The conditions under which most civil society organisations (CSOs) work are changing fast: persistent poverty requires new approaches, rising inequality generates conflicts, fast growing middle classes increase the pressure on scarce planetary resources, climate change progresses unabatedly and biodiversity is under threat; shrinking political space limits CSOs’ room for manoeuvre, the Internet disrupts traditional forms of communication and digitisation in general affects most aspects of their work; aging supporters and changing expectations of the younger ones challenge CSOs’ financial basis. These and many other changes occurring in parallel mean that CSOs need to change fast and fundamentally in order to stay relevant and attain their missions.
Those CSOs which have been around for a long time may argue that change in their operating environment has always happened and that they have always had to adapt. However, what we observe today is that the quality of change is changing. Firstly, the speed and complexity of change have increased and continue to increase significantly. Secondly, in a situation where we consume more resources than our planet can sustainably provide and emit more pollution than it can absorb, change needs to transcend the limits of our reigning paradigm: unlimited growth on a limited planet doesn’t add up. This means, incremental change which aims to gradually adapt single aspects to the demands of a changing world does not look like a convincing approach. CSOs need to move from incremental change to transformative change.
Incremental Change: Traditional forms of conducting change (not only) in CSOs start with the observation of a malfunction in the organisation’s workings: decision making is too slow and complicated, managers are overburdened with too many tasks, information flows don’t run smoothly, etc. In short, we are looking predominantly – often even exclusively – inside the organisation. And we are looking at the organisation’s past: statistics show that over the past five years output is stagnating, costs are increasing, quality is going down, etc. In order to fix the faults we have observed we usually clarify responsibilities and tighten controls. Leaders who want to start a change process often try to convince their colleagues that change is necessary in order to make the organisation run more smoothly. And once change has been discussed, decided and painfully implemented – often in the course of many weeks, months or even years – the organisation finds that the world has moved on and more change is required. And as the organisation embarks on another round of incremental change, change fatigue spreads.
Transformative Change: Given the dynamic and often disruptive developments in the outside world a different change concept is required. Rather than looking at the flaws in the organisation’s policies and processes we need to start our analysis with looking at external demands; and rather than analysing the malfunctions of the past we need to look at the requirements of the future. Rather than tightening control in our organisation we have to liberate creativity; and rather than convincing our colleagues of the benefits of a smoothly running organisation we need to lead change based on and aiming for the organisation’s mission and vision. In short:
INCREMENTAL CHANGE TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE
Look to the INSIDE > Look to the OUTSIDE
Look to the PAST > Look to the FUTURE
Foster CONTROL > Foster CREATIVITY
Lead by NECESSITY > Lead by VISION
Yes, CSOs have always changed – and they need to continue changing. But the changes they have to conduct today are of a different quality: more fundamental, much deeper and with a wider range. In order to effectively contribute to the global transformation towards a sustainable, fair and equitable world CSOs need to start by transforming themselves.
Do you agree that transformative change is needed? And, if yes, are you conducting transformative change in your organisation?