The problem with big organisational change programmes

This year I’m not doing a New Year Resolution. In fact, I’ve decided my new New Year resolution is giving up New Year resolutions. Too often I’ve committed to an ambitious health drive only to remember soon after that the pleasure of a comfy sofa always trumps that of the treadmill. I am a creature of habit, even when I know those habits aren’t good.

And whilst I haven’t quite given up on them, my enthusiasm for big organisational change programmes is seriously waning too, especially when I read that charities like Scope and Mencap are spending £1 million in redundancy payments. There must be a better way to improve charity effectiveness. Large corporate change initiatives are like the January detox. Instigating them might make us feel proactive and in control but the benefits, if any, are often short lived. They don’t address the underlying habits which caused the problems in the first place so we soon revert to our bad old ways.

A marginal gains methodology to improving performance has been credited as the key to success for Olympic athletes and is increasingly popular in other areas. This advocates small incremental improvements which, when added together, result in a significant improvement. So instead of a crash diet of spirulina smoothies, over time just eating a few less doughnuts and using the stairs. No individual improvement is big, but the cumulative effect is a long term change to unhelpful habits.

We need to review the way we do organisational change, move on from the all or nothing crash diet approach and instead focus on marginal gains. We can all identify small positive changes we could make, but here are just a few ideas.

Clear the workspace
As every dieter knows, it’s nigh on impossible to lose weight when there’s only pizza and beer in the kitchen. And it’s an uphill struggle to perform well if your desk is cluttered with irrelevant papers. Focusing on clearing the workplace every day helps create the space where people can focus on results.

Know the costs of meetings
As a sector we like our meetings, but are they really worth the cost? Nowadays food packaging states the nutritional value so, although no-one tells us we can’t eat that pack of biscuits, we do so knowing the implications. We could do the same with our meetings, stating on every agenda an estimation of the cost to the charity of holding that meeting (i.e. costs of people’s time, opportunity costs etc). It might just prompt us to keep discussions on track.

Give and receive feedback at the end of every project
Like dieters need to get on the scales, we all need to get and give feedback on performance. Sometimes the feedback is good, not so good, expected or unexpected. What is important is that that we give and receive feedback regularly and use this information to improve our performance.

Which changes are right will depend on individuals, the organisation and what you are trying to achieve but most importantly none of them are earth shattering. They don’t need a budget, communication plan or even an announcement. But if we each individually develop a habit of implementing everyday improvements then those organisational change programmes might not need to be so big or painful.

First published Third Sector magazine, January 2017