Change is inevitable. It’s happening to all of us, all the time. But if you don’t want change to just happen to you–if you want to proactively initiate and sustain positive change in your organization or team… well, that can be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.
There’s one real prerequisite for organizational change, and it’s the one that most leaders breeze through or skip entirely : building a sense of urgency. If you don’t invest heavily in this, people won’t be interested in working on the change problem, and you’ll fail before you even get off the ground. As change guru John Kotter says, “People will find a thousand ingenious ways to withhold cooperation from a process that they sincerely think is unnecessary or wrongheaded.”
Many years ago I was part of a fantastic organization filled with good-hearted, highly intelligent people. This organization, however, had one little problem… its revenue model just wasn’t sustainable. Although a few leaders were conscious of the problem, they weren’t able to get others interested in taking decisive action. For most of us, the problem just wasn’t visible enough in our day-to-day life and work. On top of that, the organizational culture was inclined to avoid confrontation and to “kill the messenger” of bad news. And ultimately, there was a high capacity for denial. Most people just aren’t inclined to hear what they don’t want to hear, especially if they are busy or stressed. By the time most of us were ready to change it was too late–change happened to us, and the organization disintegrated.
Why do organizations become complacent?
We rest on our laurels. Don’t get me wrong; it’s important to remember the successes of the past. In the Bible, the prophets were always reminding God’s people about his past faithfulness to rescue and provide for them. As leaders, we need to play that same role, constantly celebrating the ways God has provided resources, redeemed difficult situations, and enabled victories. But like the prophets we need to use those celebrations as a launching pad, to point toward God’s promises and the vision he has given us for the days ahead.
As followers of Jesus, we have the most powerful vision possible: the vision of the Kingdom of God. One day, when his kingdom is realized, all things will be made right. In the meantime he invites us to participate in his redemptive activity in the world–helping people and communities flourish and thrive. How can we be complacent when we have that vision in mind?
We’re not willing to rock the boat. Speaking of prophets, what many organizations really need is some provocative thinking. A particular weakness of Christian organizations is fear of confrontation. When someone comes forward with bad news, negative feedback, or an idea that goes against the status quo, they are “shushed” into silence for fear that they might hurt someone’s feelings, lower morale, or stir up “arguments” (aka honest discussions).
We get tunnel vision. Many people (or whole teams) only receive input and feedback from within their own organizational systems or a tight circle of like-minded people. In some organizations it’s possible for a staffer to work for months—or a whole career—without hearing from a single unhappy stakeholder, donor, or partner. The degree to which we insulate ourselves and our organizations from constructive input and fresh perspectives is the degree to which we limit our ability to grow and change.
We tell ourselves that “God will provide.” It’s true, God does provide… and he sometimes even does it with a “just in time” bailout. One leader I know has a provision story that’s truly miraculous: in a moment of crisis and after much prayer, an unsolicited donation check arrived just in time for him to make payroll and keep his organization running. It’s a beautiful, dramatic story. The problem is that he developed an expectation that God would provide in that same way again and again. We know from scripture that God rarely works the same way twice; he likes to keep us guessing. We shouldn’t downplay God-engineered quick fixes (aka miracles), but more often his provision comes in the form of brains, relationships, and spiritual discernment about which path to take.
How NOT to build a sense of urgency
Many managers and change consultants will advocate for stirring up urgency in your organization by identifying (or even manufacturing) a “burning platform”–a threat severe enough to cause people to change. As in, “We don’t know where we’re going, but we can’t stay here!” While a burning platform will trigger change, I recommend you steer clear of this strategy. Why? Because at its root, the “burning platform” approach is based on stirring up fear, and won’t result in the kind of transformation you ultimately want. Don’t sugar-coat failures or challenges, but don’t try to scare people into action either. That isn’t leadership–it’s manipulation bordering on bullying.
The “burning platform” tactic often involves overstating the severity of the crisis, or manufacturing one that doesn’t really exist. Don’t fall for this temptation–these kind of behaviors will hurt your credibility and break down the trust. You’ll need that credibility and trust when it’s time to build an organizational culture that sustains positive change (more on that in a few weeks).
How TO build a sense of urgency.
Rallying a handful of people around a change effort isn’t enough. In Leading Change, Kotter makes the case that sustaining a transformation effort requires 75% of an organization’s management, including virtually all of the executive leaders, to believe that change is essential. This is no small task. How do you do it?
- Shake off tunnel vision. Tap into perspectives that are beyond your usual circles. Get counsel and glean insights from outside your staff by interviewing your donors, peers, and the people you serve. Sometimes fresh perspective is enough to break through the complacency.
- Run scenarios to create clarity about the highest risks and biggest unknowns that your organization or team is likely to face in the future (here’s how). Make scenario planning workshops prayerful acts of spiritual discernment.
- Set provocative goals. Set targets that are ambitious enough that people can’t accomplish them by carrying on with business as usual, and realize the need for new approaches.
- Communicate more proactively. Share information about significant challenges and exciting opportunities openly across your organization or team.
- Cultivate a sense of excitement about the future. Most people who work for mission-driven organizations are motivated (at least in part) by a desire to be part of something transformative. Stir up that desire, and point it in the direction of positive organizational change. Remember, we’re ultimately here to be part of God’s kingdom activity in the world.
Are there other ways you have built a sense of urgency for change in your organization or team? Tell us about it in the Comments section below.