Dearest D.,

I can hear your frustration in your letter. You’ve served on the board, you’ve done the work and you’ve given the best you can – and still your association fails to change, you write.

You’d like to help them overcome this stuckness as a neutral party, as a facilitator. I applaud your stance. This world needs more people who have the courage to say: “Things aren’t working so well around here. I want to help to improve them.” I also appreciate that you don’t claim to have all the answers or insist on your solutions. You want to help them get moving again – whatever shape that might take.

Here’s one thing you need to know when engaging in this an organizational change process: Even if you know you are right, telling people that they are wrong will only increase their resistance. They will mount a fight as long as you fail to acknowledge their efforts, praise their achievements and bring in some positive spirit. It’s about the shared  vision and purpose, in the end.

As you embark on this adventure of infusing your association with new momentum, keep these steps in mind. They have helped me more than once.

  1. Identify the owner of the change, the person that really wants this to happen and is willing to invest some time. You might find that this person is not at the top of the hierarchy. That is okay. You might find more than one person. That is good, too. If you can’t find anyone – then there’s either no need for change or YOU are the owner. That’s also okay, but it’s important for you to know it.
  2. Convene a conversation. You will know whether it is most appropriate to speak with people individually or in a group setting. Keep it informal and explorative, but don’t forget to take notes. You might want to ask: How does our association look like when the problem doesn’t exist anymore? In which moments do we already do well? How important is this issue to you and why?
  3. Identify the smallest possible next step and use it to generate momentum. Maybe you need to find an official venue for a discussion. As you want to make improvements to organizational policies: Which one is up for review anyway? Is there one that is so obviously outdated that everybody agrees on the needs? Maybe you could look at some other organizations as examples or run a workshop at your annual conference.
  4. While you work on this step, apply the qualities, principles and values that you want to bring into the organization to the way you work. That way you can demonstrate that it is possible to create momentum, listen well, build community. Small changes will make way for big changes. Make sure that you keep the focus of your work away from blame and broken structures, and instead talk about interactions, systems and a future where the problem is solved.
  5. Take good care of yourself and your mates. Organizational change is difficult and takes time. If you want to go far, go slowly. Take time to connect personally with your companions on this journey, cheer them on and support them. Listen to your own body and your own needs, and make sure that you don’t forget why you’ve embarked on this project.
  6. Embrace not-knowing and the groan zone. Every big, meaningful project comes to a point where some people are losing faith in it while others want to get over with it and implement it already. It can feel like nothing is moving – while actually, on an unconscious level, the project is nearing a breakthrough. It’s okay to not always have an answer – but do trust the process, especially when things get hard.

You asked me for pointers and resources, and I noticed that I cannot give you a single guidebook to lead your way. Things that have inspired me include:

I hope these thoughts are useful in some way, and I wish you courage and grounding as you embark on this project.


* W.

What to do when organizations get stuck
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One thought on “What to do when organizations get stuck

  • 22 December 2011 at 12:40

    Dear Wiebke,

    thank you very much for your view and tips! They bring some new light on what is happening regarding changes in the organization I’m involved with. What I like especially is to feel your own experiences shining through your post and to know this is not a problem we have alone. It’s really thrilling me to learn about the general troubles organizations face and figure out how to solve them.

    The “one thing I need to know” is working in me: how to appreciate the things already done? I envision a need to integrate them into a whole perspective, as part of a picture, a mosaic that can only be recognized after a while. I think this can be a nice way of acknowleging, praise and positive spirit. And in fact there have been many efforts and good ideas already produced! The only things lacking might be: clear vision and careful planning of small steps.

    I have been pondering about youre suggestions and came up with some notes:

    1. Identify the owner of the change
    This is really interesting. In the acutal situation I’ve been involved with the owner was always sort of vague … There are lots of people who feel need for change, but what we didn’t clearly identify are the needs we’d like to be served. Much talking about stragegies, but no joined agreement on the needs these should serve. Not talking of a vision …

    Over times there have been various “owners” that took care of the process for a while, but after a while they dropped out. Delived there report from a working group. Suggested next steps to take. Then stepped back.

    I like it that you really underline the importance of someone who “really wants this to happen and is willing to invest some time”. It’s really very important: someone in charge, identifying with the project. It such a person leaves a project easily gets abandoned. How to take care of such a thing? How to manage a good transition if nescessary?

    Interesting enough is that there’s not only the owner of the change as a role, but also other stakeholders. And it always becomes tricky when there are people involved who would be affected by the changes, but have no clearly identified body of representatives themselves. But they are assigned the authority of teaching and knowing best about the method that’s content of the organization. So there’s some making-other-people-do something involved, that passes the scope of the organizations power. On the other hand the organization doesn’t seize the power it acutally has …

    2. Convene a conversation.
    Lots of conversation always. Over years. Yes. Informal. Often you hear different things than when people speak up in public. I like it how you ask: “How does our asscosiation look like when the problem doesn’t exist anymore?” – this points to a vision, which I consider very important and which is lacking IMHO.

    3. Identify the smallest possible next step
    This goes very well along with the qualities, principles and values of my organization. In the past it got tricky: there was a general feeling for a need to change, then an extensive list of activities and changes was presented, and the ones with least resistance were easily incorporated. This didn’t solve the problem at the core, but resulted in people calming down and the felt need for change disapperead, so that the really interesting stuff didn’t get done. In fact the smallest possible next step didn’t result in momentum, but in loosing momentum.

    4. Apply the qualities, principles and values
    Im my organization we often like to do that very much. Sometimes too much for my taste, which can result in drifting away from the process of change, loosing orientation. It might feel nice, but after a while sort of empty, as the relationship to the actual organizational change is not obvious. That’s one challenge: how to really bridge the gap and make the qualities, principles and values useable and useful, instead of ending up in l’art-pour-l’art (we like to trap into that easily 😉 …)

    I like how you propose to keep focus: “talk about interactions, systems and a future where the problem is solved.”

    5. Take good care of yourself and your mates.
    This is a very good point. In my organization it often feels like a pendulum: either we have hot discussions for a while until every one is unhappy, or we focus on healing our wounds, get into talking and understanding, but loose focus to move on … How to integrate this?

    6. Embrace not-knowing and the groan zone.
    I like this: “It’s okay to not always have an answer – but do trust the process, especially when things get hard.” – not knowing is very important, trusting the process, too. I think we need to have a clear process though. How to decide which process to follow? There are so many people and processes, it’s easily to get lost or just end up with some process “by chance” that doesn’t really fit.

    Thank you, Wiebke, again, for putting your brain and heart into this! I appreciate it very much you didn’t only write a private email to me, but took the opportunity to open an open discussion on your blog!

    Hearful thanks, Dirk


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