Ed Boswell

29 August, 2017

Leading Successful Change Amidst a Disruptive Civil Society Environment

This blog is a summary of the full report, you can find it here.

For years, senior leaders in the private sector have grappled with disruptive forces that have fundamentally reshaped not only their organizations, but their entire industries. These upheavals have created winners—often new entrants who are on the cutting edge of change within an industry—and losers—often incumbents who did not change quickly or dramatically enough to keep up. However, some incumbents did recognize the need to transform early on: they exercised creativity and courage in envisioning a dramatically different future for their organizations, and were quick and effective in executing strategic transformation. In the end, these are the organizations that succeeded in staying relevant, profitable, and, ultimately, in business.

Currently, the civil society sector – especially the international non-governmental organization (INGO) space – is experiencing similarly disruptive forces and the urgent need for transformation. Despite having made dramatic progress in reducing poverty as well as in improving health, education, and human rights for tens of millions over the past seven decades, INGOs are experiencing a set of tectonic shifts that now threaten their relevance and viability. Leaders of these institutions are concerned that the volume, velocity, and complexity of these disruptive forces are straining their organization’s capacity to adapt to them quickly and effectively.

For many INGOs, this crisis is occurring at two levels. At the operational level, organizations are being forced to reassess how work is done—breaking from outdated paradigms to increase efficiency and effectiveness. At the existential level, some organizations are starting to fundamentally rethink what work is done—if not altering the ultimate mission of the organization, at least radically redefining what needs to be carried out to fully realize that mission.

As each INGO succeeds or fails at executing the full measure of its change aspirations, the lives of those being served hang in the balance. Therefore, as these crucial service providers enact dramatic changes in strategy, operations, and business models, nothing less than full realization of the needed changes is acceptable. Yet ironically, while many INGOs are adept at delivering meaningful change to individuals, families, communities, and even society at large, they often struggle to successfully execute necessary changes within their own organizations.

In advising leaders, we have seen six dimensions of change execution that consistently test senior leaders and their teams in this sector. Admittedly, these dimensions are not unique to INGOs, but we find that they unfold in ways that are distinct to this type of organization and take on greater importance given the level of disruption currently buffeting the sector as a whole. How leaders attend to these change dimensions has proven to be a reliable indicator of whether their efforts fully achieve their strategic intent.

We find that INGO leaders who are successfully driving major change in their organizations are investing time, effort, and resources in:

  1. Properly formulating their organization’s strategic intent while building shared understanding of, commitment to, and alignment with the change;
  2. Creating a strong sense of synergy among and across the senior leadership team;
  3. Ensuring there is a cascading network of sponsors who are well-prepared to drive the change at all levels;
  4. Leading the change with resolve, even under challenging circumstances;
  5. Balancing the demands of the change with the organization’s capacity to absorb and adapt to them; and
  6. Effectively aligning the organization’s culture with its new strategy.

By remaining vigilant to these dimensions of change execution while planning and implementing essential strategic changes, leaders will increase their chances of guiding their organizations to successfully overcome the operational and existential challenges affecting the sector.

Leave a comment