Many organizations are finding themselves in trouble they didn’t anticipate. Corporations, government agencies and nonprofits alike find that at the end of a long period of emphasis on individual achievement the advancing Depression sees them surprisingly vulnerable. This isn’t a totally unexpected. Organizations of people exist for a reason, and when times change the first thing people often do is retreat even more inward. Eventually, however, getting through hard times will require people to work together, which is to say refocus on why it works better with many hands. That may produce some unusual results.
I often do Strategic Planning for a living, which is a fancy way of saying making an organization clearly state just what it does and how it will get it done. This is valuable when you have a document that is easily understood and gets he who organization working together as one. The first rule for making this happen is to get the right people into the room to hash it out, and that’s a tricky problem right there. I’ll leave that aside for a moment to go on to what those people have to decide, which is “What is the problem we are trying to solve?”
That was worded very carefully. Asking, “What do we do?” invites people to tell you just what they are capable of doing or have been doing for a while. Defining the venture as the solution to a problem focuses the exercise outward on the customer or client or whoever uses your services. “What is the problem?” is a short and polite way of asking, “What would the world look like if we didn’t exist at all?” If an organization is really facing its own mortality, as many might be soon, it’s easier to get to that point than you might think.
It has become popular for large institutions to conduct “Listening Sessions,” where they go out into the world of the customers or employees and “get input”. For large organizations, that’s not a bad idea at all since not everyone can be in the room. But it’s never a substitute for a clear definition of what the problem is that you exist to solve. Asking the question, “What can we do better?” presumes that the organization exists and will always exist in some form. Perhaps it will, at least in the case of government. But what if it didn’t? What if the world was to face a morning where your services and products suddenly disappeared?
All organizations exist for a reason. People make more money working together or have access to better equipment by sharing it or any number of reasons. When you have other people depending on you, however, and those people either hand over their money or rely on you to do something that holds their world together there is an outside force that makes it all worthwhile. What is is that we are trying to do? Why do others consider it valuable? If you answer that, you can answer the real reason why the organization exists. That’s your mission, and your Strategic Plan is all about how you accomplish this.
The structure of an organization is not what matters, it’s the skills of the people involved. I’ve seen organizations that do amazing things without any structure at all because they really cared about what they were doing. They know who their clients are and what they want from the experience. The leadership that is often stressed as an important part of an organization really only exists to serve the assembled skills and ultimately the mission. As Lao Tzu teaches in Tao Te Ching 17:
The existence of the leader who is wise
is barely known to those he leads.
He acts without unnecessary speech,
so that the people say,
“It happened of its own accord”.
How can that be? What guides the organization is the Plan, the Mission, the Way that tells why it exists. The best way to arrive at that is to ask what problem we are here to solve, which is to say what things would look like if we did not exist at all. The best way to understand that is to contemplate what would happen if the organization did not exist. The strength of an organization comes from the people that make it up and, in so doing, fill the void. It’s not about a person, except to the extent that the wise leader makes the mission clear.
Organizations that find themselves in trouble should not worry too much about where the money comes from or how things will get done. If you are clear what you have to do, you will find a way. That’s what the resourceful people do in a Depression – the get things done that need to be done. Making it clear what you do and why you do it can be very energizing.