June 10, 2013

The New Normal: Shifting Organizational Resources to Thrive and Survive in a Rapidly Changing World.

As technologists, we are in a unique position to witness the increasingly rapid pace of human evolution for all its wonder and horror. The internet we work and play on gives us a profoundly broad and detailed perspective of our ever-changing world and provides the medium through which we are influencing that change.

As technology and human communication become more and more intertwined, relevance in this rapidly changing world requires organizations to become adept at adapting. Continually. This is the “New Normal” – constantly adapting to an incessant stream of change – environmental, political, social, economic, and technological.

Shifting organizational resources to adapt to these changes can be risky. Nonprofits have limited resources and funders are generally not inclined to fund expensive experiments. Furthermore, people in groups are generally resistant to change, instead finding security in their routine. But just because something worked within the last few years does not mean it will continue working in the next few. How quickly an organization can embrace and metabolize change defines an organization’s agility.

When we talk about “organizational agility” with nonprofit technology leaders, they usually have the same reaction: a wave of recognition and acknowledgement that yes, their worlds are changing and their organizations need to adapt and then a wave of sadness and frustration when they consider the way things are within their organizations, and they see no hope. As if the burden of changing the world wasn’t enough – they have to change their organizations, too.

I’d like to offer some hope, or at least some perspective and some strategies to anyone who wants to see their organization become more open and agile. These are lessons hard won over the last eight years of practicing organizational agility both internally and with the clients we’ve served. And while every organization is different – there’s one thing that connects them all. They are all just a bunch of human beings trying to work together towards a common purpose, so these strategies can work from the top down as well as the bottom up.

Getting clear about what organizational agility is and isn’t

You may already know about the Agile software development concept, and indeed, organizational agility arises from the principles of Agile. However, the first step to unlocking organization agility is to realize that fundamentally it is a cultural issue, not a matter of process.

Key cultural characteristics supporting organizational agility:

  • Openness
  • Vision
  • Alignment
  • Presence
  • Balance
  • Responsiveness
  • Collaboration
  • Trust
  • Simplicity

Below are some simple strategies to help you and your organization become more agile in order to adapt to The New Normal. Remember, the emphasis is on building a culture of agility. Any or all of these strategies can help move you towards being more agile and adaptive.

Be the Change

One of the truths about people working in social change is that they are generally inspired by seeing some condition in the world that they want to change. So they decide to devote their time and energy by joining forces with groups of people who collectively share the identity of a nonprofit organization. Being the change is not just about changing culture outside the organization, but also about changing the culture inside an organization, and like all social change, it starts with one person – you.

Find Champions and Allies

If you’re working from the bottom or corner of an org chart, find someone further up who also sees the need to change. Work with them to find others who share the desire for more agility. If you’re at the top of an organization, find someone who’s passionate about organizational agility and let them run with it. Remember that at the end of the day, nothing gets done without the cooperation of others.

Every Step Counts

If you’re working from the corner of an organization, realize that everything you do matters. We create the world we inhabit, so that’s the extent you can change it. Keep sticking to the vision of your organization being agile, and keep finding ways to bring openness and agility to your work, even if it’s one project at a time.

Use (and support) Free and Open Source Software

One of the things that excites me about the Open Source movement is that you don’t just get functional, free software built by an incredibly generous and ingenious community of good people. You get an ethos along with it. You can’t describe Open Source without describing collaboration, sharing, and community. These are values or orientations that lend themselves to agility.

Start Using the Scrum Framework with Your Web Team

It’s likely that your web team has already been exposed to Agile software development. The Scrum framework is a great seed for planting a culture of agility in your organization. Have your web team build a list or backlog of work items. The product or functional owner prioritizes the items in the list according to business value. The team tackles the top value items works in “sprints” with retrospectives and sprint planning in between. More often than not, a group practicing Agile methodologies will produce better software faster, by virtue of having short, iterative cycles that are built to respond to input along the way. Successfully practicing Agile in a technology group opens the door for wider conversations about organizational agility.

Establish Meeting Rhythms

Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual meetings have different purposes and agendas. The daily standup meetings are 7-10 minute status updates and allow for visibility of what everyone’s working on and any blocker issues to get resolved. They also provide the cultural context for agility: if you’re meeting daily, even for 10 minutes, and more things are getting done, people will notice.

Start with Retrospectives

Just the act of taking a pause on regular intervals to review “Things To Keep Doing”, “Things to Try Differently” and “Things to Stop Doing” creates a cultural context conducive to introducing agile thinking.

Get Aligned on Vision First

People who are working towards a common vision tend to find ways to collaborate and cooperate. Focus on co-creating a big vision, and then start exploring strategies for getting there. When people are aligned, amazing things can happen!

Simplify

Consider all the flows of information and value exchange that occur throughout the course of your day/business. Is there duplication? Are you getting/giving what is needed? Have you asked? A good place to start is “Why?”

Think Lean

“Lean Startup” is a newer business process/approach emerging in the technology startup world that tests the validity of doing something new by developing a “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP) – the least amount of money/effort required to test a hypothesis with the end user of a product. This results in validated learning and the basis for iterating the MVP. This reduces risk by helping a project or initiative meet its objectives more efficiently.

Get Support

You don’t have to do this alone! There are lots of resources to help. Reach out and ask for support. Get an Agile coach who can support you.

On July 3, 2013, we’ll be going into more detail about some of these strategies and share some powerful tools and distinctions for helping you (and your organization) be more effective at the art of adaptation.

Ian Rhett is CEO of CivicActions, a team of technologists, project managers and strategists geographically distributed in 7 timezones serving public sector agencies and organizations with technology strategy and Drupal development services. He’s served as Executive Producer for two OmniCom marketing and advertising agencies and innovated live webcasting technology at Apple in the mid-90’s. He’s an Eagle Scout, a songwriter and is co-organizer of Nashville’s Designathon – a 24 hour volunteer event for marketers, designers, writers and developers who focus their attention on a single nonprofit to revolutionize their marketing and branding.

Ian Rhett
Ian Rhett is CEO of CivicActions, a team of 30+ technologists, project managers and strategists geographically distributed in 7 timezones serving non-profits and socially progressive businesses. He's served as Executive Producer for two OmniCom marketing and advertising agencies and innovated live webcasting technology at Apple in the mid-90's. Prior to that, he was the Online Director for the first New York Music Festival, streaming live audio and video from 15 nightclubs in Manhattan in 1995. He's an Eagle Scout and a songwriter.