Martyn Drake: Embrace change - but provide support

Charities often struggle when they start doing new things, writes the consultant

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

In its latest report, the Lloyds Bank Foundation identified 10 big challenges facing charities in what Paul Streets, its chief executive, described as "a hurricane of change".

None of it is new – in fact I wrote about most of those things in an article last year – but the central advice is becoming increasingly urgent: individual charities need to start working differently if they’re to survive and thrive in the "new normal". Of course, that’s easier said than done.

A friend of mine recently started taking lessons with a golf coach to improve his game (there’s a point to this anecdote, trust me). I’m one of those unenlightened people who sees golf as a good walk spoiled, but in a rare show of interest I asked how much he’d improved. His reply surprised me: "It’s getting better now, but in the first few weeks it went off a cliff."

Apparently, the reason he’d been struggling was down to his grip. The coach got him to change it and, to start off with, it made things worse. He stuck with it and, after a couple of weeks of coaching, his game got back to where it was before, only now it had the potential to get much better. "I had to go through the dip to get to the other side," he explained. "That’s why you get a coach. If I’d been on my own, I’d have given up and gone back to my old grip, and I’d never have improved."

Most of the charities I work with are great at doing what they normally do, but they struggle when they need to start doing those things in a very different way, or indeed when they try doing radically different things. It’s the curse of the dip.

We’re comfortable doing the things that we know how to do. We feel successful when we’re doing things that we can do well. So there’s often a quiet anxiety when we’re asked to do something very different – we fear, and indeed we often find out, that we’re not as good at it as we want to be, and that reflects on our standing, our reputation and our self-esteem. So we back out of the dip with a plethora of aversion behaviours, the most common of which are the three Ds (delay, divide and dilute). You might recognise them.

Delay The recurring need to wait for more information or more detail; for resource to become available, or a new recruit to lead it; to bundle it into a bigger project that someone else will do.

Divide The willingness to take ownership, but only of the part of the work that they understand and can do, or that directly affects their department, taking everything else out of their scope.

Dilute The redefinition of a suggested project into one that’s already happening irrespective of whether it achieves the new aim (see also: answering a question that’s easier to answer than the one that was actually asked).

Spot them, name them and address them, but remember: your people aren’t doing this to undermine you. They’re doing this from a rational fear – they don’t know where to start, and they don’t want to screw up. And it’s that same fear that stops them asking for help when they need it most – fear of failure, of exposure, of being seen as unable to do it on their own. I see this fear in a lot of middle managers, occasionally in executives, almost never in chief executives. 

Your organisation will inevitably need to change; to start doing things differently and doing different things. You probably know this and might already be working on it, but if it’s slow going it’s probably because your people are avoiding the dip. They will need help to get through it, but few of them will have the awareness and confidence to ask. So if you want change, ask yourself this: how will you get your people through the dip?

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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