How did the project emerge?
After a 19-month long process undertaken by a 9-person team to evaluate and recommend transformative change to the organizational structure, it was in the 15-member board leadership team’s hands to make the decision on which changes to move forward with and how. I was involved in the previous project and was engaged subsequently to help the 15-member elected, volunteer board with this extremely complex decision, affecting nearly 4 million members, ~800 staff, 2 unions, 64 chapters and 375 groups across the country.
The Sierra Club, a 125+ year old leading environmental conservation organization, has an incredibly complex structure built and rebuilt over it’s history. With the tremendous shifts in equity awareness, technology, political climate and growing pace of climate change, it’s even more important for the Sierra Club to have a structure that welcomes more and more volunteers and empowers them better than ever to make a difference to policy, community, and the outdoors. The Sierra Club found themselves at a turning point, where they wanted to capitalize on their core strengths of a decentralized volunteer-driven base to win on today’s campaigns that require unprecedented collaboration.
What was the project?
The project scope was to develop and facilitate a decision-making process that would result in resolutions for the board to vote on related to transformative structural changes. These resolutions would then result in the creation of an implementation effort that would move forward with making the agreed-upon structural changes a reality.
From a consultant perspective, the following challenges were most pressing to overcome to help the board leadership team make this decision:
- Board Member Individual and Collective Capacity – As a volunteer board that met once a month on all issues facing the organization, time was extremely limited to take on a decision-making process. Other key issues such as budget were on the docket as well. Though a few additional immersive meetings were scheduled, it was crucial to make an impact at every meeting. In addition to schedule availability, cognitive load was a significant factor to take into account. The process design needed to be sharp and simple. Given their limited time, decisions were usually made with much shorter processes and dialogue between members centered on opinion-sharing. This process would be a significant departure.
- Understanding The Big Picture – Understanding the project itself and the recommendation in context of the organization’s overall efforts was another challenge. The original goals the board established did not name specific structural issues, but rather an overall broad vision for the organization. Educating on what is structural change was a key necessity. Furthermore, as a collective leadership team, we needed to make sense of how other current initiatives needed to work alongside for this work to be a success.
- Elected and Constituency-Based Culture – Because board members are elected, it’s natural to consider their constituencies’ voices. However, for this project, we were specifically building for a future that isn’t here yet. Board members needed to be very intentional around setting aside the present for the overall organization’s benefits. Also, the culture created a natural tension between board to board member trust and board member to constituency trust. Sometimes, these aligned, but other times a constituency’s priorities might conflict with another board member’s priorities.
- Analysis Paralysis and Certainty – There were many emotional perils with this project. There was a constant threat of moving to more minimal changes rather than agreeing to transformative change for a variety of reasons. Not upsetting the status quo as well as the sheer scope of the change were contributors. The organization chartered a “change it all at once” approach, rather than a smaller or iterative approach. Like many leadership level decision making, the desire for more and more data to have absolute confidence in the impact and reduce the anxiety due to ambiguity was a challenge. Yet much of the data could not be gained without trying something.
- Continuing to Get Involvement – To make sense of the recommendation, the board needed to hear from a variety of organizational voices, all which were overtaxed and out of capacity as well.
This complex project has and will touch all corners of the Sierra Club organization and represents a deep transformation over the next three to five years.
“She came in with all of her engagement with the previous part of the project, but no agenda from the previous part of the project. It’s very rare for me to find a partner like that who can approach the second part of the project with almost no investment for herself from the first phase, instead really putting the priority and her energy on what the organization needed. Looking back I recognize how special that was.”Patrick Murphy
Vice President, Board of Directors
A board member was identified as the point person to drive this project and work with me. In addition, a temporary team of a few board members and the deputy executive director was established at the outset for initial brainstorming. Later, an additional leader from the organization joined the work to focus on defining the implementation team approach.
The Overall Process
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All of our work together was done remotely, with an eye towards equity and inclusion throughout.
My philosophy greatly informed the process I designed with the team. Consider the following principles:
- Sensemaking is a key, often missed or shortened, part of decision making
- Respect and leverage that the board is a new body, with their own wisdom, than the team that put these resolutions together.
- Listen to the voices keenly during the process and be flexible to including new needs
- People need time (and process is always helpful) on their own to make sense of complexity
- But it doesn’t stop there. Individual opinions are not as helpful as engaging in collective sensemaking and developing a collective narrative of the decision at hand
- If you’ve done the thoughtful, time-intensive work up front, the decision making is a short moment that needs no additional acts of member to member control or influence
- This work cannot occur successfully behind closed doors. Continuing to involve, communicate, and bring the rest of the organization along in the journey is necessary to set up the project for success from a change management perspective.
“She brought her own expertise, but she also heavily tailored that to where we are starting from. Crystal was very thoughtful about tailoring a process that would move us out of our comfort zone and give us new tools that we could use in the future, but was also a process that would work with the capabilities we already had.”
The typical decision-making approach involves board members understanding issues in a brief time on their own. Board members are also often solicited for straw polls so then team members can influence via an approach that focuses on “how to get to yes”. Getting to Yes was not my goal – my goal was to attain the smartest decision this leadership team could make together for the greatest benefit to the organization.
The Body of Work the Board Had to Review and Consider: The Structural Change Recommendation
At the conclusion of 19 months, a 9-person team delivered a 37-page transformative, full-organization-impact recommendation to the board.
- The two page executive summary outlined five essential organizational subunits to focus on for the changes and the 2-3 changes in each subunit
- The remainder of the document outlined the before/after view of each change, the specific implications and implementation details for each change, and remaining questions for the implementation team to begin their work with.
- The appendices contained the data collected over the 19 months, in order to serve as a one-stop-shop reference for this body of work.
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The recommendation represented a progressive synthesis of four rounds of org-wide inquiry of the project:
- Round 1 of Inquiry helped develop the case for change
- Round 2 of Inquiry identified 7 common themes for the structural problems facing the Sierra Club and reframed these as opportunities. These 7 themes represented the input of 40 teams and 128 individuals
- Round 3 of Inquiry tested the organization’s reaction to 18 “Pathfinding Ideas” and heard from about 400 respondents
- Three Overall Concepts were shaped based on the responses to the 18 pathfinding ideas. These were then later re-organized as a “buffet of options” along 5 organizational sub units as focus areas
- Round 4 of the Inquiry received input via survey as well as team-to-team conversations to the final set of options that would form the recommendation. Over 75 teams were reached out to and 500+ survey responses, resulting in over 4000 open-ended comments.
Here’s the kind of work we did together in each phase:
Brainstorming Phase: Design, Buy-In, and Communication
The first step was simply to design what the decision making process would be and gaining full board buy-in to this process.
Given the lead and the temporary team’s limited capacity, it was helpful for me to present something to react to, rather than to expect the team to create from scratch with myself as a facilitator.
Here, I used my expertise to study the project, the goals, the board members, and the timeline to draft the most crucial work in the least number of steps.
After working closely with the lead and the temporary team, we eventually presented our plan to the full board and received their buy-in.
During this time, I also helped drive the process to release the recommendation to the full organization, which was a complex, multi-step process in itself to reduce organizational harm.
Digesting Phase: Designing, implementing, and synthesizing a crucial asynchronous activity
A key overlooked step in decision-making processes is sensemaking. Given the complexity of the Structural Assessment Recommendation, I designed a process to help board members review the recommendation and provide initial reflections via a Reading Worksheet process. These reflections were not centered on opinion or an early vote. Rather, staying true to the principles I shared, the goal was to understand what’s missing from the recommendations and to unearth board member wisdom and understanding.
This was a significant departure from the typical process. Usually, board members are left on their own, without structure or framing, to make sense of the data they receive. Board members are also often solicited for straw polls so then team members can influence via an approach that focuses on “how to get to yes”. Getting to Yes was not my goal – my goal was to attain the smartest decision this leadership team could make together for the greatest benefit to the organization.
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Feedback Phase: Synthesis, Outreach Planning, Implementation
Once the individual Reading Worksheets were completed, I synthesized and made sense of the collective input.
- Who did board members still need to hear from?
- What were the key questions they wanted to ask those constituencies?
- Was there any initial agreement or themes for the structural changes proposed?
- What were the main tensions or points of discussion that need board time to explore?
“Someone synthesizing all this information alongside us, that’s what we got Crystal. I can’t imagine this project working as well with a more traditional kind of consultant approach.”
We then created an outreach plan and enrolled board members to implement against the plan. The outreach plan included a myriad of synchronous and asynchronous, one-on-one vs group ways to engage, continuing to respect the capacity of the organization while gaining input.
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Collective Sense Making: A crucial immersive synchronous meeting design
In process of receiving input from the outreach plan, I designed an immersive board meeting with the main goal of making sense together of the changes that represented the biggest tensions and unknowns.
- I ensured equity and the future constituency make up continued to be a consideration
- We emphasized sharing of alternative perspectives, gathering modifications to the structural changes and ideas for implementation
This was a significant departure from the board’s usual process. Board meetings are typically primarily focused on sharing opinions or listening to informational presentations. Actively working together and building on each other’s perspectives to create a collective narrative was a rarity.
Resolution Crafting: A deep exercise in representing as many voices as possible and also designing the implementation effort
Over three iterations of the final set of resolutions was drafted and redrafted, with multiple rounds of input from the full board members as well as executive staff leadership. The resolutions were complex because:
- They needed to reflect all the input 15 board members and 17 constituencies had given
- They needed to bring the full organization along in the work the board and the original Structural Assessment team had done – this was a key communication tool in itself since not everyone would ever read the 37-page proposal for all the details!
- They needed to communicate not just what a change was, but how and when it would be implemented
An additional effort was made to define who would be in charge to implement the resolutions. This also entailed many conversations over months to identify the best implementation effort structure, current resources available, and the authority each party would have.
All in all, 15 resolutions were drafted and passed by the Board. All resolutions had some level of change from the original Structural Assessment proposal, reflecting the board’s additional wisdom gained through the six-month process.
New capability was built by the board in decision-making through this experience.