A changing world?

Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for the Chicago area, predicting up to 18 inches of snow. The city of Evanston deemed it serious enough to declare a snow emergency, although Northwestern University remained open today (from where I sit here typing this J)

Snow or no snow, Rusty still needs to get out of the house three times a day to relieve himself. So, this morning we braved the weather to get out and also check the “damage” outside.

Rusty snow

The snow was thick, but not as scary as I thought. I think Chicago has experienced far worse blizzards. I think we survive this one quite well.

Rusty though was jumpy and anxious. It was not the cold, for he was the least interested in heading back to our warm apartment.

As I observed him further, it dawned on me that the world could look different for him. The usual smells are now blanketed under heaps of snow. As we walked along the footpath, where it was unshoveled he had to jump and hop a lot, and where it had been shoveled the shoveled snow formed huge piles on each side. I was curious how the world looked like for him, so I bent down to take some pictures from a dog’s eye view.

Snow terrain

Seeing these “dog’s eye view” photos, I began to empathize with his experience. I could imagine why he might have been so jittery walking along these same paths that we must have walked hundreds of times. For him now, it may feel like a different place, perhaps like walking around in trenches and not knowing whether friend or foe might pop out at every turn.

Snow terrain 2

I tried to assure Rusty that all was fine, and the world has not changed. But the poor boy could not be placated. If dogs could talk, his cries and whimpers might sound something like, “But Daddy, you don’t understand! The world has changed! Everything has changed! What I used to know, I don’t recognize it anymore! I can’t tell where the dangers are!”

To little Rusty, the world has changed drastically. In fact, it must have looked different to him each time we go out. He is stressed, anxious, and he is mounting a huge effort to make sense of it and find new bearings.

As human beings, we know the world has not changed overnight. At least not in the way Rusty thinks it has. We have a different vantage point to realize that despite the changes, nothing has really changed. We might even have a good laugh watching him running around like a headless chicken.

Could there be an interesting parallel here with what goes on in our organizations and workplaces? On one hand, increasingly we hear leaders and experts declare that the world is changing at a faster and faster rate. Complexity is growing and we must adapt even more quickly! On the other hand, employees are increasingly overwhelmed and fatigued, perhaps not so much by the changes in the external environment, but by the internal (organizational) responses to that.

What if amid all the complexity and change, some things have not really changed? Some of us may have laughed at Rusty just moments earlier, but what if in our own ways our behaviors are not too dissimilar to his?

As the world around us changes, do we focus only on what has changed? Or do we also look for what perhaps has not changed?


The Non-Profit Identity

Classes are in full swing, and school work takes up 8 to 10 hours each day on average!

I enjoy studying, which is not a startling discovery ;)  However, compared to 12 years ago when I last went to school, I realize my motivation to learning is more externally oriented now.  In simpler terms, it means I don’t enjoy studying for the sake of it.  There are people who do, and I suspect I used to as well.  However, 12 years of work experience has allowed me to experience what knowledge can and cannot do, and the limits of applying what we learn in school.

Now, I enjoy studying when I can see the knowledge serving as a means to a larger goal.  For me, that larger goal is contributing to society in a meaningful way e.g. helping people and making the world a little better.

Because of this orientation, I am more interested in the application of theories in real-life situations, rather than the theories themselves.  Of course, understanding a theory in depth is important, but unless we find practical applications in life it will always remain a nice-looking theory.  At least this is how I see it :)

A lot of what we learn allows us to see what is not working (e.g. what a bad situation looks like), and what we need to strive towards (e.g. what a good situation looks like), but often there is relatively less knowledge about how to successfully achieve the change.  This is summed up in my current favorite maxim, “We know what bad looks like, and what good needs to be, but how do we get there?” 


One practical application that I would like to focus on is the application of knowledge in the context of non-profits.  I don’t think my interest in non-profits is unique, but for me this focus has a personal motivation.  Having been involved in the non-profit sector for the last four years, I have grown attached to the purpose and calling.  My last job involved running an organization to (a) assist people in financial distress get back on their feet, (b) help the unemployed identify appropriate training and fit into new jobs, (c) strengthening communities to create positive social change (e.g. community self-help, volunteerism and corporate social responsibility).  In that capacity, I worked closely with many community partners (mostly non-profits), and found many great friends and like minds.

Through that experience, I learned that non-profits are unique organizations, having very different social missions from say businesses.  Yet, a lot of non-profits today are run on business models developed for for-profits.  Without a deeper understanding about what is unique about non-profits and why this necessitates new models, or adaptations from current business models, non-profits will always struggle to balance the lens of the for-profit world versus their non-profit missions.  I shall loosely call this “The Non-Profit Identity”.

Drawing this back to my current learning in school, I would like to pay more attention in finding the significance and relevance in what I learn in the context of non-profits.  Sometimes, the theories, concepts and models that I come across can apply equally well to both non-profits and for-profits; sometimes they don’t.  How can we be more conscious and deliberate about that knowledge?

At the same time, I am currently reading Peter Drucker’s “Managing the Nonprofit Organization – Principles and Practices” (1990, Harper Collins Publishers).  It’s a great book, but my progress is not very fast.  This is because I slow down to think about how it relates to my previous experiences and the non-profit contets that I am aware of.  As I do so, I hope to share in this blog some of what I learn (in the book and also in my school work) and my broader reflections  :)