Is your organization ready to adapt?

Right now, mission-based organizations are finding themselves adapting and innovating at record speed. Some are struggling. Dr. Tanya Hills takes us through the science of adaptation and what it really takes to change and innovate.

We discussed:

  • How to know if your organization is ready to adapt
  • What to do about it if you’re not, and
  • Why it’s crucial for your organization’s survival

Join the conversation live on Facebook at:


Cynthia: Hi, everyone. Hi, Facebook. What a great morning for having a show. Welcome to today’s show. Today, we’re going to talk about the science of adaptation. One of my favorite topics. The constructs of adaptation and innovation have been studied by scholars for years, and while none of us had any to search the literature for how to adapt during a pandemic, neither we know we’re in this for the long term. It is time to dig a little deeper. What does it really take to adapt, innovate and sustain those changes? We’re going to learn about that today. But first, let’s welcome you to Coffeetime with Masterminds which is a 30-minute conversation with leaders of mission-based organisations. If you are just joining us today, please tell us your name and where you’re from in the chat box or the comment box and we’ll get started. My name is Cynthia Roxas. I am the principal and founder of To Your Growth and I am here with my co-host, Rebecca. Hi, Rebecca. How are you?

Rebecca: I’m well. How are you, Cynthia?

Cynthia: I’m good. I’m good.

Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Tuttle. I’m the founder and principal of Grant Write Now and Grant Writing for Good.

Cynthia: Cool. Let’s bring on Pieta. Pieta, hi.

Pieta: Good morning.

Cynthia: How are you?

Pieta: Good, thank you. I am Pieta Blakely and I’m the founder and principal of Blakely Consulting.

Cynthia: Cool. Well, welcome aboard. Welcome aboard.

Pieta: Good to see you.

Cynthia: Yeah. Today’s guest, Dr. Tanya Hills is the founder and principal of Consultan Stratgies. Dr. Hills has spent many years studying adaptability and innovation in non-profit organizations. Her research has found that there are indicators that can actually predict whether an organization is ready or most likely to successfully adapt. And so, I am excited to have this conversation with Dr. Hills. Let’s welcome her to the show. Hi, Tanya. How are you?

Tanya: I’m well. Good morning, ladies.

Pieta: Good morning.

Rebecca: Good morning.

Cynthia: How is it going so far?

Tanya: Well, thank you.

Cynthia: All right, cool.

Pieta: So, Tanya, good to have you here. We’ve been talking a lot about adaptation and innovation on our show and I wanted to define those terms a little bit. When we say adaptation, we generally mea finding a way to deliver the same program and reach the same outcomes. And innovation can mean being creative in the context of your assets and opportunities and strengths right now to maybe innovate a different program or create something new or focus on a different set of outcomes.

Tanya: That makes sense.

Cynthia: Okay, what you have found, Tanya – why I think this is very interesting is that whether an organization is adapting or innovating, oftentimes, success is related to the organization as apposed to the change itself. Is that something you would agree with?

Tanya: It is. I, through my research, have understood that organizations are essentially like people. They evolve. They’re living, breathing things that evolve throughout time. And so, when we think about sort of the adaptability of organization, we can think of it as sort of [00:04:03]. The easiest way to think about it is maybe like a 4-point scale, where at the onset, an organization is in need of improving its ability to be adaptable and respond in situations where things change either externally in the external environment where they operate, or internally.

And so, if we think about it as the spectrum with 1 and 2 at the lower end of the spectrum and 3 and 4 in the higher end of the spectrum, we can sort of predict whether an organization is positioned to be successful and sustainable in the future. It’s not an exact science, but it is a way to understand how to position organizations and provide training and provide recommendations, or how they can better position themselves for adapting to change.

Cynthia: I’m getting a little bit of a kickback. I don’t know if other people are hearing it, but… I love this idea of the spectrum. That it’s not binary. That’s not either-or. It’s not like, if you don’t have these indicators, you can’t adapt successfully and if you do, you’re going to be a superstar. I’m liking that concept. Pieta, were you going to say something?

Pieta: Yeah, I’m interested to understand. When you say characteristics of the organization, are they quantifiable? Obviously, count everything. Are you talking about things like size and stamping number or are you talking about culture?

Tanya: Yeah, actually, both of those types. And I would say we come up with all sorts of interesting ways to try and quantify what that looks like and there are a lot of instruments that have been developed to quantify that. They all are consistent with some general themes that they have in terms of measurement, that they are also very different from one another. And so, I think part of the challenge for the scientific community is to really understand how we are defining adaptability and how we measure that and really measure that over a consistent period of time and where we’ll be able to make those recommendations.

Pieta: Give us an example. What are the kinds of things that you would look at in an organization.

Tanya. A lot of the things relate leadership. And to what extent is the right fit for the organization, making sure that we have the right people in the right place at the right time and the right skill sets. That’s very important, and that is true both at the staffing level as well as at the board level. When we think about organizations, it’s easy when [00:07:31] entity. But ultimately, at the ground level it’s really the [00:07:40] , the practices, the policies and the procedures that end up having the most influence over whether an organization is positioned to adapt to change. So, it’s anything involving leadership – skill sets to the leadership, to what extent is the organization aligned at the staff level and the board level with its mission, its vision, [00:08:12] and the goals of the organization; how well is the organization from a management perspective able to effectively use resources within the organization.
Cynthia: You mentioned when we were talking earlier, leadership. Leadership matters. Why does leadership matter? Aside from the obvious, of course. A good leader can get you to places, but why was that such an important indicator?

Tanya: Yeah, staff plays such an important role in the success of an organization – the history, the experience that staff bring to the table plays a large role in an organization’s ability to respond and adapt in times of change. The leadership – we can think it the directory level, more of like the higher levels of management in the organization. So, I think in order for an organization to be successful they have to have all of those components working well simultaneously.

Cynthia: Cool. Rebecca, I noticed your quiet. You’re normally not quiet. Tell us what you’re thinking.

Rebecca: I’m just listening. This is great. You know, when we advertised the show we mentioned that your journey began with a search for that certain formula, that formula to help organizations become more adaptable. Is there even a formula that is out there that we could take from?

Tanya. Yeah. I wish I could say there was. That’s what I went in search of. I’m really trying to figure out , if we implement X,Y and Z the results will be A, B and C. I really wanted to sort of define what that process looks like for non-profits and how we can better inform non-profits about how to do this. And when I work with non-profits, the question is, how do I become more adaptable in this organization? Give me an idea. Through my years of working with 30 non-profit organizations in the course of three years, I realized that every organization, like every individual is unique and different and it is [00:10:48] contextual environment with its own strengths, its own weaknesses, its own resources and different levels of resources. And all of those things play a role in influencing the adaptability of the organization. And so, in order to understand the best approach for an organization we really need to understand the inner workings of the organization and understand what are those local level conditions that the organization is working on. What is the political will of the leadership around some of the changes? What are the skill sets of the staff to adapt to these changes? Are the resources of the organization appropriate for the changes that are now needed? All of these factors work together simultaneously to create an environment that is in their ways for sustainability.

Pieta: So, you’re saying that adaptability and sustainability are the same thing.

Tanya: From my perspective I would say yes. They’re not defined the same way but I think in order to be a sustainable non-profit you do need to be able to adapt to the operating conditions in the environment when you’re now having to figure out to create a program in a pandemic.

Rebecca: But you know, I like what you’re saying because even though we’re adapting, there’s no formula. There’s no one size fits all for what that adaptation should be. I really appreciate what you’re saying because especially with sustainability – in my area of fund development we go after opportunities to help sustain our organization, but it doesn’t mean those opportunities are going be either a right fit or a goal or a funded. And so, we’re continuously adapting but not always using the same strategy. I really like what you’re saying.

Cynthia: You know, I work with a lot of organizations and these days, a lot of the work is on change management. And so, I use some frameworks to help organizations look at their culture and assess how the culture is serving as a barrier or as a strength. It plays a really big role and I’ve seen it in organizations that are not used to change and people have a certain skill level and they don’t want to adapt and they definitely don’t want to innovate. I’ve seen that. And then I’ve worked with organizations where they were highly adaptable, but the pandemic just kind of felt like a little bit too much. It was too much, too fast, too big for an organization that does that all the time. It didn’t feel any easier. And so, I can see how you still need to look at the culture and see how that influences your ability to adapt. It’s probably your key component.

Tanya: Yea, I would agree. Culture is almost one of those things that is not talked about enough. We talk about adaptability and we talk about change and organization. The culture of the organization – again, I’ll provide and example. If an organizational change or capacity building initiative is being undertaken by the staff because the board of directors is asking for it but there’s really no political will at the leadership level of the staff. The question becomes, how successful is that organization going to be at building capacity as an organization? And so, if the staff are used to operating and working a certain way and the culture is sort of very definite or defined as opposed to being flexible [00:15:32] operating in new ways of thinking. It’s going to have a negative impact on the organization’s ability to adapt.

Cynthia: Yeah, I totally see it. I totally see it.

Rebecca: I would imagine though, that’s where your high level of expertise comes in because shifting and changing culture is – there is a special talent to that. That’s a unique talent. If you can do that which is your area of expertise – helping with adaptation, if you do that and you get everyone to buy into it, there must be a sense of pride that comes along with that, for the people to take ownership of those changes, of those adaptations. So, I would imagine the more buy-in that you receive in the process the more favorable outcomes you’re going to see, correct?

Tanya: Yes, definitely. Cynthia, I think that’s where your question about the role of leadership comes in because if all of the folks who work underneath the leadership are on board with the leadership does not want them on board, the likelihood that the change is going to occur is pretty slim. You know, it sort of works in the reverse as well, because if the leadership is on board, sometimes the staff don’t get on board because change is hard for people.

Pieta: It’s hard. It’s very hard.

Cynthia: You had also told me that the average length of time for change to occur within an organization is three years and your research also talked something interesting about that timeframe. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? So, the pandemic has made us have to adapt very quickly. Under normal or conventional circumstances, it doesn’t take three weeks. It takes a little bit more than that. You want to talk a little bit about your findings?

Tanya: We know [00:17:40] behavioral changes when we think about actual behavior of human beings. Some of them were basic changes from a structural standpoint. We’re only really beginning to emerge as the [00:18:00] and measurable. And then the next [00:18:08] even more changes. And so, it’s I mportant to understand that it’s a difficult time and it’s more like [00:18:21] in all levels of the organization including the board level. It’s important for organizations to continually assess and [00:18:41] how we are doing against [00:20:44] usually when we’re trying to collect baseline data from organizations.

Their only perspectives are relative to their ability to adapt to change. We release within the first year that organizations rate themselves quite high. And then usually over the course of the next year of the work and the second assessment for the second year, you a decrease between year one and year two because now they’ve been doing a lot of work of trying to implement this change initiative and they have begun to understand and reassess that they were not as well-positioned as they thought they were when they initially completed the assessment.

Pieta: A common problem in having any person or organization assess their own knowledge is before you start learning you tend to know everything. And then sometimes you learn a little bit, just enough to understand what a complicated topic it is and so people will decrease their self-assessment of their knowledge over time.

Cynthia: You know, I have a funny story as an early researcher. I started my research career in mental health. And the same thing happened. We would assess the clients and then we did a baseline intake and we will assess them three or six months later. And [00:20:22] that they were getting worse and I thought I remember having to get in front of the staff and how was I going to tell them that they were making our clients worse.

Pieta: You probably were making them more self-aware.

Cynthia: Right, right. And so, what I did thankfully is I consulted with one of the psychologists and I said, “Look, the data is the data. It does not lie. The numbers are getting worse.” And she explained to me that it happens in mental health where once you start realizing all the stuff that’s happening, you really can accurately assess where your mental health is. So, I guess that happens everywhere, but that was my..

Pieta; The date collection solution to that is the retrospective pre-post.

Cynthia: The retroactive pre-post.

Pieta: Right – where you ask people after to rate their condition before. Because now they’ll use their ‘now’ understanding of their field and rate their pre-intervention knowledge relative to the same scale that they’re using now.

Cynthia: Oh, that’s interesting. Rebecca is having some technical issues that she’s dealing with in the background. I don’t hear the kickback anymore. Are we okay? Do you guys hear the kickback?

Tanya: I don’t hear it anymore.

Cynthia: Okay, I don’t hear it. So, the reason why I wanted to talk about the three-year mark and—Tanya, I didn’t hear what you said about the five-year? You said something about five years. Can you please repeat that?

Tanya: Yeah so, at the five-year mark is when some of those more observable and substantive changes star to be observable and measured and so, it’s almost like you do a lot of really tough work to implement these changes and to strategize around what those changes are and how the organization needs to change and develop those strategies for those solutions and just begin to implement them. And you start to see some initial changes in your three. But then really at your five is when you start to sort of really see some of the more poignant changes that you’re trying to make. You start to see things pay off.

Cynthia: Nice, thanks. And so, the reason why I felt that was an interesting data point is because again, we assume that change happens quickly and the fact of the matter is, it is a process. It takes a while. It does. And so, it’s really hard to do and a lot of patience. You also talked about how if there is high leadership turnover. The likelihood of the organization adapting successfully is lower because with the turnover, there coms new learning and then a new person and the whole onboarding process. So, that can impact an organization’s ability to adapt.

Tanya: I do. Often when there are leadership changes there are also changes in the organization’s agenda. So, maybe there are new priorities established by the leadership. Maybe they take certain parts of the plan that was developed under the previous administration and they change them or maybe they throw the entire plan out and it becomes difficult – all of the traction that was gained towards accomplishing that plan is then often lost. And then it doesn’t help with staff morale when that happens as well.

Pieta: Awesome. More resistance to the next initiative.

Tanya: Yes, because they think, “How long is this going to be the priority before that changes? How invested do I really need to be in making these changes happen when they’re just going to get changed again?” You know, it sort of decrease the seriousness with which the staff take the change.

Pieta: So, what do you recommend to an organization that is not adaptable-ready? Is that a priority initiative to make themselves a more ready organization and if it is, what is the first step?

Tanya: First, I think it is important to say that some organizations are really great at drawing a line in the sand on what their services are, who their target population is, what their programming is. They have developed over time a formula for understanding how many staff they need in order to execute this plan and deliver on the mission. They know how many resources they need and where they need to allocate those resources. Many organizations are sort of happy where they are and not necessarily looking for—they’ve sort of found their spot.

But for those who continue to struggle to understand what the needs of their targe population are, they struggle to really have identified what the mission of the organization is and what they’re really trying to accomplish. They’re struggling to find resources to advance their mission which is for the most part, most non-profits. Not very many that can set examples where they can stay pretty consistent over time and they’re not really looking to sort of –they’ve reached sustainability, let’s say. So, just to put it out there that this is not necessarily an agenda for every non-profit, but for those [00:27:13] I think those organizations need to ask themselves some tough questions. Tough questions at the staff level, tough questions at the board level.

Cynthia and I just talked about it yesterday during this time that we’re dealing with a pandemic, the required skill sets of an organization have shifted. And so now, there is a need for folks who have a good facility for technology. If your staff are technology-adverse, the organization will[00:27:59] and so, really think through what are the practices, policies, procedures, values and strategies that the organization now needs to reconsider during a time when it’s clear that the organization’s existence is in jeopardy.

Cynthia: Yeah, it’s definitely complicated. I just want to respond to a comment we’ve received. Rebecca’s still having technical difficulties, but she’s giving me orders through the back. She said, “Myra has a comment. Don’t forget her.” So, let’s… Tanya, Myra is a loyal viewer of the show. We’ve just blocked you a little bit because this gets really big, but we’re going to bring you back in a second.

And so, Myra was talking about—this is when we were talking about how your data goes bad before… And so, she’s talking about her team. I’ve noticed that I was suicide ideation. She works with kids in schools in New York City. New Yok City is rising. The suicide ideations – but that’s because we’re seeing all students with IE Plans (Individualised Educational Plans) as well as at risk students. So, the at risk students have gone up. At first we thought we were like not helping, but we are helping. So, that’s another thing. I see Pieta laughing, because that’s another thing that a really good evaluator catches on very quickly. Sometimes it can be missed. It’s not so much that kids maybe getting worse. That population got wider and that population happens to be a population that—

Pieta: A population that needed you and you weren’t measuring that need before.

Cynthia: Yeah, all the importance of data, the importance it. Thank you, Myra for that question. Yes, I am glad your team realises that in fact you are healping people and you guys do great work in New York. Thank you for the comments. So, we’re at the 30-minute mark. Tanya, we heard a lot of things about indicators. Let’s go through them one more time – leadership…

Tanya: Leadership, operational, management and adaptability.

Cynthia: Yes, and so, really also looking at your culture and really being honest about what your barriers are and what are your strengths. And then work to tear down those barriers, I would imagine.

Tanya: Yeah, I kind of foster that into the adaptability category. It’s important enough to be called out.

Cynthia: Yeah, well, as someone who –I choose study change, I’m fascinated by change. I was fascinated from the day I met you, about your research and your personal mission. Let me just turn it over to Pieta and see if Pieta has any other questions and then we can end with Tanya’s personal mission.

Pieta: No, go ahead. I want to hear about Tanya’s personal mission.

Cynthia: Tanya, tell us about your personal mission.

Tanya: Yes, all right, great. Thank you. My personal mission is use research and evaluation methods as a catalyst for social change. I help non-profits maximise and leverage research and evaluation in order the social change that is in line with their mission. I’m very thankful to you all for having me on and giving me the opportunity to talk about the work that I love to do.

Cynthia: Yeah, hey, we love to talk about it. All right, we are going to say thank and we thank our viewers. We thank you, Tanya. Rebecca did not get a chance to come back one but she’s still directing us from behind the scenes. Thank you, Rebecca. Let’s have a great weekend, everybody.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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