Revitalize Your Organization

by Ira Chaleff

Executive Excellence February 1998

If your organization is missing a high-spiritedness or is rife with discord and anxiety and you want to turn this around, read on. In working with organizations of many types and sizes I have observed seven common factors in an organization losing its vitality:

Loss of faith in leadership

Leaders get insulated from staff, even in moderate sized organizations. Staff cease to see what a leader is doing and believe the leader is ignorant about what the organization should be doing. The leader needs to spend more time being visible to the staff. One of the most important ways of doing this is to delegate authority that has needlessly been retained. This empowers leadership at lower levels which is often full of pent up creative energy and it frees the leader to spend more time connecting with those who will make the organization succeed or fail. Delegating real authority to lower level managers and teams is much more important than the endless organization chart restructuring to which organizations often resort.

Lack of successes

Organizations exist to achieve specific results. Morale cannot be sustained in the absence of results. Winning teams need successes to feel like and behave like winners. Identify achievable results, make them happen and draw attention to them even if they are small. The losses that do occur are not as important as the attitude of the team towards those losses. A leader must convey optimism and hope in the face of losses. This is not to say that the leader denies the losses. It means that the leader is responsible for maintaining faith in the capacity of himself and the team to prevail.

Intramural warfare

Bitter fingerpointing and distrust between two interdependent departments is debilitating. Enormous amounts of productive energy are wasted by the friction in each interaction. The problem seems to be personality based and therefore unsolvable. It is, however, often soluble through energetic leadership. The solution requires zero tolerance of the dysfunctional status quo. It must be clear that the leader is emotionally prepared to let one or both parties go for the good of the organization. When this willingness is unmistakably genuine, the parties tend to rise above their entrenched positions and work to understand and meet each others= legitimate needs..

Loss of founding purpose

Organizations are usually founded with a crystal clear mission and vision. As the organization succeeds, the vision often fades into the background and the processes and activities associated with its success become what the organization most values and preserves. This works for a time but eventually is insufficient. The organization loses its internal guidance system and implicitly or explicitly makes the very largest decisions based on expediency rather than a coherent value system. Discontent begins to pervade the organization because, at the deepest level, human beings demand their lives have meaning, and meaning requires coherency. An organization at this juncture must create the forums in which fundamental conversations can occur about the organization=s identity and unique role.

End of business life-cycle

Organizations which have built their success around a service or product that once met a societal need which has now changed often go through protracted deaths. Leading and working in this environment is highly stressful. Expectations are based on historical achievements not future potential. Layers of systems are in place to keep the organization going so it hangs on in a sadly diminished capacity. There are only two alternatives for organizations in this stage – on orderly wind-down or a complete reinvention in which the business idea itself – the unique match of capabilities and needs which generates wealth – is fundamentally restated. The sooner this reality is accepted, the greater the options that remain open in either direction.

Lack of decency

Decency is about how people treat each other as they go about their lives and work. Whether an organization behaves decently is determined by the culture instilled by the founding team and the values and behaviors of the current team. Organizations which are successful can thrive despite a lack of decency because they have the resources to pay staff enough to put up with a demeaning environment. Organizations struggling to survive don=t have this luxury. Leaders seeking to revitalize a struggling organization must be very thoughtful about their staffs= feelings and perceptions and take great pains to communicate what they are doing and why. How they implement tough decisions is as important as making the decision. It sends a strong message as to whether people are valued or expendable. Staff will act accordingly.

Lack of re-investment in organization

Morale slowly drains in organizations which do not continue to invest in their own development. Old equipment, outdated software, junky furniture or office space, inadequate staffing and training all fly in the face of management=s exhortations for excellence. There are many reasons organizations are denied the investment they need. Regardless, revitalization requires finding creative solutions for renewing the organization=s infrastructure. While plant investment will do no good if organization purpose and design are deeply flawed, it must be factored into a revitalization effort. And while solutions are being sought, staff must be kept fully informed and invited to participate by contributing their ideas for renewal.

There is a bonus factor in all this. Anyone working to revitalize an organization is paying a steep personal price as the demands are often heroic. If they are to take good care of the organization over the long run, they must also take good care of themselves. They require opportunities for reflection and renewal, harbors in the storm to refresh and collect themselves. If you are one of these, organize your life so you have the time, space and support for this reflection. It will serve your organization well.

© Ira Chaleff 2004