Watching Oxfam morph into an interdependent networked system

February 1, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

He's clearly fascinated

He’s clearly fascinated

While I’ve been ivory towering on the book for the last couple of years, Oxfam has been going through a wrenching internal reform (wait, don’t click – this gets interesting, honest!). Known as Oxfam 2020, 18 different Oxfam affiliates are slowly and painfully sorting out a single operating system and pushing power down to countries and a new swathe of southern affiliates, all while retaining aspects of their individual identities. Unsurprisingly, it has been messy and difficult.

Last week I spent 2 days in a grim former East German Communist Party hotel by a frozen Berlin lake catching up with 40 people from across Oxfam International – Humanitarian, HR, Finance, big bosses, regional bosses, country bosses – my job was to burble on about how change happens and feed back impressions at the end of each day in a ‘live blog’ – aka someone asking me questions for 5 minutes.

The conversations were optimistic (‘assume good will’ was the ground rule for the discussion) and resonated with the themes of the book. Oxfam appears to be evolving into an interdependent, complex and (on a good day) adaptive system, which is striking because the people in the room had very little time for this kind of talk – Oxfamers are overwhelmingly do-ers, almost viscerally unable to stand outside their roles or Oxfam and think in the abstract – within minutes it was back to ‘we/you have to do this/that’.

Here are the headlines from my daily musings:

Culture and Behaviours dominated. When do they drive or block the process? How to change them?

Drivers: Trust. How to build trust between different affiliates, or across ‘professions’ – humanitarian, advocacy, long term development – emerged as perhaps the over-riding theme. Trust is best built by working together, which is happening increasingly as 2020 proceeds. But we could accelerate it, for example by identifying ‘islands of mistrust’ within the organization (between affiliates, disciplines) and deliberately setting up task teams and buddy systems to build trust there in particular (I was told when at DFID that the French and German civil servants are required to establish buddy arrangements with their counterparts – is that true? If so, could be an interesting model).

ice breakerThere’s an interesting link between trust and rules. In a low trust organization, people default to designing ever-more complex rules governing every aspect of decision making, and then spend their time trying to understand, renegotiate or circumvent them. As trust builds, you can move to taking decisions based on shared values and principles – much more agile and productive. You can also push decisions down nearer the ground (subsidiarity) – essential in complex systems.

Blockers: One old hand said the key to getting stuff done in Oxfam is ‘identify and expand the space for action’, and never start by asking ‘what are the rules’. My version on this blog is ‘move from asking permission (in advance) to asking forgiveness (when I screw up). But all too often, ‘people just want to be told what to do’, which can be disastrous when trying to encourage initiative, innovation, entrepreneurial risk-taking etc.

Interesting discussion on why people are sometimes reluctant to take risks – ‘fear of your boss’ isn’t a very convincing explanation, as Oxfam managers are really not that scary. Possible reasons are that the mission (ending poverty) is so overwhelming that people feel crushed by the prospect of failure; that lack of clarity on the processes just makes it too difficult to get on with stuff; or that in complex systems, your personal relationships and capital are all important to getting things done, so you are very reluctant to earn their disapproval and squander your social capital.

Whatever the reason, the common response is to defer action by kicking stuff upstairs or through ever-widening consultation (email seems perfectly designed for this purpose). The result is ‘treacle’ – progress slows to a crawl; people get pissed off and leave.

Diversity v Simplicity: Diversity in the right places drives creativity. In others it really doesn’t – who wants diverse, incompatible IT or finance systems? Above all what needs to be simple and clear is who takes decisions where.  I learned a new acronym (always a high point), RACI – for any process it needs to be clear to each individual whether they are to be Responsible, Accountable, Consulted or Informed.

What to do? There was an emerging focus on identifying the bottlenecks in the system and tackling them (I likened it to finding the muscle knots during a massage session). The best way to disrupt the bottlenecks may not only be directly – eg getting a bunch of HR directors to discuss hiring for adaptive management. Other approaches include identifying positive deviants already emerging in the system and building on them, or mimicking the Santa Fe Institute and putting cross-disciplinary groups together to come up with new ideas.

There is no end point. 2020 is a misnomer – if Oxfam is to be an adaptive organization it will need to set itself up in arisk avoidance way that allows it to evolve permanently. Three thoughts

  1. Draw from the Paris Climate Change Declaration, which established a ratchet mechanism whereby countries are expected to come back periodically and up their commitments on emissions reductions. That is a more realistic, dynamic approach than a one off agreement, because lessons and ideas emerge as you go, and as trust grows, new things become possible
  2. What lessons on trust-building can we learn from conflict resolution? Is the Northern Ireland peace process a good model for Oxfam?………
  3. A nice suggestion from one group. Part of 2020 is devolving power from HQs to country teams, so why not ask the countries to rank the affiliate HQs on their performance every couple of years? That could provide an additional mechanism to keep big cheeses in Oxford, Boston, he Hague, Hong Kong etc focussed on what matters.

The optimism and sense of progress was a relief, because this internal process has been eating up a lot of energy in recent years (‘where have you been Oxfam?’ is a phrase often heard from partner NGOs). We need to get an adaptive, evolutionary organization up and running asap so we can get back to the day job. It may be Stockholm Syndrome, but I came away from Berlin thinking we may be getting there.

February 1, 2017
Duncan Green