In the last three years, Magic Bus has been through a lot of change—from getting a new CEO and new members of its leadership team, to alterations in organisation structure, programmes, and core systems, and finally, to automated processes. Navigating these changes has led to a lot of learning, some of which I’d like to share here.
When I joined Magic Bus in September 2016, the organisation had just undergone massive growth—the Companies Act meant more corporate money was coming in, the programmes had grown, as had the teams running them. And while the organisation had scaled, its systems and processes—be it financial systems or due diligence processes—had not kept pace. This was worrisome, but also an opportunity for growth.
Having led a change management process at Magic Bus, and having watched other nonprofits do the same, here is some of what I have learned—things you need to do, implications you should be prepared for, and how to navigate the challenges that the process throws up.
What is change management?
Change management is the process an organisation undergoes to make transitions in either its programmes or leadership easier. More specifically, it helps ensure that people within the organisation are in favour of the change taking place. Effectively, it involves organisation leadership ensuring that they remain aligned to both—team goals, as well as an external environment, while scaling up programmes and/or team size.
How to make it effective
The first thing you need to ensure is that the board and founder are completely aligned with you.
Related article: Your board is only as good as you want it to be
Your relationship with the founder is something you should discuss before you join the organisation. For example, when I joined Magic Bus, it was agreed upon that I would be given space, and that our working relationship would allow for flexibility. An example of how this played out: my initial agreement with our founder was that for the first six months, we would copy each other on every email and shadow each other for every meeting. But after a month or two, we found this intrusive and difficult to manage, so I asked for us to stop doing this, and he agreed.
Alignment with the board can be harder to navigate. For example, we had board members who wanted me to focus on strategy first, and some who wanted me to focus on impact first. Naturally, neither group could understand why I wanted to first work on operations. In this situation, I held one-on-one meetings with each of them and explained my reasoning. Over time, after I had built a good working relationship with the board, we also brought in governance committees, put more structures in place, and professionalised the board as a whole. This was only possible because we had been working on being aligned and building that level of trust.
If you want to bring in change, you have to make sure that you are inclusive in your decision making, and can communicate clearly as to why you are doing something and what it means.
If you want to bring in change, you have to make sure that you are inclusive in your decision making.
An effective way of doing this is to form a general management committee that meets every week. Having all the department and functional heads in one room (in person or over call) gives one space to talk about what’s not working, what possible solutions are, what has been done, and what is in the pipeline. It makes things transparent and increases the chances of the correct message percolating down to team members on the front lines. Additionally, this increases ownership of what is being done, and subsequently, buy-in as well.
That being said, to avoid inclusivity leading to indecision or analysis-paralysis, using these meetings to set timelines helps contain the discussions in a manageable timeframe.
Create a structure that encourages people to be champions of the change you want to bring about. For example, create awards for people and teams that have managed to effectively implement the desired changes. It could be recognising the first region to achieve 100 percent change, the first district to achieve it, individual awards for team members driving the change, and so on.
Related article: What corporates can learn from nonprofits
This helps balance out what otherwise may seem as a top-down ‘push’ strategy for implementing change. Also, the champions of change are usually the people that have constructive feedback—listening to them is critical in making the initiative successful.
Communicating what the foreseen positive impact of the change you are implementing is—and doing so in a way that makes it applicable to the person you are talking to—is something that helped us dramatically.
For example, when bringing in automation of systems and processes, it is helpful to emphasise the impact this will have on the time people spend on completing a task. Ask them what completing X task looks like at present, how many steps are required, how much time is spent, etc.; then explain how automation will reduce it. This makes the change personal, it becomes something all employees in the organisation can stand by because the impact on their lives is positive.
Implications of change management
To manage change effectively, the senior leadership in your organisation has to be completely aligned, in order to ensure that the right messages are being carried through to the rest of the team, and that steps necessary for the strategic shift are being carried out.
You have to be prepared to lose people from your senior leadership team.
This is extremely difficult to do and organisations—Magic Bus included—usually have a tough time navigating it. In this scenario, you have to be prepared to lose people from your senior leadership team.
It could be because they cannot align with the shifts the organisation is making, they do not align with you as a leader, or that they do not like the implications of the changes being implemented. Either way, it is possible that some really good, very capable members of your senior leadership team will leave.
Related article: Managing dissent within organisations
Change management is expensive. It costs much more than what you would otherwise spend on your project when it’s in business-as-usual mode. You have to factor in costs of rolling out the change, training your team members, allowing for mistakes along the way, and subsequent learning, and then budget for it accordingly.
Normally, if you have a project that costs INR 50 lakh, you will budget only that much for the capital and operational expenditure as well as the implementation. But if the same project is undergoing an overhaul of its systems and processes, chances are you will need additional money to roll it out. This is especially true if, as a part of the overhauling process, you are introducing new technology. With technology, you have to have an IT team, bring in application people, run tests, and factor in the costs of devices potentially breaking down, besides the training costs.
When it comes to making changes in your project, the battle is mostly internal. Once you have raised the money and built alignment, it is easy to get sign offs from your board and founder. The difficulty lies in building consensus within the rest of the organisation. This is understandable—they are the ones implementing the changes and therefore the most affected by it.
Facing roadblocks that appear—and navigating them with your team—instead of around them, is essential.
Facing roadblocks that appear—and navigating them with your team—instead of around them, is essential. Most implementation projects at this phase fail because we aren’t able to manage our teams, and so we shelve the project half way through. Doing it with your team takes both time and money, but is necessary.
It goes without saying that everything you plan may not work out, and that you might have to cut your losses with some initiatives. As a leader, this can be a source of personal frustration and may lead to sagging morale in team.
However, a learning mindset helps everybody take failures in stride and focus on the insights gained from the experience. Do not accept it at first, but be ready to move on when some initiative becomes a loss-making proposition. Besides, it is important for people to learn to fail and pick themselves up again, and this is an example that the senior leadership can set.
Who are you implementing the change for?
An organisation is as good as its people. When bringing in change—be it at a systems, operational, or leadership level—you need to look at it from a people’s point of view. Looking at every decision you make, from the angle of your team can help you understand whether the change is necessary, and how best to go about it. Some questions to think about are: can they implement this? Will it make their life easier? Will it improve work life balance?
Once you’ve decided on a path to go down, then you go all engines firing. You try everything, you carry your team with you, and leave moments of hesitation behind.