Guest blog by Philip Goodwin.
Last year I took over as Chief Executive of TREE AID, an NGO that uses trees to help poor people tackle poverty and improve their environment. We work in four African countries, in partnership with local NGOs. We spend £1.5m per year and have 29 staff.
The issues we tackle are incredibly complex, changing all the time, and there is real uncertainty about how to make progress. For leaders like me, this creates a major organisational challenge. But it’s curious that in so many organisations the truths about how people best function in conditions of uncertainty seem to be largely ignored in the big annual rituals of planning and strategy.
In the development world, we try and manage uncertainty through things like log-frames. The end result can be that organisations spend a lot of time preparing detailed documents which first, fail to capture the constantly evolving nature of the challenge and second, fail to mobilise the staff and organisation.
By over-emphasising control rather than flexibility, the planning exercise can create a false sense of security– “we have defined the problem and now we know our response” – and the plan can now happily sit on the shelf gathering dust until the next planning exercise when it will be dusted off and reviewed, often with surprise!
For many years I’ve been working with a leadership consultant, Tony Page. When we looked at developing a new strategy for TREE AID, it seemed a different approach was needed. It was absurd for the organisation to spend precious staff time on a huge planning exercise that actually deflected them from delivering results and made them less confident to cope with uncertainty.
This brought us back to fundamental questions about: what we know, what others know and we don’t and what is simply unknowable. Many leaders seem to feel pressure to be all-knowing, charismatic and persuasive towards those they lead. But this can be unrealistic and dangerous in uncertain environments when a leader’s declared strategy may likely be proved wrong in time.
Our view was that if the challenge is constantly shifting, then the most important thing was to link people up and get information flowing between them. We needed to find a language that connected people in their insights and endeavours rather than fragmented them through jargon or expertise. We believed this had to come from an alignment of understanding, trust and commitment among the people who work for and with our organisation – much more than a written down detailed plan.
At TREE AID we have sought to do this through a highly participative and conversational strategy process that is light but just sufficient in terms of data and paper. At the heart of it is the power of storytelling.
We used an approach that we call ‘discover, dilemma, design and deploy’.
In the discovery phase, we asked our team and stakeholders to think about what was working in what we do and why. We got them to talk about the needs and expectations of different groups, putting themselves in each others’ shoes. We started to explore their dreams for the future, using storytelling as a tool to bring people together, inspire them and build confidence.
In the dilemma phase, we asked participants to identify the three biggest challenges faced by the organisation as a whole, and describe a core dilemma in each case that is very difficult to tackle. For example, in the big challenge of scaling up, we struggled with how to put trust in partners while also achieving the tight accountability needed to ensure our targets and promises could be kept.
In the design phase, we worked through the dilemmas in a way that involved each person taking positions, explaining their reasons and then jointly identifying a “step change” or ideal future state in which stakeholders would work together to make sure the problem no longer exists. This enabled everyone to own the real complexity in the problem.
Then we ‘deploy’ and get on with it. Instead of creating long and complicated action plans, we built momentum by asking each team to come up with two doable actions they could take during the next two months towards the step change.
This truly participative strategy process offered a kind of awakening of the many to problems and realities that were traditionally only confronted by the few on the Board. When we brought people together in this process, they gained clarity and tapped into the power of the team to address difficult problems in a way that is building a more adaptive organisation.
We still have a written strategy but importantly this describes how we will achieve our dream in simple language that speaks to the heart as well as the head. And our three year operational plan – whilst giving a lot more detail particularly for the year ahead – is a guide to action rather than a blueprint.
Accountability is to each other for delivering on our dream and whilst it can be described against some key performance indicators, the key measure is against the expectations of each of our stakeholders. We will revisit that with them through our annual review process.
It’s too early to conclude that this has delivered for TREE AID but Tony and I know that it’s delivered real performance gains in other organisations we have worked with. And we already know that it’s had an enormously positive impact on the team and our stakeholders. At the end of the West African workshop a local mayor told us that in spite of his fasting for Ramadam today’s meeting had been “so exciting I was able to stay awake throughout!” Another participant, a university professor and government advisor, told us:
“Today was a great surprise – instead of getting us to fill in lots of forms you are actually building our capacity. We can use this method as a great way to engage our communities!”
And to us that is the point: strategy should build capacity and confidence to deliver.
Find out more about Philip’s experience.