The Institutional Dilemma
Institutions have an enormous impact on our lives. They account for our banks, hospitals, education systems, units of government, transportation systems, foundations, insurance companies, and social service agencies.
Yet institutions are in a crisis. Each year, billions of dollars are distributed into organizations that deliver services without changing the underlying conditions.
Our social safety net, for example, represents over 80 programs that are intended to provide access to healthy food, medical care, and the resources to support balanced, productive lives. These programs are supported by over $700 billion in resource — yet more than 45 million Americans continue to live below the poverty line.
Leaders in today’s institutional contexts find themselves surfacing only incremental improvements. The systems they operate reflect industrial era mindsets — and the public is losing trust in their ability to keep up in today’s fast changing world.
Restoring faith in our institutions
Civilla originated from our team’s shared belief that there is untapped power in our public-serving institutions to create positive social change on a massive scale.
Bringing change into institutions is like climbing in the Himalayas. As Professor Emeritus Hanna from Stanford University says:
The very properties of reliability and accountability that make organizations valued social actors have the unintended consequences of making them resistant to change
In other words, the institutions that have the greatest influence on our lives are simultaneously the least likely to evolve.
This is because institutions are not a great environment for new ideas: They’re large-scale, complex, and bureaucratic. They’re designed to minimize risk and deliver standardized results. Like a rocket bursting into flames upon re-entry, new ideas entering into institutions often collapse under the weight of organizational inertia.
Taking the long view
So how do we bring about change to ensure institutions are fit for the future?
Deep, sustained change requires institutions to challenge their foundational beliefs and operating assumptions. It requires them to get clear about who they serve, where key dominoes for change exist, and the path by which new ideas move through the organization.
At Civilla, enduring change is our gold standard. From this view, the end value of any work we do is determined by a rather brutal judge. It challenges us to focus on change efforts that are central to an organization. It asks us to demonstrate that this change is truly meaningful to community members. And it ensures that our change efforts are enduring over the long term.
A new way forward
The pursuit of change inspires us to ask a fundamentally different set of questions:
How do we prepare leaders for the patience and courage required to see change at scale all the way through?
How do we navigate the complexity of policy and legal requirements, while keeping the focus on the end user?
How do we utilize new project management and training tools, so that people across institutions feel part of the change rather than a subject of it?
How do we find new funding mechanisms that allow us to take on longterm work?
How do we promote health and well-being, so that we don’t burn out in the midst of it all?
Most importantly: How do we become students of the rare few who have thought deeply about how to bring meaningful and enduring change into the world?
Alongside our partners, we’re using our work to uncover learnings on the way change is woven through institutions. Our intent is to share those learnings with others so that they can apply them to their own change efforts. The end result, we hope, is that leaders arrive with a new set of tools that empower them to remove friction and restore humanity in the institutions they lead.