Building Organizational Capacity

At the risk of alienating those who detest jargon, I lead with the title "Building Organizational Capacity". If you've gotten this far, you're either A. intrigued yet unsure where this is going B. excited and on the edge of your seat or C. taken enough time away from real work.

Building capacity is one way to look at organizational effectiveness, pointing to a concrete element that is central to any change initiative — your people and how they work together.

Webster's defines capacity as "the facility or power to produce, perform, or deploy". Building organizational capacity is key to a long-term strategy for organizational effectiveness by focusing on getting more from what you have — i.e. getting more from your people.

The Final Release

When people say "we need to get more from this technology!", everyone nods their head in agreement, believing there must be some hidden features in the application that will transform organizational efficiency. What would we focus on if there really wasn't a better way to do something? Imagine your software and hardware being as good as it's ever going to be. Release 8.027 Final Version Ever. Where would we look for improvements? The same place we should be looking today — in our people.

The Cart Dragging The Horse

Millions of dollars each year are spent in large organizations attempting to get the most from electronic systems, yet efficiency continues to be a problem. In many cases, the problem is getting worse, with software becoming increasingly complex, and people becoming even more insulated from the tools they are expected to get the most from. It is the cart dragging the horse, and smart organizations are beginning to recognize the horse needs to get back up front.

"We're Not Upgrading!"

An example of reversing the tide is a university I work with has decided not to upgrade to the newest release of their ERP application. I repeat — not upgrading. Blasphemy! The IT department, as well as those familiar with the benefits of the upgrade are left with the unenviable tasks of working with what they got. Management recognizes the dilemma of just focusing on technology to solve organizational inefficiencies.

It's not that software and hardware upgrades should be avoided at all costs; it's just that they don't necessarily address the human side of efficiency. It's just a fact that it's much easier to sell and install a software patch than address department collaboration issues.

Putting aside the laundry list of things you can do to focus on people capacity — governance, leadership, defining mission, partnership, and collaboration just to name a few — what is the roadmap to help keep your eyes on people?


Although most of us will agree that technology is just the tool, there is less of an understanding how to navigate the less quantifiable elements that get people behaving productively. The steps are simple to define, yet complex to implement. Let's name three.

Step 1: What are you trying to achieve?

Improving people capacity centers on changing human behavior. To get there, you must first know where you're going. Step 1 involves clarifying where the organization is headed (the mission) and matching those to the actions people need to take to get there. For example, if the mission is "to promote awareness of heart disease", everyone's actions need to directly or indirectly contribute to this goal.

Step 2: What skills/competencies do people need to get there?

For example, if you're trying to promote awareness of heart disease, raising money is a logical contributor to this mission. Developing competent fund raisers would be a skill that your people should have. The technology solution would be to drop 30k on the latest upgrade of fund-raising software, putting minimal focus on the people skills that key people should be developing. A smarter use of time and money may be to initiate a comprehensive training of staff in developing fund- raising fundamentals and interpersonal skills. Maybe both, but don't be fooled that technology alone will get you there.

A simple question to ask before committing to a solution is: Are we sufficiently focusing on what directly or indirectly contributes to the mission? Shying away from less quantifiable solutions potentially leaves a gaping hole in your plan.

Step 3: How can you sustain sufficient capacity over the long-term?

Finally, the most difficult element of organizational capacity is sustaining it over the long- term. The difficulty stems from people reverting back to old behaviors and no one stepping up to remind others of the new standards of behavior. For example, if an organizational learns how to conduct effective departmental meetings, effectiveness among staff should follow. Although the techniques for getting the most from meetings are not complex, sustaining it over time is difficult.

As the weeks pass after great strides have been made in meeting effectiveness, people start to show up late again, agendas become vague, and people walk out of meetings saying "nothing was accomplished or that was a waste of time". When this happens, a structure needs to be in place that allows the group to revisit how they're doing, and putting the correction in to get back on track. It's just like exercise or dieting — easy to start — difficult to maintain.

What's KISS? As a former client used to remind me when dealing with him and his staff — Keep It Simple Stupid. The best solutions are simple to understand and simple to follow.

The Bottom Line

It's time we stop avoiding the difficult conversations and look at setting higher standards for our people. It starts with clearly defining our goals, what actions will support them, what skills people need and how will we remind each other when we get off track. If upgrades and patches are viewed as necessities to continue smooth operations, and not panaceas for solving organizational inefficiencies, you've got the best of both worlds. Remember, the latest hammer doesn't make an exceptional carpenter. It won't hurt, but you need to know how and when to use it.


"The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency."

— Bill Gates