What Organizations Are Doing Now to Manage Change Effectively: 7 Pillars for Coping with Covid-19

Team Work Together To Build Blocks

In a crisis, let purpose and strategy be your “go to” pillars.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced organizations to move quickly to redesign work, home and social interactions in real time, choose priorities and accelerate change at warp-speed. This crisis challenges the very pillars on which we’ve built our universities, Advancement organizations, schools, businesses and nonprofits.

As companies and organizations navigate ambiguity and redesign a range of futures, several foundational practices can provide valuable pathways and platforms for re-engineering. Now more than ever, 7 pillars of organizations managing change effectively are driving their decisions as they plan for the next 12-18 months.

Organizations applying this framework are able to flex more rapidly to different scenarios. They can shift the lens while keeping focused on the same clear line of vision:

  1. Purpose-driven. More than a mission statement or a list of business outcomes, “purpose” is why an organization matters to people. Purpose is aspirational, often defined by employees themselves; it inspires their potential, guides their work as an organization, gives them meaning, motivates their engagement and creativity and provides clarity when uncertainty challenges the day-to-day.
  2. Multi-year plans. Strategically these organizations have set priorities, aligned resources, agreed on results and set metrics to measure progress. Multi-year planning is a state of mind that continuously shapes their direction. These organizations don’t table their plans in a crisis; they stick with their multi-year vision and recalibrate activities as needed in the short-term.
  3. Vital Few Objectives (VFO’s). VFO’s are the very few priorities that guide the most work, the handful of big goals that will dramatically move the organization forward. Each staff member and unit has tangible VFO’s derived from the organization’s overall VFO’s for the year. All staff know how everyone’s VFO’s contribute to the whole and, during times of uncertainty, they provide pathways and focus for sustaining productivity and ensuring relevant, timely outcomes.
  4. Matrix teams. Matrix teams facilitate execution. These functional groups take employees out of their “silos” to work together across units to accomplish organizational priorities or areas that need new solutions, and sometimes quick fixes. Matrix teams are built on trust because staff, who already share a purpose, also know what expertise others can bring to the solution. They also provide meaningful venues for networking and cross-training, and for enhancing staff knowledge about the organization and their peer partners.
  5. Agile and adaptive. With focus and shared purpose, agile organizations adapt as situations change. They are not stuck, nor are they hesitant; in fact, they rapidly adjust by developing scenarios and milestones for recalibrating. Each scenario is built on a combination of predictive analytics, factual reality and reasonable assumptions – e.g., reduce budgets by 10% now, be prepared for a “second wave” of Covid-19 in the fall, reforecast in six months.
  6. Keeping an eye on the future while managing today. These organizations are also asking the question, “What will it be like after the crisis has passed?” and “What will the next normal look like?” Organizations have learned how to work remotely successfully and with greater efficiency, adopting practices which may very well persist as they further explore and implement flexible workforces. Leaders have a better understanding of what is possible in onsite and remote settings, and new standards of speed and effectiveness will certainly affect the pace of innovation and use of technology. With fewer resources driving simpler, less costly operations, many of the strategies and practices deployed to bridge the crisis might easily become practices that inform the future. 
  7. Frequent communication. Central to healthy organizations is frequent, clear communication. During uncertainty, and especially when emotions are high, more – not less – information and insights by leaders keep staff, customers and partners connected to the organization and help maintain focus, engagement and momentum. However, along with the “what” and “how” of the day to day, these organizations know that being strategic – the “why” – is core to describing the future. What’s more, with so much up for re-examination, reinforcing the central message of organizational value is critical. In fact, it’s more important than ever.


Below are two examples of how our university Advancement clients are managing change now to maintain organizational momentum through FY2021. Our Napa Group consultants are facilitating these and other similar activities through our virtual consulting model:

Case Study #1 (public university foundation):

Between campaigns and with several six-figure principal gifts expected to close in the next few months, this large team quickly set up a weekly schedule of remote virtual meetings using Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Sharepoint. Guided by their Vital Few Objectives, the senior leaders mapped the work to a simple chart and established four layers of weekly team meetings.

  1. The senior leadership team meets the first part of each week to affirm the priorities for the week, mapped to the already established annual VFO goals and key performance indicators (KPIs). Results are posted in a central information repository accessible to the other teams.
  2. Team Managers align their weekly activities and link operating plans to the weekly priorities and complete the tracking log. In addition, the entire staff meets on Zoom to align weekly efforts with priorities and ensure regular and timely communication.
  3. A weekly update occurs on Friday when managers update the KPI tracking log in the central repository. This update is reviewed at the weekly priority setting meeting, which begins the cycle again for that week

Following the first six weeks in this new format, three results are clear: (1) The teams are centralizing selected information from several electronic tools into an accessible, information-sharing platform that provides “quick views” and real-time information on all critical goals and objectives; (2) they have easily make the transition to remote chats and meeting rooms and work efficiently; and (3) they maintained steady, measureable progress toward ambitious fundraising goals.

Already leadership has determined not to return to what was before, but rather to incorporate key features of productivity and efficiency from distanced working when they go back to the office.

Case Study #2 (private university advancement office)

Preparing for a comprehensive campaign and launch of the public phase in fall 2020, this team has meet quarterly during the past five years to rethink their organizational culture, develop multi-year planning with annual priorities that align everyone’s work and build talent capacity around best practice fundraising models. For the quarterly meeting this spring, the Vice President held a three-hour facilitated online “retreat” in April. The charge: while maintaining their commitment, how to scale and prioritize activities in light of various challenging scenarios.

 A key exercise of this was scenario planning to explore realistic options for programs, engagement and fund development through June 2021, from “worst case” to “conservatively optimistic.” Considerations included: stay at home remains in place, reduced budget with no new resources, hiring freeze, no travel, need for constituent engagement and closing gifts and no place-based activities.

In advance of the retreat, the team reviewed their VFOs for FY’20-21 and created 90-day forecasts, each building on the other. In online “breakout rooms,” workgroups brainstormed possibilities and solutions set priorities for action to: (1) do the campaign differently, (2) apply new strategies for donor and alumni engagement; (3) successfully fundraise in a “socially distanced” environment and (4) maintain staff productivity through remote work.

The team discovered by transitioning from onsite to remote work that they could both manage “what is” and plan for “what can be.” Using their VFO tools to affirm progress to date instilled renewed confidence and hope for the year ahead.

As a result, these sessions have facilitated staff adjustments to maintain focus and deliver expected outcomes and have also created confidence with the university’s senior leaders and the board.

Authors: RJ Valentino and Janis Johnson