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Understanding and Managing Complex Change

Change. Is there a CEO change on the horizon? Is there a new strategic plan in the works? Is it time for a new board chair? Are you in a new leadership role or embarking on a new fund development initiative or campaign?

Understanding and managing complex change, including predicting and managing emotional reactions, is a skill whose value can hardly be overestimated in the world of health care philanthropy. Being able to understand and manage complex change is not always easy or straightforward; however, the good news is this skill can be developed.

Being able to understand and manage complex change is not always easy or straightforward; however, the good news is this skill can be developed.

For change to be successfully implemented in a complex environment, several elements must be in place: A VISION for the results of the change, SKILLS to implement the change and thrive in the new situation, aligned INCENTIVES for adopting the change, adequate RESOURCES to move forward and a detailed ACTION PLAN to stay on track. If all these elements are in place, your likelihood of success is very high.

These elements may appear obvious, but in a complex environment, many are not in the direct control of the philanthropy leader. The absence of one or more of these elements means predictable, normal emotions and reactions will be expressed by the team. The following model provides insight into what each reaction means, what is missing and what needs to be corrected so success can be achieved.

Let’s go through a few examples to explore how this model can be used. Start with the list of emotions on the right and find the one that most closely describes the team’s current emotional state. Then look to the left for the missing success element.

Maybe you believe you have a crystal-clear vision for the change and that you have communicated it well and often, but if you are encountering confusion among your team, you need to take additional steps to communicate the vision, overall plan and ideal future state to those who are responsible for implementation.

If your team is experiencing or expressing anxiety, skills are missing and anxiety is the result. You may need to invest in training, a conference, coaching or classes for the team to feel confident that they can rise to the challenge ahead. Interestingly, you may have full confidence in their abilities, but their emotional reaction says otherwise.

Likewise, if you are encountering resistance, you may need to determine how to align incentives, and this does not necessarily mean financial incentives. For example, there may be a super-user on your current system who enjoys the prestige of expertise and being the go-to person, but who wonders if implementing a new system will diminish that reputation. You may need to invest time and resources into training for this person, but for a different underlying reason than for those who are expressing anxiety. In this case, look for the people who have something to lose if the change is implemented and see if you can ameliorate the perceived loss.

Have you ever tried to implement a change without the tools and resources to do so properly? If your team is venting frustration, determine ways to provide the resources they need to move into the new situation gracefully.

Finally, false starts will give evidence of an action plan that is incomplete or lacks sufficient detail. This should encourage you to go back to the drawing board and update your plan as needed.

An ability to manage complex change will be a critical success factor for any health care philanthropy leader’s career progression. If you find this model useful, please reach out and let us know how Accordant can help.

Accordant Perspectives_Managing Complex Change
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About the Author: Cindy Reynolds, CFRE, is a Principal Consultant with Accordant. She specializes in strategic planning, board engagement and philanthropy operations. She can be reached at or through LinkedIn.


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The Accordant Team has published a number of books to advance the efforts of health care philanthropy and help development leaders everywhere. 

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Accordant is honored to collaborate with American Hospital Association Trustee Services to provide issue papers, templates and webinars to support the involvement of healthcare trustees and foundation board members in advancing philanthropy. These resources can also be found on the AHA Trustee website.

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