Category Archives: Change Management

Can Evaluation Help Change Your Organization’s Culture?

Often when small and mid-sized nonprofit organizations think about evaluation, it stands out as something that they would like to do, but can’t afford. Other times program evaluation is something they only do when a funder requires it. I recently came across an article that asks nonprofits to think about the ways that evaluation can be a benefit to their programs and change their organizational culture.

Fact: Performance Measures Increase Revenues and Improve Morale shares the results of a study by Measurement Resources Company exploring how nonprofits use evaluation results. It turns out that evaluation can help organizations:

  • Increase organizational efficiency
  • Use data to lead effective organizational change
  • Communicate with external and internal stakeholders
  • And the Holy Grail of them all, Increase Revenues

Of course, much more than just evaluation data is needed to lead change, but this study definitely makes the case that “we can’t afford it” is no longer a good reason to avoid evaluation.

How to Do Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is a tool that can be used to forecast large scale societal changes and determine appropriate organizational responses to those changes. It was developed by the United States military in the 1960′s and was adopted by large corporations in the 1970′s. Shell Oil’s use of scenario planning to deal with the energy crisis of the 1970′s is probably the most famous corporate example. By using scenario planning to predict changes in the energy market, Shell was able to out-maneuver its competitors and stay profitable during the first major challenge to their market.

In recent years, the full-blown scenario planning process has fallen out of favor with large corporations. However, I have seen simpler adaptations of the tools of scenario planning applied successfully in the nonprofit sector. As I explained in What is Adaptive Capacity?, scenario planning can be used as a way of building up an organization’s ability to respond to external changes. Also, I’ve begun to use a version of the process in my personal planning. Let’s dive into the mechanics of scenario planning and see if it may be a good tool for you.

What is Traditional Scenario Planning?
The scenario planning entry at Wikipedia gives a fairly long and detailed description of the traditional scenario planning process, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll just summarize the main steps of the process. Some of this part of the post was inspired by Lawrence Wilkinson’s article in Wired from a few years back.

  • Identify the driving forces of change in your industry. For most markets these driving forces include things like demographics, consumer preference, technological developments, and regulatory environments.
  • Choose the uncertainties within your list of driving forces. There are some things, such as demographic changes, that can be forecasted pretty accurately. However, other elements, such as what the regulatory environment might be depending on who is elected as the next president, are more uncertain. Out of your list of driving forces, select the two variables that are most uncertain and also the most critical to your business planning.
  • Create an “Axis of Uncertainty” with the two variables from the previous step acting as the X and Y axes of a simple four quadrant matrix. I’ve constructed an example matrix based on the very simple scenario of planning an outing. In this scenario, I don’t know the weather forecast and I don’t know if the museum I might go to will be open or closed. The matrix looks like this:

It’s raining.

The museum is closed.

It’s raining.
The museum is open.
It’s sunny.
The museum is closed.
It’s sunny.
The museum is open.
  • Create scenarios based on the four quadrants. As you can see from my matrix, having the variables laid out on a grid facilitates decision making. If it is raining, but the museum is closed, I’ll have to find another indoor activity. If it’s raining and the museum is open – well, I’ll probably go to the museum! You get the idea.
  • Monitor trends and respond as needed. Now that you’ve set scenarios, you know what data points you or your company need to monitor in order to make choices about possible actions. For example, I would probably need to check the Weather Channel or look out my window to figure out if it will rain or not. By staying aware of changing conditions, I’m better equipped to decide which scenario is most likely to play out and which choice of action I should take.

A Streamlined Process That Can Help You
The example I gave above for the traditional scenario planning process is quite simple. However, for an organization with several confounding factors, this process can become very complex very quickly. One of the criticisms of traditional scenario planning process is that it can become so complex that it becomes useless at the time of decision making. Fortunately, I have seen small nonprofit organizations use a much simpler version of scenario planning that creates greater organizational flexibility and responsiveness without hiring a 6-figure consultant. Maybe this process is more appropriate for your organization.

  1. Gather Your Data. This step is similar to the first step in the traditional process. Identify the major change drivers for your industry and gather any data you can find on projected changes to those drivers for the next few years.
  2. Gather Your Team. Get everyone in the same room or on the same conference call. You’ll need your most informed and creative people.
  3. Tell Stories. Incorporating the data that you’ve collected, create some plausible stories of your organization’s world in the near future. Try to mix positive and negative changes, because that’s generally the way things work out.
  4. Construct Responses to the Stories. Use your best “What If?” skills to brainstorm plausible responses to the stories that you have built. Be as specific as possible while staying true to your organizational values and core competencies.

The best thing about using a more streamlined version of scenario planning is that you can apply it on an individual level as well. In the 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris recommends a process he calls fear-setting. This process involves imagining the worst possible scenarios that could happen if you make the decision to pursue a different lifestyle. After you’ve constructed the stories, figure your way out of them. As he writes in the book, no problem is insurmountable and most are a lot less serious than we start out thinking. I may detail this process more in a future post.

Have you used scenario planning in your work or personal life? What do you think of it as a tool? Share your experiences in the comments section.

What is Adaptive Capacity?

Adaptive capacity refers to the ability of any system to respond to change and return to a state of balance. I first heard of this concept in relation to the nonprofit sector in the United States. However, it can be applied to ecological systems, any type of organization, and even individuals.

An example of adaptive capacity in an ecological system would be of a river valley experiencing heavy rainfall. For a time the water level in the river will be much higher than normal. Most of the time the river basin will absorb the water fairly quickly and the water level will return to normal within a day or two. However, if the volume of rain exceeds the river basin’s capacity, the river will flood.

Change Fatigue
When an organization or an individual has an excessive amount of change in a short period of time, something has to give. To build on my previous analogy, the system will “flood” or break down in some way. For an organization the “flood” may take the form of communication breakdowns, high turnover, and low productivity. For an individual it could be extreme stress, relationship problems, or even physical and mental health issues.

These symptoms of change fatigue occur because the system isn’t strong and flexible enough to adapt.

Building Adaptive Capacity
It is possible to build adaptive capacity in and organization in much the same way as it is possible to build muscles in a human body – through regular, sustained exercise. When an organization is proactively engaged in steady, small changes, it will be much better positioned to handle external changes when they come up.

Here is just a small sampling of exercises that can build adaptive capacity.

  1. Scenario Planning. An in-depth look at scenario planning requires its own post. For the time being it is enough to know that the process involves a team envisioning possible futures and detailing plans for those futures. The idea is to have possible actions for many situations, so that the organization is prepared for as many outcomes as possible.
  2. Cross Training. Many organizations are running so lean now that they don’t have adequate “bench strength” in the case of a team member absence. Cross training is definitely helpful during times like flu season. However, it’s also an advantage to have cross-trained members so that the organization has multiple perspectives to adapt and improve processes. One person performing the same job for years can become inflexible or run out of ideas for making changes. Multiple perspectives of the same job can build the capacity for adaptation and continuous improvements.
  3. “State of the Industry” Meetings. Many fields, such as real estate, have annual, local forecast meetings. These meetings allow members of that profession to get together and discuss expert projections and their own hunches of the coming year. If you don’t work in one of these fields, you can still have your own information exchange sessions with other members of your organization. Assign everyone a sub-topic to research and discuss the findings among your team or the whole organization. In rapidly changing fields, a quarterly meeting might be even better.

Change is Easier When You Know What’s Coming
In many ways, building adaptive capacity is a lot like building your crystal ball gazing skills. It’s pretty hard to adapt to circumstances that you just couldn’t see coming. In fact, we usually call those events “crises” or sometimes “acts of terrorism!” The good news is that most change follows fairly predictable patterns. Through careful study and information exchange, most organizations in most fields will be able to get the big things right.

These are ideas that I’ve picked up through my studies and experiences within a few types of organizations. If you’ve had different experiences, or tips for building adaptive capacity, please share those in the comments below.

photo by: dullhunk

Project Management, Change Management and Personal Development: Where is the Crossroads?

Way back in my pre consulting days, I did a video interview with Bas DeBaar, author of The Project Shrink web site. I think the interview still has many valid points (even though I hate my hair!), so I am reposting it today.

A few of the highlights include:

  1. Why personal development can make organizational change easier
  2. How to “bootstrap” your own personal development
  3. Why flexible, frequent planning is the most effective method for most organizations
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Evaluating Change

Over two years ago now Heather Stagl of Enclaria LLC interviewed me for her radio show, The Change Agent’s Dilemma. We talked about ways to measure the progress your organization is making toward a planned change. I am reposting the interview because the topic is timeless and a source of frustration for many people seeking to create change in an organization.

There is a point in change management where all the plans are made, key people are on board, and the resources are available. (See my post It’s So Meta: Managing Change in the Public Sector for detail on these steps.) All that’s left to do is the work – which can take months or even years!

How do you keep progressing toward a change over the long haul?

One part of the answer is measurement. In the interview, Heather and I discuss ways to find appropriate measurements, how to monitor them, and how to use them to keep your change on track.

You can listen to the show using the player below. I also created a worksheet to help with this process, which is available for download.

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How to Create a Theory of Change

In Part 1 of this series, I explained what a Theory of Change is and why it can be useful for changes on a personal and organizational level. In this post, I’ll explain how to create a theory of change, using the following format:

For this example, let’s say that I am overweight and out of shape. I want to improve my health, so I decide to construct a theory of change and action plan that will help me in that process.

Step 1: Desired Change Assumptions. In this step I look at all of the underlying causes of my less-than-stellar health and why I think I got that way. For this example, I’ll say that I want to change because I haven’t been feeling well and I want more energy. The underlying causes of my health problems are poor eating habits and a lack of exercise. Ideally, I would like to be fit enough to run in a 5k and want to eat at least 5 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables every day.

Step 2: Actions. This is the traditional action planning step that most of us are familiar with. In this step I’ll brainstorm all of the things I need to achieve my desired outcome. Because I think I need more exercise, I decide that I’ll join a gym and work with a trainer. I also need to learn more about nutrition, so I’ll go to the library and research good eating habits. In working with my trainer, we come up with a 5 times per week workout plan and an eating schedule of 5 small meals per day. I’ll continue in this plan for 3 months.

Step 3: Results & Reflection. Some changes can take place quickly, but many are an ongoing process – such as my health improvement example. When this is the case, it’s helpful to pause occasionally and assess the progress that you’ve made so far. Then you can determine if you want to continue doing the same actions, take a break, or rework your assumptions and actions for better results. After my 3 months of improved diet and exercise, I’ll assess my fitness by running in a 5k race. I’ll review my food logs to see if I’ve been eating better. Then I will decide if I want to work toward more improvement or come up with a maintenance plan.

The real power of a Theory of Change is that it forces you to examine the assumptions behind your thinking. My example is a pretty simple one, but in a more complex situation, this 1st step is very helpful. It is also a continuous improvement type of process that requires evaluation and at least thinking about ways to make your processes and plans better.

What is a Theory of Change?

In the nonprofit and charitable sector organizations exist for the explicit purpose of changing some aspect of their communities. There are usually many possible ways to create the desired change, so organizations have to choose how to use their limited staff and budgets to get the most “bang for their buck.” The most successful organizations usually have an underlying framework that they use to guide those decisions, rather than just making it up as they go along. One tool that we use to create such a framework is called a theory of change.

What is This and Why Should I Care?

The Ford Foundation, one of the largest and most respected charitable foundations in the U.S. defines a theory of change as:

“[A tool that] describes a process of planned social change, from the assumptions that guide its design to the long-term goals it seeks to achieve.”

This definition really only applies to nonprofit organizations who are trying to advance their missions. However, I think that the idea of Theory of Change has a lot of relevance in many situations all the way from individual personal improvement up to and including inter-governmental groups such as the United Nations. In my view, tweaking the definition to:

“A tool that describes any process of planned change, from the assumptions that guide its design to the to the long-term goals it seeks to achieve.”

In my slightly tweaked definition, a theory of change can incorporate core values, a change management plan, a behavior modification plan, or any other type of improvement.

How is This Different From an Action Plan?

On the surface, a theory of change looks like just another plan of action that we might use to: try to quit smoking, find greater efficiencies in our departments, or lobby for a new law. When it’s done right, though, a theory of change includes many elements not found in a traditional plan of action such as:

  • Core values. In other words, why do you want to create that particular change.
  • Plan of action. What steps are you going to take.
  • Assumptions. Why do you think the steps in your plan of action will work?
  • Desired outcome(s). What do you want to happen when you complete this process?
  • Measures of success. How will you know when you are done?

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll walk you through the process of creating a theory of change. In the meantime, if you want to read up on this concept, I recommend Grantcraft’s Mapping Change: Using a Theory of Change to Guide Planning and Evaluation.


photo by: Julia Folsom

It’s So Meta: Managing Change in the Public Sector

Maria’s note: I’ve spent much of my student and professional career reading thick academic articles and translating them into “regular people’s” English. From time to time, I will summarize articles that I find helpful on this website.

The academic article Managing Successful Organizational Change in the Public Sector (Fernandez & Rainey, 2006) is an extensive literature review of research on change management. The authors distill dozens of articles and books into eight steps.

  1. Ensure the Need. A change leader must create a vision for change and show that they are not promoting change for the sake of change. If necessary, they may even artificially create discomfort if that is the only way to create movement.
  2. Provide a Plan. If plans for change are left ambiguous, they leave room for too much discretion at the individual level. People who are not in favor of the change may find ways to ignore it or even oppose for many years. In some cases, they may just wait it out until management changes and the initiative is forgotten. A clear plan with goals and milestones is one way to clarify expectations and keep everyone on track.
  3. Build Internal Support for Change and Overcome Resistance. Make room for widespread participation. The more say individuals have in the plan for change, the more they are likely to support and work toward the plan.
  4. Ensure Top Management Support and Commitment. If management decides to oppose a plan for change, it’s often game over. At least one member at the executive level needs to be on the side of change.
  5. Build External Support. In the nonprofit and public sectors, external stakeholders such as funders and interest groups can help or hinder change. If a change is going to cost funding or attract lots of negative publicity, it may not work.
  6. Provide Resources. Change is never free. Employees or volunteers will need time to adjust to the change. Outside consultants and service providers may need to help out for a while. The change might require an investment in resources such as software, physical space or meeting time. Without resources, a change won’t succeed long term.
  7. Institutionalize Change. Incorporate the change(s) into daily routines. Set performance measures and monitor data to keep everyone on track over time. Give regular update reports so everyone can see where the organization is and how far they have left to go.
  8. Pursue Comprehensive Change. Examine all parts of the organization and see if the systems, staffing and training are consistent and support the change. If you want greater employee input and engagement, change policies to allow them to take more action without supervisor approval. If you want to encourage interaction, get rid of cubicles or create a lounge area.

While these eight steps read like a linear plan, that may not always be the case. For example, it may be important to secure top management support before presenting a vision for change to the rest of the organization. It’s also possible that change initiatives might backslide for a while and the change team may have to reconfigure the plan or build more internal support.

photo by: taberandrew

What is Decision Making?

Every day we each make hundreds, maybe even thousands of decisions. Most of our decisions are tiny, almost unnoticeable moments that pass by without notice. We decide whether to get out of bed or hit the Snooze button on the alarm. We choose khakis or blue trousers to wear to work. We select the donut with pink sprinkles over the plain glazed. Most of the time we aren’t even aware that we have made a choice.

That may be okay for small choices, but decision making is a vital part of the change process. Unless we plan to just hang around while life happens to us and our organizations, at some point we will have to make decisions about out future actions

When I sat down to really dissect what decision making looks like, I realized that it is much more complex than it seems I went looking around the ‘net and in business management books and found many tools and techniques for making decisions. This suggests that making decisions is actually quite difficult for most people, despite it being a common activity.

There are many, many definitions of decision making. The common elements that make up a decision among the definitions I have seen seem to be:

  • Conscious Thought. Decision making has to include conscious thought. This rules out actions done through habit or instinct. Breathing isn’t really a choice. In some cases, taking addictive drugs is no longer a choice.
  • Two or More Possible Actions. If you only have one option, you can’t actually make a decision. Ford offered the Model T in “any color you want, as long as it’s black.” There were no other options, so the buyer had no real choice of color.
  • Moment of Selection. For a real decision to be made, you have to select from the possible options. Note that this selection may mean doing nothing or choosing not to decide. However, the absence of action is still a choice. For example, I can choose to ignore my phone – that is a decision in which I make a choice to not take action.

To sum all of these elements up, it seems that Decision Making = Thought + Possible Actions + Active Selection.

Rock Paper Scissors

Rock, Paper, Scissors

One of the obstacles to making good decisions seems to be the overabundance of information and possible choices currently available to us. Other people have written extensively about the tyranny of choice,  the concept that we have so many choices available to us now that we get overwhelmed just buying soap. In many cases we seek out much more information than is needed to make a choice and we end up paralyzed.

For those of us who tend to suffer from analysis paralysis, I have good news. It really doesn’t matter what you decide!

The key to being happy with a decision is to remain committed to the decision that you’ve made and realize that it leads down a road that is just as good as any other. This is easier said than done, especially in business where you might meet resistance at the slightest hint that a decision isn’t working. However, movement in any direction will lead to more and better feedback than just standing still and planning to plan.

Key to Change
As you can see, making decisions is one of the key steps in a change process.

My assignment to you is to take one day this week to practice making as many conscious decisions as possible. When you finish your day, make sure to come back and tell us all about it in the comments!

Facilitation: The Good, Bad and Ugly

This is Part 6 of a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. To read the entire series from the beginning, start at the bottom of the Facilitation page of this site.

In a previous post in this series, Ann Emery asked me to share stories from successful (and not so successful) facilitations that I’ve taken part in.  When I thought about the many meetings I’ve participated in or led, I can only think of one that went kind of wrong (let’s keep the streak alive!), and that had more to do with the dynamics of the organization than the meeting topic or the facilitator. However, there was one that I led that had the potential to go wrong, but ended up going really well.

Here’s the background…

I was hired to help an organization do some planning. We had an initial session where I dutifully helped them write a vision statement, and then we scheduled another meeting to create a long range action plan. I began my background research, and uncovered some problems. Big problems. Going out of business problems!

I realized that long range planning was the last thing the org needed. What they really needed was their board to face up to the situation. I decided that instead of a planning meeting, I was going to confront them with their reality. This could have gone one of two ways:

  1. I get fired.
  2. The participants rise to the challenge.

Fortunately, the latter happened and we had a productive meeting. The org is by no means out of the woods yet, but they have taken some solid steps to define who they are, what they want to do, and how they can go forward in this time of crisis.

Now, it’s your turn to share. Do you have any stories of great or awful facilitators or facilitated meetings? Please disguise identities to protect the guilty, but give us the best (and worst) you’ve got!

photo by: b.frahm