Helping Social Enterprises Overcome “The Split”

For many organizations, profit and non, one of the hardest parts about growing as an organization is maintaining focus. But, even for those that do there is another problem. Maintaining the culture of the organization. Something that I have seen over and over again in many of the organizations that I have worked with, and more personally, some of the organizations that I have founded.

Called “The Split” by management guru Simon Sinek, “the split” occurs as a firm’s numbers grow and new members are brought on board to help with the growth.

When the Split occurs, stress goes up and passion goes down. The old timers in an organization say, “it’s not like it used to be.” Companies begin obsessing about what the competition is doing or how they might respond to their actions and decisions.

These are all symptoms of the Split – the point at which what you do becomes disconnected from a clear sense of Why.

Recently, while working with one of Shanghai’s most established NGOs, this was a huge issue. One so large that we spent three hours focused solely on mission alignment. A mission that was clear in the minds of the founders, but was not translating to the staff… who had their own ideas about where the organization was headed.

To align the mission of the group in such a way that the size of “the split” was reduced, I took the team of 15 through a very simple exercise meant to create a common language, create a shared sense of purpose (why the organization existed), and the discuss what the vision of the organization should be under the framework (how the organization should achieve its mission). Three issues that were fundamental to any future steps forward.

Creating the common language was perhaps the easiest of the three as the three founders were there to speak about why they came together to create the organization, what they had seen over the years, and what they felt the mission of the organization was. We then allowed for time for each of the staff to ask questions that were meant to help staff clarify their own thought and find a way to readjust their own thoughts on the organization’s mission.

Creating a shared sense of purpose was also relatively easy in the beginning as each of the staff in the room were there because they wanted to be, they believed in the potential of the organization (theoretically), and were there because they felt that through the organization they could achieve something special. But,  there was a wide range of opinion about how the organization should deliver on its mission. Should the organization focus on a single issue, a single population (geography), or in other ways look for depth… or, should they spread out. Create a platform that allows for the widest possible engagements at the highest levels, and hope that (as a facilitator) depth is achieved by the power of the platform to bring stakeholders together.

Creating a vision, the third exercise, for the organization was hampered by this split. The divergence in opinion between founders and old hands versus new hands, and is where the real problem lies as it was the inability to overcome this divergence that was driving a split between the what and why of the organization. Which ultimately impacted mission and was beginning to have a serious impact on the organization’s ability to stabilize staff, funding, and programs.

To address this issue, the core issue of the organization’s split, we had to circle back around to the creating a sense of shared purpose and rebuild. It was a necessary process, and one that required the most time because before we could get to vision there really needed to be an aligned between members in the room about why they were in the room, and how they felt the platform should deliver on its mission.

Which required a segmenting exercise. An exercise where teams were formed, spent the time to clarify their thoughts and then presenting in front of the group. IT was an exercise that proved invaluable because what it ultimately led to was for each team to see where differences in mindsets existed, understand the strengths of each, and then work together to develop a single mission from there that everyone understood.

As a final exercise, we applied it to create a shared vision for the organizations programming platform by focusing everyone’s attention on a single program managed by the organization, and recalibrating how the program was executed,  in an effort to (1) use the time to put into practice the lessons of the morning session and (2) to give participants the confidence to repeat the process, but at the organization’s scale.

Wrapping up the day, one of the interesting issues in regards to “the split” is the fact that many of the teams I have spoken to, worked with, will mention how things have changed. It is an issue of personal equity on one level, but it is also about degrees of separation as well. For those staff who were involved early, the split is not that wide. They get it. But for employees who are 2,3, or more degrees of separation from the founder (or employees #1 and 2), they don’t “get” it right away. They are going to either “learn” it, or they are going to “question” it, and for many who are in the process of “questioning” it, that split can grow very wide very fast.

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