just do it (better) – iv

Mmm.. Jubalicious

Sorry for the delay. Stuff getting in the way. Airports and Life Saving Workshops(TM) of course. Where were we? Oh yeah, self deprecation:

Hasn’t this guy heard of the Open University? Distance learning and e-learning aren’t new or innovative at all, not even in Africa, what a melon head. What’s the big deal?

And the answer is, of course this isn’t anything new. I’m not trying to be Steve Jobs. I’m just trying to solve problems of cornerstone effectiveness down in the cogs of the aid machine. We’re pretty good at giving people heroically crushing expectations of quantity and quality of work and aid delivery. We’re less good at ensuring everyone in that team has the skills to deliver from day one. I think we need a bold view of professionalization of the sector; one that foregrounds teams as much as individuals, nationals not expats, and backgrounds the rest as (necessary) surge capacity.

In general, life’s too short and too full of way clever people, So of course I didn’t work out any of the elements of this approach, but rather tried to adopt what seemed to be the best and most relevant from elsewhere. I’m not being innovative, eff eff ess, I’m being replicative.

Rutger Hauer, replicant. (Coincidentally, I am also this handsome.)

Right now I work for an INGO that has some pretty significant internal global resources spread around the place. Generally, you can pick up the phone and on any nut-busting aid-ey kind of question, someone you know has good a pretty damn good handle on an answer for you. And they’re being paid to roll their eyes as little as possible, and share with you their many years of experience to you in words of one syllable or less. And if they don’t know, they know the right person who does. It’s one degree of Kevin Bacon. Organisations are ye olde social networks.

The upside to this is that there are usually great resources and people somewhere at your disposal. The downside to this is that it makes us a bit insular. The risk is particularly high in any headquarters, where if you’re not careful you can go weeks without talking to someone outside the wire. It makes us think that as an organisation, we’ve got it right, and we’re pretty self sufficient. And when certain magazines coming out with flimsy ratings exercises, well those too can be a source of undeserved and misplaced complacency.

On account of INGOs like this believing they’re so special and unique, it seems often to be difficult to believe in externally generated ideas and approaches, unless they’ve already been demonstrated internally to be relevant. Catch-22! Seriously, I swear the SPHERE standards must have only got signoff by everyone back in the 90’s due to an exasperated intern locking the doors on two dozen agency heads in a meeting room in Geneva one night, spiking the evian with ecstacy, and slipping on a nineteen hour extended remix of Kamasutra’s “Where Is The Love”.

Great ideas or approaches that weren’t ours, that we didn’t think of, occasionally have to be crowbarred into the organisation. Ian wrote a very right-on post a while back about skunkworks. And I’m pushing this laundry hamper in through a maintenance tunnel out in the Horn because it wasn’t recognized at the front door of HQ.

Now, stuff does get under the wire and adopted inside for all kinds of reasons. The alternative approach to skunking about is to use expensive consulting firms to tell us what we already know. I’m probably an idiot and will look back on this and laugh at my naïveté in five years. Maybe it would have been quicker to spend the same money on a consultant to assume the conclusions of this randomized control train and write it up in a nice report and send it up the line. Perhaps masochistically, I’m trying to do it on the basis of some internally generated evidence. That seems to me to be how things should work. Maybe generating that evidence is too hard. Ask me in six months.

What I really want to know down the line is if the evidence comes through, whether a three-country pilot this year leads to a situation where I can hand this off and see it taken forward to thirty countries next year. Which eventually will need engagement and ownership somewhere near the top.

So that’s the organisational meta-experiment going on here in my head. If this delivers better results, can my HRI affiliate HQ prioritise and pick this up and run with it? (Point (vii) in Ian’s framework.) If the HRI HQ doesn’t, what does that tell me? What if the movement around the issues of professionalization and effectiveness exist towards the periphery my HRI affiliate and not the core? What if that’s representative? What if too many core functions have been so disabled by post-GFC budget salami slicing and headcount-monitoring mania, they don’t have the capacity to understand and assess opportunities, develop intent and then lead initiatives that will drive the organisation towards greater nuts and bolts effectiveness, even if those benefits don’t directly accrue to HQ oriented outputs, budget lines, income streams or advocacy channels?

What if the predominance of initiatives that exist (like outcome-aggregating) turn out to be more extractive of data from the front line work, for PR and nice charts in annual reports, rather than supportive of them? Can we really fundamentally get accountability to beneficiaries, if the internal attitudes don’t bear some resemblance to that? If the core business of the CEO isn’t being supportive of and accountable to the Country Director, the Country Director to the Project Manager, the Project Manager to the PHP assistant, and to their ability to do their job? If they’re not, are the HQs of traditional INGOs fit for purpose, regardless of how and whether they re/construct their con/federations over the next few years?

Well, this jury of one is still out on all that. In the meantime, South Sudan is headed towards what we call a Category 2, and I will take my own advice and just get on with it.

But maybe we could start by drawing all our org charts the other way up.  It would be a fun place to start.

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One Comment on “just do it (better) – iv”

  1. […] management that I wrote about back in February. You can read part one, part two, part three and part four. My colleague is in Tanzania, the ‘condition 3′ country – distance learning […]


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