Addressing tyranny of the urgent at your non-profit organization

culture3Let’s pick-up where we left off a few days ago from my post titled “Does your non-profit culture suffer from tyranny of the urgent?” In that post, I talked about an idea some experts have named the “tyranny of the urgent,” which is simply when you prioritize urgent tasks over important tasks. I extrapolated this idea to an organization-wide scale and talked about how this could become part of your organizational culture and the consequences of it occurring. Today, I will share a few suggestions on how to start addressing this organizational cancer.
Hmmmm? So, where was I? Oh right, I ended the last post by quoting Forbes’ Steve Denning who once wrote:

“… an organization’s culture comprises an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions.”

In other words, organizational culture is complicated in and of itself.
Now you add the idea of “CHANGE” into the equation and the degree of difficulty goes up exponentially. I can confidently say this based on the following two facts:

Fact #1: If you Google the search words “how to change organizational culture,” you are showered with lots of links to stories with people talking about how they successfully changed their organization’s culture. As you start reading, you find lots of stories with lots of different approaches and very few common threads.

Fact #2: If you Google the search words “change initiative failure rate,” you will find the same thing being said over and over again. Everyone seems to agree that on average 70% of workplace change initiatives “FAIL.”

What am I trying to say here?
Simply, all of this is complicated, layered and unique. With this out in the open, I’m just going to confess that I do not have a one-size-fits-all blogosphere easy solution for you. Sorry! However . . .
I will share some of what I’ve seen help reduce/eliminate the tyranny of the urgent from my former workplaces. Hopefully, by doing so, this blog post will get you moving in the right direction or at the very least stimulate productive conversations with co-workers and volunteers on your end.
Investing in a culture of planning
franklin plannerWhen I worked for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in the late-1990s, there was a focused effort to stave off the tyranny of the urgent through the following strategies:

  • Every scout professional was required to use a Franklin Planner system (of which the council underwrote the cost)
  • Woven into my new employee orientation was a training on how to use the planner (e.g. setting expectations)
  • Use of the planner was integrated into staff meetings (e.g. using the tool became procedural and habitual)
  • Annual staff planning retreats were the norm (e.g. planning was structurally built into the calendar)
  • It was an expectation that every employee develop what was called a “backdating plan” for every district event (in fact, every employee was issued a tool that looked like a wheel to help with the math of backdating)
  • Employees were strongly encouraged to take an entire workday once a month, which was called a “day of planning,” to do activities like setting up next month’s meetings, tying up loose ends (e.g. catching up on writing meeting notes, completing expense reports, reviewing your performance plan and calendarizing strategic action to achieve goals, etc)
  • Employees who were not good about taking their day of planning once a month, ended up with this added to next year’s annual performance plan
  • In addition to a monthly “day of planning,” employees were encouraged to spend one hour at the start of the week (or at the end of the previous week) to review upcoming appointments, break apart big projects into smaller tasks, prioritize every task in relationship to each other, etc
  • As if all this wasn’t enough, employees were encouraged to end every day with a short exercise whereby incomplete tasks were moved forward to the next day (and subsequently re-prioritized in relation to one another)

I’ve heard some people call this experience insane. I go back and forth on it. However, I can confidently say it helped address the issue of the “tyranny of the urgent.
Yep, you heard me right . . . I didn’t say the BSA’s “culture of planning” single-handedly solved anything. (Again, I refer you back to the beginning of the post where I qualified everything up the ying-yang by saying this is complicated stuff.)
I still saw periods of time at my Boy Scout council when “tyranny of the urgent” reigned. This was usually around an annual campaign deadline, the start of camping season, or year-end membership pushes.
People, systems, plans & structural alignment
culture4Changing your organizational culture (or at the very least rooting out tyranny of the urgent) will also likely require some combination of the following:

  • modeling behavior by senior leadership (and possibly flexing leadership styles)
  • creating positive/negative reward systems
  • hiring people with skills and experiences aligned with the desired culture shift
  • redistributing financial resources into whatever is deemed transformative activities (e.g. training costs, purchasing new tools, increased pay grades to attract different people to your applicant pool, etc)
  • aligning every single plan throughout the organization with a single, shared vision and shared values
  • creating or revising certain policies or procedures
  • developing new monitoring/reporting tools and using these tools to be transparent with everyone who is connected together by organizational culture

Choosing & using a change model
Creating a plan for change is not enough. If it were, then the success rate of change initiatives in the workplace would be a lot higher than 30%.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen lots of different change leadership models out there. My best suggestion is to:

  • choose a model and stick with it
  • empower your change team to run with it
  • invest in helping your team learn the model and all of the tools that come with it (e.g. workshops, materials, etc)

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around what I mean by a change leadership model, then you might want to check out Mitchell Nash’s blog post for Linkage Inc, which is titled “12 Steps to Organizational Change: A Checklist.”
Behind each of the 12 steps, there are tools to assist with successfully achievement. Of course, those tools aren’t in Nash’s blog. You need to pay for that training with Linkage. Having been through Linkage’s Change Leadership workshop twice while working for a former employer, I assure you that your experience will be punctuated with many “AH-HA” moments.
Have you ever worked for a non-profit where the tyranny of the urgent was part of the organization’s culture? If so, how did they try to address it? Did it work? If they did nothing, what were the consequences (or were there none)? Please use the comment box to share your thoughts and experiences. Why? Because we can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Changing your agency's culture means double loop learning

Management by Walking Around . . . in a Loop

By John Greco
Originally published on March 17, 2012
Re-posted with permission from johnponders blog
single loop1A CEO who had begun to practice his own form of “management-by-walking-around” learned from his employees that the company inhibited innovation by subjecting every new idea to more than 275 separate checks and sign-offs.  He promptly appointed a task force to look at this situation, and it eliminated 200 of the obstacles.  The result was a higher innovation rate.
— Chris Argyris, Good Communication That Blocks Learning

Finally, a success story in one of these posts!

Not so fast.
This may sound like a success story, but, is it?   It certainly is; the CEO uncovers a flawed process and, with his team, drives a dramatic improvement.
What’s not to like?
Chris Argyris would call the CEO’s work above a great example of “single-loop learning;” addressing an issue but leaving the more fundamental problem unexamined and unsolved.
A double-loop approach would have the CEO asking some tougher questions; questions about — yes, you guessed it — the company culture.
Good:  “How long have you known about the 275 required sign-offs?”
Better:  “What goes on in this company that prevented you from questioning these practices and getting them corrected or eliminated?”
Best:  “What beliefs do my leaders hold, and what behaviors do they exhibit, that lead them to support and embed a process that requires 275 sign-offs and approvals?
single loop2Phenomenal!:  “What assumptions am I making and what biases do I hold that are manifesting themselves in the culture of this organization, leading to an approval process with 275 signoffs and associates that are reticent to challenge that process?
Double-loop learning asks questions to understand what’s underneath the visible, presenting problem.  It seeks the fundamental cause and effect.
I often get accused of asking too many questions.  In fact, a couple of years ago, after a quarterly meeting, I was approached by a peer and admonished: “John, you are asking too many tough questions.  You are putting people on the defensive.  You need to fit in more, go with the flow of the presentations.”
I feel compelled to help others (and myself) break out of the single loop!   Interestingly, though, most managers are thrilled when they successfully walk the single loop.  In fact, don’t most organizations reward managers that are effective in walking the single loop?  They are always solving problems, right?
So why incessantly ask questions that seem to deny the good work that they’ve just done and that everybody else recognizes?
Besides; who has time?  I mean, there’s so many other pressing problems to solve!
I keep asking because one successful double loop walk is worth many, many; yes, many single loop walks…
Management by walking around… in a double loop.  Make a difference.john greco sig

To which theory of change does your non-profit subscribe?

Burn the Boats

By John Greco
Originally published on May 3, 2012
Re-posted with permission from johnponders blog
boats1A long while ago, a great warrior faced a situation which made it necessary for him to make a decision which insured his success on the battlefield. He was about to send his armies against a powerful foe, whose men outnumbered his own. He loaded his soldiers into boats, sailed to the enemy’s country, unloaded soldiers and equipment, then gave the order to burn the ships that had carried them. Addressing his men before the first battle, he said, “You see the boats going up in smoke. That means that we cannot leave these shores alive unless we win! We now have no choice—we win, or we perish! They won.
— Napoleon Hill, in Think and Grow Rich

This story is likely familiar; it is often attributed, incorrectly, to Cortez, and it is usually used to compellingly explore the topic of motivation.
You will probably not be surprised to learn that I’m going to go somewhere else with it.  I want to talk about change, and what my profession curiously calls change management.
There are two basic theories of change.  One of them is flawed.
One holds that change begins with our knowledge and attitudes.  Leaders who hold this theory of change implement initiatives that are training intensive, zeroing in on changing our attitudes.  The more we know, the more we understand, the more we will adjust our attitudes.  Attitudinal change, then, leads us to change our behavior, and as we all change, the organization changes.
Behind door number two we have the theory that says just the opposite — we change our attitudes in response to a change in our behaviors; and we change our behaviors in response to changes in our environment.
I would like to believe that I change my behavior based on different perspectives that I’ve received through learning new and different things.  I would like to believe that I don’t need to be “forced” into changing.
boats2What do you think?
I’ll bet you, like me, would like to think the first theory of change is right, but, in fact, it is exactly backward.
Initiatives based on the first theory of change will take forever to produce meaningful change, if at all.  Odds are, it won’t produce a tipping point for the organization before it crosses the frustration threshold of its leaders.
Burning the boats is way more effective.
We change our behaviors because we have to; and we have to because something around us, outside of us, has changed.
I liked hamburgers as a kid, but good gosh no cheese; I wouldn’t eat cheeseburgers, period.  Until one day, when I didn’t have an option.  I love cheeseburgers now …
What do you think was more responsible for a reduction in smoking: the public service announcements and surgeon general’s warning or the banning of smoking in restaurants, bars, and other public places?
The surprising truth is that we don’t change when we have control and can make choices; we change when we don’t have control and we have limited choices.
Effective leaders don’t try and change their people. They know that they simply do not control their people… And the more they try and directly change our attitudes, the more we push back, dig in, and resist.
Instead, they burn the boats!  They redesign the structure; rewrite organizational policies; reengineer processes, integrate technology and tools, update the incentives, clarify the measurements…
Instead of changing us, they change what carries us, what affects us; they change what we depend on; they change what is all around us.
They burn the boats.

Adapted from Managing Change: Cases and Concepts.  Todd Jick.john greco sig

There are BIG BUTS to consider when planning for change in your workplace

leading2Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking at posts from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a post titled “Big Buts,” John talks about leadership and how changing the culture at your agency starts at the top. I just love the Chinese proverb with which John starts his post: “The people follow the example of those above them.”

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked in the front door of an agency because they need help changing something.

Something being . . .

  • We’re not raising enough money.
  • We’re not hitting our goals.
  • No one is on the same page.
  • The agency is adrift.
  • The programs aren’t achieving the necessary impact.
  • Donors are abandoning ship.
  • The board is disengaged.

In these initial conversations, I’m always asked to help fix the situation, but the fix is always something like:

  • Help us write a strategic plan, board development plan, resource development plan, annual campaign plan. Plan! Plan! Plan!
  • Conduct a program assessment.
  • Facilitate a training.

leading1Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that assessments, plans and trainings aren’t important. They are crucial! However, there are questions that must be asked first. Those questions are:

  • Is the leader (or leaders in the case of a non-profit organization) willing to lead the change?
  • Is the current leader the right leader to lead this change? Or are they part of what needs to be “changed”?
  • Is the current leader willing to lead by example after the training, assessing or planning is completed?
  • Is the current leader willing to do whatever it takes to get everyone else (e.g. middle management, board members, etc) aligned and on the same page?
  • Is the current leader willing to advocate and lead on issues pertaining to policies, procedures and practices (e.g. budget practices, fundraising policies, HR policies, board practices especially around creating accountability in the boardroom, etc).

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not just talking about the executive director of a non-profit organization. Depending on the circumstances and requisite change, these questions can also pertain to:

  • board president
  • board volunteers who serve as committee chairs
  • fundraising professionals
  • program leaders

All I am saying is that step one to any change initiative at your agency needs to involve taking a good hard look in the mirror and asking some tough leadership questions. To John’s point in his post “Big Buts,” the issue goes beyond just “Do we have the right person(s) sitting in the right seat(s)?” It includes a lot of BIG BUTS.

Only after those questions are asked and answered can planning or training efforts take root and spark the cultural change you seek in your non-profit agency.

An old friend of mine is famous for saying: “Non-profit success starts and ends with leadership.

To channel Jim Collins this morning . . . Does your agency have the right people on the bus? Are they all in the right seats? How do you know? What tools do you use to answer these questions? Annual performance plans? Committee work plans? Year-end individual board member evaluation tools? Written annual personal performance plans for individual board members? If it is change you seek, are those individuals willing to lead by example?

Lots to ponder on a Friday morning. Once you have some answers, please share a few of your thoughts in the comment box below.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Change 101: Sell-Sell-Sell and then Strategy-Strategy-Strategy

Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking more closely at a recent post from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a recent post, John talked about the importance of “selling problems,” and he wasn’t referencing issues that sales teams experience. He literally meant taking your organization’s problems / challenges and selling them as things that must be solved.

A few weeks ago, I attended Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Midwest Regional Conference as an exhibitor and trainer. One of the sessions I presented was “Transformation: Driving Lasting Change at Your Club“. In that training, I shared with participants a six stage process for leading change that I learned at a change leadership training offered by Linkage Inc.

Here are the six stages to that change model:

  1. Make the case for change
  2. Enlist stakeholders to develop vision & strategy
  3. Communicate the vision and strategy
  4. Remove barriers
  5. Set milestones & acknowledge progress
  6. Reinforce the change

If you click over and read John’s post and then click back here to the six stage change model, you will see the first three stages all deal with “selling the problem”.

Of course, this all seems to easy when presented in blogs and six stage models. What could go wrong, right?

Well, there is always that little thing called strategy development that if done incorrectly can lead your organization down a path towards bigger problems.

Let’s look at a real world example that many non-profit organizations deal with at one time or another. This is the issue of fundraising efficiency and productivity.  Here is how I’ve seen this change initiative unfold too many times:

  • The agency needs to do better with its fundraising program.
  • The executive director sells the problem to the board. Facts, figures and charts all demonstrate the need.
  • The executive director and board members sell the problem to donors, who generous agree to help with their pocketbooks.
  • All of stakeholders agree that the strategy needs to be increased organizational capacity in the area of fundraising. The solution? Hire a fundraising professional! (or more fundraising professionals as the case may be)
  • The new fundraising professional joins the team, and the problem doesn’t get better (in fact it sometimes gets a little worse).

Huh? What happened?

In many instances, I’ve seen the executive director take a victory lap and then wash their hands of their fundraising responsibilities. The board does a similar celebration and then disengages from the resource development program. Board members think: “Phew! Thank goodness we hired that person to do all of our fundraising. Now I can focus on other things.”

Oooops! Maybe the problem was deeper and more complex.

When leading change, the first order of business for the non-profit executive director is “selling the problem”. As John points out in his example, if you can make this a self-discovery process for key stakeholders, it will be that much more powerful.

Immediately, after you secure engagement, strategy and vision development becomes critical because selling the right problem with the wrong solutions will get you nowhere fast.

I don’t mean to imply that the aforementioned strategy of hiring a fundraising professional is a wrong solution. However, understanding cause-and-effect is important and anticipating potential scenarios will help you avoid some heartache. Additionally, understanding the entire problem and being comprehensive in your strategy development is key.

Has your agency ever solved a problem without engaging key stakeholders in what the problem was in the first place? What was the result? Have you ever solved a problem and found yourself surprised that the solution didn’t solve the problem? What did you do? How did you correct course and change your change initiative? If you are a fundraising professional who has gone through what I just described, please share how you re-engaged your boss and the board and got things on track. Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and examples.

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Non-profit organizations turn, turn, turn . . .

Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking more closely at a recent post from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

Today, I am focusing on a post that John wrote that was inspired by a baby crib mobile. He uses the mobile as an analogy for organizational change and equilibrium. Throughout his post he references both major and minor changes in the corporate landscape and talks about how those cultures balance and re-balance.

As I dwell on this post, I think about a number of non-profits who I’ve had the honor of working with throughout the years:

  • There is the organization who employed one of the most talented fundraising professionals I ever knew, and they decided not to re-hire the position after his departure. Needless to say, their resource development efforts are struggling.
  • There is the agency whose most influential and engaging board volunteer resigned due to “burn out,” and they decided to not find ways to keep him engaged. Needless to say, he faded away and isn’t even a donor anymore.
  • There is an executive director who freaked out after the economic crash in 2008, decided to lay off his grant writer and assumed on all of those responsibilities in addition to his regular responsibilities. Needless to say, someone is feeling overwhelmed and burned out.

I think the baby crib mobile is such a great analogy for what non-profits deal with on a daily basis. In fact, I think it is even more appropriate for non-profit organizations than for-profit corporations. Why? Simply look at how much juggling the average organization does because of significantly limited resources. Consider how much more important a board of directors is to the functioning of a non-profit organization compared to a for-profit corporation. So, when one talented employee or influential board volunteer leaves, then everything feels off off-kilter and the struggle for equilibrium feels like a roller coaster ride.

Looking at a non-profit through this mobile lens, I see a chaotic, whirling dance of people that’s bobbing and dipping and threatening to crash and burn.

The difference between a non-profit organization crashing and burning versus re-balancing to find a new equilibrium is huge and highly dependent on their approach to managing change. To some extent, I also believe that organizational cultures that embrace planning at their core and actually implement and adhere to those plans (e.g. succession plan) during times of change are the most successful at re-balancing in a graceful manner.

Those organizations, who don’t have very much capacity and make poor decisions during tumultuous times, end up in crisis. Sure, balance is ultimately achieved, but at what price?

The bad news for these types of non-profits is that change is a constant in our world, and their baby crib mobile probably looks like the tangled and dysfunctional one that hung above my crib (because you know that I was the kid who could never leave anything well enough alone).  🙂

Looking back at the three examples that I described at the beginning of this post, I see a common thread . . . LEADERSHIP. I am talking about both board leadership as well as executive leadership. There is no doubt in my mind that the key to successfully keeping your organization from getting tangled and unbalanced is talented, engaged and committed leaders.

And isn’t that just the perfect cherry on top of the sundae when you look back of all of this week’s blog posts? Again, I want to thank my friend and colleague, Dani Robbins, for guest posting all week-long on board development and executive leadership. I am very happy that she will be contributing a board development post to DonorDreams blog every month.

After reading John’s blog post, I can’t get this song out of my head. So, I thought it would be appropriate to end this post with it.


How chaotic is your organizational mobile? Do you have a story about how your agency managed “change” really well? Please scroll down and share it with the rest of us in the comment section.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847