Being adaptive means sharing decision-making and power

Charlotte Lamb

The pandemic has shown how important it is for charities to be able to respond to changes in their environment quickly. To be adaptive you must be able to swiftly sense changes in your environment or to people’s needs; and you must be able make fast decisions about how to respond to such change.   

Strategy is traditionally developed by senior leadership to be implemented by everyone else. Your three-to-five-to-ten-year strategy probably includedetailed plans for what you want to achieve and the activities and programmes you will do in that period. If these decisions are fixed by leadership, there can be little room for manoeuvre.  

Moreover, with strategic decision-making power concentrated at the top, changes sensed at the frontline need to be passed all the way up and back down again before a change is made; not a particularly agile or responsive way of working Click To Tweet

How can we share decision-making power?

Timely responses need accurate, up-to-date information on users needs and the operating environment. This information can be used to regularly review priorities and activities. Power should not sit solely with senior leadership but be shared across the charity. This is known as decentralised decisionmaking.  

Decentralised decision-making is a key principle of lean thinkingOnly decisions that are infrequent, long-lasting, and relevant to the whole organisation should be made centrally. Decisions that are frequent, time-critical, and require local information should be decentralised 

Applying decentralised decisionmaking to the charity sector would mean senior leaders—alongside staff, volunteers, and service-users—setting strategic decisions about long-term goals and objectives, but giving management, front-line staff, volunteers and service users more decision-making power over how those long-term objectives are achieved. According to this approach, decisions on what type of service you should deliver, to who, and what you should prioritise are time-critical and require local information so should be frequent and decentralised. 

Sharing power is likely to make your activity more relevant. If you let those who are implementing the decisions make the decisions, you’ll find you can adapt faster. Sharing power can also support better user involvement and collaboration across your organisation.  

We need to understand the barriers to power sharing

There are lots of barriers to decentralising decision making, from overcoming prevailing power dynamics to addressing skills gaps. We need to understand what makes decentralised decision making difficult to introduce, and how we might overcome these barriers.  

We’d love to know what you think in response to these questions, comment below with your thoughts, ideas and what else we should be asking…

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Nigel Pye

Perhaps this is the time to consider Unitary Boards for some charities. Senior Managers of the charity (CEO, FD) become Trustees and the Unitary Board, still dominated by non-execs, is more in touch and can react faster than a normal board of trustees. I believe the charity commission has a unitary board.

Cate Newnes-Smith

I fully agree about decentralising decision making within charities. However, it needs to go further. Funders, including foundations and public sector organisations, need to share power/ pass decision making over to charities. This was powerfully demonstrated at the start of COVID, where charities’ existing funding streams often contained conditions/constraints which prevented them acting as needed by communities and citizens unless funders rapidly changed or waivered Terms and Conditions

Charlotte Lamb

Brilliant point, Cate. It links to some of the ideas we have been exploring in Rethink Grantmaking too – check out Clare’s blog post on trust based philanthropy here. We’re always interested to hear about any examples of charities and funders sharing decision making power well… let us know if you have come across any that you would like to share!

Kathryn Dingle

I would love to know how to you balance sharing power, with not putting the emphasis on people to know the solutions to their challenges.

Charlotte Lamb

A really good point, Kathryn. I suspect this could come down to trust and knowing that you have equipped your decision makers with the right skills and knowledge to explore different solutions and then make those decisions themselves. I’d be interested to hear what others think!