"The Relevancy Challenge"

I spent almost all of last week talking about what it meant for organizations to be “relevant” in today’s changing society. On one day alone I met with five different national organizations on this very challenge. On the face of it, the relevancy challenge sounds like it should be an easy one to meet. But it’s not. And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Why does the relevancy question even come up? Here’s some of what I hear:

  • Some organizations know they’re losing or have lost their standing in communities; they are in search of what it means to be “essential”;
  • Others have burst onto the civic scene, having gained local or national attention, and now wonder how to fulfill rising expectations and still maintain their relevance;
  • Still other organizations find themselves somewhat outdated and even calcified; they want to respond to changing conditions around them, but find it hard to do so;
  • Then there are organizations that are expanding rapidly, and as they move into the very expansion plans they covet, they find their relevancy slipping away.

No matter the situation, more and more I hear civic-minded organizations respond to these challenges by embracing a collection of “rigorous” approaches focused on such things as evidence-based decision-making, competitive positioning, branding, new-fangled organizational metrics, and the like. These tools are intended to help organizations find their way, better target their funds, and increase accountability. And in many ways, they do. But these approaches also can lead the very best organizations – not to mention those that aren’t at the top of the game – to gaze inwardly to the point that they lose their very connection to the world they seek to improve. There’s some irony in all this: in our attempts to be strategic we can get lost in our own power point presentations; in our self-referential analysis; in our pursuit of “being the best”; in the belief that a hyper-focus on our own internal practices will somehow make us relevant. Between the ordinary trials of running a daily operation and the growing emphasis on head-spinning inward-based activities, it is not unlikely to look up at some point and ask, “What the hell am I doing?” One day a good friend of mine who runs a high-performing national organization wondered aloud to me if his deep sense of purpose had become buried in the host of inward looking processes and practices his organization had adopted. Where, he wanted to know, had his sense of mission and belief gone? Organizations must start their journey for relevancy by first looking outward – the very place from which their relevancy comes. They must understand – and I mean deeply understand – the context of their communities. They must know the underlying concerns and aspirations of people; the very rhythms of the areas in which they do their job; the appetites and capacities for change; the appropriate levers for catalyzing progress; the necessary approaches to bring about true sustainability; and a genuine notion of time that informs how good things take root and grow. My own experience of the best examples of such relevancy-striving organizations have come when groups such as newspapers, public broadcasters, foundations, United Ways, and others began their journey by looking outward to determine the context in which they work. Then they could know how to direct their own trajectory and workplace activities; indeed, then they could identify the sweet spot between their own mission and the aspirations and needs of the community – and thus figure out where and how they should be operating. There’s much, much more I want to say about the relevancy challenge. But, for now, in this limited space let me simply add that in order to make this outward orientation real, we must be prepared to change ourselves. We must be ready to examine and shift our own mindset and practices in order that we can step forward to see outwardly and then run with what we learn. Without this outward orientation, I’m afraid that relevancy is not an option. Relevancy comes from thinking about community and people first, organization second.