Navigating institutional inflection points

Leaders can make the most of those moments when the curve of an institution’s life shifts or changes. These are moments to shed worn-out patterns and establish new trajectories.

In differential calculus, there is a concept known as an “inflection point,” which refers to that point where the curve of a line changes sign from negative to positive or positive to negative. This nomenclature has been brought over into the leadership literature to refer to points of dramatic change within an institution or organization, those moments when the curve of an institution’s life shifts or changes in constructive or destructive ways.

Within an institution’s life, there is great variability in what constitutes an “inflection point.” Some are internal and carefully orchestrated over months by leaders, committees or boards, such as the adoption of a new strategic priority; the launch of a major campaign; the construction of a new building; or the hiring or departure of a pastor, executive director, dean or president. Others are unplanned but can be just as formative -- the surprise substantial donation; a death within the institution’s leadership; allegations of personal or professional misconduct; and the rise or fall of the markets.

Some you can anticipate, while others you realize only in the telling of the institution’s history later.

The gift and challenge for leaders then, particularly as it relates to significant planned changes, is to make the most of potential inflection points. These moments are opportunities for creativity, innovation, experimentation and evaluation; they are moments when organizations can shed worn-out patterns and can establish new trajectories.

If change is inevitable, then leadership at its best ensures that the organization derives as many benefits from it as possible, making it worth the effort and challenges involved. It is most disappointing for organizations and dispiriting for leaders when there is the possibility of significant change but little actually changes on the other side.

I am thinking a lot about this because our office has begun the process of changing to new database software. One of our talented colleagues, one who has a real gift with technology, is driving the process. She is working with software engineers to design interfaces and with us to define categories for information collection.

She is imagining new ways of cross-cutting data so that we might be better able to identify and serve the needs of our constituents. It is a daunting project in scope and scale (one whose complexities are utterly beyond me), and yet, amazingly, she is excited about all of it. She sees the promise of the new database, and her excitement about the transition is infectious -- even to those of us who believe that the devil lies in the technology, not in the details.

In discussions of the transition, what I have come to see is that this may be an inflection point for us; this database transition is an opportunity for us to consider and reconsider both how we interact with data and how we interact with our constituents, our funders and our colleagues.

Now, one can imagine an organizational world in which we would have simply migrated all of the data out of our present system and into the new one and continued business as it had been. Because of the thoughtful way my colleagues are going about this transition though, they doubled down on the change that they knew had to come. There would be no simple migration; instead, there would be assessment and evaluation of our current processes, and innovation for new processes. They have put us in a path to make the most of the change.

It is difficult work, but it can transform institutions.