In a spirit of transparency, innovation, etc, we thought it might be interesting to print an actual response from Oxfam’s senior management – this is from Penny Lawrence, Oxfam GB’s Deputy Chief Executive.
And what’s Oxfam’s response to Duncan’s challenges? Well it would be churlish, of course, (if understandable) to ask what experience of actually running a large organisation Duncan has!! [DG’s answer – ‘none, thank God’]
I guess the fact that we pay Duncan to criticise our status quo is a reasonably healthy sign of our recognition that Oxfam needs to transform, and will only do so being confident in hearing challenging voices….. but there are real challenges as to how on earth you get there.
Taking more of a ‘systems’ approach is definitely helpful, but even a systems approach still has boundaries and isn’t set up for dealing with unpredictability and uncertainty. Whilst many of us in INGOs would agree that what’s needed is transformational change, we also know there are dangers of throwing every part of our system into uncertainty and change, no matter how appealing it is to be seen as an ‘ecosystem gardener’! Evidence warns us that significant organisational change causes us to look internally for too long. The people who matter, i.e. poor communities, let alone our supporters and staff, tell us they want Oxfam to focus on making a difference in their lives and context, not just our own.
But we have to change to remain relevant and to have any impact or influence in the future….. So can we identify those parts of Oxfam that have to transform and if so, how do we practically deliver such change?
Which parts of Oxfam will best serve our goals by remaining hierarchical to deliver efficiently in the future with clear lines of authority; clear ‘roles’, standards and expectations; eg our financial management, compliance with employment laws; the way we deal with management crises or large scale humanitarian responses…….. and which parts of Oxfam will deliver best as flotillas and networks eg. knowledge hubs, developing innovative new business models that really challenge the ‘inertia in our programme development’ etc. Then how do we as one organization combine the supertanker and the flotilla? e.g. finding ways to enable staff to negotiate their roles with leaders and managers in both Oxfam ‘structures’ to get the best out of them and deliver most impact WITH efficiency for poor communities and supporters alike?
These are real leadership and practical organisational challenges. It’s really interesting to see that as many as 300 far sighted US companies, including online shoe retailer Zappos.com, which have gone for more self-organising, self-managing, ‘non-boss’ structures, may have achieved more agile ways of working, but they are struggling with staff disaffection.
For Oxfam we’ve identified 3 or4 steps we want to take.
We absolutely have to get better at learning, failing forward etc, but unless we can really show that this is the path to success on the outside, as well as inside Oxfam, we won’t make much headway. Unless we can convince the public and investors/donors not to expect zero percentage failure rate from aid – that we need to innovate, which involves taking risks and failing more, that their money will be better spent on learning what can influence/go to scale/have most impact, and that may need us to test – learn – adapt (sounds so much more palatable than fail!), then we won’t be able to get traction to transform. We most probably have to do this as a sector, rather than just one agency.
We need to get better at using the opportunities for change that we already have. Our One Oxfam internationalisation process (all 17 Oxfam affiliates coming together to work as one organization in any given country or issue) offers real opportunities. We have started to identify those parts of Oxfam where our outcomes/clients will benefit most from a more ‘experimental approach’, which will involve a more self-organised structure where leaders provide overall direction and support and teams are then evaluated against the value of learning they generate, and enabled to take risks and experiment. This could be through innovative business models, developing new ways of learning, developing a knowledge network, etc. That’s the aspiration – next we have to work out what kind of cross-Oxfam management structures can deliver it.
And most importantly, we have to get better at identifying and valuing the skills and attributes of the people we need to attract (and retain) to work in and with Oxfam. People who have more of a ‘quantum’ mindset…..people who can thrive in uncertainty and in not knowing, who can transfer learning to different contexts. And we need to start with really upping our game on recognising and valuing such talent where we already have it. We need to find creative ways to both enable our highly motivated, values driven staff and volunteers to develop their own talents and interests AND our organisational goals and ambitions. We have to be an employer of choice who supports both individual and organisational interests.