Creating Agility

Agility is the ability of an organization to change direction quickly and with minimal disruption and obstacles. In the past, nonprofits operated in stable markets. In stable markets change occurs slowly and is usually driven by the market leaders. Now change is happening quickly and can be driven by anyone, including external forces. The agility of your nonprofit is now a survival trait.

Almost everything a nonprofit does now has the potential to drive growth, be a point of entry for a competitor, and provide a competitive advantage. That implies growth and change must happen without the burden of seeking permission. The staff must have greater freedom to act.

Boards must be willing to trust the judgement of the staff and be equally agile. Agility limits the board’s ability and opportunities to make decisions. They must set policy and define goals that guard the mission and vision without constraining the staff’s ability to act. They must trust the staff to make the decisions and choose a path that will meet the board’s expectations, which requires the board to speak clearly and take the long view.

The staff must own the plan. There must always be a plan. However, plans now have a limited shelf life because of the need for rapid change. The endpoint (vision) must remain constant. The significant changes in technology and society have created many new paths to each possible endpoint. The best one today is different from the best one last quarter. Thinking that the best one has been found creates a bias that will strangle agility.

Agility means groups must be able to work in parallel. For example, tracking the long-term outcomes of the clients depends on the combined effort of finance, fundraising, and programing. How donors measure the value of the outcome will change over the next year or so. Programing must change to produce, track, and report what the donors expect. Finance must change its processes to provide the resources programing needs and also communicate the need for funding to fundraising. All of that must occur dynamically without a six-month delay while the budget is debated, a funding plan is developed, and new client services are designed, tested, and deployed.

If the old ways are used, the donor demands will change again before the last set of changes can be implemented. The competition for the donors’ funds is intense; any delay in the response to donors’ demands creates an opportunity for someone to be more responsive and capture your donors.

The old process safeguarded decision making. The new process must be frictionless and dynamic.

Next Step:

Identify all of the friction points in your operations both within groups and between groups

Create non-operational safeguards (vision, goals, etc.) to ensure success rather than relying on checks, balances, formal procedures, permission, etc.

Use innovation, experimentation, and your nonprofit’s ability to respond to change as indicators of your agility

Trust is essential to agility. Procedural and hierarchical decision making are the antitheses of trust. Therefore, deciding to be an agile leader and lead an agile group requires a cultural change at all levels. If the board and staff have two different cultures there will be an unhealthy tension.

Accountability is essential for success. If one is accountable for the details, there is very little opportunity to be agile. If one is accountable for reaching a goal, one is empowered to be agile. Holding a team responsible for reaching a goal requires a significant level of trust. It can take months to reach the goal and during that time it can be difficult to determine if the team is on the right path.

Agile processes are living experiments. It is unlikely any experiment will fail but many will produce less than expected, take longer, or cost more than expected. Regardless of the end result, every one will strengthen your nonprofit, add to the relevance of your mission, and increase your nonprofit’s sustainability.

Take It Further:

Ensure that you always have at least three options to consider before making a decision

Ask your board to use the progress toward goals, the adherence to policy (rather than following procedures), fulfillment of the mission’s promises, increase in support, growing number of clients served, change in clent success, and actualization of the vision as the ways to measure your nonprofit’s success rather than financial results, execution of plans, budget adherence, etc


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