Bold decision-making: letting go to leap ahead

Red LightStrategic discussions often surface compelling opportunities that board and senior staff are excited to pursue. The tough part of these discussions comes when we raise the question, “what can the organization STOP doing, or let go of, in order to free up the energy and resources to pursue these opportunities?” The typical response, after a moment of silence, is, “not much”. Staff and board members become attached to programs, and rarely wind down what may be a moderately successful service. So innovations exacerbate already heavy workloads… which might explain why some great ideas are never realized. One organization we worked with recently, Community Living St.Marys & Area (CLSMA), that provides services to people with developmental disabilities made a bold decision back in the late 1980s to stop delivering ‘programs’ and support people in the community in a more individualized way. This meant letting go of, and dismantling, the way things had been done in order to pioneer new approaches.

We interviewed Marg McLean, CLSMA’s Executive Director (ED), to find out more. She confirmed that their vision – “a community where everyone belongs” – served as a strong foundation underpinning the decision. Environmental forces at the time created a supportive climate for the change. A number of people were moving back to the community after living in institutions for many years, and several researchers/ practitioners* were promoting thinking on inclusion and person-centred planning. Although there was an interest in doing differently, many organizations in the region continued to offer segregated and congregated programs.

Getting to the bold decision: CLSMA’s Board was a forward-thinking group. Staff, board and community members started to think deeply about what life could be like for individuals moving back to the community and what kind of support they might need. They talked about choice, empowerment, dignity, individualization and the kind of community they wanted to live in. CLSMA sought out best practices and invited some of the leading researchers to St.Marys to share their insights. Stories proved powerful in helping board and staff to envision alternatives. As part of an inclusive planning process in 1986, which engaged various stakeholders connected to the organization, CLMSA considered the bold decision to move away from programs toward individualized services.

Questions for LeadersImplementing the bold decision: Since the planning process was such an inclusive one, resistance to the decision to stop delivering programs was limited. An implementation team comprised of staff, management, board members and others was tasked with designing a smooth transition. Key to the successful transition was the significant investment in training designed to shift mind-sets – including values-based, moral coherency, and site-based training. A new budget system with individualized budgets was introduced in 1989. New staff roles and job descriptions were developed in 1990. Finally, prior to shutting down CLSMA’s last program in 1995, every person supported had an individualized plan that included meaningful activities – e.g. paid employment, a volunteer role.

Results of the bold decision. Making a decision they believed in on a deep level, which set the organization on a different path compared with other agencies in the developmental services sector, has emboldened CLSMA. In subsequent years it has given the organization greater confidence in addressing other challenges

Today staff and board members remain highly attuned to their values and principles, and CLSMA appears closer to realizing its vision. Their work is embedded in the community and the community’s capacity and understanding of concepts such as inclusion and accessibility have grown. Today, if someone with a disability has a problem in the community, community members respond. CLSMA’s commitment to helping people lead a good life in the community means that staff and board are always thinking about how to do better…and this has fuelled innovation.

What does this tell us about bold decision making?

  • Bold decisions require a willingness to ask bold questions and engage in deep conversation
  • Learning from research and others’ stories can embolden an organization to make decisions that might be considered risky
  • Involving those impacted by a decision in the decision-making process can reduce resistance
  • Supporting people in embracing bold changes involves educating them

Why not go out on a limb... that's where the fruit is. Mark Twain

*Researchers and practitioners included John O’Brien, Connie Lyle, Marsha Forest, Jeff Strully, and Wolf Wolfensberger.

Related resources

  1. When Good is Not Good Enough”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2013
  2. Resilience and Adaptability – Creative destruction. SiG – Social Innovation Generation.

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo