Much of evaluation in organizations is focused on making incremental change in programs when what isneeded might be redesign of the program and the organization as a whole. The current economic crisis presents an opportunity for all organizations to re-examine what they are doing and how they do it. William A. Schambra, director of the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, in speaking about nonprofit organizations said this in a speech to the annual meeting of the Memphis-based Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence.

When times begin to get sour, we initially scramble madly to sustain all that activity that we’ve added in the good times. That’s what a lot of us have been doing over the past year. We desperately don’t want to let go of that new identity we’ve developed as a sophisticated, complex, multi-service organization.

But slowly it dawns on us that we simply can’t scramble fast enough to keep it all going. We realize that we not only have to scale back staff and program, but we have to fundamentally revisit the questions of what our fundamental purpose in society truly is, and which of our activities truly reflect that purpose.

The first impulse of managers in any organization is to find ways to sustain the programs for which they are responsible. Whether effective or not, this is their identity, their power, their span of control. They will do what they can to defend their turf. It’s a natural reaction to threat. Over time, this can result in maintaining activities and processes that are no longer needed or could be done in more effective ways. I once served on the Board of Directors for a nonprofit that delivered 16 distinct programs, from adolescent group homes to foster care to Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The agency had grown into a $12 million bureaucracy by adding almost any social service program for which funding was available. When we were faced with serious budget problems, our reaction was to make cuts in people and resources in order to maintain all of the programs. After a number of painful years of this, new Board members and a new Executive Director finally asked the question, “What is the best and most efficient way to deliver these services to customers?” In short order, the nonprofit was dissolved and all of the programs and most of the staff found new homes in existing agencies in the community. We should have asked that question sooner. This might be an extreme example, but it is the kind of redesign that all organizations should consider from time to time.

Babak Armajani, partner in the Public Strategies Group, writes this about redesign in government:

This is how we need to start thinking about K-12 education, health care, corrections, and other major public service delivery systems.  These systems can be redesigned.  We can get quantum leaps in improved results from these systems even as we are spending less money on them.

What stands between us and these possibilities is our own skepticism about whether there really is a better way and our reluctance to invest ourselves in finding it.  

Most change initiatives start with the program and try to incrementally improve what is already being done. Armajani’s notion of “redesign” starts with the desired outcomes and, within available resources, designs the best way to achieve those outcomes. It’s an opportunity for creativity and risk-taking and finding new ways of approaching old problems. Although human nature can be a barrier to this kind of change, effective leaders create an environment of safety and security where it is possible for this kind of transformation to occur.