In Saving Organizations That Matter, I describe the various reasons that not-for-profit, mission driven organizations can fall into chaos. The majority of the book is dedicated to helping such organizations ascend from what I describe as “the confluence of chaos”. The introduction to that section follows:
Earlier in my career, I encountered organizations facing challenges and failure and always sought to gain clear insight into all of the contributing factors. How can a problem be solved without first understanding precisely what’s causing it? Such was my reasoning, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this logic; unfortunately, however, organizations in free fall frequently exhibit numerous intertwined reasons for such failure. This is the confluence of chaos.
Think of a large bowl of spaghetti. Each separate noodle is distinct, but upon inspection, all that you can see is a multitude of endless twisted strands that flow through and around the others. You could try to separate each from the others to determine their length, origin, and ultimate destination in that bowl. You could. But first, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do so. Second, that process could be extremely time-consuming. And third, and most importantly, it is likely not necessary in the first place.
When confronting organizations with a gigantic spaghetti bowl full of problems, I have found specific strategies to help and build momentum for improvement. Because time is often of the essence in the transformations and turnarounds that I have been a part of, I have often been amazed by how immediately impactful these strategies can be — regardless of the underlying issues. And deploying them helps uncover and further unpack the root causes (i.e., the underlying spaghetti strands). The next seven chapters cover each of the strategies. No doubt, you will notice that many of these relate to each other and, thus, should be seen as integral components of a broader “campaign” for success. They should be deployed together and typically concurrently as part of a transformation program. Additionally, you will note that I continue to emphasize the organization’s culture throughout. Changing the culture is the most difficult but most necessary step, and instituting all of the following strategies will do just that.
As we transition here in this book from “Into Chaos” to “From Chaos,” there needs to be a similar inflection point in an organization when it becomes clear that the organization will be transformed – there is no other option. Leaders need to convey this sense to managers and employees, most especially that this is not going to be business as usual and that incremental improvements, while important, are not the definition of success here. This process is going to be about converting an organization in freefall, where rules can be unclear, and there is limited predictability, and where there can persist a general lack of control. It is as though the organization is a ship at sea without sails. The organization is now going to move toward a sense of order, predictability, and greater control. Proper behaviors will be rewarded; unproductive and destructive behaviors will be culled out and eliminated. This transition can feel jarring to some. And that is not a bad thing.
Finally, a note about leadership. Using the tropical storm analogy I described in the introduction to this book when facing the harsh realities of chaos, of the storm itself, people will gravitate toward true leaders. In such a situation, these leaders will acknowledge the challenge of the storm and will build trust by never sugarcoating the state of affairs. However, people are drawn to those who remain relatively calm in these circumstances. Such calmness suggests confidence and, as such, those weary from chaos and disruption will gravitate to those who appear to be undaunted and to know the way forward. Surging storms tend to tip people off balance, to force them to move in ways that feel unpredictable and even dangerous. During such times, leaders will emerge who appear more surefooted, more grounded, less influenced by the persistent and unpredictable gusts. These emerging leaders can be executives, managers, or even co-workers. Greatness tends to rise up and out of the gravest and most dire of conditions. The seven strategies outlined here will assist such leaders as they find their way forward and through the storm. They will help them gain and hold onto their footing.
Saving Organizations That Matter is available here.