Last weekend, I spent my Sunday facilitating a fairly large not-for-profit board of a national association. My remit was two-fold; first, to help them develop an action plan for a major internal (mandatory) initiative spanning about 10 months, and second; to help them through a “visioning exercise” on the future of their professional discipline.
As it turned out, it took over 2 hours to work them through the first key deliverable and arrive at a real, tangible game plan (specific actions identified with names, dates, and such) for the internal initiative. The board itself was made up of a diverse group of about 18 people that were — perhaps not surprisingly for a volunteer board — not always focused on the objective, and much of their group communication style tended to often lead us down rabbit holes. Balancing the “need to be heard” with the imperative of getting the team to a viable and credible consensus so they could actually move the initiative forward ensured that the whole exercise took a significant amount of time. After arriving at an action plan they were very comfortable with and fully committed to, we took an hours’ lunch break and then it was back to work to help them reach some sort of alignment around “vision”. That was another couple of interesting hours and, by the end, they were again expressing that they were comfortable that they had an initial action plan to follow.
However, as the facilitator, I left the whole exercise somewhat frustrated and troubled. As an objective observer, I think the board will be somewhat successful following the detailed game plan for the mandatory initiative. However, the chance of them making any real headway turning the “visioning” into real action is very remote. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect I’m not…
What was missing?
First off, the mandatory initiative is just that — mandatory. They have structured actions that feed into their existing committees and that can be scheduled into their monthly board meetings. It fully aligns with the operational mode of “business as usual” for the board. While the conversations will most likely continue to wander a bit and parts of the project might indeed lag, they’ll most likely deliver the initiative across the finish line in a reasonably timely fashion.
On the visioning piece however, all bets are off. Why?
The initial deliverable is a draft white paper of this national association’s “description of the compelling future” of the landscape ten years hence, as it relates to advancing the interests of their clients. In turn, that deliverable is intended to lead to a series of robust conversations inside the board and with other key stakeholders as that vision evolves and ultimately solidifies into tangible strategies that then inform specific action plans in terms of outreach, advocacy, and capability-building initiatives. All of that will require strong opinions being voiced, contradictory viewpoints being listened to, emotions being vented, disputes being settled, and ultimately explicit (and possibly controversial) declarations being made by the organization as to values, purpose, intent, and direction. All very messy stuff that taxes any team and any organization. Without a continuing discipline and focus at the board level to keep driving forward on this “visioning thing” and working through the conflicts, challenges, and contradictions that will most assuredly arise from this kind of initiative, what will happen?
Most likely, the “compelling vision” initially laid out gets watered down pretty quickly to a milquetoast version that parks the tough conversations on the sidelines, papers over any dissension between the players, and in trying to bring everybody on board it ends up being vague and uninspiring. This “safe” outcome ensures that the future vision looks pretty much like a continuation of “business as usual” with maybe a few bells and whistles added for effect.
How do we get an alternate outcome?
Teams that want to develop and drive real change are best served by employing some kind of a “drip feed” engagement model similar in structure and approach to the transform/21 methodology. Real lasting change happens slowly and only when reinforced regularly through a “constant soaking” approach. More than anything, teams need to constantly focus on developing a shared “habit” of collaborative, disciplined management. That takes time, it takes intent, and it takes constant reinforcement.
While I have no doubt that I helped the board understand what they needed to do and helped provide them a road map, the biggest issue they face (as with most other teams I have worked with and been a part of) is their own internal team discipline to stick to the big picture, drive the important activities, separate out the “urgent” from the “important”, spend structured time on the “important”, and try hard every day not to get carried away focusing on the minutia. While that is easy to state, it is very difficult to accomplish in the day-to-day environment that most teams work in. It needs to be constantly reinforced in practice by a strong, credible, objective facilitator that has their eyes clearly on “the prize” while also continually facilitating collaboration and building team consensus and execution discipline. In the best teams, this ‘credible, objective facilitator” may by an internal member of the team (and maybe even the CEO), however that is unfortunately not the norm. Most teams would benefit greatly by engaging a trusted outsider that can help keep the team on track and moving forward through their challenging change initiative.
Which brings us back to the “drip feed” model of change; both the “what” and the “why” of change are usually pretty obvious, can be arrived at in a collaborative and inclusive manner, and getting people conceptually on side with the change is generally straightforward.
The “how” always seems obvious (Just do it, as Nike would say!) and yet it is the day-to-day, week-to-week slogging away on the “doing it” that derails most change programs and new, different, and challenging initiatives. The day-to-day business of the business gets in the way of “the change” every minute of every day, in a thousand little ways: every time the phone rings, every time a customer calls, every time an email is received, every time a meeting gets scheduled. Amid a barrage of tactical operational issues and care-abouts in the day-to-day trench warfare of the modern organization, “the change” doesn’t stand a chance. In my experience, even the most experienced and capable teams can easily get carried away on a wave of tactical execution around the “urgent” concerns, while failing to really place any priority thinking and action on the agreed “important” actions. Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and before you know it you are a few quarters down the road and your “strategic actions” are still generally untouched, while the “urgent” items continue to collect and take all your time.
The only way to succeed is to make “the change” part of your day-to-day work. And that requires you to break it down, build it into your day-to-day operations, and chew on it a little bit at a time. A little bit of “drip-feeding” discipline will go a long way towards successfully delivering your change initiative.