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Innovation

Activist wearing sign 'We don't have time'

Radical transformation: time to restructure? Or time to declare victory and move on?

These are the views of Veena Siddharth, consultant on organisational change, advocacy and human rights. They do not necessarily represent the views of Five Oaks Consulting. You can reach Veena at veena_s@post.harvard.edu

 “It (Transition House) survived the seventies because the women who worked there were so fervently committed to the theory and the principles, and it survived after that because, year by year, they abandoned every one of them.”
(“The Radical Transformations of a Battered Women’s Shelter” by Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, August 12, 2019)

In a recent blog, Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken asks whether hiring and promoting “rebels” could be a way to transform NGOs. Her skepticism reflects the reality that the crisis many NGOs are facing cannot be solved by individuals.

A mismatch between increased ambition and systems

As NGOs have broadened missions to take on global problems, measuring progress becomes harder. The failure to radically transform contributes to a vacuum of accountability that is fertile ground for poor performance at the very least. Sometimes, it even leads to allegations of abuse, as we have seen in the last few years. The root problem, in my view, is a mismatch between increasingly ambitious objectives and systems inherited from another era.

Although I focus here on INGOs, multilaterals and bilaterals share a similar dissonance between their objectives and functions. UNICEF, UNAIDs, and the Global Fund are just a few of the multilaterals that join Transparency International, Oxfam, Save the Children, IPPF, the Red Cross, and Amnesty International in allegations that include bullying cultures, sexual harassment, lack of oversight, exclusionary internal networks and misuse of funds.

For example…

NGOs that thirty years ago specialised in stand-alone projects added campaigning, policy research and advocacy to tackle power structures and problems that transcended individual projects. Oxfam’s website, for example, says, “Eliminate injustice and you eliminate poverty”. CARE aims to “to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and social injustice” Plan International focuses on “significantly advancing gender equality by tackling the root causes of discrimination.” This expansion of the mission is not limited to development INGOs. Amnesty International moved from championing the individual political prisoner to addressing climate change, corporate accountability and “living in dignity” as priority areas of work. For their part, humanitarian organisations are signatories to the “Grand Bargain”, which aims for nothing less than a “Participation Revolution” in which those receiving aid make the decisions – a dramatic shift in power and authority.

Old structures persist

Yet…. the old structures persist. Donors still dictate terms of funding with short-term horizons without real recognition of the need for collaboration. Foundations and other funders give lip service to holistic approaches but are themselves divided into regional and sectoral divisions that do not support the cross-sectoral and institutional cooperation needed. Achieving the mission is impossible without unconventional alliances that require long-term investments and risk-taking. Such strategic alliances are distinct from the typical MOU with a corporate sponsor and may require finding allies on the other side of a political divide or reframing a divisive issue.

Systems with regard to planning, strategy, staff appraisal, evaluation and learning, fundraising, knowledge management and the internal culture form the scaffolding that determines what is rewarded inside organisations. Being clear about the overall goal while giving staff a high degree of trust and autonomy is essential, yet most NGOs still operate with Cold War-era internal structures related to regional and sectoral divides that are no longer relevant in a more connected era. While there are nods to more relevant approaches – such as developmental evaluation and adaptive management — existing systems tend to support technical expertise with static outputs.

Governance structures are also ill-equipped. The INGO boards in many of the recent scandals appear out of their depth to address profound questions of the skills and metrics best suited to the current environment. Board members may be appointed for their background in management consulting, the corporate world or the NGO sector, but few boards understand the challenges that Executive Directors face today in meeting both technical and political challenges.

What we need instead

One reaction to the scandals has been a growing business in the area of safeguarding, restructuring, and governance. This is necessary but insufficient. We need ways to establish long-term strategies with adaptability to shift tactics in the short-term, and develop boundary-crossing networks organised around change. Stress learning over static evaluation and increase the tolerance for investing in new areas. And we need Boards who understand the shifts this way of working requires in measuring progress and ways of working.

On a global level, the challenges are unprecedented, and the broader goals are exactly the right ones. If we are serious about tackling climate change, migration, political instability and inequality we need a starkly different approach to what NGOs currently value, as expressed through their systems and processes.

Is hiring and promoting ‘rebels’ the way out for changing our NGO cultures? A skeptical view

Should NGOs hire and promote more ‘rebels’ – i.e. unlike minded characters – if they want to ensure enough adaptive capacity to weather the changes in the external environment? Will that make us better at seizing opportunities?

The case for rebels

Years ago I was part of a Task Force on Culture Change, hosted by the International Civil Society Center. Some participant supported the view that hiring and promoting ‘rebels’ or ‘strange bedfellows’ was the way to culture change. By ‘strange bedfellows’ I mean people who are squarely dissimilar from many NGOs types in background, social identity, cognitive outlook, skill set, industries etc. This approach has been recognized in the academic literature such as that of the organizational culture ‘guru’ Edgar Schein as one avenue indeed. And we know from the innovation literature and practice that when people from very different disciplines and backgrounds are exposed to each other, this can lead to creativity and innovation. See for instance my short interview with Aleem Walji, head of Aga Khan Foundation USA, who himself drove innovation in Google and the World Bank before coming to Aga Khan, in which he describes aspects of this process. Leandro Herrero, of the book ‘Viral Change’ about change management and a frequent, I might say caustic commentator on organizational dynamics, highlights the role of organizational dissenters, such as in this recent blog post. And the recent surge of attention paid to organizational diversity strategies in the private and public sectors also points to benefits in terms of creativity and innovation. In fact, the NeuroLeadership Institute argues that our brains must work harder and consider a broader set of ideas when we are surrounded by people who are different, i.e. ‘rebels’ within our workplace – and thus we do better work.

My skepticism

While I see the point of ‘rebels’ entirely, I am somewhat skeptical of how much space they are typically given in NGOs . In my observation, many NGOs I interact with have a limited ability to work with ‘strange bedfellows’; in fact, they form strong ‘antibodies’ against incoming ‘rebels’ who have been hired to change the culture. We tend to primarily be open to information that originates within our own sector. I wrote about this in a 2018 essay for CIVICUS’s Annual State of Civil Society report. In fact, the view that ‘radical, new leadership’ is critical and the only thing that is going to make culture change happen causes me to be skeptic in two ways. One, can leaders with formal positional power really drive transformational change in our rather leadership-averse, consultative cultures? And two, do our civil society organizations truly accept ‘radical leaders’? Or are we in fact quite good at spitting them out soon after they have entered?

So what to do?

What is your experience with this? And how can we be more open and inviting to rebels, once hired? Have them be sponsored as well as mentored more effectively (by people who already have much informal capital in the organization)? Have important meetings facilitated by outside facilitators so that rebels’ ideas and suggestions are given enough airtime? Let me know!

Desire but also urgency? Driving organizational innovation in NGOs: learn from two innovation masters

Organizational innovation strategies – everybody in ‘NGO land’ is on the lookout for them. But how do you drive innovation, as NGO leaders and managers? Listen to these two innovation masters: Aleem Walji of Aga Khan Foundation USA, and Chris Proulx of Humentum. I recently interviewed them on Facebook Live as part of my series ‘Leading with Meaning’.

Here are highlights:

Chris on the role of urgency: NGOs may lack the urgency that spurs innovation in the private sector. The changeable wishes of private sector customers as well as shareholder needs for return on investment create this urgency. NGOs, on the other hand, tend to to be long term focused because of their mission. Moreover, the people paying for NGO services or outputs are not the NGO’s clients which means that the feedback loops are indirect.

Solution: bring in talent who are as such perhaps less committed to the mission (this can be culturally difficult to accept for NGOs). Build diverse and agile teams. And use lean project management methods.

Aleem on ‘connecting the dots’: Have people in your teams from across diverse sectors. Be able to ‘connect the dots’ by exposing a problem or asset to people from different backgrounds, people who normally don’t talk with each other – ‘unlike-minded characters’.

Have translators and bridge builders to help these people connect.

It is important that people across these different sectors respect and appreciate each others’ skills and worldviews, and are willing to listen and learn from people who are nothing like themselves. Over time, they develop a new shared vocabulary.

Second: Think big but test small: develop small scale prototypes with hypotheses you will test, disciplined data collection, failing forward and iterating as you go.

My reflection after listening to these two leaders: It strikes me that some of the advice of Aleem and Chris is not necessarily immediately palatable to the mindset of our sector. Clearly, however, NGOs need to integrate organizational innovation capacity if they are to remain relevant. So how does your NGO go about spurring innovation?