About 15 years ago, I was at a regional management meeting where a newly hired colleague was introduced. The guy next to me muttered “Welcome to the Titanic.”
In the past 20 years, we’ve seen the disruption of the record, photo, newspaper, and other industries. Though music, photos, and news continue to play a big role in people’s lives, the old ‘owners’ of the space were disrupted by changes in technology and new expectations from consumers. Similar changes are happening in the international civil society space, and organizations working there need to think more systematically about what these changes mean.
I spent last week with leadership from a dozen or so international civil society organizations (ICSOs) thinking about what is disrupting our space and strategizing about how to help the space, including our organizations, become more resilient and adaptive to disruption. Participants in the meeting came from several types of organizations (large INGOs doing service delivery and policy work, on-line organizing groups, social enterprises, think tanks, and big campaigning organizations), both new and old, headquartered and/or founded in both the “North” and the “South.”
We approached discussions from the premise that, like music, photos, and news; our sector does have value and does serve an important function. The world is not a perfect place, and government and the private sector need to be balanced and kept in check by a strong and organized “third sector.” However, many ICSOs are dinosaurs whose functions may be replaced by new players and new ways of working that better fit the external environment.
Changes around and within organizations are being prompted by a number of converging factors, including new technology, global financial shifts, new players and ways of working, and new demands from “beneficiaries,” constituencies, and donors. All of these involve shifting power. On top of power shifts, an environmental disaster looms (because we are living beyond the means of the planet), and we see civil society space closing in many contexts while at the same time organized movements are forcing open space for civic uprising and citizen voice.
ICSOs need to learn how to adapt to the shifting shape and context of civil society, and to work and collaborate in a changing ecosystem with new situations and new players. This involves:
- Detecting and being open to changes and potential disruptors
- Preparing in a long-term, linear way by creating more adaptive, iterative and resilient organizations
- Responding quickly and nimbly to disruption and crises when they hit
Key elements of preparing for and navigating disruption are:
- Maintaining trust and transparency – both internally and externally
- Collective action
- Being aware of and able to analyze and cope with power shifts
Organization cannot prepare for every specific disruption or crisis, and the biggest crises and shocks come out of nowhere. ICSOs should however become more adaptive and agile by creating built-in responsiveness. We surfaced a number of ideas for getting better at this:
- Networking/Exchange: actively building networks, learning across sectors, engaging and working with non-traditional partners, bringing in external thinkers and doers for exchange and learning
- Trend spotting and constant monitoring: watching and participating in spaces where potential disruptions are springing up (for example, challenge funds, contest and innovation prizes); exit interviews to understand why innovative staff are leaving, where they are going, and why; scanning a wide range of sources (staff, people on the ground, traditional media, social media, political analysts) including all ICSO’s audiences – eg., donors, supporters, communities
- Predicting. Keeping predictable shocks on the radar (hurricane season, elections) and preparing for them, scenario planning as part of the preparatory phase
- Listening: Ensuring that middle level, often unheard parts of the organization are listened to and that there are open and fluid communication lines between staff and middle and upper management; listening to customers, users, beneficiaries, constituencies; basically listening to everyone
- Confident humility: Being humble and open, yet also confident, systematic and not desperate/chaotic
- Meta-learning: Finding systematic ways to scan what is happening and understand it; learning from successes and failures at the ‘meta’ and the cross-sector level not just the organizational or project level
- Slack time: Giving staff some slack for thinking, experimenting and reflecting; establishing a system for identifying what an organization can stop doing to enable staff to have slack time to think and be creative and try new things
- Training. Ensuring that staff have skills to do strategic decision making, monitoring, scenario planning
- Decentralized decision-making. Allow local pods and networks to take control of decision-making rather than having all decisions weighed in on by everyone or taking place at the top or the center; this should be backed by policies and protocols that enable quick decision making at the local level and quick communication across the organization
- Trust. Hiring staff you can trust and trusting your staff (human resources departments need strengthening in order to do this well; they need to better understand the core business and what kind of staff an organization needs in these new times)
Culture, management, and governance changes are all needed to improve an organization’s ability to adapt. Systems need to be adjusted so that organizations can be more flexible and adaptive. Organizational belief systems and values also need to shift. Trying out adaptive actions and flexible culture in small doses to develop an organization’s comfort level and confidence and helping to amass shared experience of acting in a new way can help move an organization forward. Leadership should also work to identify innovation across the organization, highlight it, and scale it, and to reward staff who take risk and experiment rather than punishing them.
These changes are very difficult for large, established organizations. Staff and management tend to be overworked and spread thin as it is, managing an existing workload and with little “slack time” to manage change processes. In addition, undesignated funds are shrinking, meaning that organizations have little funding to direct towards new areas or for scanning and preparing, testing and learning. Many organizations are increasingly locked into implementing projects and programs per a donor’s requirements and there are few resources to strategize and focus on organizational adaptation and change. Contractual commitments and existing promises and community partnerships can make it difficult for ICSOs to stop doing certain programs in order to dedicate resources to new areas. The problem is usually not a shortage of innovative ideas and opportunities, but rather the bandwidth to explore and test them, and the systems for determining which ideas are most likely to succeed so that scarce resources can be allocated to them.
Despite all the challenges, the organizations in the room were clear that ICSOs need to change and disrupt themselves, because if they don’t, someone else will. We profiled three types of organizations: the conservative avoider, the opportunistic navigator, and the active disruptor, and determined that the key to survival for many ICSOs will be “dialing up the pain of staying the same and reducing the pain of changing.”
What might an adaptive organization look like?
- Focused on its mission, not its traditional means of achieving the mission (get across the water in the best way possible, don’t worry if it’s via building a bridge or taking a boat or swimming)
- Not innovating for the sake of innovation or disrupting for the sake of it – accompanying innovation and disruption with longer-term and systematic follow through
- Periodically updating its mission to reflect the times
- Piloting, gaining experience, monitoring, evaluating, building evidence and learning iteratively and at the meta-level from trends and patterns
- Sub-granting to new, innovative players and seeding new models
- Open, in the public domain, supporting others to innovate, decentralized, networked, flexible, prepared for new levels of transparency
- Systematically discovering new ways of working and new partners, testing them, learning and mainstreaming them
- Keeping its ear to the ground
- Learning to exit and say no in order to free up slack time to experiment and try new things
Many “dinosaur” organizations are adopting a head-in-the-sand approach, believing that they can rely on their age, their hierarchical systems and processes, or their brand to carry them through the current waves of change. This is no longer enough, and we can expect some of these organizations to die off. Other organizations are in the middle of an obvious shift where parts of the organization are pushing to work under new rules but other parts are not ready. This internal turmoil, along with the overstretched staff, and ineffective boards in some cases, make it difficult to deal with external disruption while managing internal change.
Newer organizations and those that are the closest to the ground seem to have the best handle on disruption. They tend to be more adaptive and nimble, whereas those far from the ground can be insulated from external realities and less aware of the need for ISCOs to change. Creating a “burning platform” can encourage organizational change and a sense of urgency, however, this type of change effort needs to be guided by a clear and positive vision of why change is needed, where change is heading, and why it will be beneficial to achieving an organization’s mission.
After our week of intense discussions, the group felt we still had not answered the question: Can ISCOs be nimble? As in any ecosystem, as the threats and problems to civil society shift and change, a wide array of responses from a number of levels, players and approaches is necessary. Some will not be fit or will not adapt and will inevitably die off. Others will shift to occupy a new space. Some will swallow others up or replace them. Totally new ones will continue to arise. For me, the important thing in the end is that the problems that civil society addresses are dealt with, not that individual organizations maintain their particular position in the ecosystem.
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