4 Ingredients for Seeding Sustainable Change in Your Organization
Wherever there’s smoke, there’s fire—and whenever an organization embarks on a strategic plan, there’s bound to be change. In many cases, organizational change is approached in a heavy-handed way, from the top down, and unsurprisingly end in stagnation and disappointment. To use another adage: You can bring horses to water, but you can’t make them drink.
Organizational change, like a plant, thrives when cultivated. What if instead of ordering the plant to grow, we provided the sunlight and nourishment it needs to develop organically? We have seen this approach yield impressive results in work with institutions across the country and discovered that their leaders consistently provided four essential ingredients that set the optimal conditions for change: vision, values, agency, and grace. In this post, we will flesh out those ingredients and explain how, together, they can seed sustainable change in your college, university, or organization.
A compelling vision for the future is essential to any strategic planning effort. Vision provides direction. If people don’t know what the institution is aiming for, how will they know how to bring that vision to reality? Vision also provides inspiration. People want to be an integral part of whatever the future of their institution holds. When leaders share a clear vision, it can be a powerful motivator and everyone can imagine what their place may be within that future.
The value in working with Credo is multi-faceted. It keeps us accountable. It allows us to be bold. They ensure that our strategic plan is stable, is flexible, is adaptable, and we’re not just going to leave it on the shelf.
—Lillian Schumacher, Ed.D., President at Tiffin University
At the beginning of a strategic planning partnership, we encourage organizations to focus on their core values and bring them to life as a rubric against which every strategic decision will be measured. Is the institutional vision rooted in those core values? Do the priorities and initiatives you’ve selected reflect those core values? Using these shared values as a measuring stick can be particularly helpful when you need to make tough decisions about the future of longstanding traditions and programs. Questions like, “Does this event help us advance our core values?” or “Does this program align with our core values as we understand them today?” can help justify a decision to sunset those events and programs, because they no longer serve a purpose for your organization.
When your organization seeks to advance through a strategic plan, it can be tempting to ask questions of your employees like: What problems are you facing? and What help do you need? Yet those questions are more likely to yield a list of complaints than solutions. Instead, you might ask: To realize this vision that we agree that we want, what are three things you could do? What are three things your team could do? And how could leadership support those efforts? This gives your employees something tangible to own when they walk out of the discussion. You are providing them with agency—control over their role in your organization’s future. For some people, agency is a liberating feeling, but for others it can be daunting. That’s why you need to add the final ingredient: grace.
In large organizations, particularly in higher education, many faculty and staff are not granted agency in their roles. It’s natural for them to have anxiety about making mistakes. As an institutional leader, you need to extend these employees some grace—the permission to make mistakes—or they may fear consequences to fully engage in the process of change. At Credo, we like to encourage our own internal team and our clients to "fail forward fast" as we work together through vital organizational changes. Create a safe space to talk frankly about why, to date, your organization hasn’t reached its goals and how its work needs to change to be successful.
It's important to note that even when all four of these ingredients are present, you likely won’t get everyone in your institution on board with the changes that your strategic plan will require. There may be friction points along the way. But we can say that if you do invest in these four elements, your team will be more knowledgeable about your institution’s strategy, more invested in its success, and more empowered to make that success happen.
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