Why Change is Difficult for Small Organizations

May 13, 2014


Most people would agree that the ability for an organization to change over time is critical to that organization’s long-term survival. Unfortunately, smaller organizations often have additional challenges and difficulties with the change they encounter. Why?

Let’s say that you are the administrator of a small local nonprofit art museum in your city. Your events are wildly successful, you’ve exceeded your fundraising expectations for the year, and you’re looking for new opportunities to grow. You’ve heard about a successful community artist studio in New York City, sponsored by a large contemporary art museum, where local artists can rent small studio and exhibition space and work alongside each other, and decide that will be a great addition to your city. After learning the details from New York’s project, securing the funding, and securing a space, you open the doors. You’re unable to find enough artists to fill the studio, the artist exhibitions have low attendance, and your artist studio is struggling. Why?

There are principles and concepts within Change Science that can help us understand at least some of the inherent reasons behind this question.

Environmental Override

One of the most powerful of these change science principles is that of Environmental Override, which in summary states that:

If the conditions in a given environment do not support the process associated with obtaining a desired change, that change will not take place in that environment.

In other words, a proven process that worked well for one organization, like New York’s artist studio, will not be successful for your organization unless all the conditions in your environment support all the requirements of that process.

Not All Environments Are Created Equal

A large part of the answer as to why change can be more difficult in smaller organizations is the simple fact that the environments in smaller organizations are significantly different from that of large organizations. A few examples of these differences include:

  • The levels of resources that can be dedicated to change requirements.
  • The internal knowledge bases that can be drawn upon.
  • The ability to influence both internal and external environmental dynamics.

Process Requirements Versus Existing Conditions

So environmental override tells us that if you want to execute a specific process in order to obtain a desired change, then you must first make sure all of the requirements associated with the process are supported by the actual conditions in your environment. Differences between the required process factors and the actual conditions in your environment are referred to as disconnects.

For example, the conditions that existed for the New York artist studio reflect process requirements that could represent a disconnect such as: Does your city have enough artists to support a community studio? Do your local artists require a separate studio? What level of appreciation do your patrons have for contemporary art?

So the second piece of the puzzle as to why change in small organizations can be more difficult is due to the fact that smaller organizations often have a larger number of disconnects for any given process. That is, if smaller organizations tend to have a greater number of differences between what is required to execute a change versus the actual conditions that exist, then change will intrinsically become more difficult to obtain.

Process Selection

One way to attempt to mitigate the issue of environmental override in small organizations is by leveraging off of this new knowledge when selecting the process you want to use to obtain the desired change. Instead of just assuming that the best process to select is a process that has been successful elsewhere, spend time to look at the disconnect that exists between the alternative processes that are available to select from.

Focus on selecting a process that has a minimal amount of disconnects and/or a process where your organization’s ability to address the disconnects is the greatest. In other words, select a process that has the best chance for success given the specifics of your environment. So maybe an entire separate studio isn’t the right process for your museum; you have to evaluate alternative processes to choose from. Maybe finding a small space somewhere in your museum is a better process to select?

A disconnect analysis along with an understanding of environmental override can often go a long way in reducing effort and improving your ability to obtain the change you desire. Unfortunately, there are times when the number of process options that are available can be limited. A prime example is found where a small organization is subject to the same government mandate as larger organizations. Such situations can mandate the use of a specific process or greatly limit the available process options a small organization can select from.

Small organizations can still derive a great deal of benefit through performing a disconnect analysis for the mandated process. Such an analysis helps focus limited available resources on those issues that are significant relative to that small organization’s specific environment.

In the end, through an understanding of environmental override, disconnect analysis, and process selection techniques, small organizations can improve their chances of obtaining successful change while avoiding the frustration associated with trying to figure out why a change failed for them even though they used a proven process that has worked for others.

Do you have questions or comments? We’d love to hear from you.


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