Adapting to change

Organizations always have a set of fundamental needs. The organization does something — it provides a commodity to consumers, it provides services that individuals pay for, it provides charitable services based on foundation funding, it employs specialists to steal credit card information on the Internet. All of these activities consume resources. 

For the sake of clarity, let’s have two organizations in mind: a mid-size company that produces cigarette lighters and a non-profit organization that provides adult literacy education in a high-poverty environment. 

Key to an organization’s “metabolism” is its regular access to resources, including especially revenue and people. Generally an organization has an existing model for satisfying these needs. It generates revenues through sale of goods and services or through gifts from foundations, corporations, and individuals who have a commitment to the organization’s purposes. It acquires a talent base by hiring talented individuals and by attracting motivated volunteers. Call this a business plan–keeping in mind that profit-based and non-profit organizations alike need a business plan. If the business plan is a good one, the revenues match the expenditure needs of the organization, the talented members of the organization use their time and budgets to produce the organization’s “deliverables”, and the cycle begins again. The organization is sustainable. 

A particularly bad scenario for a non-profit service provider is to begin its work on the basis of a large initial grant which is spent down until the organization expires. The profit-based equivalent is the new business that starts up with a large infusion of venture capital but never develops a revenue stream to support its activities. 

What happens when the organization’s business environment changes abruptly? Significant changes might include —

  • Abrupt change in demand for the organization’s product
  • Abrupt change in the consumer’s ability or willingness to pay for the product at the current price
  • Change in the willingness of donors to provide support for this kind of activity
  • Change in the costs of inputs necessary for producing the deliverables
  • Appearance of a strong competitor who draws off demand and donors

We can easily think of examples of each of these changes. Gasoline prices spiked in summer 2010 and demand for large vehicles plummeted. Rapid increase in unemployment results in a massive decline to demand for mid-range restaurants. Foundations get frustrated about the slow rate of progress in education reform and cut back on funding for education reform NGOs. Digital photography rapidly undermines film companies. The iPod swamps the market for digital music players and other suppliers fail in the marketplace. 

The question I’m raising here is a difficult one: what does an organization need to do in order to perceive and adapt to persistent changes like these? If we were asking this question in the field of ecology, the answer would be simple: many local species facing this kind of change simply will not be able to adapt in time and will go locally extinct. Natural selection is not a rapid-adaptation process, in general. Random variation and selection take time and large populations. 

But this doesn’t need to be the case for organizations. Organizations are led by intelligent and forward-looking people, after all, so in theory it should be possible for organizations to perceive impending change in their business environments and adjust accordingly. However, we also know that many organizations fail to do so. Think of the newspaper industry, the music publishing industry, the film-based photography industry, and some sectors of charitable providers. 

So what are some positive heuristics that support effective adaptation? And what are some common sources of failure?

On the positive side:

  • Be fact-driven and honest in assessing current conditions in the operating environment. Don’t permit wishful thinking to cloud the assessment.
  • Be rigorous in analyzing the consequences of these changes. If you are the leader of a non-profit with a great mission in an environment where funders have decisively turned away from this issue, consider the alternatives: downsize the delivery plan, reduce the cost of delivery, change the priorities of the organization, find new revenue partners, or find new sources of funding.
  • Be innovative; search carefully for new ways of accomplishing the organization’s goals at lower overall cost. A labor union might consider whether its army of organizers might be made more efficient (lower resource cost) by making use of social media.

On the negative side, we can think of a number of psychological and institutional factors that impede successful adaptation. Wishful thinking is at the top of the list. It is very easy for decision makers to persuade themselves that observed trends will quickly reverse — “the foundations will soon return to a focus on poverty,” “digital photography will never achieve the resolution and color fidelity of film,” “the state’s support for poverty programs will return after the next election.” 

Second, decision makers may reason that careful but painful adaptation in the near term may be more painful for them individually than the consequences of eventual failure of the organization in the long term. This may be worsened by CEO compensation packages that create perverse incentives for them. The CEO of our fictional cigarette lighter manufacturer may reason that another 10 years of gradually declining sales, leading to bankruptcy, may be preferable to the turbulence and conflict associated with downsizing, shifting to another product, or introducing a lot of new technology.

Third, institutions have an enormous amount of inertia when it comes to change. Consolidating services within an organization, for example, is almost always met with a great deal of resistance from the various divisions that will need to “share” their IT person, their budget specialist, or their web designer.  And rethinking the “deliverable” of the organization, or the way that it is provided, is also often met with a lot of internal resistance.  A poverty-focused organization like the United Way may decide that its old model of distributing charitable funds needs to be more focused on a few central priorities; and this shift of delivery is likely to be met with resistance both internally (from existing staff) and externally (from powerful beneficiaries of the earlier system).

Fourth, there are very real limits on our ability to project current information onto future realities. What was called wishful thinking above might well be accurate in some situations: the current dire circumstances do sometimes get better and the existing business plan turns out to be sustainable after all. So there is always a degree of uncertainty associated with efforts to assess the current and future business environment. 

No organization wants to be classified as a “dinosaur” — the perfect embodiment of an “organization” (species) trapped in a period of change that moves more rapidly than its ability to adapt. But many do in fact find themselves in the contemporary equivalent of the tarpits when they run into unfamiliar and rapid periods of change. I have to hope that universities don’t allow themselves to slip into that kind of endgame as they face the difficult and changing environment that currently confronts them.

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