How to Excel at Change

Michelle Colussi's picture

The Citizens of Teslin Tlingit First Nation (see photo, above) didn’t start out with the intention to “improve their resilience.” They weren’t asking themselves how they could strengthen their ability to “adapt to change.” What got them going was that the community’s birth rate was down, unemployment and the housing shortage were up, and elders were growing scarce. Their government, Teslin Tlingit Council (TTC), had to take action which would have some serious results within ten years. Its solution: to develop a 5-year strategic plan.

Now that may sound like a strange way to respond to very serious problems. “Planning” often is a substitute for action, and a time-consuming one at that. As one of the consultants supporting TTC’s strategic planning process, I have to say (rather sheepishly) that we have been at it for three years and we still don’t have a plan. I am starting to see, however, that this long effort is already paying off big time in a host of other ways. TTC insists that their plan have measurable outcomes and that achieving those outcomes is paramount – not “the plan.” Consequently, three years in, TTC’s Government is learning how to excel at change.

Let me explain.

Teslin Tlingit First Nation has been self governing since 1995. Its traditional territory extends over about 10,000 sq. kilometers of the Yukon. However, its settlement lands are largely in and around Teslin. (See map, left.) About half the First Nation’s 760 Citizens live there. TTC employs just over 90 people across eight departments. They have twice now organized the Tlingit Celebration for several thousand First Nations and tourists. They boast four of their own legislations and are the first in Canada to draw down their own Justice Department. No small achievements.

But by 2009, the issues of birth rate, housing, joblessness, and identity demanded action. It was clear to TTC leaders that the government needed ways to focus resources on priorities and then to measure the results over time. They committed to a multi-year process of planning, combined with personal development, training, and organizational development.

Never mind what happens when the plan gets drafted - this combination of training, department reviews and coaching, and planning is already changing TTC. It is becoming used to looking at itself, to admitting where old ways don’t get results, and to figuring out new ways that do get results. Staff are learning how to plan, reflect, learn, and adapt for continual improvement.

What else have they learned? That one size doesn’t fit everyone. That the important thing is to work with each staff member at her or his own pace. That you have to be realistic in your expectations, rather than set yourself up to fall short. That performance reviews go hand-in-hand with valuable training opportunities, internships, and mentoring.

The importance of “planning champions” also has become clear. Someone who can see the big picture, as well as the details (the “forest” as well as the “trees”) is key in each department, and at the executive level.

In 2011 TTC introduced mid-year monitoring and progress reports. This year, departments will start to define targets and to collect the information which measures how things currently stand in relation to those targets. And, in keeping with the need to work with each department at its own pace, some will spend more time strengthening their annual plans.

After three years, the 5-year plan and its measureable outcomes are still in the making. The journey however is bringing about a new organizational culture. It features a readiness to make realistic plans; to do the work, and then reflect together on how it’s going, and adapt the plan as necessary - again and again. Well before Year 1 of the Strategic Plan kicks in, TTC has got a grip on the most important thing about strategic planning: it is a means of learning how to excel at change – “learning how to learn.”

Do you suppose that the way we walk the road of change is just as important as our destination? More important?

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i4 is an ejournal about Inspiring, Innovating, Inciting, and Inventing ways of life and work that permit humanity and the planet to thrive in this century of unprecedented challenges. i4 is a publication of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal.



Hi Michelle

Great to hear about your continuing work in Teslin. As you say, it's not the plan that is important but the planning effort.

regards to all at CCCR

Clarity about the real reasons why communities have been gutted is crucial to the success we will experience going forward to make them more resilient.

Here's a link that is part of the explanation of what has happened economically via the banks. Please take 4 minutes to look at it.

Also if people working within the Transition Town context do not realize that paid and elected leaders of municipal, provincial and federal governments have caved in to the lobbying pressures of corporations and have failed to protect us from the negative effects of globalization and the self interest of corporations, then they will be 'spinning their tires' because this has to be acknowledged first.

Grassroots volunteerism is fine because it ensures authentic rather than generic results in the regeneration effort. However, unless we address the real root cause of the decline of our communities, our efforts will be futile. Surely you're all aware of the occupy movement which has spread throughout the world. We must intelligently occupy our municipal/provincial/federal governments and demand that they reverse some of the decisions/policies that have destroyed our communities.

Hi Pauli: 

I guess I have always thought it is about needing both those pieces. Not one or the other - but both. And this is part of our challenge now perhaps is to encourage and support that knowing and doing respectively.  To see the multitude of tasks that need attention and energy and support folks who can stand in their own interests and skills to do what they can do. If you work top down and I work bottom up perhaps real, genuine change might actually be possible. Either one alone are insufficient.

Thanks for sharing!