A litmus test for organizations

Most people measure health of organizations in terms of growth, activity, and funds. However I've been a part of large, well-funded organizations that weren't healthy. And, I've been part of small, underfunded organizations and one with limited, focused activity that had great value. So though popular, I'm unsure those are accurate measurements.

Moreover, many times organizations that appear to be growing, well-funded and active, suddenly fall off the map. If organizations operate more like living things than machines, then it makes sense that if they don't get what they need to thrive, they can go from the picture of health to ICU surprisingly quickly.

So, how do you know? Are there other signs that reveal the health organizations?

In all the organizations I've seen go terminal, I've observed two precursors that have nothing to do with growth, activity or cash. And both are in the conversations that happen in the margins. The sidebars. The closed-door meetings. Two phrases that become an "engine light" for knowing you have a problem...

1. If only "they" would... The frequency of the phrase "if only they would" from leadership and/or membership is a dangerous sign. Any time groups start thinking of themselves as an "us" and a "them" there is a lack of health. Not only that, but there is no amorphous "they." There are only people. People you know and are connected with. They have identities, talents and names....and have probably been committed to your organization in gifts, time and energy. "If only they would..." erases the memory of those contributions.

The "if only they would..." phrase also has an element of armchair quarterbacking (the act of coaching a game from the other side of your television screen). And the amount of righteous indignation armchair quarterbacking generates is shocking. That type of negative energy can spread. (Never mind that "armchair quarterbacking" is also completely ineffective.)

2. If only he/she wasn't here... When there is a desire to edit membership or leadership an organization has a real problem. Conversation about making changes in the members of a group is poisonous. It creates scapegoats. It shuts down any possibility that there are problems within ourselves or systemic dynamics at work. (We've watched this happen in too many families over the past five years editing out one spouse for another, and as a result adding/subtracting kids.)

Worse, edits to the group, never solve the problem. Because it focuses attention in the wrong place. It works in a framework of blame. It shuts down any posibility for creative energy. It ignores the organization as a whole.

And there are casualties. People become collateral damage...which is beyond tragic.

This is a more difficult dialogue to change. Because typically the people initiating the dialogue have invested a lot of belief in this remedy. And oddly enough, I'm not sure the solution is to edit the people with this thinking out. (Though like pruning a branch infested with bagworms, it sometimes becomes necessary.)

So what do you do if your litmus test reveals a lack of health? If the phrases "if only they.." and a desire to edit membership is rampant? What do you do?

I've recently stumbled across some writing that intrigued me. Stay tuned for the next post...
© Random Cathy
Maira Gall