Five Oaks Consulting

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?

The future of transnational NGO advocacy: three contrasting scenarios

What are several different scenarios one can envisage for the future of transnational NGO advocacy? Five of my academic colleagues (with whom I collaborated until recently, when I left the Maxwell School to launch my independent consulting practice) and I laid out three of such views in this piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR).

We purposely designed this short reading to offer some contrasts. Which of these scenarios do you consider most likely? A combination of all? Something different altogether? Let me know!

Managing remote teams is hard work: views from the former CIO of Amnesty International

These are the views of John Gillespie (ex Chief Information Officer of Amnesty International); they do not necessarily represent the views of Five Oaks Consulting. You can reach John at mail@johnagillespie.com

Are people more inventive when they come together?

Back in 2013, Marissa Mayer the then CEO of Yahoo banned working from home.  As she said at the time “People are more collaborative, more inventive when people come together.” She provoked a great deal of resistance in Yahoo and ignited a simmering debate that rolls on to this day.

Marissa Mayer made her announcement soon after I arrived at Amnesty International. We were embarking on a major transformation to decentralize our operation from a single office in London to a network of 16 offices around the globe. Amnesty also reduced its office space in London and encouraged staff to work from home. We had to make remote working work. As CIO I was responsible for putting in the technology – that turned out to be the straightforward part.

Now I am inclined to agree with Marissa. We are social animals and remote working is not natural. We build relationships with the people we rub shoulder with every day. Like our colleagues or not, over time we find ways of working together. The timely snippets of advice (or criticism) from colleagues keep us on track. Remote working loses the human contact that is necessary for good teamwork, cohesive organizational culture and personal growth.

Managing a distributed team poses some challenges

Whatever we may think, distributed teams have become a part of INGOs structure. They may be necessary for inclusiveness, but they may not be effective. The recent upheaval facing Amnesty International that Tosca has written about here was certainly exacerbated by a distributed organisation that lacked cultural cohesion.

Then there is the reality of management. Most of the time as a manager, I really don’t know how long it will take a person to complete a task. I assign work and I track progress. If a person is struggling, I give them support and more time. If they are cruising, I give them more responsibility. This is so much harder if you don’t have regular human contact.

So what to do?

Nevertheless, sometimes remote working the only way of running a team with the right expertise. So, what can you do?

First establish good meeting discipline. I insist on regular weekly meetings with the team. Don’t miss them. I make sure everyone participates and I don’t let people slip below the radar. Meetings become more important not less. Agree on a communication technology across the whole team. It doesn’t really matter if you choose Slack, or Microsoft Teams, or Facebook Workplace, or whatever is currently fashionable. Choose one and insist everyone uses it. I believe that video conferencing makes people more ‘present’ and is much more effective than audio conferences

I find you can get reasonable visibility of workload and individual performance by selecting a project management method and a good project management tool. Trello or Microsoft Planner work well for agile teams. If a person is stuck on the same task, or appears much less productive than their colleagues, they are either struggling or loafing. You can intervene before the behaviour becomes entrenched.

Now I have never bought into the argument that a person can work anywhere. The work we do need focus and concentration, or at the very least space to make a phone call uninterrupted. Make sure everyone has a quiet workplace and a reliable internet connection. Only a couple of years back one of my team members complained that he found it hard to work at home because he didn’t have an internet connection. Remote working was suspended until a good broadband connection was installed. Another colleague always appears on conference calls sitting on a sofa. Call me old fashioned but I don’t know how you can work without a desk for your notes and papers.

It’s as much about the environment as about the tech

Good video conferencing is not hard. Everyone likes to blame the software; in my experience it is not the software. You need a quiet space, good lighting, and a fast internet connection. If you have a poor internet connection and lots of background noise, there is nothing Skype can do for you. No one has ever had a good VC from a coffee shop, or worse an airport departure lounge. That might be necessary on occasion but if it becomes a norm you are going to be forever plagued by interruptions and lack of focus on the matter at hand.

Finally, I need to remember that remote working isn’t for everyone and needs to be embarked upon with care. Some people find it is easier to focus when they are by themselves, some don’t. Some people find it just too tempting to skip work. Even with all the technology and process and meetings, for some projects and some people, remote working really doesn’t work and a physical hub, an office, is a necessity. Beware of progressing with remote work policies too quickly; reversing a remote working policy, as Marissa Mayer found out, really is hard work.

Why we need virtual water coolers: Four reasons why virtual NGO team leadership has its challenges

The context

Do you lead and manage (largely) virtual teams? It can definitely be a suboptimal experience, both for you as a team leader and for your team members. Most of us NGO managers and leaders do a lot of virtual team management these days. Yet NGOs have not planned for this, and managers and leaders are not equipped with virtual team leadership skills. Some NGOs do increasingly have technology tools at their disposal, but they have not necessarily planned how to use these well. And some think, incorrectly, that having the right technology will be the answer. But it is not. As with any technological intervention, what matters is how people interact with the technology. The behaviors that need to accompany the use of the technology matter most. Moreover, on the whole, if you ask NGO staff, I would venture most would say that they still prefer face to face communication as being more effective (as well as more pleasant!). In the meantime, I have heard many a story of a manager who typically has 6-8 Skype meetings per day, which altogether makes me wonder whether that is optimal….

How I learned about virtual team leadership

For the past six years, my former team at the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University and I provided a shared Senior Leadership Development Program to a group of major NGOs (ActionAid International,Amnesty International, Greenpeace International, Oxfam International and CIVICUS) As part of this, last year we offered a workshop on virtual team leadership. This blog posts reflects our research findings as well as input from workshop participants on some of the most pressing reasons why virtual team leadership can be so challenging.

Virtual teams face particular challenges

Research[1] indicates that virtual teams face some challenges that are either specific to this type of team or are germane to teams in general but are extra vexing in the case of virtual teams.

Here is a list:

  1. ‘Social Inhibitors’ to team work | Most importantly, it is simply more difficult to establish trust in virtual teams. Language and cultural differences are harder to navigate when one cannot observe body language. And it is more difficult to establish and communicate a desired team culture as a leader.
  2. ‘Social loafing’ is more possible | Humans tend to hold back in giving their best effort and ideas to the work, when they work in the relative anonymity of virtual teams. They also are more prone to withhold new information. Social loafing is compounded when people sense that their individual contributions will not be noted or rewarded in the same way as when it comes to face to face teams.
  3. Motivating staff can be more challenging | In virtual teams, staff are at higher risk of social isolation. They are also less able to  access opportunities for skill development and career growth. Staff are thus at a higher risk of demotivation and employee loyalty and engagement may suffer.
  4. It is more difficult to monitor team performance | It is harder to enforce norms for team communication and team performance: observing who is deviating from those norms is harder. Holding individuals accountable for lack of performance is harder, as is recognizing team members for their contributions. It is also more challenging  to utilize team member skills to the full in virtual teams.

Your experience?

So what is your experience? To what extent do you relate to these issues identified in the research? And what other challenges have you encountered in your practice?

If you want your NGO to learn about good, research-based practices that will help you manage and lead your virtual NGO teams in better ways, then please contact me: tosca@5oaksconsulting.org

Additional resources

Regretfully, most in-depth resources on virtual team management and leadership are behind ‘pay walls’. The two following short readings, while somewhat superficial by necessity, are freely available:

Watkins, M.D. Making virtual teams work: Ten Basic Principles, Harvard Business Review, June 27, 2013

Ferrazzi, K. Getting Virtual Teams Right, Harvard Business Review, December 2014


[1] Credit goes to Kishauna Soljour, former program coordinator of the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University who also obtained her PhD at that University. Kishauna’s research significantly informed this blog post. I also am indebted to Catherine Gerard, Director of the Program on the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration at Syracuse University, who help crystallize the messages from our research.

Striking out with a bold new strategy in a shifting civic space in Asia

Interview with one of Oxfam’s smartest civic activists: Lan Mercado, Asia Regional Director

Some INGOs are keenly aware that they cannot take continued relevance or legitimacy for granted. My interaction with several Oxfam colleagues, for example, in the last several years indicates that this is on the mind of quite a few Oxfammers. (And this is unrelated to the recent crisis around sexual abuse and other harassment and bullying issues which hit Oxfam as well as some others). The Transnational NGO Initiative at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, which I directed until very recently, hosted Lan Mercado – Oxfam’s Asia Director – in recent week. That gave me an opportunity to chat with her about Oxfam Asia’s new regional strategy, which I appreciate for its relative boldness.

Oxfam’s new regional Asia strategy….

The new Oxfam strategy ‘leans into’ a real change in role, for example. Its focus on data justice, and on a changed role as well as positionality vis-a-vis the Asian private sector are other examples. And it poses Oxfam in the role of apprentice in some areas – now how’s that for an aspiration for change in Oxfam’s mindset 🙂 !

…. is taking place in a changed civic space in Asia

Lan’s research while at Maxwell focused on how Oxfam Asia needs to change its role, programming, partnership strategy and ways of working given the strong shifts in civic space in Asia (and elsewhere). Civic space actually is not closing for all civic activists (though it definitely is for progressive and human rights-focused ones). What does this imply for Oxfam’s partnership strategy?

Listen in to Lan’s analysis of what this means for new Oxfam partnership strategies in the region. And let me know how you see this!

Women leading tech NGOs: what does effective leadership look like?

Many INGOs are aware they need to keep innovating in order to remain relevant and effective. The tech industry is of interest to them: it is seen to be strong on innovation and agility. NGOs are also interested in the digitization of organizations and economies, which makes them interested in tech companies.

Separately, some INGOs are increasingly focused on what we can learn from women leaders. According to some research (although this is disputed elsewhere) women may have a greater tendency to apply ‘post-heroic leadership approaches‘. Joyce Fletcher, a professor at Simmons School of Management in the UK, writes in a thoughtful way about this. I use her material in my role as senior NGO leadership trainer and NGO leaders consistently appreciate its content.

This short interview combines both topics. Lise Fuhr is the Director General of ETNO, the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association. I interviewed her about what gives her meaning when leading an industry association such as ETNO – in what historically has been a male dominated industry.

Anger and grievance among Amnesty staff: should the broader INGO sector pay attention?

Introduction

When was the last time you read that an entire Senior Leadership Team (SLT) of a major NGO offered to resign? This happened recently in Amnesty International (shy of Kumi Naidoo, the relatively new Secretary General). It occurred after Amnesty made public (to its credit!) an independent report on the state of its staff well- being. The report put allegations of unfair treatment of staff, negatively impacted by a recent big organizational change process, and of racism, gender discrimination and bullying front and center as part of a longer standing cultural issue.

Why I write about this

I have followed these developments in Amnesty closely because I was part of a team that between 2014-2017 undertook a two part External Assessment of Amnesty’s Global Transition Program (GTP) . This big organizational change effort, as embodied in its informal name ‘Moving Closer to the Ground’, in effect decentralized Amnesty’s International Secretariat away from London to 11 Regional Offices, led (among others) to the appointment of many more global South staff and leaders, instilled a greater focus on gaining more global South members and supporters and led to the departure of a relative large number of staff who often had been with Amnesty for a long time.  In effect, GTP also led to some redistribution of power within Amnesty.  The Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA, which I directed at the time, undertook the External Assessment. Co-authors in this effort included Ramesh Singh, Steve Lux and Shreeya Neupane. In addition, I also was the co-trainer in an annual Senior Leadership Development Program for major INGOs including Amnesty since 2013, and in that process have heard many observations about Amnesty culture, including when it comes to interpersonal communication styles.

Our Assessment had a much broader scope than effects on staff of the Global Transition Program (GTP) alone, but it certainly included those effects. We included data on persistent and legitimate staff grievances as a result of especially weak change management capacity and practice, particularly during the first (crucial) stages of GTP implementation. We indicated that Amnesty’s Management seemed to consider these grievances in ways that we found to be unhelpful. Our report came out in May 2017, and from the Staff Well-being report produced by the consulting group Konterra which just came out it appears that our work did not make much of a difference – a not uncommon limitation of externally commissioned work!

It should be said that the internal communication culture of Amnesty was known to be ‘confrontational’ well before the Global Transition Program. By this we mean a style of communicating that is dominated by attempts to persuade others through internal advocacy style communication, the use of argumentation and attacks – instead of on skillful interpersonal communication that leads to greater mutual understanding, conflict management and collaboration. This communication culture, anecdotally, is not just reported in Amnesty, but also in some other campaigning NGOs. The phenomenon is described by David La Piana, for instance, in “The Nonprofit Paradox (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2010).

This made me reflect on some things[1]:

  1. Symbolically, the offer of collective resignation by Amnesty’s Senior Leadership Team was a necessary and useful action – this is irrespective of whether it accomplishes anything ‘structural’. It met the emotional needs of some staff (though not all) and the political needs of Amnesty’s  Board. 
  2. It gives the current Secretary General a free hand to start afresh with new leadership – even if Kumi decides to hold on to some SLT members while accepting the resignation of others. This can help with top leadership getting ‘unstuck’ with regard to certain ‘mental models’ of how staff grievances should be understood.
  3. Based on work I have done with other mid to large size NGOs who have gone through big change processes, I wonder if two realities co-exist in terms of whose voices counted or were privileged in the Staff Well-being report: on the one hand, there is a widespread, deeply shared and easily understood set of grievances. At the same time, it is my sense that there is also a set of voices that is critical of all the attention that has gone into ‘looking to the past’, who think that the power imbalances within the movement as well as the very identity of Amnesty needed to change, and who think the Staff Wellbeing report is (somewhat) overblown. The latter people just want to move on with the direction of travel that Amnesty is on, because they deeply believe in this direction and feel that the significant amount of change the organization went through was badly needed. I would have been interested to see in the Staff Well-being report, for instance, whether the latter voices had certain characteristics in common or not?
  4. And I also struggle with this question: on the one hand, a human rights organization cannot be seen to violate staff rights within the organization. And people certainly cannot work productively and contribute to worthwhile outcomes if they feel strongly aggrieved. On the other hand, all this attention is inward looking instead of outward looking, to rights holders who Amnesty aims to support and promote. And this is after the GTP change process itself already instilled a strongly inward looking climate for staff in the International Secretariat for several years.
  5. We all know there is a perennial debate within civil society as to what is the importance of having ‘passion for the cause’ and having ‘the right values’ (reflected in what some call the ‘soul’ of civil society), relative to the aim to professionalize. And it is obvious that mission and values-focused NGO staff are driven more by intrinsic motivations than by extrinsic rewards such as salary.  However, we as staff still need to be competent (professional) in how we communicate and treat each other; and we also may need to be more concerned with external effectiveness, and less with ‘good intentions and passion’.
  6. This in turn reminds me of the time I facilitated a senior leadership training, and we discussed the concept of a ‘psychological contract’. This concept (developed by Denise Rousseau) points to the set of – often unspoken – mutual beliefs and perceptions with regard to the informal obligations that may exist between employers and employees. As trainers, we asked each participant to indicate what their psychological contract was with their NGO employer. I recall how one set of participants indicated that theirs consisted of two things: having passion for ‘the cause’ and a willingness to work long hours for not that high a salary. I remember thinking to myself: but what about actual outcomes for the people or causes you work on? Outcomes did not seem to be part of the equation.
  7. This also brought back memories of the time when I set out to work in the international development field – a long time ago. I never saw myself as a ‘do gooder’ even though that was the assumption that many people had about young people like me. I did want to work on public causes, but I was weary of any notion of ‘saving the world’: the arrogance and ego that was personified in that idea was not something I was comfortable with. II just wanted to do meaningful work well. Please note that I am not saying I always succeeded! But doing work well was my main mission.
  8. Coming back to Amnesty’s current situation, this sentence in an editorial of The Times (after the publication of the Staff Well-being report therefore stuck with me: “Staff and managers employed … may pride themselves more on their commitment than on their professionalism. Being morally right all the time can induce an attitude towards fellow employees which is characterised by impatience and intolerance. Due process can come to be seen as an impediment to doing what seems to be the right thing, rather than as an assistance. Nothing is as “toxic” in the workplace as the resulting arbitrariness.” (The Times, February 6, 2019)

In conclusion, perhaps we as a sector should get better at balancing being ‘morally right’ (which is in any event depending on one’s viewpoint of the world), with being focused on skillfully interacting with our colleagues, so that we may support the creation of better outcomes. Why does our ‘moral outrage’ entitle us to treat others badly? Does this showcase a certain amount of ego and self-gratification, while masking as ‘doing good’? Should we apply a bit more humility, honesty and self-awareness?

This is a highly complex situation. What do you think? I look forward to hearing your comments and to learning from your perspective.


[1] I am grateful to Catherine Gerard, my colleague at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (USA), who has been my mentor as well as co-trainer in the Senior Leadership Development Program since 2011, for inputs received.

Leading mission-driven organizations in the Internet tech sector: takeaways for INGO leaders

I am experimenting with Facebook Live interviews as part of an interview series on ‘Leading with Meaning’. While at the ICANN conference in Kobe, Japan, I interviewed Jay Daley, owner of TechObscura consulting company and somebody with 30 years of experience in the technology sector. Jay and I are both board members at Public Interest Registry PIR is an organization with nonprofit status which, at the wholesale level, operates the .ORG and .NGO Internet domain names, which so many of us in civil society choose for our web presence. Fifty cents of every dollar that PIR earns through selling domain names goes to the Internet Society, whose mission is to make the Internet accessible, safe and trusted for people all over the world. The main reason why I chose to interview Jay is because of his astute observations on organizational leadership, strategy and people management. Take a listen!

Agile leadership behaviors, leading change and culture in INGOs: a Humentum SocialEx podcast interview

Agility is a much-discussed topic among INGOs these days. This is not just about how to become more organizationally agile, but also how to be more agile as individual leaders. Humentum, the NGO membership organization that supports capacity building in the area of operational excellence, and the Maxwell School recently designed a pilot e-course on Agile Leadership Behaviors which I designed and co-facilitated during the first course run. Full credits for much of the curriculum foundation of this e-course go to Catherine Gerard at the Maxwell School, however!

In this Humentum SocialEx podcast interview, Caitlin Holland, Humentum’s Storyteller, interviewed me about the core concepts behind the new e-course (which will run in April once again). We also chatted about the Maxwell School’s extensive, global experience in the development of government and NGO leadership, and my observations on a few facets of INGO culture as I see them manifested in some of the organizations I work with.

Let me know what your views are on the topics Caitlin and I discussed!

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bisket_Jatra_festival_2018_at_the_Nyatapola_temple,_Bhaktapur.jpg

Countercultural HR recommendations: can what worked for Netflix also work for NGOs?

Should NGOs leaders heed the advice from the former head of HR at Netflix, in their efforts to remain relevant as well capable of innovation and scale?


In an era of anxiety about remaining relevance – at least in some quarters of ‘NGO land’ — I would venture that it is worthwhile to listen in to this podcast with Patty McCorden, who headed HR at Netflix until recently, and now consults with many startups and other companies. Her thoughts and positions are stimulating and at times provocative. Mark C. Crowley, author of the book “Leading from the Heart” as well as the corresponding podcast series, interviewed Patty recently. I appreciate Mark’s podcast interviews, with their focus on the crucial role of emotional intelligence in leadership. And kudos to Mike Harold at Greenpeace, who put me onto Patty McCorden’s book “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility” in the first place!


Here are counter cultural recommendations that NGO leaders should heed:

HR too often is backward looking (‘how was your performance in the past year?’); instead, it should be be forward looking: what kind of people does our organization need in 1-2 years? This may be quite different from what we have at the moment. 

HR should not be focused on retention but on the match between where the NGO will need to go soon and the people (skills, competencies, attitudes etc.) that it will need correspondingly. When current staff – including those who may have been ‘star performers’! – no longer match  what the organization needs, it is the role of HR to start conversations early on about changes that are on the horizon, and support HR can give to staff in the form of connections, references, job search support, etc. for people for whom there may soon not be a match anymore. These conversations and support systems will optimize people’s chances for a good next career move.

it is important for NGOs therefore to be fully transparent about the state of the organization, what key organizational level performance indicators are indicating about changes that may be needed in role, strategy, business models etc. NGOs need to share this data transparently with staff. This way, people can prepare their minds for impending changes and take action accordingly.

Anecdotally, the culture of many INGOs that I interact with seems to make it hard to discuss these aspects openly. Some scholars and practitioners think this is due to the passion that NGO staff frequently bring to the cause their organization represents, and the amount of identity that people thus have caught up with this. I will write more about this aspect in future blogs, because I see this to cause some real problems – which we do not talk about openly enough in our sector, and which causes plenty of ‘dishonesty in our discourse’ in my view.

Our NGO sector should therefore heed some of these HR approaches, because not doing so ultimately limits the impact of our organizations, which is not in line with what we say we are about – maximizing impact. Doing so is also ultimately unfair to staff, because it does not prepare them for necessary and successful transition in this era of disruption, including because of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (a term coined by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, about the seismic disruption purportedly impending due to digitalization, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, biotechnology etc. ).
So, what are you taking away from Patty’s recommendations for your NGO?
And what do you think of Patty’s phrase that HR leaders are the “COO of the organizational culture?” What does this imply for you as HR or OD leader, on a daily basis?
 

Let me know! Sign up for my future reflections. And let’s talk if you want to discuss any of these trends and issues.

 Here are some links to help you dig deeper, as a start:

Lead from the Heart interview by Mark C. Crowley with Patty McCord: http://markccrowley.com/patty-mccord-parting-ways-with-traditional-leadership-rules-is-how-netflix-built-its-hugely-successful-culture/

Netflix’s culture story: https://jobs.netflix.com/culture

McCord’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/patty_mccord_lessons_from_a_silicon_valley_maverick_new_ways_of_working_and_collaborating

Article in Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr