Organizational Orthodoxies Are Holding You Back

What generally accepted practices in your organization are getting in the way of new thinking, processes, programs, or strategies?

What habits does your organization maintain, not because they are needed, but because they have always been?

When was the last time your board and senior leadership team documented the beliefs that everyone operates under?

Six years ago, Gabriel Kasper and Jess Ausinheiler wrote “Challenging the Orthodoxies of Philanthropy,” a Stanford Social Innovation Review article that inspired us to ask these questions. We use this article with many of our board retreat clients to prepare for a conversation that challenges the assumptions that underlay the organization’s practices, habits, and beliefs. 

While orthodoxies can be useful to establish standardized practices or policies, they can also be detrimental if they go unchecked.

Our favorite example shared by the authors also unveils the meaning of “holding your horses.”

“According to military folklore, shortly before World War II the US and British armies conducted a joint exercise and came to a strange realization: The American artillery team fired just a little bit faster than the British squad every time. They analyzed the process and found that just before the British would fire, several soldiers would step back and pause for a second. They would wait until the gun fired, and then rejoin their team to reload.

No one was certain why this hitch was part of the process. When asked, the soldiers simply explained, ‘That’s how we were trained to do it.’ The military asked several experts to get to the bottom of the slowdown. But no one could figure it out until a veteran from the Second Boer War finally provided the answer. He watched the process, thought about it for a minute, and then explained: ‘I know what they’re doing,’ he said. ‘They’re holding the horses.’

Because back when teams of horses pulled the guns to the battlefield, if no one stepped back to hold the horses’ reins, the animals would bolt at the sound of the shot. Amazingly—decades after horses were no longer involved—the practice carried on.”

The a-ha moment this creates for our clients is powerful.

During board retreats, we ask about personal orthodoxies in an ice breaker. Participants will write on an index card a long-held personal belief or practice. We read the cards aloud and have participants guess which orthodoxy belongs to each board member. For instance, who is the board member who always makes their bed and ensures the couch pillows are perfect before leaving for work? One of my all-time favorites is the board member who wrote “I only eat breakfast on Thursdays.”

The exercise helps board members get to know each other a little more but also sets the stage for the organizational orthodoxies exercise held later in the retreat.

The long-held beliefs or practices that manifest in the life of the organization range from the routine “board retreats are always held on Saturdays” and “the annual fundraiser includes a silent auction” to the insightful “we are afraid to spend money.”

The latter created tremendous discussion. At the root of the matter was how few resources the organization had for so long. The team was so used to operating with a bare bones budget that it was normal to only use older donated office furniture, and purchasing a chair for a new hire was out of the question. While that may seem frugal, it created serious issues when the program staff was not spending down grant awards.

We encourage you to facilitate a similar process at both the staff and board levels to learn what gets stated. You may be surprised at how your organization continues to hold its horses.

Article by: Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder & CEO

2021-09-23T17:45:22+00:00September 23rd, 2021|