Sooner or later, every mission-driven organization must confront the gap between where it is and where it wants to be.

Mother Nature herself delivered our wakeup call at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The 2012 “Living Planet Report” (LPR)—a biennial assessment of ecological vital signs that we consider a report card on our success as a conservation community—documented the worsening state of the planet. The report showed all indicators, from biodiversity to climate change, trending downward, and its message was undeniable: We had won some crucial, hard-fought battles, but we were losing the war.

We knew we had to change if we were to bend the shape of the LPR’s trend lines. In December 2012, we gathered together to study our best work and others’, and ultimately committed to three things:

  • Reorienting all aspects of WWF toward clear, measurable goals
  • Driving more innovation to produce fresh, unexpected solutions
  • Delivering solutions at a scale equal to the problems we face

First, we set six targets for protecting and improving forests, oceans, fresh water, species, food, and climate. Then we did something new—we “turned sideways." We literally flipped our org chart so that it integrated formerly siloed, functional teams into new, cross-functional teams that would pursue our new targets. Scientists, policy analysts, field workers, and other specialists would now work side by side, every day, toward common objectives.

We also turned our culture sideways. Borrowing from the likes of Google, Procter and Gamble, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we began behaving more like a startup than an established conservation organization. We moved from five-year work plans to a steady stream of idea incubation and innovation.

We now vet new initiatives at multiple stages in their development to determine which to launch, test, and eventually scale. We gather ourselves weekly and monthly to examine the most compelling and disruptive ideas outside the four walls of our organization, and regularly decide which ones to test or join.

Since we can move only as fast as our finances allow, we also freed up capital during our reorganization to create an annual $10 million “innovation fund.” This provides seed capital for new initiatives that we expect to either fail fast or inform new initiatives at scale.

Turning sideways is moving us forward. We more regularly talk about prototyping and the good work of other organizations. Our new teams invent gatherings—with names like “disruptive donuts” and “forest nurseries”—to spark and spawn innovation, and you can feel a different kind of momentum in our offices.

One of our new initiatives now dreams of tipping global markets in agricultural commodities to remove deforestation from the production of beef, soy, palm oil, and other products. Another new program aims to place the value of nature more squarely in US foreign policy by documenting the security consequences of ballooning food prices and loss of natural resources in places like Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa. We’re also making progress on a Wall Street-inspired plan to fully finance Bhutan’s vast protected areas with permanent financial support—something we recently helped accomplish for huge swaths of the Brazilian Amazon.

Turning sideways is not for the faint of heart. For us, it meant having honest conversations that acknowledged where we were falling short. It also meant eliminating 20 percent of our headquarters positions so that we could shift capacity to other parts of the world and free up money for innovation. Most organizations would never make changes on this scale without a major financial crisis. But we face a different type of crisis: the slow, inexorable decline of the planet’s ability to support life.

Indeed, our recently released 2014 “Living Planet Report” brought more distressing news, including the stunning revelation that, between 1970 and 2010, an index of vertebrate populations on Earth fell by 52 percent. But there are bright spots in our work in places like Namibia and Nepal and Brazil, and we believe that by the time we issue our 2016 report, we will be regularly testing, launching, and scaling new solutions, and beginning to close the gap in foundational changes like fisheries reform, transparency and traceability in our food supply, and shutting down criminal elements that drive the wildlife trade.

For other organizations thinking of turning sideways, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Begin and end with your mission. Be unsparingly honest about the gap between where you are and where you want to be—and do whatever it takes to close it. In our case, that meant going through the pain of reducing staff and being vulnerable to critique from funders, our peers, and other stakeholders.

Learn from others. Study other organizations that epitomize the change you seek. It can be inspiring to talk to leaders from other organizations. Just do it quickly, so you don’t get bogged down.

Communicate, again and again. Share your vision and articulate your new direction constantly with staff, funders, and other stakeholders. Do so five times as much as you think you need to.

Stand tall. South African colleagues called me on the eve of this shift and encouraged me to "stand tall." Our board did the same and encouraged us to move swiftly, knowing that we would make (and correct) mistakes along the way. People have told me that our changes are both "brilliant" and "brave”—and in DC, the latter is sometimes code for something intellectually true but politically difficult. But real change demands courage. Bold decisions will not be popular with everyone, but stakeholders ultimately expect us to do more than perpetuate our organizations. They need us to fulfill their missions. Don’t be afraid to turn sideways—or whatever direction necessary—to get there.

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