Four Strategies for Staying on the Path to Scale 

Rapid growth is a great problem to have. And if your leadership team and board have converged on a results-focused strategic plan, you’ve translated your mission into intended outcomes, and others have invested in your work and potential, you might have every reason to feel confident.

But no matter how successful a nonprofit leader is in pulling together these foundations for scale, many somehow still don’t feel fully prepared to move their organization forward. What’s missing?

Turns out that strategy, capital, and even people are essential, but not sufficient, pieces in the growth equation. In a prior article, I addressed the human side of scaling. Here are some thoughts on the fourth leg of the stool: how to design your organization so that it’s scale-ready.

1. Drive Multi-Year, Strategic Goals into Clear, Aligned Goals for Each Individual

An organization can hold itself accountable for impact only if it holds each person accountable for every one of the goals—both individual and team goals—that fit together and add up to create that impact. The first step, then, is to establish and communicate the organization’s highest priorities, and from there, develop and align individuals’ goals and expectations accordingly.

Scaling often combines with new strategies, teams, geographies, and management layers to complicate this task. For leaders, it becomes harder to communicate the strategy clearly and to break down strategic goals into their component parts; this makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to see if and how their goals contribute to the organization’s highest priorities.

We have found that staff members who know how to build program logic models can be particularly useful in addressing this goal-setting and cascading challenge. It’s best to start by using a top-down and bottom-up process to deconstruct strategic goals into annual operating, department, team, and individual goals, and check that all the pieces fit together. Challenge goals that don’t contribute to the highest priorities, check that each step of work is assigned, interdependencies clarified, due dates set, and success metrics defined. Confirm that each person understands how their work supports achievement of team and, in turn, organizational goals.

2. Tailor and Implement Systems that Support Disciplined Management Practices

An organization can maintain high performance only if it simultaneously holds people accountable for achieving their goals and provides support to achieve those goals. Much of the responsibility for this inevitably rests with the organization’s managers, and in scaling organizations, many are new to their role and/or the organization. Are yours up to the job?

The key is to structure a management approach that comprehensively guides managers to practices tailored to the organization’s culture and strategy. Establish a unified timeline and approach for staff to set team and team member goals, review goal progress, provide feedback and coaching, develop team member capabilities, and confront poor performance. Make decisions that reflect your needs; for example, if your culture and strategy value learning, your goal setting, monitoring, feedback, and coaching methods should support smart risk-taking and learning feedback loops.

3. Design the Structures that Support Your Aspirations

Disregard the prevailing wisdom that an organization chart is the structure. Beyond the organization chart, every organization also defines structure through decision-making roles and information flows. Scaling an organization exacerbates any confusion or weaknesses in these three systems, and questions arise: Who is accountable for what? Who has authority to make which decisions? Who needs access to what information?

As you evolve answers keep in mind one test: Are your structures making it harder or easier for people to work together, and achieve individual and team goals?

First, define teams and roles within—and between—them. Ask again and again: Who needs to work together to get work done? Consider the potential value of new teams and new kinds of teams (such as cross-functional and ad hoc task forces) that bridge silos.

Second, with growth, historic decision-making practices often no longer suffice. Deciding by consensus may now be too time-consuming. Top-down decision-makers may now lack important information. Redesigned processes can increase the speed and quality of decision-making, particularly when they are specific to the most critical organizational decisions. Popular tools for defining decision-making roles (for example, RAPID, DACI) provide useful questions to ask: For a given decision or type of decision, who has input, who recommends, who decides, who has the veto, who executes?

Internal communication is the third ingredient to consider. With growth, staff relationships expand exponentially, the distances between staff often grow, both in miles and reporting levels, and new team structures interrupt defined communication practices. Information—some of it accurate and some of it not—will flow up, down, and sideways, with rumors, assumptions, and misunderstandings filling any vacuums.

Examine your internal communication practices. Consider all the forms that communication can take: in-person meetings, listening tours, conference calls, newsletters, and staff surveys. And consider the evolution of your content: As the organization grows, messages need to be clearer, simpler, and more consistent.

4. Make Culture Intentional

A dysfunctional culture will defeat the best strategy, and as you scale, the likelihood that important parts of your culture are “wrong” will increase. Why?

The culture that got you to this exciting moment of growth may not be what you need to take the organization to its next stage. Growing often requires changes in management practices (usually, they become more formal) that conflict with the freewheeling spirit that was so essential earlier.

With growth, cultures tend to fragment and morph in unexpected ways. However well you communicate it, how can you be sure that staff across increasing numbers of geographies—with diverse tenures, experiences, and assumptions—uniformly and universally understand your intent? New senior leaders will also pull the culture in new and varied ways as they assimilate, and, as you create new departments and groups, new subcultures will emerge.

A nonprofit CEO recently reflected on the process of consciously and deliberately designing his organization, “looking ahead,” he says, “not at one-off projects but holistically … how does everything fit [together] toward advancing the mission? And how do we manage our people, our culture, to do a whole lot better job on delivering [on our mission]?”

Knowing the right questions to ask is half the battle.

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