Organisational healthchecks – what’s your focus?


Business Concept Hand Check The Checklist

The Big Lottery Fund has just released its VCSE Strength Checker that enables organisations to measure themselves and receive a report against five categories: sustainability, marketing and opportunities, strategy and planning, track record and capability and quality and impact.  This will be really useful for VCSE organisations and it is good to have a national benchmark.

Healthchecks can measure different things.  This post outlines my research on organisational effectiveness and the healthcheck that I developed as a result that draws on evidence from leadership and management studies, human resources research, systems theory, complexity theory, psychology and neuroscience that focuses more on how you work with your best resource – your people – to achieve your goals.

What is an effective organisation?

All organisations want to be effective, but what does that mean and how can you achieve it? There is little evidence to demonstrate any agreement about what organisational effectiveness looks like; it depends on the perspective of the person who’s judging and the perspective they are taking. For example, commissioners might consider an organisation to be effective because it’s delivering its goals but they might not be aware that it’s not able to lever in future funding, or has staff who are on the verge of burnout. An organisation might be liked by local decision makers and funded well because it is local, but in fact doesn’t deliver the outcomes for its beneficiaries. Other organisations might be good at delivering its goals, but those goals aren’t really the right ones wanted by customers or the local community (they might need help with a Theory of Change!)

Evidence from a year of desk and field research that I carried out indicated that in order to have the best chance of being effective and perceived to be so by different stakeholders, evidence suggests that the following areas are important:

  • Knowledge about user needs
  • Meeting stakeholders expectations
  • A clear plan for where you are going
  • Progress towards achieving your goals
  • Skills and knowledge of trustees, staff and volunteers
  • Good networks and connections and knowledge about where to get support
  • Sustainable income
  • Making good use of resources

Having traditional organisational policies and procedures in place can help with being better organised and coordinated, but there is a lack of evidence that they actually relate to organisational effectiveness; what is more important is dialogue, relationships, communication, knowledge, skills, a direction of travel based on understanding needs, and the organisational culture that enables people to do what is needed for service users and to spot opportunities to develop and improve.

Would you like to think about a better way of doing things?

Here is Edward Bear-page-001

Ideas to Impact has an organisational effectiveness assessment that allows you to self-assess, to identify the areas that you would like to prioritise to work on, and to get some ideas and support to implement them drawing from leadership and management and human resources research.  It focuses on how you can structure your organisation to get the best from people for example to ensure that people can use their strengths and enable them to innovate and spot opportunities for development.  It is particularly useful for organisations that think that maybe there might be a better way of doing things but would like some support to think this through.

We can use the assessment to undertake an organisational effectiveness review with you for example through an online survey, workshops or individual interviews, to identify where you are and provide advice and an action plan to help you to develop.  We can customise our approach to meet your needs, including support with implementing results from the VCSE Strength Checker or other healthcheck; for more information please contact us through the details at the bottom of our home page.


How can being on the edge of chaos help you to get your change process right?

Chaos versus Order messages

Most of us in the public and voluntary and community sectors have been going through a period of change for some time – perhaps it seems continually. But how is change best thought of and implemented? This post discusses some of the underlying issues in any change process. Japanese language distinguishes between two types of change, horshin is sudden transformational change, which may be driven by internal or external events, and kaizen is smaller incremental change that happens more gradually. You will probably experience both in your organisation at different times.

Organisations are unpredictable

Complexity theory holds that organisations are dynamic and the outcomes of activities are unpredictable: small actions can produce large changes, different outcomes can occur from similar initiatives, the world and our organisations are rich and varied and cannot be explained through straightforward linear models, and we have influence but not control over people’s behaviour. Leaders cannot force change but can support organisations towards a state that has been described as “the edge of chaos” in order to create new possibilities and to enable change to happen organically. This may seem unsettling, but the theory holds that it is on the edge of chaos that real and meaningful change can happen. It is important to stay in this space long enough for new ideas to emerge rather than to rush for a solution that may not be the right one. It is the leader’s role to communicate a vision for change, gain the confidence of the workforce and other stakeholders, and “hold the space,” whilst giving people opportunities to participate in shaping the future.

Encouraging challenge

It is important to get internal culture right. It can be easy to see people who resist change or challenge systems as being “difficult”. For people particularly in the voluntary and community and public sectors who hold strong values and beliefs it can be particularly important to be able to express their views. Too strong a culture in an organisation can lead to “groupthink” and complacency, so differing views should be sought and discussed in an open way. There are various mechanisms that can be used to ensure that everyone is able to participate in conversations, and that all possibilities are fully explored before reaching a decision.

Empowering people to take advantage of opportunities that arise

Planning is important, and engaging people from across an organisation is vital, but often things don’t go to plan, so organisations and individuals need to be agile enough to take advantage of opportunities that arise for example by accident, coincidence or luck. How empowered are your workforce to spot and act on these occurrences? Many important changes happen at the “micro-level,” which are outside the direct control of managers.

Collaborating across your organisation

Undertaking collaborative inquiry across your organisation can surface interesting ideas either around a particular theme or asking general questions about improvement. For example this could be done through “quality circles” where a group from different parts of the organisation come together to discuss an issue; through online or actual “solution boxes”; through snowball interviewing, where people in the organisation interview each other and report back; or through larger scale events involving Open Space or World Café interventions (see my facilitation page for more details). Questions can be general or specific, “How could we improve our clients’ journeys?” “How can we better organise drop in sessions?” “What might funders say about our organisation?” “What gets in the way of you doing your work?”

How can we help?

Ideas to Impact can help you to think through how you want to approach different types of change in your organisation, provide suggestions and ideas and help you to develop and implement a plan. We can also help you to run or to set up workshops and collaborative inquiries within your organisation across a range of issues.

Contact Becky through the details or form at the bottom of the homepage for more information.

Using strengths to improve your performance

Discover your Strengths Text written on notebook page, red pencil on the right. Motivational Concept image

Research shows that in order for people and organisations to improve performance you should play on strengths. This makes sense – working on already strong areas is likely to lead to excellence, but trying to develop areas of weakness is likely to only take you to satisfactory or maybe good at best. However, managers may tend to focus on people’s weaknesses in the belief that this is what is needed.

Jim Collins’ Good to Great outlines research by Gallup speaking to over one million employees and 80,000 managers about how this applies to companies, and emphasises the importance of having the right people in the right roles, getting recruitment right at the beginning and dealing with problems promptly. Marcus Buckingham in First, Break All The Rules discusses it in relation to what enables employees to do their best, with one of the top twelve factors being, “The opportunity to do what I do best everyday”.

For organisations that doesn’t mean don’t provide any support for people to improve to undertake essential parts of their role, but if you are having to do a significant amount of work on people’s weaknesses, it’s probably not the job for them, especially if what you are trying to change is something that is not learnable knowledge and skills but more a talent or aspect of their personality.

Finding your strengths

If you are not sure what your strengths are, there are a number of ways you could approach finding out. Asking other people, colleagues, friends or family could be one way, thinking about what you enjoy could be another – it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will be good at the things you enjoy but it’s a clue. Think about when you experience “flow” – a concept identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that describes a state of complete involvement in and focus on an activity where time passes by unnoticed and you are completely absorbed in the present.

Tools that can help you to identify strengths this include the free Values in Action Institute Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) available from the questionnaire centre at the Authentic Happiness website of the University of Pennsylvania. This contains 24 strengths and a questionnaire enables you to identify your top five “signature strengths”, for example judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness or humour and playfulness.

Marcus Buckingham’s book Now Discover Your Strengths: How to Develop Your Talents and Those of the People You Manage, used research with two million people to identify thirty four strengths, amongst them analytical, empathy or maximiser. This is a book that, unusually, I wouldn’t recommend buying second hand, as it has a one-off passcode in it for you to access StrengthsFinder to identify your strengths. Other tests that you might have come across include Myers Briggs sixteen personality types and Belbin team roles.

One word of caution, many methods use self-reporting, which measure your perception of your behaviour rather than your actual behaviour. Once you have identified your strengths yourself, it might be worth checking them out with people close to you to see if they think they are a good reflection.

Using your strengths

So how can your strengths or those of your employees be used once you have identified them? In Now Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham outlines how to manage people differently according to their different strengths, for example, who might need time to think things through, who is more concerned with the here and now than planning for the future, who can stir a team into action.

You can also analyse your team to identify which strengths are present and lacking. Think about who is best for which task and what gaps you have in the team, bringing in new people or if this isn’t possible being aware of how strengths and gaps might affect the dynamics of the team. Talk to your team individually and collectively – you can undertake the strength finding exercises together.

For yourself, does your work or other activities allow you to use your strengths everyday? If not, are there things you can change to allow you to use your strengths more? For any goals you have identified or projects you are involved in, work through each of your strengths and think specifically about how that strength could be useful in helping you to achieve them.

To broaden your enquiries, the field of positive psychology emphasises working with strengths for positive change and also offers many ways for people to improve their emotional and mental wellbeing. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness: A Practical Guide to Getting The Life You Want outlines the evidence about how to increase happiness, and Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project outlines one woman’s journey over a year of taking actions, one month at a time, to improve her happiness.  Doing what you enjoy, at work or outside, is important. In the UK, organisations such as Action for Happiness and Life Squared provide advice and resources.