By Margaret Thom, Membership Manager
How can we make this year better than the last? Considering that change is inevitable and we are co-creators of our change, how can we develop the disciplines needed to cultivate a “learning organization” that’s adept at adapting?
I embrace the opportunity for reflection that comes with a new year. To consider these questions, with seeds planted in 2014, I’m led to systems thinking as one answer.
Timely strategic thinking
In a post on strategic planning, Mark Fulop writes, “What is Needed Now? ... I am convinced that this is the single most important question that nonprofit leaders must be asking today. For me, the answer to the question, “what is needed now” is not strategic planning but strategic thinking that is supported by clear and strategic program plans.”(1)
Fulop goes on to identify three key areas for focused planning: 1) Core social impact strategies, 2) revenue strategies, and 3) operational & capacity strategies, as well as three secondary areas: 1) communications and marketing, 2) program evaluation, and 3) board development.
Leverage points for growth
Why is systems thinking useful to organizations? One reason - identifying leverage points for growth - is well articulated by Natalie Kivell in another post on systems thinking in organizations:
“Much of the work in our communities occurs by putting our heads down and running towards our goals with a laser focus. However, ... taking in the big picture can be necessary to find new ways to address issues. Once we take in the big picture and "see the system", it is possible to identify high leverage points for change. These leverage points are places, people, policies, and norms, that if changed would create a significant change with relatively little input.”(2)
Do we know the consequences of our actions? And our inactions? Can we see clearly where action is essential and where it is not? When do we not see clearly, but know to trust our gut? How can we work with others to develop and deepen a collective intelligence that can solve long-term problems?
Understanding relationships and assumptions
NPC’s friend and nonprofit consultant Frank Martinelli writes,
“The systems approach to management is a highly effective method for helping leaders understand the relationships that shape [the] environment in which their organizations operate. It provides nonprofit leaders with a fresh understanding of relationships between our underlying assumptions, the actions we take based on these assumptions and the consequences of these actions - both intended and unintended.”(3)
Cultivating a learning culture
The five disciplines outlined by Peter Senge 25 years ago in his seminal book about systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990), are still relevant today: personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking.(4) We can ask:
The world is full of intelligent individuals working hard to make it a better place. We as nonprofit leaders and professionals are not only meeting immediate needs and solving long-term problems; we are also developing new capacities of thinking, seeing, and working together. What do we envision? How will we bring it to reality?
We cannot do it alone. Let’s work together. Happy New Year!