I have worked with groups and organizations for the last twenty years. Most have been in the non-profit and voluntary world concerned with the well being of people on the edges of our society due to poverty, disability, race and abuse. But I have also worked with corporations and business people. Any time people come together to attempt to accomplish something there is a lot of complexity. Individuals in relationship for any purpose create complexity. So over the years in my work I have always tried to find ways to pull out simple lessons that can help us to understand complex situations.
It is hard imagine anyone who would not recognize the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century as a period of dramatic and rapid change like we have never seen before. Often this has been exciting. But to be honest when I walk into the organizations that I work with very often I am faced with people who are tired, frustrated, and confused to the point of anxiousness and insecurity.
When we are feeling all of these things we lose sight of what we are doing and why. This breeds stupidity. We do things without a sense of meaning or purpose. We can't possibly be aware of the consequences of these actions. Often we find ourselves so far down this road that we wake up and discover the consequence staring us right in the face and it is not a pretty sight. Inefficiencies created out of acting without purpose have been a driving force behind the rationale for cutbacks and job loss. While we don't want the losses, we are at a loss to defend our inefficiencies.
Years ago I did some work with a Director of Education for a school board in southern Ontario who shared some fundamental assumptions to consider about people in the workforce and change. One of these assumptions has always stuck with me and proven true over and over again. So here it is:
If you ask anyone who works whether or not they have more time and energy to take on more work, most people will say that they are already full, that they are already busy with what they have to do now. Few people will say that they have lots of free time and energy to do more.
A Lesson from Science...
I know very little about science but occasionally I remember things that I learned in school that actually have some relevance to what I see around me. The interesting thing about this is that they usually are not in relation to the context that they were being taught. Here is a little science lesson that I have gathered from my high school days and my learning from George.
Let's imagine that each of us is like a glass filled with water (or any other liquid for that matter). If George's assumption is true, all of us feel like our glass is full with all of the work that we have to do now. It doesn't matter if this is actually true. It doesn't matter if we are full of meaningful work that makes a difference or not, or causes us to feel fulfilled and used to our potential. It only matters that we think and feel that we are full, and almost everyone feels that they are full and busy.
Now, back to the glass. I remember the "law of displacement". If you have container that is limited in size and is filled with liquid, and then you pour more liquid into the container, some liquid is going to spill over the sides and be outside of the container. There are three possible problems with this:
Because we live in a world that is changing so fast, our organizations are being required to change, and ultimately the people who work in them are being told to change. Change really isn't the problem. How we change can be.
One of the most common ways that change occurs is that organizations and the people who work in them are being required to do more; more of what they already do, and more things that they have never done before. And in the age of cutbacks, we are asked to do more with less. We are in effect given smaller glasses. With our glasses are already full, when we add more something is going to be lost. We aren't going to do it all. So often change happens because we just keep adding new things to do. If we aren't thoughtful about this adding, we might end up losing the wrong stuff, and this is how we find ourselves down the road not knowing how we got here or why we are doing what we do. This is a classic source of the widespread disease known as burnout. And people who are burned out don't work well or effectively.
So there are three options for us to take to address this mode of changing through overfilling our organizational glasses:
The truth is that no one of these options will likely be sufficient at any given time. We probably have to do some combination of all of the above. To do this we have to be conscious about what is happening. We can't simply face the flow of more without stopping to think about what is happening, and what we want to have happen.
This is where what many people call "strategic planning" and visioning comes in. Actually "strategic" is a word that has evolved out of models of war and military. The word isn't necessarily bad but the underlying model probably does not serve our vision. I prefer to think of our planning as "conscious". The purpose of planning is to ensure that we are actually doing what we set out to do, and ultimately that this is in service of our vision.
If we plan well we should have a clearer understanding of why we are doing things, what would be the best things to do, and what should happen as a result of our efforts. Knowing these things should help to keep us awake and conscious about what we do daily. It should provide us with a reference point that we can look to as we journey toward a world that is more compassionate, welcoming, caring, and just. Our plan can serve as a map that marks the important landmarks, landscapes and destinations that indicate we are on the right path.
Creating a Vision-- A Reference Point for Decision Making
"If you don't know where you are going, any which way will get you there."
Getting back to our full glass, we can't really make any decisions about which of our three options we will undertake unless we understand what we are ultimately trying to do in the first place. This is why understanding our vision is so important. Our vision helps us to make decisions.
Many organizations that plan actually don't look far enough down the road to their ultimate destination. Many organizations envision what they would like their organization to look like, and what they would like to be doing. This plays a part in planning but it is not quite enough to assist us in understanding how to make decisions in times of change. Organizations can be thrown into crisis because they are being forced to change what they do and how they do it. What they do has become their vision, and without their vision their work has no meaning, leaving them lost, confused, and resistant to change. Their identity is tied up in what they do and why they have chosen to do it.
Any organization is really only a vehicle that can carry us, and those we serve, to an ultimate destination. Creating a vision of our organization, as opposed to a desired future we would like to influence and shape, is like designing a car without determining where the car will be traveling.
Look beyond ourselves
Martin Luther King said, "I have a dream!",
he didn't say I have goals and objectives.
The first stage of creating a vision is not to look at ourselves, but to look at the world that will be created as a result of our work. We are not the end product, we exist to influence, support, and create an end that is beyond ourselves.
Recently, my partner and I worked with a community health center. They offered many direct health care services, doctors, therapists, treatment programs etc.. When we had the opportunity to envision the world that they wanted to be a part of creating, they envisioned a world where:
There are a million possibilities for impacting on people's lives so that this world would be more possible. There is no one way which is the way. There is no one group that will be responsible for creating that world. Many individuals and organizations will have an impact on this world. The Community Health Centre is one player that is humbly striving toward a community where people live more healthy lives. Because there are so many possible ways to influence and support health, they don't need to fear change, they simply need to be conscious that their efforts continue to have an impact on creating a community where people are healthy. The vehicle they use can change so long as it can reach the destination.
Vision as Our Reference Point for Decisions
Now back to our glass. We can now review each of the possible options for dealing with full and busy organizations.
1. Decide what can be removed from the glass to make room for new activity.
The Community Health Centre can now review all of its activity and decide what no longer serves their vision. This may sound like a problem because we often think that everything that we do is important or otherwise we wouldn't be doing it. But organizations can become like many of our homes. Over years we collect things that once were important and meaningful but over time they have become less desirable or useful. We just forget to stop using them because we don't pause to reflect on their current usefulness in service of our current vision. They are like dead wood, or stuff cluttering our desk and closets.
If we thoughtfully paused to reflect on their usefulness we can often see that there are things that if we simply stopped doing them we would have lost little and gained time and energy to do new things. Sometimes this is an easy decision. Sometimes it takes more effort to actually weigh out the costs of losing something versus the benefits that will be gained by doing something new. The whole point is that we have to be making decisions consciously and thoughtfully.
2. Put a lid on it. Say no to new things.
Just because someone has a new idea for a project or activity doesn't necessarily mean that it is a good one. In this case a good idea is only one that brings us closer to impacting the world of our vision. We have to be able to see how this can make a difference to the world that we are trying to create. Sometimes we are asked (or told) to do things that on the surface have little to do with "our vision", perhaps they are in line with the government, or funding bodies. We need to recognize what benefit there is to taking on activity that is not in service of vision. We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot by saying no to the wrong people. Again we just need to be conscious about our decisions. We don't want to be people who make decisions simply because we can't say no (and you would be surprised by how many decisions are made for this reason).
Another classic reason for saying yes (or not saying no) to projects is because we can get money to do them. In our scavenger hunt for funding we grab onto the scraps that are made available thinking that any money will be helpful. But we often forget all of the work that can be tied up in accessing, accounting, reporting for funds that we receive. We end up taking on projects that serve the vision of the funder. We become distracted and weakened.
3. Get a Bigger Glass. Increase our capacity. Add resources.
There is always the option to consider adding more, getting bigger to do more. Most often this is easier said than done in the non-profit sector as getting more resources is a huge task that is usually tied to a lot more work. Growth and expansion are options to consider but not without considering the impact of growth on the vision.
Another organization we worked with was responsible for providing personal attendant care to people with physical disabilities. The organization's vision of the future consisted of:
Over the last couple of years the organization had experienced phenomenal growth but there were signs of stress. Scheduling supports for individuals was becoming more difficult as numbers grew, costs of travel were increasing, and a union for the attendants was forming. If they were not going to pay attention to the effect of growth on their vision they could lose what they held so much pride in, the quality of supports that they provided which allowed individuals to have a life in which they participate in family, work, school and citizenship. Growth would not be a bad thing so long as they could find a way to ensure that the quality of their supports operated in service of their vision.
Without a vision the people will perish
Organizations spend such little time truly getting in touch with their vision. They spend even less time sharing their vision. A vision is about actually seeing a future that is hopeful. The more clearly we can see, the better equipped we will be able to recognize how our current actions move us in the direction of our vision or not. Life is about change, and this is no less true for organizations than it is for individuals. Change requires choices be made, otherwise we are simply victims of time passing on. There is no such thing as not making a decision or choice; not deciding something is deciding. So we need a reference point for making thoughtful decisions that will lead our organizations toward the desired future we want to create.
Just as the glass in our science lesson, we do have limited capacities, but we can maximize our capacity by ensuring that all of our resources are applied in service of our vision. If we do this, we will maximize health and purpose and move ourselves closer to the positive future that we are motivated to create.
Visioning is not an option. It is the foundation upon which we base all of our decisions. If we don't create a vision for ourselves, others will create one for us and we will be marching to the beat of someone else's drum. When they stop beating or change the rhythm, we may be left without a purpose for being and risk facing extinction.
Conscious planning is a way to begin to be aware of our decisions and the consequences. Consciousness is what will allow us to be efficient and effective. Being conscious of why we do what we do can vitalize our organization, attract good people, and sustain the necessary work of the long haul to create a more caring and just society.