Decluttering your organization — taking the lead

How scary is change? I wrote this post six months ago — but was reluctant to publish it.

Beth Comstock, CMO of GE, wrote a great post on simplicity. Last year she sold her house and most of her physical possessions to declutter her life — much the way that GE is attempting to make simplicity the hallmark of the company.

But simplicity is not that simple.

Whether it’s your company, or your personal life, you will need to deal with other people around the issue of simplifying and decluttering. I’d say the biggest challenge is not just doing it yourself (and that’s big) but motivating others to follow you in that direction.

Many people lug around huge piles of clutter that is not physical, but intellectual. The phrases “But we’ve always done it that way!” “What if something goes wrong?” and “What if someone yells at me?” are symptoms of that clutter.

businessman in red tape

“But that’s the way we’ve always done it!”

It’s tempting to dismiss these folks as too lazy to declutter. But, if you watch closely, many of these people are incredibly hard working. They are working extra hours, at a frenetic pace, to use old, cheap, flimsy and ineffective (but familiar!) tools to do things just the way they have always done them. Even as the world around them changes.

A great example of this is the newsletter editor who insists on printing and mailing a newsletter that 95 percent of your customers toss into recycling (noting, as they do, how you’re wasting paper, money — and their time). Meanwhile, the grudgingly produced electronic edition of your newsletter is a PDF that no one clicks to open — or, even worse, a poorly designed, seemingly endless email message. Soon you’ve trained your customers to automatically route any electronic communication from your organization to the Spam folder — even the fundraising appeal from your executive director. If your new marketing consultant dares to suggest an updated communications plan using postcards and short, frequent emails — out come the garlic and wooden stakes.

It’s not just the newsletter editor. It’s the nonprofit events person who plans the same old fundraising auction every year — even as more and more of your donors tell you it’s a pain to drive downtown to the same old hotel and park (for a small fortune) in the hotel garage. These days, they’d rather go to a more intimate event at the home of a board member in their neighborhood. You’ve gotten the feedback, but your events person gets the look of a deer in the headlights at the thought of doing Something Different. He or she will hurry to mention to you the name of one donor who “really likes the auction,” and trudge down the same old path, holding that person’s (extrapolated) dislike of board-hosted events in front of them like a shield.

The motivation here is fear — of failure and criticism. And it’s a huge barrier to decluttering.

You’ll see this most clearly when one of the Old Guard suggests that instead of decluttering your business processes, you add to the clutter by doing it the old way and the new way at the same time. That, they assure you, will keep everybody (meaning them) happy. It ignores the reality that it will double either your costs or your staff time to run the two processes simultaneously — plus have everyone in the organization (and customers) now interacting with two projects or systems instead of one.

If you want to declutter your organization, you, as a leader, need to take the responsibility for removing the fear of failure and criticism — theirs and yours.

And that’s the toughest decluttering of all.

See Comstock’s post for inspiration.

Some previous posts on organizational change:

Practicing change

Change, part 2

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