(Photo by Michael Aleo)

Ever had a choice you just couldn’t make? We’ve all been there. 

Fighting organizational ambivalence, though, is a step beyond having to make a choice in your personal life. When you’re in an association stuck between two places, making any forward motion at all can feel like literally moving mountains. 

As Society for College and University Planning president Mike Moss has told AssociationSuccess.org, getting to the heart of what keeps an organization from making decisions can be a bureaucratic structure, requiring sign-offs from a confusing ladder across the org chart, but it can also be the result of a culture actively preventing decision-making.

“We were experimenting through all the different constructs to figure out why we weren’t able to (make decisions), so we started with the easier stuff, which was structure, to realize it was culture,” Moss explained in an interview about the transformation SCUP has gone through and is still experiencing. “… We took a timeout, did a deep dive and brought in a consultant and got after it, from the bottom up, of starting with culture and finishing with decision making.” 

Change can be hard. But it doesn’t have to be slow. From our conversation with Moss and others, we developed this checklist for any organization hoping to speed things up. 

— Consider what “innovation” means to your organization. 

Some may get squeamish about the idea of “innovation,” but what that means for each organization is going to be different. For some, it might mean automating typical FAQs for members through a chatbot on your website. For others, it might look like downloading Slack and changing up how internal communication operates. For still others, it might simply be rethinking how many people are in the room during meetings. 

“We were structured to go very methodically slow, which for a very long time has been very successful for SCUP,” he said. “We felt that it was choking our ability to be innovative. … We need to be responsive faster as change hits higher ed.” 

“Innovative for us was being able to be responsive and agile, and that’s what we were structured not to do. We were structured to be steady and basically static.” 

— Ask if you are the problem. 

When Moss sat down and considered what was getting in the way of his organization moving forward, he saw the answer looking back in the mirror. From making assumptions about what might be a roadblock for his staffers to dressing more formally than the staff was used to, he recognized that he needed to make adjustments himself to better support a culture that worked best for SCUP. 

“What I’ve learned in the last year is, it’s an old adage, but it’s new to me: Listen, learn, help, lead,” he said. “… I used to be the leader trying to drive the change all the time, and sometimes, obviously I wasn’t listening well.”

— Ask whether your organizational structure needs to change.

Does your association have a convoluted ladder that requires decisions get OK’d by top brass? Then it might be time to shake things up. Putting something on your CEO’s desk when they already have a dozen other things to figure out will only bog down the process with bureaucracy. Instead, put the power into the hands of the people who actually know the material best. 

At SCUP, for example, Moss oversaw three major projects in about a year, but none of them were led by department heads. Instead, they went to mid-level employees who were most familiar with the way they’d be implemented. And each one came in under budget and on time. 

— Gut check yourself. You might think it’s working, but how do you know?

If you’re an organization leader, you just have to know that conversations are being had that you don’t know about. Make sure you’re pulling the curtains back a little to make sure what you think is happening is really happening. That may mean anonymous surveys, frank discussions or bringing in an HR consultant, but the investment in your staff is worth it. 

— Recruit, don’t onboard, to the culture. 

Maintaining a culture amongst your employees who are empowered to make decisions is key, so you wouldn’t want to bring someone into the mix who doesn’t want that a role-based decision making environment. It’s about culture fit. 

It’s “not because you want replicants,” Moss said. “We want people to come in and challenge and move us forward through challenging and being part of that decision-making culture. … It’s more of a philosophy than a plug-and-play system.” 

Chelsea Brasted is the writer and editor who serves as content manager for AssociationSuccess.org. A former reporter and breaking news editor for The Times-Picayune, she lives in New Orleans with her husband and two rescue dogs.

Chelsea Brasted is the writer and editor who serves as content manager for AssociationSuccess.org. A former reporter and breaking news editor for The Times-Picayune, she lives in New Orleans with her husband and two rescue dogs.

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