2 Ways to Stay Sane Through Organizational Change

Posted by on Apr 26, 2013 in Change, Leadership, Nonprofits

Org Change Image

In my last post, I encouraged you to be proactive and prepare your organization for change. Because sooner or later change will come.

Now I want to offer you two tips for coming through organizational change with your sanity intact.

After reading the tips, you may assume that they’re too simple to be effective. But there are two reasons you should give them a try: first, prevention is almost always simpler and cheaper than damage control ( think semi-annual dental cleanings vs. root canals).

Second, sometimes while concentrating on the “big picture” we fail to see the little things that can prevent big trouble. Consider these tips to be little things that can save you time and angst.


2 Sanity Preserving Tips

Whether your organizational change was planned or came as a big surprise, it has to be managed. So try these tips when change comes to your place, and see if they help you keep your sanity.

  • One change leads to another. Accept that. Now.
  • Change is hard. Prepare your people and support them throughout the change.


One Change Leads To Another: Accept That

This first tip is really about expectations. One change–large or small–will typically lead to another. Sometimes a few; sometimes many. Changes may involve an entire department or a single staff person. Some changes are easy to predict, and others will catch you by surprise.

So take a deep breath and fully accept that the change you’re facing is a journey–one made up of a series of changes. Give yourself and your staff permission to work through the issues thoughtfully.

Of course, you do want an appropriate sense of urgency about the change. In fact, in his book Leading Change, John P. Kotter lists “allowing too much complacency” as the first of eight reasons firms fail during transformations. You need enough umph! to get things moving and to continue positive momentum. What you don’t want is a reckless pace that leads to needless mistakes.

Emergency Mode

Crisis. Something every organization hopes never to face. A crisis will cause you to toss the advice I just gave you out the window.

When a crisis visits your organization, you won’t have the luxury of time. You’ll need to take thoughtful action quickly. Maybe immediately.

In crisis situations, the agency’s leaders often make decisions without consulting non-management staff. A crisis calls for strong leadership and fast action; so change is nearly always a top-dow matter in a crisis.

Even so, while leaders make the decisions about change, staff are usually assigned the job of making that change happen. And even if the leaders and their staff have an appropriate sense of urgency, implementing some changes will still require a series of changes, like it or not.


Change Is Hard. Prepare and Support Your People

Organizational change is really a double-edged affair. First, you have the change itself–the processes, procedures and actions needed to effect transformation. The second edge is people’s response to change. Processes are a simple matter of logistics and logic. People are another matter altogether.

Books like Leading Change talk about the mechanics of effective organizational transformation. The Change Cycle: How People Can Survive and Thrive in Organizational Change, on the other hand, offers insight into the way people react to change. Those reactions can help or hinder your agency’s transformation efforts.

Change, by nature, is disruptive. It pushes people out of their comfort zones and introduces the unknown. It may bring unfamiliar, uncomfortable circumstances and take away control. These things add stress, and excess stress can hurt morale and lower productivity.

That’s not what you want. So how do you prepare your people for change and support them throughout the transformation?

 Prepare By Planning

A great way to reduce the stress of change is to plan for it. Change doesn’t always announce its arrival, but you can be ready for some of the most predictable changes.

For example, I guarantee that sooner or later, you’ll have a personnel change on your board or staff. The exit or absence of a key organizational player can wreak havoc on your programs, fundraising, or stakeholder relationships.

So minimize disruption by creating a succession plan covering key board members and executives and an emergency staffing plan for the remaining staff. These plans allow you to decide how to cover key responsibilities when their “owners” must be absent.

Identify the responsibilities, functions, and relationships connected to key board and staff members. Then decide which board members, staff, or consultants will carry out those responsibilities. Also, consider creating short-term and long-term plans. The person serving as acting department head for two weeks may not be the right person to fill the job permanently.

Involve your staff, and make sure everyone–board and staff–understands the final plan. Your staff, especially, will appreciate the chance to offer  input, and knowing the “back-up” plan may reduce everyone’s stress.

A crisis plan is another helpful tool. Even though you may not see a particular crisis coming, you can decide some responses in advance. For example, know who will speak publicly if the crisis attracts outside attention and how you’ll manage messages to the staff and outside stakeholders throughout the crisis. Chances are good that most of your board members and executives have not experienced a true organizational crisis. A crisis plan will help reduce tensions and ensure a faster, more thoughtful response.

The most important thing is to act now. Create the plan BEFORE a crisis hits. Joanne Fritz, the Nonprofit Guide at About.com, offers practical tips for developing your own plan in her article, Top 6 Tips for Effective Nonprofit Crisis Planning. So, no more excuses; gather your board and get to work.

Now let me offer a final word about crisis planning. I’ve worked with nonprofits in the past who saw trouble coming, talked about it, asked for help, and in the end failed to act.  Those organizations failed. They no longer exist. The LiveStrong Foundation, though, is an example of strong leadership under fire. This board saw trouble coming because they lived with the stress of public accusations against their high-profile founder for several years. Then a full-blown crisis struck when founder Lance Armstrong confessed his steroid use on air to Oprah Winfrey.

But LiveStrong’s  board had not sat idly waiting for trouble. The board  formulated solutions well in advance. They made tough choices that helped LiveStrong weather the double blast of scrutiny and criticism. And the organization is still standing strong, committed to its founding mission.

 Support Your People Through The Transformation

I said before that the mechanics of change involve logistics and logic. But there’s no organizational change without people-like it or not. And people very often resist change.

Ann Solerno and Lillie Bock, authors of The Change Cycle, after extensive research, learned that humans go through six predictable stages when faced with change. At each stage we experience a predictable set of emotions that help or hinder us on our way to fully accepting each new situation. You can see the graphic that illustrates the stages HERE.

You First!

The authors describe the stages of change as Loss, Doubt, Discomfort, Discovery, Understanding and finally Integration. I encourage you to conduct your own personal excise with these stages.

Think about a not-so-pleasant change that was imposed upon you. Try to remember going through each of the stages. How did you feel? How did your feelings effect your actions? Was the journey to integration (acceptance) an easy one?

Now consider your staff and board. When change is imposed upon them, they may experience these stages and emotions, too. Maybe not all at the same time or to the same degree. Some will be better at controlling their words and actions and may not show outward signs of their feelings. Those who like the change and those unaffected by it will adjust more quickly.

But What About the Rest?

Help those struggling with change to avoid getting stuck in negative emotions. I know. You’re not a therapist. But negative emotions can translate into foot-dragging and passive resistance on the job. And you don’t want that. So here are 7 things you can do to keep your people moving forward.

  • Request input–especially from those who usually feel overlooked and overworked–and use it if you can. Change is always a bit easier when we feel more in control.
  • Keep the vision alive. Continue describing the “new and improved,” post-transformation world. Help your team see that the end result is worth the short-term pain.
  • Avoid getting stuck. Keep the change process moving. No one wants to be in transition forever.
  • Deal quickly with saboteurs. One bad apple can become contagious if you fail to act.
  • Keep your team informed. Mystery is not sexy when it comes to organizational change. Give regular progress reports.
  • Acknowledge dedication. Show appreciation for long hours, double duty and the other ways your people show up big, and
  • Celebrate interim milestones. Long transformations make short-term celebrations even more important for morale.

In a Nut Shell

So there it is. Accept the fact that one change leads to another, and live with it. Prepare your people, and support them through change.

Simple ideas, yes, but doing these things takes effort and commitment. If you’ve ever been through organizational change, though, you know the easy way beats the hard way any day of the week.

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UPDATE JUNE 1, 2013: You may have heard that after years of partnership, Nike is not renewing its support of the LiveStrong Foundation. After what I wrote in this post, I was curious about the impact the announcement would have on the Foundation. And let me tell you, I’m more impressed with this board than ever.

The LiveStrong board issued an extremely well-written, positive, and compelling press release about Nike’s decision and about the Foundation’s prospects for the future. Here’s a brief quote from that press release:

“This news will prompt some to jump to negative conclusions about the Foundation’s future. We see things quite differently. We expected and planned for changes like this and are therefore in a good position to adjust swiftly and move forward with our patient-focused work.”

I’m sure talented wordsmiths crafted that impressive message. But I’m no less impressed by this board who, instead of becoming battle weary, lifted their collective heads and declared the mission to serve those affected by cancer to be alive and well. Good for you, LiveStrong. Somebody pass me my checkbook.

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