Seven Tips for Organizational Transformation in Development

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International development organizations are often pressed to change. Some common circumstances include downsizing or upsizing due to funding changes, the retirement of a founder or loss of a key staff member, and restructuring driven by the parent organization. Change can be particularly complicated in international development. Communication regarding change is always highly sensitive, and can easily go off-track across cultures and languages. Similarly, even a highly experienced outsider with a wealth of local experience may not appreciate the change-induced interplay between individuals and stakeholders at a local level.

One of the primary findings from United States Agency for International Development’s recent large-scale study, “From Capacity Development to Sustainable Development,” was that if an organization wants sustainable performance improvement, it is important for someone close to the project to have organizational development, or OD, skills. Yet we see projects, USAID missions, and NGOs try to effect change in themselves and their clients without the relevant OD guidance. The study found that having a structured and coached approach to change is a promising practice. A related promising practice is to have people with OD skills to guide organizational transformations in development. Why is having a professional on deck important?

The bad news is that we routinely make mistakes that undermine the effectiveness of our attempts at sustainable performance improvement in our own organizations and in our “client” organizations. The really bad news is that most change initiatives fail to achieve their stated objectives, even when the reason for change is widely held and relatively clear. Imagine the statistics if applied to development when there are multiple stakeholders and divergent goals. The worst news is that organizations are weakened by failed attempts at change. Not only have people been distracted during the process, most experience a downturn in productivity and emerge warier of future attempts at change. So the stakes are high. Here are some tips for successful transformation in your global development organization.

1. Hire or borrow some OD expertise

Don’t try DIY, especially if it is a big change. Change management is best practiced by OD professionals, not water experts, program officers or doctors.

2. Prepare leaders

Great change managers prepare leaders for change by guiding their expectations about the process. Successful or unsuccessful change attempts fall onto the organization’s leaders — they are in the “hot seat,” so prepare them for what they should expect: The going will get tough, productivity will temporarily fall, and staff and stakeholders will resist for myriad reasons. The leader needs to be steeled for what to expect so he or she is not caught off guard. Through this coaching, the leader becomes fully familiar with the costs and benefits of the change and still believes change is necessary.

Important Organizational Development Disclaimer:

Always consult your OD professional before beginning any organizational transformation program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any organizational condition or to replace your OD professional. Consult with your OD professional to design an appropriate intervention. If you experience any pain or difficulty, stop and consult an OD provider.

3. Construct a large tent

Increase the support the organization needs for successful transformation by engaging the client organization, donors and stakeholders in mutual understanding regarding what the change is intended to achieve. This is an opportunity to help stakeholders understand how they may need to contribute to support the transition. Since there are almost always minefields to navigate during change, this also gives an opportunity to find where some of those issues may be kept hidden or where interests diverge.

4. Look for what works

Many common organizational assessment tools are biased to find gaps and deficits and few uncover what works. What individuals and teams are performing well? What processes are highly efficient or effective? What aspects of the organization’s environment are extremely helpful? Strong advocates, new laws, favorable public opinion, and emerging technologies are some examples. Great assessments should help organizations become more self-aware, but an overfocus on gaps and deficits is dangerous. Why? Because when we introduce change, we disrupt the status quo and can undermine the people and processes that are key drivers of success. Further, it is inaccurate. Organizations are not problems to be solved but are dynamic systems that are rich with resources and potential. An over-focus on gaps and deficits undermines the organization’s confidence and ability to make the changes it wants to realize its full potential.

5. Bring the right tools for the job

If the change required in an organization is relatively minor — this could be performing a new function or making a modest change in the organization’s structure — the organization may not need to use multiple tools to transform. The greater the depth or scope of change required, the more likely multiple tools for change will be required to reduce the duration of the productivity downturn, realize performance gains more quickly, and to make the change “stick.” The tools needed may include a combination of organization process redesign, organizational redesign, position descriptions and unit functional statements revision, staff performance appraisal changes, communications, incentives and training/knowledge.

6.  Communicate

It is easy to underestimate the volume of two-way communication needed to navigate change, let alone strategizing the various audiences that need to be addressed, the messages they need, the way they need to receive messages, and the avenues they prefer to receive them. During recent work helping a USAID mission through a large transition, the means of communication included townhalls, videos embedded in emails, video screens playing prerecorded messages and videos, an anonymous box for written questions/comments, an anonymized email hotline, office meetings, committee briefings for national staff, video conferencing with Washington HR, relevant Bureaus, and State Department, and a change group that deliberately listened and fed information back to the senior mission leadership. Strategic communications plans help manage this flow and give leaders a way to be out in front of change communication rather than in a reactive mode which may undermine trust in leadership.

7. Don’t forget the joy

While change is tricky business, it is important to celebrate the journey and to be light and playful where possible. There are many ways to bring joy into the equation. Focus on the organization’s worthy purpose. Celebrate meeting milestones. Play games and enjoy just being together. Story tell what’s made the organization what it is and about your hopes for the future. Whatever works for your organization, be bold and interject some fun into the process.

Blog posts on the MSI website represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of MSI.


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