The baby and the bathwater

- by Lucinda Garthwaite and Daniel Sewell, CMP Founders and Lead Partners

We’ve seen the same story a few times recently.  An organization jettisons an old way of doing things, generally with clear reason – program enrollment is fading, the model is lagging behind, the service has lost its audience.

Sometimes the reason is more complex.  Programs and departments slip into their own culture, for example, separating from the rest of the organization to the detriment of budget, brand and organizational cohesiveness.  Rifts get deep and discord drains energy, despite best efforts toward reconciliation.

So someone makes a decision to shut things down, develop a new strategy, and focus on the future.  Stakeholder reactions to these decisions range from relief to rage.  Those who are relieved look to a future bright with possibility, and set to work building something entirely new. Those who are angry grieve and smolder, convinced from the outset the new strategy will fail, and seeing new affirmations of that future every day.

Most are left somewhere in between with the uncomfortable feeling that something had to change, and also that something unfortunate has just happened.  They hope for the best.

The problem, too often, is that everyone forgot about the baby and the bath water.  

In mission-driven organizations, programs, products and structures generally begin with a gem of an idea, clearly intended and deeply aligned with mission.  Inevitably, though, because humans run these things, the water gets dirty.  Pretty soon somebody starts saying the dirty water has to go.  

They're right, the dirty water does have to go.  The new problems start when the gem, carved as it was from the mission itself, goes with it.  

Tossing the dirty water is generally conceived as a strategic decision.  When that decision is influenced by external pressures, the new strategy can begin to align more closely with the external status quo than with the unique mission and character of the organization.  Then things get even cloudier than they were before.

The trick to avoiding this is to identify, extract and protect the gem before you toss the water. What is the essential idea or practice that made this old way so special for so many years?   This takes some doing, separating nostalgia and personal attachments from the essential, mission-aligned idea.  Decision-makers have to be especially careful here.  They're usually the ones who saw the need to toss the dirty water in the first place, and as creative leaders they probably started imagining new strategies right away.  Unmitigated by reflection and careful listening, that creativity can lead to attachment, and cloud their vision.

Identify the original gem, then put it at the center of planning the new strategy.  The  dirty water needs to go,  but be sure to cherish the baby first.