The More Things Change, What Should Stay the Same?

With rapid change so ubiquitous across the sector, it can be constructive to think about what is still working, what is essential to organizational identity, and what can serve as a solid foundation for flexible strategy.

In a recent blog post, we heard the CEOs of three major national nonprofits talk about how they went about reinventing their legacy organizations to better meet 21st century needs. Interestingly, they didn’t talk up their innovative strategies, campaigns, or initiatives. Instead, they spoke about the importance of deciding what to keep as essential to the organization’s core identity. Judy Vredenburgh of Girls, Inc. talked about retaining these enduring strengths and values, not as anchors to the past, but, as “ballast” to change the things that have outlived their usefulness.

In fact, it makes a lot of sense, looking through the lens of motion mechanics. We all know the cliché of how hard it is to “turn a big ship” when talking about organizational change. One need only recall Jeff Bridges’ surprising (and amazing!) meditation on “trim tabs” in his 2019 Golden Globes speech to shed new light on this metaphor. But we see equally-relevant analogs in simple body mechanics. Think about how we pivot, shift, and turn.

  • Pivot: Before it was industry jargon, “pivot” was an apt description of how an athlete, like a basketball player, could fix one foot on the ground to access a whole range of possible next moves. It’s only because of the foot that stays in place—an element remaining unchanged—that so many other options become available.
  • Shift: To those of us for whom standing in a grocery store line is still a thing, shifting from one foot to another is second nature. When we do this, we redistribute the weight of our body mass. Judy and her peers have learned first-hand how tapping into longstanding organizational values can help bring along a critical mass of stakeholders to shift strategy.
  • Turn: For dancers, “spotting” a turn by maintaining a visual reference point enables them to perform the most breathtaking pirouettes and fouettés without losing balance—or becoming violently ill. Anyone who has been through major organizational change can surely appreciate the value of a fixed point, or touchstone, in avoiding what can often feel like motion-sickness!

All this is not to say that organizations should hold fast to what’s comfortable or traditional…certainly if it is not an essential strength vital to continued evolution and effectiveness. We merely suggest that it can be constructive for leaders to consider what elements of their organization and its work should remain unchanged so as to enable innovation, adaptability, and risk-taking to occur elsewhere.

What are your experiences with this organizational change dynamic? Share in the Comments section below!

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