As we see signs of our community reopening and some COVID restrictions being relaxed, our natural tendency may be to hurry back to our pre-lockdown life. Yet, this virus has changed
everything. Our organization’s sustainability will depend on our ability and willingness to change our mental model. To look at our world differently. To re-evaluate every aspect of our mission, our operations, and our delivery systems. This momentous shift calls for us to intentionally create the most effective new normal for our organization.
Many nonprofits have successfully pivoted their approach in ways they had never envisioned just a month ago. The pandemic has forced several nonprofits to explore and implement virtual options whenever possible. Sometimes the result has been excitingly successful—like discovering a new land of opportunity. Other times the virtual options have just been frustrating. In either case, though, we have learned something about ourselves, our organization, and our community.
Now it’s time to take the reins and direct our course for the future. This is a rare opportunity for renewal and transformation. You may be called to relinquish something significant and follow life’s invitation towards new energy and a fresh purpose. These three steps will help your organization bring a sense of order out of the chaos and set you on a new path for success.
>>Let’s begin at the end.
William Bridges, in his classic Transitions, advises us to examine our ending long before we start a new beginning. Bridges elaborates, “Every transition begins with an ending. We have to let go of the old thing before we can pick up the new—not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections to the people and places that act as definitions of who we are.” This is true for organizations as well as individuals.
T.S. Eliot echoes this idea in his poem, Little Gidding. “What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
A little over two months ago, our world was turned upside down. Many nonprofits already had plenty of challenges with just meeting the demands of their clients with their sparse funding. Little did we know a tsunami of change was about to crash on top of us, profoundly altering our way of life.
We can begin at the end by acknowledging that things are not the way they were and they never will be again. Take some time to examine how the ending impacted your organization. What did you and your team learn from that experience? Evaluate your response to the change. Were you resilient? Did your board and staff immediately begin doing your work differently? Or were you too stunned to know where to start?
Beginning at the end may require that we reinvent ourselves. Leaders, both board and staff, have been focused on figuring out new ways to keep their organizations running to provide basic services to their clients. We’ve been getting used to video conferences, Zoom calls, and working from home with barking dogs and busy children. As we emerge from the initial shock of all the changes we’ve experienced, we are beginning to ask, “Ok, how are we going to do this for months on end?”
>>It’s time to reimagine our future.
Bridges would say we are now in the “neutral zone.” It’s a time when the old ways are gone but the new ways have not yet emerged. Bridges explains that this phase is “the very core of the transition process. It is the time when repatterning takes place: old and maladaptive habits are replaced with new ones that are better adapted to the world in which the organization now finds itself.”
The neutral zone can be compared to winter when roots begin to prepare themselves for spring’s renewal. It is like our nighttime sleep when we disengage from yesterday’s concerns and prepare for tomorrow.
I have heard it called “the doldrums.” When sailors are waiting for the wind to return and fill their sails, they say they are in the doldrums. When they find themselves in this situation, they get busy cleaning up the deck, organizing their tools, and getting ready for the next burst of wind. They prepare for their ensuing future rather than lament the current lack of movement.
Like sailors, let’s use this time to imagine possibilities. It’s time to ask “what if” questions rather than to make a to-do list. You can start by meeting with staff and board members (virtually for now) to ask questions like: Who are we? What is our shared purpose? Which services are essential and which are not? Ask each person to describe your organization’s culture and assess any changes needed. It’s a time to challenge assumptions and find your blind spots. You can explore multiple scenarios and see where they might lead.
I recently subscribed to a thought-provoking blog by the Eblin Group where they suggest asking the following questions:
- What if we have to remain socially distant for another couple of years, how would we do our work? What changes would we have to make or could we make to sustain and grow our work in a socially distant operating environment?
- What if we stopped doing 50 percent of the things that we’ve always done? What would they be? Why would we pick them? What would we do instead of those things that seem like a better use of time, attention, and resources?
- What if we were designing our organization from scratch today? What would we change? What do we know about the current environment that leads to those conclusions? What trends do we already see that, if they continue, would have a big impact on the way we design for the future?
- What if we came out of the phase better and stronger than we were? What would have made that possible? If we assume our industry is going to still exist in the new normal, what changes will the winners have made to be the winners?
- What if we want to be one of the winners? What will we need to do to be one? Who will we need to reach and serve? What will they want in the future?
>>Our new beginning is right around the corner.
After we analyze and learn from our ending and imagine possibilities in the neutral zone, it’s time for our new beginning. In this phase, you will be developing a fresh identity, experiencing renewed energy, and discovering your revitalized sense of purpose. Scenario planning will be a good process for exploring your new beginning. So, next week’s article will focus on the advantages and methods of scenario planning.