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  • Writer's pictureBeatrice Schulter

To change or not to change - that is not the question

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

Take-aways and more from the cinfo 2019 Immersion Day “Shaping the organisation of the future”

Change cannot happen from within the hamster-wheel

The cinfo Immersion Day on “Shaping the organisation of the future” was a truly inspiring event. There was plenty of exchange of experience and ideas, organised in a fun and playful way that mobilised participants’ innovative potential.

The various knowledge management methods used during the day are practical take-aways to create moments for creativity and innovation in the working context. Pavel Kraus reflected on this in his piece here.

Consciously creating such space and time for jointly spinning new ideas is a key element for change and innovation, because change cannot happen from within the hamster-wheel.

The question is not if, but why

Innovative ideas will emerge from play and brainstorming, but it takes more to actually make it materialise in a meaningful way. There are two aspects that I find important to underline, especially with regard to innovation in international development and human rights cooperation: Innovation is not a purpose in itself, lest it risks becoming clownish activism. And innovation is not primarily a question of technology.

Innovation and technical transformation are – just as organisational development in general – means to getting things done more easily in a changing environment with its new challenges and opportunities or helping us to fulfil the purpose of our work in a more efficient and effective way.

The question is not if, but how

The question on how to shape the organisation of the future brings us to discuss – apart from practical tips that can help us get going – much deeper issues: the actual point of organising, the effects, potentials and limits of rules, roles, structures and processes in relation to the people implied. Let me take you through some thoughts around that – thoughts that are not exhaustive and hopefully invite to further discussion…

The essence of organisation

What exactly do we mean with “organisation of the future”? Is there really any substantive difference in the essence of organisations throughout time? And if yes, where is the core of this difference?

The meaning of an organisation does not lie in rules, structures or processes, neither in technology, but in the orientation towards a meaningful goal that provides reason for cooperation, as well as in the understanding of human beings and how they operate in their environment.

It is thus the changing environment and changing understanding of what it means to be human that define the optimal organisation for a given purpose, in a given environment and with the individuals involved.

People organise with others, in order to fulfil a certain need or purpose. That is the initial, as well as ultimate driver of organisation. Naturally, people would like to achieve their purpose with the least amount of effort and highest comfort, and least resources. They therefore define rules and processes providing them with the best setting for effectively fulfilling this mission. And as the environment and people change, goals change, and rules and processes need adaptation.

Chicken or egg

As in all evolutionary processes, it is impossible to pin down the origin and initial driver of change: is it the change of rules and structures that change the behaviour of individuals and ultimately culture, and the idea that people have of themselves and others? Or is it the other way around: changed perceptions make people adapt rules and structures, in order for them to better correspond to the goals, purpose and identity that people and groups of people have.

In the end it is a matter of belief about the ultimate nature of the universe itself, a fascinating discussion to continue over a glass of wine, for sure, but not very handy for leaders, managers or board members confronted with having to take decisions regarding change in their organisation right now. Or is it?

It is a key issue to understand for successful innovation and change, that there are different people within an organisation and among partners, some of whom are eager to change, and will move forward quickly, while others need clear rules and structures. Both kinds of people and those somewhere in-between make up your organisation and leaders are challenged to shape change-processes in a way that takes them all along: Enable participation and co-creation of common goals, while supporting the creation of adequate organisational structures and processes along the way.

Technology as driver or means for change

Technology is an opportunity for organisations to do what they want to do more easily. But it can also be seen as a driver: The fact that emerging technology and an ever-faster changing environment have been speeding up the need for ongoing adaptation is great luck: it renders it less likely that an organisation freezes and becomes an entity entirely focused on itself and the power relations within. There is a high risk that at one point such a frozen organisation is not capable to deal constructively with the necessity to change and will either collapse over the inability to adapt or eventually undergo painful change processes.

I come to the conclusion that in order to do justice to a changing environment together with changing potentials of people, the organisation of the future needs to be quite different to the one in the past. The essence of this difference lies in the understanding and approaches to leadership.

The nature of and requirements towards leadership

Interestingly, there were no fundamental changes in the organisational structures and hierarchies of the case studies presented and discussed during the cinfo Innovation Day. It seems that formal commitment to innovation and to ensure participation at different levels by boards and senior management is much more pivotal and effective than structural changes. And it is much more efficient and potentially sustainable, than innovation led (only) from a lower hierarchy position: In the examples presented it was due to the tireless work and internal advocacy over a long period of time by the initiators of innovation – and eventually the conviction of someone with decision taking power – that change was successful.

The key requirement towards leadership of the organisation of the future is to facilitate co-creation, create joint ownership of purpose and goals, while at the same time to take responsibility and lead on ensuring, that everyone pulls towards these goals. It requires a diligent balance between participatory leadership and management. While management provides clarity and efficiency and with it a certain comfort, leadership provides effectiveness by inspiring and guiding the organisational mind towards the common goal.

This leadership is therefore responsible to create meaningful space and time for the whole crew to spin new ideas and jointly adapt or change the direction of the organisation. The hierarchy – senior management and boards - remains responsible to formally take the decision, which of these potentially many new ideas are to be pursued and which not, and to lead everyone to work towards the goals decided upon. Within such a co-created frame of what and how, management can be kept lean, because goals are clear, and approaches can be co-created in largely self-organised teams. What management needs to do is be informed how things develop and identify if things are going in a different direction or if there are major changes in the context, requiring this participatory process to enter a new cycle.

An absolutely crucial aspect of “creating space for change and innovation” in the responsibility of senior management and boards is to ensure the availability of adequate resources. Change requires time and money. If an organisation is to be capable of adaptation, innovation and change, this needs to be reflected in long- and short-term planning. Every NGO should routinely include a budget for change and innovation. And in order to make this budget available, senior leadership and board members need to strengthen their advocacy towards donors, so they understand the importance and value of organisational development and change.

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