Action Follows Attention, Part 3: Encouraging Organizational Conditions
As a social entrepreneur, you pay attention to creating an environment or conditions in which those you are serving benefit and flourish. But what about you and your venture? To what extent do you pay attention to creating an organizational environment that encourages you and your colleagues to flourish as you work together to generate social impact? To what extent do you pay attention to the way your venture’s structures (how your venture is organized in terms of roles and responsibilities), and processes/systems (the way your venture does/organizes the work required to accomplish the organization’s outcomes) encourage or hinder you and your colleagues? Paying attention to these factors can help you create a stronger and more sustainable foundation for your venture.
Encouraging Conditions for Communication and Accountability: A Simple System and Process
Remember that client of mine in my first post whose organization was poised for growth? Well, one of the things that client, Steven, paid a lot of attention to was the quality of his relationships with investors and staff. This was evident in Steven’s amazing ability to raise funds, even in the midst of a difficult economy. Within his organization, Steven’s attention to relationships showed up in his staff’s loyalty. Let’s look at this second aspect of relationship. What did Steven pay attention to in his relationships with his staff? His primary focus of attention was on maintaining "good feeling". Were people happy? Did they find meaning in their work?
All that is and was great! However, Steven’s organization was growing, which meant more projects underway all at the same time. With that growth, Steven found that he needed to rely on his staff to function with greater autonomy, less frequent face-to-face direction, and more accountability for outcomes. Steven ran into some trouble here. In his organizations increasingly fast-moving environment, Steven found that too often, he wasn’t up-to-date on individual project status and that he lacked an good overall understanding of how the organizations full portfolio of projects was going. This inhibited Steven’s ability to represent the organization to current and potential investors and partners, as well as his own sense of what projects or people most needed his attention. Underneath this, he sometime wasn’t sure that he and the staff responsible for particular projects were fully aligned on specific project outcomes.
Steven recognized that given his strong relationship skills, he’d been able to manage his organization successfully in an informal way. Indeed, he was very, very good at this! But, Steven saw that as activity expanded and a wider range of outcomes were committed to, he needed greater confidence that he and his staff were aligned on outcomes, that staff held themselves accountable for producing these outcomes and a clearer understanding of ongoing project progress.
Here’s where paying attention to organizational conditions comes in: Steven realized that he hadn’t paid attention to developing the conditions that encouraged his staff’s working more autonomously, with greater accountability for their part of the organization’s work. Steven recognized that the current situation required establishing new organizational conditions, in this case, organizational systems and processes for accountability. But, how could he do this in a way that didn’t stifle his staff, and wasn’t over-structured or burdensome?
In our conversations, we developed the prototype of a simple system and process which Steven felt was appropriate. Here’s what we developed:
Aligning on outcomes: Steven asked each of the staff who reported directly to him to write a short memo in which each identified:
- their understanding of the outcomes for which they were accountable
- their understanding of how each outcome contributed to the organization’s larger goals
- for each outcome, key milestones that would measure or indicate progress toward the outcome
- their general strategy for accomplishing the outcome and the logic behind that strategy
- resources they needed to make progress forward
- potential challenges or obstacles and how these might be addressed/overcome
- what specific support they needed from Steven
Conversations for alignment and accountability: With this memo in hand, Steven began a round of conversations with each of staff member who reported directly to him. The memo served as a starting point for a conversation in which Steven and the staff person could align on that person’s accountability – the outcomes they were accountable for accomplishing, as well as their strategy. Steven also shared with each staff person the information he needed to be able to feel sufficiently informed. Steven and each staff person developed a "scorecard" that became the centerpiece for a weekly update conversation. Each person emailed the scorecard update to Steven, and then met with him briefly to discuss progress, challenges, and supported needed.
Initiating as a pilot, learning how this works together: Steven and I agreed that he’d present this system and process to his staff as a "pilot" – something they would all commit to using for six months, and then assess how it was working. Along the way, they’d be in conversation about how it was going, tweaking it along the way, learning together what worked well and what could be improved.
Steven and those who reported to him used this simple system and process to create organizational conditions that supported their working together in a new way, with the recognition that it was something they were learning to do as they were doing it.
What You Can Do:
Steven’s innovation for a system and process was in response to his organization’s growth. He aimed to create organizational systems that supported that growth.
This is just one specific example of creating conditions that support an organization’s flourishing. How about your organization?
Here’s an exercise you can try. It will help you bring your attention to your organization’s internal environment and the extent to which it does or doesn’t foster the conditions in which the outcomes you are committed to are likely to be accomplished.
Step 1: Who should be part of this conversation? Whose perspective is important in making an honest assessment of the venture’s current organization? Be wary of having this conversation by yourself. And, be wary of only inviting those who you know share you point of view!
Step 2: Reflect on the venture’s current organizational conditions. Once you’ve identified and gathered the right people, reflect on the following questions together:
- Take a look at the outcomes you and your colleagues are dedicated to accomplishing. To start with, select one of these outcomes. (You can use this process other outcomes later. It will be important to see what you learn about how the different outcomes "hang together" and the implications for this.) Ask yourself:
- To what extent do we have the organizational conditions that support our accomplishing this outcome? These conditions include:
- Structure (ways of organizing roles and responsibilities)
- Systems/Processes (how you accomplish the work. This can include, for example: how you deliver services or make your product, how you source vendors, how you hire new employees, how you identify and engage with investors/donors, how you manage employee performance, how you evaluate organizational performance, how you general and align on organizational goals and priorities)
- Given what you’ve observed in your organization:
- What action can you take to sustain the current system/processes and structures that are effective? How do we know they are effective? What criteria do we use to assess this?
- If you lack necessary systems/processes and/or structures, or need to improve them, what action can you take to establish or improve those?
- In either case, who should be involved?
- How might improving or establishing the new system/process and/or structure affect the organization (positively and/or negatively)? What challenges or obstacles do you anticipate? What actions can you take to mitigate obstacles or challenges?
- How will we assess the effectiveness of our actions? What criteria will we use? Who will be involved? With what frequency will we reflect?
I encourage you to keep it simple, so that you and your colleagues can learn together about engaging in this process.
If You Are Interested in Exploring this Topic Further:
- "What is Business Process and Why Should I Care?" by Jay Cousins and Toney Steward, RivCom Ltd. www.rivcom.com/resources/RivCom-WhatISBPD-WhyShouldICare.pdf
- "Make Success Meaureable," by Douglas K. Smith (John Wiley & Sons)