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Organizational Change: The First 90 Days

THERE'S A DISCUSSION GOING ON OVER AT the Strategic Planning for Nonprofits group on LinkedIn about leadership and change management.  So far, the topic is pretty broad and most of the posters are encouraging ways to focus it.  Until now.  One poster, a military officer, weighed in saying that the first 90 days is the most critical for new leadership to make change.  If you let the opportunity go by the boards, you're stuck with what you've inherited.  He writes:
The First 90 Days are critical and in most cases can make or break a true leader in the end. The First 90 Days of assuming a leadership position are the times that you are going to affect any real change in the organization, otherwise you have got what you got for the rest of your term.   -- Corey Brown
You may be familiar with the "honeymoon" period of a new job.  It could last 6 weeks, 6 months, or a year.  It's the time period when an organization is most forgiving of its new leader.  And it's the time period when it might be the most open to change.   The honeymoon period, however, is more about your employer and less about you.

For you, the 90-day time frame for change-making is imperative.  Organizational change -- large or small -- is fueled by a sense of urgency.  Your nonprofit hired you because, hopefully, it's looking for change along with your skills and charming personality.  Those first 90 days are your time frame to identify new strategic directions and related personnel, programmatic and procedural strengths and weaknesses.  It's only three months and you've got a learning curve, which you must climb swiftly.  How do you prioritize your organization's needs so that you don't waste your firepower?

Knowing that mission/vision/impact sets the pace for everything the organization does, I'd start with an institution-wide deep dive into mission and vision/impact.  I'd next push those discussions forward into if-then actions:  if we are the organization gets kids turned on to art, then what does our board look like?  then who develops our programs?  then how do we promote what we do?  then where are the voices of kids and families in the decisions we make?  

This cascade of questions -- all flowing from mission/vision/impact -- can not only provide pathways for change, they can also underscore the urgency to make change....or to up your organization's existing game.  And it can help to prioritize what must happen next.

I've seen new leaders make change for change sake and sometimes that's enough to send the message that something's different -- better -- afoot.  I've done that, too.  But coasting on surface change only lasts so long; if systemic change or fine tuning isn't happening concurrently all you end up with is the same old issues covered in a shiny dress.  That'll catch up with you eventually.
I'd love to hear how you approached change-making/change management when you took on your last job.  How superficial; how deep?  What was the pay off?

Image:  Directions from markddpatterns via flickr


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Aligning or realigning an organization to its mission or vision is a key reason to implement change. You're absolutely right that it's not easy to do because of all the people involved -- organizational change is a group activity! In addition to assessing the need for alignment, the leader needs to figure out how to bring as many people into the conversation and problem-solving as is productive for a positive outcome.
The 90 day rule you highlight here reminds me of something similiar I heard years ago from an interim director. She said she had just a small window of time left to make changes. I assumed she meant she would be transitioning out of the position. Not so, she explained; she'd been in the position for almost 90 days. After about 90 days, she said, one loses one's objectivity. Seeing what needs to be changed becomes increasingly difficult. I agree that there's something really significant in this 90-day period. It should be viewed as having many more dimensions than "honeymoon" implies. Thanks, Anne.

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