Organizational Transformation: Survival and Margin

Posted by Matthew Thomas

One of the most obvious symptoms of an organization in survival mode – or nearing survival mode – is a lack of margin for new ideas, programs, products or other innovation. A startup has little margin for new things beyond what it is doing – because everything is new. An established organization, however, with little or no resources allocated to new things – innovation, research, development, continuing education, outreach, and so on – is in trouble. When an organization gets to that point, it is entirely dependent on its established products, services and practices, with no room to adapt to changing conditions internally or externally.

Survival KitMargin is essential to give organizations poise and an assertive stance. Margin allows organizations to respond to changes internally and externally with a level of forethought, forecasting, or at least a level of freedom to think things through before developing an approach to a set of issues. The need for margin exists throughout all sectors of the economy – whether businesses and enterprises, non-profits, charities and churches, or government entities. If there is no margin, any minor changes to the system can send ripples throughout the whole organization.

Financial margin comes about when organizations budget revenue greater than expenses. This allows for money to be available for unexpected opportunities or crises. In addition, over time, this builds reserves so that the organization can initiate more significant undertakings that would otherwise be impossible in one budget cycle.

Organizational margin comes about when organizations prioritize all of those innovative practices we listed above: research, development, continuing education, outreach, training, and even vacation time for staff. This means scheduling time in for people to decompress and do something new, cross-disciplinary or discover something they hadn’t known before. It even gives room for people to practice something that they aren’t as good at as they need to be, in a lower pressure environment – which aids in learning.  As organizations staff their programs, services and products, this will require creating space for this kind of innovation in job descriptions, budgets, compensation, workspace and meetings.

Restoring margin will help move a survival-mode organization to a greater level of health and may help it to thrive again.

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Design Group International, Organziational Transformation, Margin, Innovation, survive, thrive

Organizational Transformation: Naming the Problem

Posted by Matthew Thomas

One of the most significant problems facing an organization in survival mode is the sheer number of problems that are all going on at the same time. Once an organization passes a threshold of a small number of major crises, or a larger number of minor crises simultaneously, it loses its capacity to handle any of the crises. Those problems that are chronic issues often become part of the background narrative and become the roadblocks to any one issue’s resolution. Usually, this leads to the whole organization, from leadership to rank and file, feeling disempowered and out of control. In such cases it is hard to face the myriad of issues without feeling overwhelmed.

Organizational ProblemsNevertheless, an exercise in naming the problems and issues in the organization can help empower the organization. Often, a brainstorm session among the core leadership will uncover the basic narratives of what is wrong, who is in conflict with whom, and what things have been tried before. Then, the organization’s leadership can choose what issues it is going to take on, and when. When this happens, the leadership may feel empowered for the first time in a while, because they are making a choice what they will deal with. They are also acknowledging that other problems exist – also, perhaps for the first time.

This process also has the potential to build trust – if the group doing the brainstorming has the capacity to admit mistakes and take responsibility for the problems that are going on. By choosing to take on certain issues, and to prioritize others, the group begins the process of taking responsibility. This can help to break cycles of passivity that develop when problems become overwhelming. 

If the group names problems that are all entirely external (or mostly external), help them take power in those issues as well by defining internal responses to those problems – even if the group will never choose certain options.

Leading a group through this kind of exercise is not for those who wish to avoid conflict – almost inevitably, conflict will surface. Nevertheless, naming the problems at hand and choosing which ones to address will help to empower a survival-mode organization toward dealing with difficult issues and move toward health and vitality – if even a little bit.

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Design Group International, thrive, survive, Organizational Leadership

Organizational Transformation: Survive or Thrive?

Posted by Matthew Thomas

An organization in survival mode often works against its own opportunity to thrive. The mindsets of survival involve fear, mistrust of outsiders (because those outside are threats to survival), internal focus, and past-orientation.

survival kit sardine can thinkgeek.comThese survival mindsets lead to risk aversion, rehashing the same strategies the organization has used before with (at least perceived) success, increased use of technical solutions to problems, and simultaneous personnel entrenchment and turnover. Often, they also lead to excessive celebration of minor successes as bellwethers of nascent turnarounds, and the redefinition of new failures as successes after the fact (without having learned from the failure).

What organizations in survival mode don’t realize is that in most cases, while outside conditions and circumstances have changed around them (while they have faithfully trooped on doing their thing), it is their responsibility to wrestle with those changing contexts and engage change, rather than to blame the outside changes (culture shift, government regulation, new competitor, new technology, etc.) for their lack of current organizational health. These organizations have either ignored shifts early in their existence, or drawn lines in the sand against them that require loss of face to allow a change of approach toward the particular change.

By the time the organization reaches survival mode, its chances of survival (let alone achieving new health and thriving) are severely diminished: but diminished primarily by the organization’s own culture, leadership capacity and funding capacity more than anything else.

Organizations in survival mode with the best chances of thriving once again appear to be those that have the human, financial and leadership resources to change from a survival-mode culture to a culture that engages adaptation as a means of finding a new way of being. This is why turnarounds are so difficult.

So what to do? There is much that can be done, and we will look at one option in this post. (Others will follow in other posts.)

One of the common symptoms of survival mode (even if it is not spoken of as such) is a refusal or incapacity of making difficult decisions. This often manifests as institutional paralysis or firing from the hip. The prescription is not to make big, complex, difficult decisions right away, if at all possible. The ideal approach allows the organization to practice decision-making in smaller, but still strategic ways, while developing measurements for success and failure in those decisions. As the organization becomes more accustomed to making decisions, a leader can increase the difficulty and complexity level, using the capacity for conflict resolution and measurement of success gained at the easier and less complex levels to grow the organization toward the capacity to make the bigger decisions.

In future posts we will examine other tools your organization can use to move from surviving to thriving. The 6 essential questions for strategic planning resource below can get you started today!



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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Design Group International, organizational development, thrive, survive, risk, adaptive leadership