Monday, June 9, 2014

Organizations and Outcomes

I like to oversimplify if only because it is much easier to remember two or three things than it is a dozen or more. So at the risk of oversimplification, civic change efforts focus on either organizations or outcomes.

And while change occurs when we focus on outcomes, we spend most of our civic effort focused on organizations. Why? Again at the risk of oversimplification, here are three reasons:

1. We know organizations much better than we understand complex systems; after all we all work for organizations. Organizational structures are very familiar to us and we are comfortable with their design and redesign. The structure of a complex system is much harder to draw, let alone reshape.

2. We can control organizations. Control in the civic space is highly valued. Control plays out in many ways, not the least of which is budgets. About a decade ago a civic leader remarked how excited he was for a pending redesign of his community's civic infrastructure. "I can't wait to get my hands on that checkbook," he said. This desire for control is understandable and appropriate. We've all seen under-performing organizations and there is is great value in making them high performers. But we also know that high-performing organizations acting in isolation cannot transform a community.

3. We'd rather not be held accountable for things we cannot control. Achieving community-level change is about shared responsibility. We all have a part to play in holding each other accountable for the performance of a complex system. This is much more difficult than the relatively simple (but all too rare) job of being a fiduciary for an organization.

It is so easy (and understandable) to focus on organizational change over systems change. The best way for communities to stay focused on outcomes is to have a very clear and compelling goal that has the power to hold our attention -- or to at least pull us away from the temptation of focusing too much on a single organization.

If we are focused on the goal, the structure of individual organizations becomes secondary. Taking credit becomes secondary. Control becomes secondary. The only thing that matters is how are we doing toward achieving our goal.

Of course, that is an oversimplification.