Leaping To The Next Plateau – A Process View

By Marty Levine

Organizations must always be planning for their future. The importance of meeting this task is heightened during periods of rapid and significant change. It is at these times when many of the basic assumptions which have framed their current practices become uncertain and that continued success is not guaranteed and organizational survival requires making the right choices about the future. How we plan at these times must change as well.

It is at these moments, when we recognize that incremental change will not be good enough. We need a different way to think and plan for our future. The effort to effectively plan for new and uncertain conditions must become more than a mechanical process of data collection and analysis.

Before planning itself can begin, the organizational “space” that will allow it must be made available. Effective planning requires participants to have the time to think and build new ways of working and serving. It requires freedom from the pressures of organizational and communal politics. It requires the ability to reject organizational history. It is only in this kind of environment that the challenges of radical change can be addressed effectively.

This means being able to give staff sufficient time to do the work of planning apart from their “normal” work. It means volunteers committing even more time and effort. And it means that everyone leaves their egos at the door.

The investment is high in building the planning space and it is an investment that has no guarantee of return. Without it, the likelihood of successfully leaping to a new level that is in sync with new realities is low, and creating it and supporting it over time does not guarantee that the leap will be high enough.

Having created this potential for radical innovation, the question of organizational purpose must be addressed. Vision and Mission Statements need to be taken off the walls and out of their frames and examined very closely. We need to ask if they really describe who we really are. In my experience organizational purpose is often less clear than we think it is. We have the words on paper but we may not deeply understand them. It is critical to take all of the time needed to answer the basic question of why we are here. What is our organization’s purpose? Purpose must be what drives the planning process and channels our efforts to build our future.

The determination of purpose is so critical in the world we work in because it defines the bottom line for our effectiveness and success. In the for-profit world, when all is said and done, return on investment and profitability are the ultimate measures that need to be paid attention to. In the world of Jewish communal service, economics are important but they do not define our real bottom line. This must come from a clear and shared understanding of purpose.

Having reached a point of clarity about purpose we can consider whether we wish to change at all. If our purpose is limited to doing what we do today for those we serve today, then we will not need or want to make significant changes in how we operate. Our need will be to keep on as long as those we currently serve are there to be served. We can be successful buggy whip manufacturers until there are no more buggies on the road.

It is only when we conclude that our purpose requires us serve beyond the scope of our current work that we need to consider what we need to do in order to leap ahead.

And that leap begins with asking ourselves how we would operationalize our purpose if we were starting from scratch. “If our organization did not exist, and if it had no history, what would we create to fulfill our purpose?”

It’s at this moment in the process that egos really need to be left outside the room. All existing assumptions become questionable. Jobs and roles become less secure. “Pet” projects, the legacy of those who have created parts of the present, the political interests of those who are supporters are at risk and may be identified as no longer valid.

Current efforts that serve real, live individuals may no longer seem important and become at risk.

If the goal is to find a way to bring today into tomorrow then this process of introspection and assessment must be done in an open enough manner to engage and challenge. It will create controversies that can shake and threaten all. Communal relationships and communal politics will be riled.

And when the dust settles what can emerge is a vision of the organization that we think can be successful into the future. Only the can the organization define a road map for change – identifying new things that must be done and identifying current efforts that must be ended.

In large, existing organizations, this process will undoubtedly be very painful. It takes leaders who are committed to core purpose so deeply and are willing to put their organizations through the pain of change. And all with no guarantee that the new, improved version will be successful!

It is only the passion and insight that the organizational purpose is that important that can drive this process forward to find out if the new answer is better than the old.

Marty Levine is a life long Jewish communal professional. He served as General Director of JCC Chicago until his retirement in 2013. He now consults to nonprofit organizations.