September 22, 2023

creating traction

a river leading to a wide waterfall onto volcanic rock and moss
photo caption: a winding stream leading to a wide waterfall in thingvellir national park in iceland. the country is no stranger to change, having erupted from the ocean only about 60 million years ago. the rocky soil, spring water, moss, and grasses are surely a sign of things to come. what’s here already is pretty nice, too.

Everything changes. We can’t change that fact any more than we can stop the rotation of the earth. Most organizations feel designed for permanence. They have boards of directors and succession plans ready for when new people fill old roles. They have a set mission, standing meetings, agenda templates, and more. But even in systems we design for continuity, we can’t predict the future. Few people predicted another global pandemic. Nobody predicted exactly how bad covid would screw up so much.

Before covid, I was part of one specific social movement. We were a coalition with a fiscal sponsor, bylaws, and a cloud-based folder full of history. Even before the pandemic, I struggled to find my place there. My colleagues and I on the board came together because we had similar values. I didn’t know how to live out those values within the coalition. What was the purpose of the coalition? What were we supposed to be doing? Why? We asked ourselves these questions without easy answers.

Three years into the pandemic, I feel this thread in many of the spaces I’m in. Many of us are still reeling from the ripple effects of covid. So much is different now. Bubbles burst one after another. Record layoffs vie for attention with natural and artificial disasters happening every day.

I see drift within our old movements. We know that what came before wasn’t working. What’s coming next hasn’t taken shape yet. We don’t need to wait for someone else to step forward with a plan. This is an opportunity for change. Use it! Here are some thoughts on what you can do.

choose a new direction

For the organizations we inherit, it’s up to us to decide what they’re good for. What’s changed since somebody wrote the existing mission? How often do we refer to the theory of change collecting digital dust in the shared folder?

If you’re in charge of an organization, or one of the last people standing, decide what you want to do. What could an organization do with your power and influence? What could your coalition’s past achievements empower you to do now? And of course, my favorite question: are you the right person to lead this work, right now?

Choose a new direction. Pick something your organization, and your current team, is good at. Imagine your organization used to operate a job board that’s seen a decline in activity over time. Or that core service is now obsolete with indeed and idealist posting jobs. Don’t waste time and energy trying to revive something that isn’t as relevant anymore.

It’s okay if the direction turns out to be the wrong one. We are constantly learning and growing. The way I do things now is much different than how I would have done them even a year ago. Focus instead on how you might know the change you make is a positive one. Talk with your colleagues about directions and milestones. What signs might we notice if we’re going in the right or wrong direction? An uptick in members or new tasks that build on what we’ve already done are just two signs. When will we decide to make a course correction, or reverse course entirely? An announcement that leads to a thud, or a protest about what changed, could be signs worth digging into. Be transparent and ensure everyone is aware and able to contribute. Narrow your core audience to the people you’re most trying to reach and invite them into the process.

course correct

I see groups lamenting all the time that they don’t have enough time to do the projects they really want to do. Social media might not have been important in the past, but it’s critical to your work now. Or a new staff member wants to launch a podcast or reconfigure your approach to outreach. Leaders may weigh that against legacy activities that they “feel wrong” about ending.

We don’t have to make it a binary decision. Consider starting the new idea as a pilot with a proportional drawdown of the old work. It’s not fair to let someone pilot something new with a caveat that they must complete all their old tasks, too. If the task is vital, help them create a plan to spread the work around or delay less-important functions.

I find it’s a great idea to let people do things that are meaningful to them within the scope of your organization. If something feels outside of your scope, talk about it with a larger group. There may be something that we miss as individuals that we realize in a group. These subtle changes to what an organization does can revitalize the group’s efforts. They can also attract new people to the cause who didn’t connect to the old activities.

How would I as a leader know if we need a nudge or refresh like this? I’d look at the people already engaged with the movement. Is there strong momentum for the direction we’re going in? Do people believe in the mission but have conflict about what to do or how to get there? Has the level of interest dropped on aspects of our core programs? Any of these conditions might tell me it’s time to shift my coalition’s approach.

start over

Organizations, movements, and coalitions lose steam all the time. It’s hard to keep people interested and participating, especially when they’re volunteers. It’s even harder to sustain a group like that long-term. Lots of people feel responsible for what they’ve helped to create or what they inherited. There can be benefits to staying put. Name recognition, an existing base of supporters, or 501(c)(3) status can all be hard to get when you start from scratch. But everything has an expiration date. When something ends, it doesn’t have to mean that it failed. We can appreciate what we’ve accomplished while we look forward to what we’ll all do next.

Instead of trying resurrect a struggling program, try creating something new. Pick a lane you’re good at or already have experience and connections in. Better yet, find another coalition who’s already trying to do what you want to do. Before you start over, take what you can before you go—whether that’s stakeholders, templates, ideas, or even mailing lists.

Think hard about the lessons you learned and the improvements you could make. Instead of reviving a clunky, hierarchy-heavy coalition, try a different leadership style like consent decision making or distributed leadership. If your last group was rife with conflict, take time to learn and share mediation strategies.

rubber, meet road

I know, it’s 2023. So many people are facing capacity issues in their work and their side projects. We’re all trying to do the best we can. It can be hard to admit when the “best we can do” isn’t enough. When we’ve invested so much in something, it can be hard to rethink what we’re doing or let it go altogether. But we have to make sure we’re not tying ourselves to the intentions of the past.

Many of us have a tendency to see ourselves alone against the vast systems of oppression. We want to do everything and we can’t. Or we want to make our movement so big that everyone can fit inside. We can’t be all things to all people. We have to find our niche, make a plan, and get moving. That’s the only way we’re ever going to get anywhere.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]