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Successful Change Management Using the Rule of One-Third

Successful Change Management Using the Rule of One-Third

June 29, 2016

Which of these three bubbles do you prefer? Do you like working:

  • At the edge of the new, smelling what’s on the breeze?
  • In the workshop, drafting templates and trying out work-arounds?
  • In the world, managing and tweaking what’s known to be effective for greater impact?

Successful workplace teams thrive on diverse personality styles. Groups that include people with a variety of temperaments and approaches invite each of us to ask for what we need and offer what we can. We learn how different styles in the workplace balance and challenge our own thinking and approach, sparking creativity and personal growth. We also learn that relationships are as crucial to success as plans and deadlines. Dreamers and designers are grounded by those who create new structures, who are in turn are balanced by those who execute consistently. Like roll, pitch and yaw, we rely on all three dimensions for philanthropy’s dreams to take flight.

You might say that effective organizations are like the Benelux countries when it comes to implementing and managing change. From the outside, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg may seem interchangeable and homogenous. From the inside, however, they all have different official languages as well as dialects fiercely preserved in their provinces. In a typical nonprofit, we might call these differing but interrelated domains: Program, Finance/Operations and Fundraising/Sales.

These domains represent home countries for foundation staffers — a way of working that is well understood and comfortable. I've coined the term “The Rule of One-Third” as shorthand for a theory of change management in which no one in the organization has to give up their home country or their native way of working. Whether you are providing board service or staff leadership, the Rule of One-Third values all members of the team and supports a steady, inclusive hand on the tiller — reminding us not to let our organizations be capsized by innovation or left dead in the water by habit and complacency.

Finding the Balance

How do we maintain a generative balance between the Nascent, the New and the Known that will allow our organizations to be almost magically creative, nimble and effective? Think of a large, well-established nonprofit — e.g., a statewide Girl Scouts council or a metropolitan United Way chapter. In that organization, you will find some on staff who identify either as: 

  • Eager for reinvention and creative disruption.
  • Interested in testing known program elements from other states.
  • Loyal to preserving and perfecting what has worked well for years.

My theory is that if we each understand our individual preferences — that one-third bubble where we work most comfortably — we individually and collectively better serve the whole. That’s because we will develop a deeper appreciation for others on our team. We gain new insight into the truth that “everyone doing everything the same way” isn’t a solution to most problems. At key moments in our organization’s evolution, we should remember that change heightens workplace stress and often causes individuals to retreat into the work styles and habits that are most familiar to them. This may tempt us to demonize the approaches of others — a strategy that leads nowhere fast — until we remember that we need all three one-thirds to make a whole.

Appreciating what each one-third brings to the table is essential for maintaining the trust and faith we need to gracefully make it through turbulence, while offering a place of comfort and optimism.

Consider the value of this reflective practice: In which of the above categories do you find yourself? 

I have come to know myself as a breeze-smelling, horizon-sniffing partisan for change, with an old salt’s stomach for the storms of creative disruption that often ensue. And I’ve come to clearly see this isn’t for everyone — or even for most. This helps me better judge both the opportunity and cost of pursuing what’s new, and to be absolutely clear that innovation is an equal partner to those whose preference is for the one-third that prototypes and gives structure, and the one-third committed to executing and improving that which is currently at work in the world. In short, the Rule of One Third tells me that a steady hand on the tiller is a job that belongs to us all.

Ted Lord is a senior partner with The Giving Practice, Philanthropy Northwest's national consulting team. He can be reached at