have to change their staffing model, rework governance structures and process, or rebuild on a different business model. These are all difficult changes—made even harder unless culture also changes to support the new structures.

I recently facilitated two strategic planning sessions with serious conversations about organizational redesign. Both were smaller associations. Their boards valued and respected the expertise and work ethic of their existing staff teams. However, they understood they could not execute their new strategic plans relying on their current staff capabilities. What they were slower to recognize, without some leading questions from me, is that they might also need to change how they governed, if not how they structure volunteer leadership. And while neither were quite ready to answer my questions about possible changes in their business model, I planted those seeds too. There is only so much change anyone can absorb in one planning cycle.

Neither group over-reached in setting a vision and strategic plan. They were the right organization to do what they envisioned. Ironically, both association boards concluded they must restore priority and resources into the original reason they formed their associations. They had to have the capacity to feed their roots and expand into serving members in new ways.

While my analysis of their strategic issues and opportunities set the stage for structural change, I knew these would be hard conversations. The leader of one organization said going into the planning retreat, “I feel safe.” The other organization's leader two months after the planning retreat told me his staff team is quite anxious.

Safe, unsafe. What behaviors make the difference and enable people to make difficult changes? 

Admittedly the people and their personalities as well as the organizations’ histories are different.   Looking again at how the two associations described the design principles they want to meet in their redesign, I see that the group that felt safe valued nimbleness, action, and outcomes. Once they made up their minds to do a job, they had the culture to do it.

The group that reported feeling unsafe had excellent communications at the top of its design principles wish list. Could the difference be as simple as a culture that fails to communicate well? One that leaves people anxious about what will happen and where they stand in the future? 

That’s a reasonable diagnosis. Another might be who owns and leads the needed changes. In the unsafe group, the board insisted structure be on the planning retreat agenda. The staff may have been more comfortable with the status quo. In the safe group, the staff and board both recognized that the status quo is unsustainable. They would need to work together to find a viable structure. 

All the leaders, board and staff, in both organizations are fine and well-intentioned people. Both have vision and goals that will stretch them but are achievable. Both must change their organizational structure. The group that feels safe probably has the better culture to get through the tough changes ahead.