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Organizations – The Basics

Some things about organizations are so basic they tend to escape notice. But that doesn’t change the fact that their neglect is often the root of the most stubborn problems. I call them the ACE.

Accountability is the organization’s answer to the question: “Who decides (what to do)?”

Continuity is its answer to the question: “Who knows (how to do it)?”

Engagement is its answer to the question: “Who cares (whether it is done)?”

In most organizations, those questions have been answered already. The answers may be stale, or they may be routinely ignored (that’s another article!) but at least there are answers, and probably some vestiges of the effective behavioral structures that accompanied them.

But in some organizations, and especially in new ones and in small ones, there may never have been any answers. If that’s the case, the organization will surely suffer when it has to respond to a significant external event. Examples include loss of a funding source, drop-off in sales, loss of key staff or of the founder, adverse changes in the market or in the economy, or emergence of a strong competitor.

Faced with those kinds of challenges, an organization that doesn’t know who decides, who cares, or who knows is like a fancy car without the wheels – it looks good only until you try to use it. And when the time comes to roll, most of your energy will go towards improvising basic functions rather than deciding when and where to go (and with what and whom).

In fact, in those circumstances, the actual response is almost an afterthought. In the language of my three basic questions, somebody decides, but usually by default; somebody cares, but only enough to put out the fire; and nobody knows how to do what’s required, so trial and error rule.

An organization like that lives from crisis to crisis and is always one step away from disaster. Interestingly, that description also applies to the typical client (person) in the world of the social services: somebody decides (but not the individual), somebody cares (but only for one incident at a time), and the individual doesn’t know enough (have enough skills) to sustainably improve his or her situation.

I make this comparison to show you that inattention to the basics is a systems problem not specific to organizations. The leadership challenge is as daunting for the organization as it is for disadvantaged individuals. And the central practical obstacle is the same: Where is an (organization or individual) supposed to find the time, resources, and skills to develop the behavioral structure that would make more effective response possible in the future?

Many organizations and individuals have had their basic questions answered by their first support systems: the founders of the organization or the birth family of the individual. But many have not and, unfortunately, the longer it has been since founding or birth, the harder it is to overcome that deprivation.

There is a lot of simple power in the idea that just three concepts, accountability, engagement, and continuity, are so fundamental to the health of an organization. That power offers some hope. The good news is that with exceptionally good long-term intervention (to address the basics), transformational change is possible. The bad news: it’s really hard.