Does “Participatory Management” Mean You Don’t Have to Make Any More Decisions?

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This column begins a regular feature by Jonathan Spack, executive director of Third Sector New England, and occasional guest columnists. It is intended as a forum for discussing the unique issues and dilemmas that executive directors regularly face. Jonathan Spack welcomes your comments and ideas for future discussions. If we use your idea, you’ll receive a one-year subscription (or subscription extension) to the Nonprofit Quarterly. E-mail him at jspack@TSNE.org.

Regular readers of the Nonprofit Quarterly have probably noticed that at Third Sector New England we are proponents of participatory management, a philosophy and practice that is guided by these fundamental beliefs:

  • There is a great deal of untapped strategic insight and operational savvy in most organizations.
  • The more accessible information is within an organization, the more likely it is that the organization will make the right choices for itself and will remain true to its mission.
  • Flatter is better when it comes to organizational structure.
  • The fewer “taboo” issues there are within an organization the healthier the organization.

For organizations trying to move toward a more participatory management model, redefining the leader’s role is a critical task, yet one that is seldom addressed directly and is frequently the source of confusion.

My own experience at Third Sector New England and as a consultant to other executives has led me to the following general principles for leading a transition from a command-and-control to a more participatory system:

  • Educate yourself thoroughly before embarking on this type of change effort. If you’re not committed to more participation, don’t try to fake it.
  • Articulate the guiding principles of the new management model, over and over, at every opportunity.
  • Look for and seize on events, decision points, and, most powerfully, mistakes–including your own–as learning opportunities for yourself and your staff to practice the new principles. Think of yourself as “chief learning officer” of your organization.
  • Support the efforts of others in the organization whose commitment to change matches or exceeds yours.
  • Strive for clarity in decision-making: which decisions are reserved for the leader, which are appropriate for proposals or suggestions from others, which are truly joint decisions, which are entirely for others to make–and why?
  • Understand that your role as leader will evolve as your organization itself changes. You will need to learn to use your power and influence more strategically and in different ways as decision-making authority is distributed more widely throughout the organization.
  • Don’t let early success lull you into declaring victory too soon. Old ways die hard and resistance to change has a long half-life.

Leading change can be a full-time responsibility in itself. Yet in all but the largest nonprofits, the executive director still has to manage the organization, every day. It is a challenge to make the effort and find the time to act as chief learning officer, too. But leaders who are genuinely committed to preparing their organizations for the new demands of the 21st century must rise to this challenge. We must ourselves demonstrate the openness, adaptability and hunger for new information that we require of our organizations.