Some things I’ve learned about change (3): Pragmatic Radicalism

The goals we set ourselves can be self-fulfilling. The level of ambition we set ourselves can define how funders and potential partners see us. And it’s one of the ironies of the charity sector that the level of belief leaders have in their organisation’s ability to create – to be – radical change, is often inversely proportional to their size. That means that small, growing organisations face two dangers: one is not reaching scale and sustainability; the other is scaling, but feeling ever more tightly tied to their original business model. One of the reasons I’m so excited about working with the team at Mayday Trust is that they are one of the very few charities which has been willing to divest itself of services which, although they were well-rated, were not felt by the people using them to be creating enough real sustainable change in their lives, and were not challenging or replacing the broken systems which were keeping people dependent and unfulfilled.

We are often asked ‘How will we scale up?’ by people who control big budgets. It’s a fair question, but part of its answer lies in a question that I often ask in return, ‘How will you scale down?’ Because resources, time and energy will always be limited, so we will only scale up small models which work, if we scale down big, broken systems, and dismantle stuck organisations which consume vast quantities of public money just to stand still. The holy grail is to be a large organisation which uses its scale to drive real change and take real risks. This is only possible in my view when large organisations ‘network’ themselves into small, autonomous units, using self-managing teams and other devolved-power models. In any centralised bureaucracy, it’s hard for the leadership team to see beyond the organisation’s ravenous appetite for time, money and energy; to recognise the untapped capacity and potential of the hundreds or thousands of people in the organisation’s shadow. Add to that, that leadership teams often lack diversity and there is a recipe for perpetuating inequalities such as the inverse care law.

So as a small organisation, it’s important to set a vision and an ambition which feels exciting enough, and potentially big enough, to engage people whose jobs require them to think big. But the plan for getting there must have practical steps. It must include income sources and an ability to work with the reality we live in now, while trying to create a different reality for the future. I call this ‘pragmatic radicalism’.

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