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"The Virus Made Us Do It" - Avoid These 5 Myths to Succeed with Organizational Change

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organizational change

Whether your organization’s work life has been stay-at-home and online or essential workers taking temperatures with protective gear, or a mix of both, COVID-19 has brought change and there’s no end in sight to making adjustments as we gradually return.  

How should nonprofits manage their COVID-19 changes? How can they prepare for what’s ahead?

“Internal” vs “external” is artificial

You may be thinking, “COVID-19 has been imposed on us all, it’s not like we chose it!”

But does that matter?

Short answer: No.  

Long answer: Also no.

Does it matter if you’re trying to lose weight because you want a beach body or because the doctor tells you that your health is at serious risk? Either way, you’ll have to change your diet and get more exercise. The stakes may be higher if it’s more health than vanity but that should only increase the attention given to doing change well.  

As for whether change is a choice or not, the reality is that for most staff going through organizational change or strategic implementations, it always feels imposed.  

Back to “why”

The “what” of change is the tangible thing we point to – swapping the annual event from a golf outing to a gala, for example, or a new donor management system, or a dangerous virus. We usually name our changes this way: launching the gala, the Bloomerang implementation, the COVID-19 response, and so on. But that’s the easy part, because we can see it and name it.

For all changes, we need to reach back to our “why” – our mission and vision, our fundamental objective, our target, the thing we’re trying to achieve. Because that doesn’t change. In fact, it usually comes into clearer focus. The difference is one of direction or instigation. If we choose to create a new strategic plan or change our annual event, we may reassert focus on our why and adopt new ways of working. We want our organization to be a lean, mean, impact-delivering machine, the nonprofit version of a beach body. But external shifts, like COVID, or a merger or a program ending, also lead us to review our “why.” Not only do we want to ground ourselves in our purpose but we need to ensure that the way we react to this external phenomenon is consistent with our values and, where possible, preserves the progress we’ve made in pursuing our mission and vision.

Most of the time we arrive at a clearer “why” and an internal or external “what” of change quickly and with energy. But change and implementation projects can struggle to get past this initial phase of excitement because we’re heading off into uncharted territory. There’s no clear map to get to our destination and since we’re not even sure what it looks like we won’t know when we’ve arrived.  

On top of this confusion we layer in all sorts of myths and mistakes about change that undermine the energy we started with. It’s like Wednesday or Thursday in the first week of our new diet and exercise regime, when we feel stressed, tired and maybe a bit lightheaded and pizza night with a bottle of wine (and a cupcake?) looks like the answer to all our problems.

Five myths about organizational change

The myths about change are so entrenched they’re part of the popular wisdom among many nonprofit leaders and managers who’ve suffered through poorly conducted changes and are loathe to subject their people to the same pain and uncertainty. But still, they’re myths.  

  1. People hate change.” Actually, people want change all the time. Remember that beach body? Every marketing experience we have is based around people wanting to improve their lives. What people don’t like is change being handled badly. If you start a change with the assumption people will hate it, you’ll be correct.
  2. It’s all about getting buy-in.” Actually, most staff don’t need to agree with or like the change. While that sounds harsh, most people accept that part of leaders’ jobs is to make strategic decisions and that they won’t be consulted beforehand. Staff want to get on with things and do the best job they can. Trying to persuade staff that leaders made good decisions is unnecessary, invites review of choices that can’t be unmade and leaves unanswered the questions staff care most about: what do I next?
  3. The main problem is resistance.” Actually, resistance is a form of engagement. Use it as an entry to deeper conversations about the best way forward. Staff will see obstacles that leaders cannot.
  4. Be resilient” or “adopt a learning culture.” These are two examples of advice about new attitudes (you can insert many different words in place of “resilient” or “learning”).  Actually, it’s unrealistic to step up and be something you’re not during change. People are suspicious of sudden personality shifts. If you’re not already resilient and oriented to learning, how will you “become” these things? Accept that you’re going to be yourself no matter how hard you try to be something different and the same goes for your culture.
  5. You can’t over-communicate.” Actually, you can. No one wants to be overwhelmed with more details, more emails, more messaging. Instead of telling, telling, and telling again, reduce the noise and commotion. Conduct conversations instead. Lots of listening, being present and accessible, and problem-solving. The human ear is far more effective during change than the well-worded message.

Organizational change doesn’t have to be hard, painful or miserable but all staff deserve that it be well planned and adequately resourced.  

If you want a fool-proof six-step method to deliver change, check out the online course High5theNewNormal on Join my private Facebook group, Social Impact Practitioner, and get practical, tactical support on organizational change, fundraising and more.

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to the Northeast Ohio Chapter | Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

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