If it’s not broken, fix it anyway.

Change doesn’t come easy, even in the direst of organizational circumstances. We humans are expert at denying the obvious. Never mind that the ship is taking on water faster than we can bail, hope springs eternal of a sunny tomorrow. It is, after all, only a day away.

stick_figures_lift_arrow_9273So imagine the challenge of nudging folks in a new direction when everything is going (relatively) well. If it isn’t broke, you’ll hear them say, what’s to fix? The likelihood of rallying the troops sans an eminent disaster is on par with a snowball’s chance in hell. Even less if you’re depending on time-worn change strategies.

As an article in a recent issue of MIT Sloan Management Review warns, “applying standard formulae to corporate transformations is, at best, ineffective and, at worst, dangerous.” In their place, the authors propose the following five principles for bringing about change ahead of organizational decline (their words in bold or quotation marks, mine in italics).


1.  Select growth aspirations that connect with people emotionally. Fear may be a sufficient motivator toward change when the very survival of the organization is on the line. But when times are comfortable, it takes a compelling vision to pull/push people out of their comfort zones. To get people moving in a new direction, you need to capture hearts as well as heads.

2.  Treat strategy as a dialogue as opposed to a ritualistic, document-based planning process. Strategic renewal demands getting people out of their silos and into intra-departmental conversation. The goal is to help employees at all levels of the organization to connect the dots between their daily activities and the envisioned future.

3.  Use experiments to explore future possibilities. This principle reminds me of Jim Collins’ and Morten Hansen’s reference in Great by Choice to bullets – low-cost, low-risk, and low-distraction tests – versus cannonballs. The nice thing about preemptive change is that you don’t need to bring out the big guns.

4.  Engage a leadership community in the work of renewal. To grab an old adage, it takes a village — people at all levels of the organization – to bring about strategic renewal. Although the call for change will likely come from the board room or the CEO’s office, success depends on the rank and file understanding themselves as players in a shared vision rather than pawns in your grand scheme.

5.  Apply execution disciplines to the effort. Strategic renewal goes beyond a planning retreat and the board’s command to the CEO and staff to “make it so.” As the authors note, strategic renewal “requires a full-fledged commitment and the necessary funding and resources.” In a nonprofit setting, the role of the board is to “keep the tension between the short- and long-term priorities in balance.”

I regularly urge board members to take action before small clouds on the horizon of their sunny days develop into full-fledged dangers to the organizations they serve. The MIT Sloan Management Review article has given me a name for what I’ve long recommended — strategic renewal. I recommend the article and the practice to you.

For other articles on change and the board’s role, see:

Re-visioning nonprofit boards as innovators and change agents

Before attacking organizational culture, read this

It’s seldom one or the other, but it could be

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