Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!

I’ve been writing over the last few months about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall.  Each time I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

The eleventh of the 48 peaks that I summited was Middle Tripyramid (4140 ft,  1262m).  I did the whole loop over both North and Middle Tripyramids on 24 June 2016.  My last posting described the hike up North Tripyramid, so in this posting I will describe the climb up Middle Tripyramid, and my move from Plan’s South America Regional Office, to take up the position of Director, Planning and Program Support at International Headquarters.

 

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After the very steep slog up North Tripyramid, the hike over to Middle Tripyramid was pleasant; I arrived at the top of Middle Tripyramid at about 2pm.

 

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The summit of Middle Tripyramid

 

I mentioned last time that most hikers do the loop over North and Middle Tripyramids in a clock-wise fashion.  This is due to the large rockslide on the northwest side of North Tripyramid, better to climb up that steep (but stable) field of ledge.  And because on the southwest side of Middle Tripyramid, there is another slide, mostly unstable gravel, which would be frustrating to climb, so better to descend there.

As began the descent from Middle Tripyramid, I prepared myself for that gravel slide, happy that I would be going down it instead of slogging up (and sliding back down!)  Gravity would be my friend.

Just as I started down, I encountered a hiker coming up, so I asked him how he was doing.  He seemed very tired and sweaty, a bit out-of-shape perhaps, but certainly he had been battling the gravel.  He quickly launched into a lengthy description of how terrible the gravel slide was.  So I got even more worried, though thankful that I was going down.

“How long is the slide?”, I asked him.

“Around a half mile,” he replied, “maybe more.”

That seemed to be very long, so I moved ahead to get through it… imagine my surprise when the gravel slide was only about 100 meters long!  Maybe it would have seemed longer to me, as it did to him, if I had been ascending!

Here is a video of a small waterfall filmed on the way back to the Livermore trailhead, once I got down past the slide:

 

This photo was taken later, as I descended from Mt Tecumseh on 26 October 2016, on the west side of Waterville Valley.  I’m standing on the ski slope here, looking back at both North and Middle Tripyramid:

 

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The Tripyramid hike was great that day in late June, 2016: strenuous, but scenic and fun.  The rock slides added a bit of challenge to the day.

*

Once Alberto Neri had left Plan, the board began to search for a new International Executive Director.  It took a while, and during that delay my old friend and mentor, Andy Rubi, took over as interim IED.  Andy had been appointed as Regional Director for Central America and the Caribbean, leaving his position as RD for South America a few months before.  So when he went to Plan’s headquarters as interim IED, he left his post as RD of Central America and the Caribbean.

Andy’s earlier move to Central America had, of course, left a vacancy in South America.  And although I was still pretty new to Plan, having served for three years in Colombia and a year as Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador from the Regional Office in Quito, I became Andy’s successor as RD for South America.

Looking back on it, I think there were a few reasons why I was given that senior position despite a relatively short tenure in the organization.  Certainly there were many staff members with more seniority, longer experience.

Perhaps the most important reason that I was appointed was that, even though I had worked with Plan for only four or five years, I had been in the right place in the right time throughout those years:

  • Plan in Tuluá had been a pilot office for the ambitious changes that Alberto Neri was introducing, so I participated in all the innovations that were getting such careful attention from across the organization.  I learned a lot, contributed some, and got a lot of exposure along the way;
  • I had great managers and mentors throughout that time.  From Monique van’t Hek, who was my Field Director in Tuluá; to Leticia Escobar, who supervised me from the Regional Office when I succeeded Monique as Tuluá Field Director; and then Andy himself, when I moved to the Regional Office as Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador.  Monique, Leticia, and Andy were all very strong managers and leaders, and they took the time to mentor me.  I was very lucky in that sense – they were supportive, experienced, kind, and expected a lot from me;
  • The strategic changes outlined in my last two postings – moving South America’s programs towards “Empowerment” and working through how program quality and Total Quality Management could strengthen the wider agency, gave me experience with senior management issues, and even more exposure across the organization.

But there was an element of luck to the move, also… being in the right place at the right time.  My favorite example of that serendipity came early in my time as Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador, when I spent a couple of weeks at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), which was  located in Rhode Island.  A sort of an Area Manager orientation period, which was very useful.

During that stay at IH, a large (meaning, expensive) project proposal was forwarded to me from the Plan office in Azogues, which I was supervising – loyal readers of this blog will remember that I had lived and worked in Azogues as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  It was a water project, a big one, with a budget of over a million dollars.  So after I reviewed it, and Andy signed off, it still needed Alberto Neri’s signature.  Luckily, as I was at IH, I would be able to take the proposal directly to him for quick review and, hopefully, approval.

When I made the appointment to see Alberto, my colleagues in the program department took me aside.  With very grave, serious tones in their voices, they let me know that I was in for very harsh treatment, that Alberto was famous for tearing project proposals apart and treating staff rudely.  They wanted me to not take it too personally, and assure me that they supported me no matter what.  I would be OK…

I had met Alberto, but never worked on something directly with him, so this was scary, ominous stuff.  So I was appropriately nervous when the time came for Alberto and I to meet.  I vividly remember going into his office, and sitting down with him.

Alberto was famous for getting in to the details in the most excruciating way, something that staff at IH thought was not appropriate – they felt that he wasn’t trusting them and didn’t he have better things to do?

Sure enough, he wanted to understand the project at depth: the location, numbers that would benefit, budget… Then he pointed to the list of materials included in the project, and asked me a very specific question:

“What does ‘RDE’ mean?” he asked.

The project document was in Spanish, but Alberto was Italian and I suppose that he knew that he had pointed to a list of PVC tubing that we were going to buy.  The tubes had a number after each one, with the designation “RDE” by each of them.

“It’s the tube-wall gauge specification,” I replied.

Imagine my luck: as I have described earlier, I had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the area of Ecuador that the project would be covering.  And I worked as a Project Engineer, designing and building water projects there.  So, by an enormous coincidence, I happened to know very well what ‘RDE’ referred to!

(To be more exact, it the ratio of the tube diameter to the tube-wall thickness.)

I can imagine how other staff, other Area Managers or other program people, would have answered Alberto: they would promise to find out what “RDE” meant, as soon as possible, and would feel embarrassed and perhaps slightly humiliated.  There is no reason that they would have known or could have known what “RDE” means, and it’s not reasonable to expect that they would know it.  But, by shear luck, I had a clear and confident, unhesitating answer at my fingertips.

From that moment forward, Alberto seemed to trust me completely.  I had passed the random test that he put me through, with flying colors!  (Not that knowing what ‘RDE’ means somehow qualified me to become SARO’s second Regional Director, but sometimes that’s how things go.)

So, later, when Andy moved to Central America and I applied to replace him as Regional Director for South America, even though I was relatively junior, and despite some mild grumbling from more senior staff, I got the job!  Knowing what “RDE” means wasn’t the reason, or perhaps even a significant factor, but I’m guessing that Alberto signed off on my appointment without a second thought!

*

Many months later, Plan’s board settled on a new, permanent IED – Max van der Schalk – and Andy Rubi returned to Central America after a challenging tenure as interim.  In the turbulent, post-Alberto months, that role would have been a huge task for anybody, and Andy did a great job in an impossible situation.

Max van der Schalk was Dutch, in his late 50’s, who had just finished a long career at Shell, finishing up as President of Shell Colombia.  After he had been appointed, but before taking up the job, the six Regional Directors met with him in Miami – an informal getting-to-know-you visit.  And after his appointment, but before he and his dynamic wife Isa moved to Rhode Island, I was able to visit him in Colombia.  After all, I was Regional Director for South America, including our work in Colombia, so off I went.

I found Max to be very easy to get along with.  He was a great listener, funny and curious, and very confident in his own skin.  Max had just as much business experience as Alberto (something that Plan’s board clearly wanted), but seemed to be a much more accessible, open, and emotionally-intelligent person.

In preparation for visiting Max and Isa in Colombia (they were living in Barranquilla, where my old friend Annuska Heldring was Field Director), I prepared a briefing on our work in the Region, on the people working for us (both at the Regional Office and in the Field Offices in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia), and I organized a presentation on our regional strategy – something I’ve described in this series, in earlier postings.

I also prepared some thoughts about the role of International Headquarters (“IH”), which I planned to hold in reserve in case he asked me; I felt it might be a bit inappropriate to offer thoughts on such a sensitive topic without being asked… but if he asked, I wanted to have my thoughts together!

My sense was that, now that regionalization of Plan had been completed, with Regional Offices and Regional Directors in Quito, Guatemala City, Dakar, Nairobi, Colombo, and Manila, IH needed to change and change radically.  The role and structure of Plan’s headquarters needed to shift quickly, because – otherwise – there would be duplication of roles and, therefore, potential for conflict.  In fact, I planned to point out examples of where that exact kind of conflict was already appearing.

At that point, there were just over 100 people working at IH, in Rhode Island.  My sense was that, now that regionalization was complete, the number of people at the head office could, and should, be substantially reduced.  And since operational matters were handled, nearly 100%, by regional staff, we needed to think clearly about the role of the functions that would remain at IH – there were critical roles that should only be carried out at the organization’s center.  As I’ve described earlier, I felt that Plan’s successful regionalization had been, at least initially, more like a decentralization of IH departments.  That mistake had been corrected, and now that regionalization (not decentralization) had been completed, the center could and should start carrying out other, new and valuable duties that corresponded to the headquarters.

The visit to Barranquilla was very productive and positive.  I began to get a sense of Max, and found that he was paying very close attention to what he was seeing as we visited projects, and he was also listening closely to what I wanted to share.  I liked him.

And, as I had suspected, he did ask me about IH: what did I think IH’s role should be?; what should the structure of International Headquarters be?; what were the most important contributions that IH could and should make?  What should it stop doing?

We had a great discussion and perhaps I should not have been surprised when, at the end of my visit, he asked me to join him at IH as Program Director.  He liked what I was saying, and wanted to move in the direction that I was describing.  So, “put up or shut up!”

I was very excited, and a bit daunted at the prospect of moving to IH.  Quickly I wished I had been a bit less exuberant in my opinions, especially related to what Plan’s head office should be, and do; but, as I will describe in the next three blog postings, we achieved much of what Max and I had discussed over a beer or two in Barranquilla and Cartagena.

Here is a photo of the six Regional Directors at that time, with Max and me:

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Standing, from the left, are: Raymond Chevalier (RD for Southeast Asia), Richard Thwaites (RD for Eastern and Southern Africa), Hans Hoyer (RD for South Asia), Tim Allen (RD for South America), me.  Seated, from the left, are: Max, Heather Borquez (RD for West Africa), and Andy Rubi (RD for Central America and the Caribbean).

Max was also calculating that appointing a Regional Director to such a key role at IH would ensure smooth relations between head office and the other Regional Directors; sadly, we fell a bit short there, as I will describe later!

*

So Jean and I moved to Rhode Island in September of 1993, leaving lovely Quito, Ecuador for lovely Pawtuxet Village – both great places to live.  One illustration of Max’s warm nature came early in my time in Rhode Island.  He and Isa invited IH staff to their rented house, partly to welcome Jean and I.  They hired some local people to put together a traditional clam bake, which was set up in Max’s garden.

It was fascinating to see how Max spent so much time that afternoon with the people who were managing the clam bake.  He was friendly, curious, and utterly authentic in his interest in them, and spent as much time with them, and learning all he could about clam baking, as he did with us!  For all of his undoubted intelligence, it was hard to imagine Alberto Neri behaving that way!

*

Quickly it became apparent that Max, and the board, felt that Rhode Island might no longer be the most central location for our global organization.

Plan had been founded in the UK, during the Spanish Civil War, and moved to New York during World War II.  The subsequent move from New York to Rhode Island had been, I believe, for cost reasons, but in those days the bulk of the organization’s income was from the US, and much of its work was in Latin America.  So being based in North America made complete sense.

But in 1993, with most income coming from Europe (particularly from the Netherlands, which was contributing nearly half of all revenue at that point), and with Plan’s work focusing more on Africa and South Asia, it was time to consider the best location for the organization’s center.

We commissioned a specialized consulting firm to work with us to consider the question, and we looked carefully at (if I recall correctly) around a half dozen locations, including the idea of staying put in Rhode Island.  I think that we considered, also: Washington, DC; Atlanta; London; Harare; and Colombo.  Amsterdam was excluded because, with so much revenue generated there, putting IH in Holland would have made the agency essentially Dutch.  But also I heard that Plan Netherlands staff felt that we “development hippies” would surely create major public relations problems for them if we visited Amsterdam very often – apparently they feared finding us “drunk in the gutter.”

In the end we proposed moving Plan’s International Headquarters to Woking, in Surrey, just outside London, and the board agreed.  I arranged to stop off in London frequently in the months after the board approved the move, as I was traveling to Africa and South Asia a lot in those days, and could go through London.  I visited many possible locations, many buildings that our consultant company had short-listed.  In the end, we negotiated several years’ rent-free occupancy in a suitable building in Woking: Chobham House, on Christchurch Way.

The move was controversial, and looking back I can see positive and negative aspects.  Certainly the location was more central, both for program visits and from the perspective of being close to Plan’s fundraising sources.  And moving to another country, another continent, also meant that a redesign of the role and structure for International Headquarters would be far easier.  This was very valuable.  Woking itself, at the hub of outstanding transport linkages to London, Heathrow, and Gatwick, was convenient – even if it lacked the panache of neighboring Guildford, with its castle.

On the negative side, London was more expensive than Rhode Island.  And we lost a lot of institutional memory when we let go of nearly 100 of the 108 staff that were at IH.

Once the decision was made, but before we actually moved across the Atlantic, it was my task to inform those who would not be invited to the UK, from my department, of the date at which their employment would end after, in many cases, years of dedicated service.  Not an enjoyable series of meetings.

If I recall correctly, only Max, myself, David Goldenberg, Janet Dulohery, Mohan Thazhathu, Hernando Manrique, and Edward Rodriguez made the move from Rhode Island to Woking.  And, of that group, only Max and I were senior management.  So we lost a lot of history, knowledge, and commitment in that move, but we gained the chance to re-invent the center of the organization.  We took that opportunity.

Also, on the negative side, with Max and Isa owning a lovely home in Haslemere, a short 20-minute train ride to Woking, I heard mutters of criticism about the decision, especially from those who were losing their jobs.

The photo in the header of this blog post shows IH in Rhode Island, viewed from across the street.  The photographer, Jon Howard, saw the opportunity to include in the foreground of his image a construction sign in the parking lot across the road, and was able to make a strong statement with the image!

*

Our idea was that IH would only be around 30-40 people, at the most, focused on learning and compilation of results.  All operational matters would be left to Regional Directors, who would report directly to Max instead of to the Program Director, as formerly.  As a result, my title became “Director, Planning and Program Support,” to reflect the changed nature of the Program Director role.

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I was very happy with the change, as I would be freed up to focus on areas where I had felt that IH needed to play a stronger role, without being distracted by the daily operational decisions that I was quite familiar with, having been a Regional Director.

One of our earliest priorities was to re-staff IH, starting with the rest of senior management.  Bringing Catherine Webster (Audit), Nick Hall (Finance), and Richard Jones (HR) into Plan was something that would be a great learning experience for me, both because of their talents and personalities, but also because all three of them came from the UK private sector.  Like Max, they were new to the non-profit world and so I found myself the only program, NGO, sandal-wearing hippy in IH senior management.

Of the three, Catherine Webster seemed to fit in the best, without fuss or any apparent effort.  She did a great job as Audit Director, and later moved to head up a couple of major projects for Plan, and was very successful in each.  In one of those projects she worked to finish up Plan’s planning, monitoring, and evaluation system, something that was in my department.  She did a super job – uncomplicated, smart, and savvy.

Nick and Richard seemed to find the move into our non-profit sector to be a bit more challenging, and had to work hard to understand our context.  I think that Plan’s work, and size, had led them to assume that things would be simpler than they turned out to be.  It’s a great cause, and (at least compared to the conglomerates where they had been working) it’s very small, so how hard could it be?

Here is a photo of Plan’s Senior Management team at that point:

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From left to right, standing: Nick Hall (Finance), Catherine Webster (Audit), Richard Jones (HR), Hans Hoyer (RD for South Asia), me, Tim Allen (RD for South America), Heather Borquez (RD for West Africa) and Richard Thwaites (RD for Eastern and Southern Africa).  Sitting, from left to right: Tony Dibella (a consultant who was working with me on our restructuring effort – described in a future post), Isa and Max, Raymond Chevalier (RD for Southeast Asia), and Andy Rubi (RD for Central America and the Caribbean).

 

Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, our sector is surprisingly complex to manage; our people consider themselves to be owners more than employees, so implementing change and exercising authority can be tricky.  Later I thought a lot about this; here’s a link to an article in which I reflect at a bit more length about bringing people, and systems and ideas, from the private sector into NGOs: mcpeak-trojan-horse.

Still, Nick and Richard did good jobs, and I enjoyed working with them. They were good, hard-working, committed people.  And I thrived on being the only program person in IH’s senior management, because advocating for the field was such a valuable and necessary role.  There was a lot of need for that advocacy!

*

I had proposed to Max that I would stay in the role for three years, only.  I wanted to show that people in NGOs should see authority and advancement as opportunities to contribute, not as pinnacle achievements to be held for as long as possible – I would serve at IH and then return to the field.  And I proposed that I would focus on three carefully-chosen major projects, each of which I felt had the potential of refocusing and reasserting IH’s proper authority and role after several years of drift:

  1. We would articulate a set of goals for the organization, high-level enough to be suitable across our six Regions, yet specific enough to build unity and enable accountability;
  2. We would create a growth plan for the organization, so that resource allocations would be somewhat more rational and less political;
  3. We would finish the restructuring of the agency.  Now that the Regions were functioning, and IH had been right-sized, we needed to finish the job and review how Plan worked at country level.

My next three blog posts in this series will describe those three projects – how we approached them, what we accomplished, and how well they turned out.  In the end, it took me four years to complete those three projects, and all three were completed more-or-less successfully…

Stay tuned for more!

*

Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International.

North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International

Last year I decided to climb each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  Since starting, I have been writing brief descriptions of the hikes, along with some reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago.  On development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way …

The tenth of the 48 peaks that I summited was North Tripyramid (4180 ft, 1274 m), on 24 June 2016.  I did the whole loop over both North and Middle Tripyramids that day; in this posting I will describe the climb up North Tripyramid, the first half of the hike.

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The Tripyramid hike begins at the Livermore Road parking area, in Waterville Valley.  I arrived from Durham at around 11am, and began to walk up Livermore Trail.

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The first part of the walk, up Livermore Trail, is easy: a wide, unpaved forest-access road winding along a small brook, up past the Norway Rapids.  Eventually, I turned off the access road and, an hour later (3.6 m), I had arrived at the beginning of Mt Tripyramid Trail, which loops up over both peaks and back to this same junction:

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Beginning of the loop over North and Middle Tripyramid mountains

One of the most interesting features of North Tripyramid is the enormous rock slide on the northwest side of the mountain – apparently the side of the mountain gave way during heavy rains in August, 1885.

Hikers are advised to do the loop clockwise – up the north side of North Tripyramid, and then over to Middle Tripyramid, and down its south side.  This is because going up the large slabs of granite on the north side is much easier (and safer) than going down them, especially when it’s wet or icy; being on the north side, the slide often remains icy long into the spring.  And also the south side, past Middle Tripyramid, has a long section of loose gravel which would be frustrating to ascend, sliding back constantly.  So: do the loop clockwise.  I’ll write about Middle Tripyramid, and the descent down the loose gravel, in my next blog…

About 1/2 mile after the junction shown in the image above, I reached the bottom of the famous rock slide, and the steep ascent began.  Here are a few views looking down the rock slide, as I neared the top, around 1pm that day:

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Looking down the rock slide on the northwest side of North Tripyramid.

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Mt Osceola and East Osceola are in the center distance here.

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I think that’s Scaur Peak (3605ft) in the middle distance.

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Waterville Valley Ski Area can be seen on the left, the Osceolas on the right.

It’s a long, steep haul up the rock slide but, as you can see, I enjoyed a spectacular, clear day with fantastic views to the north and west.  It was a sweaty but exhilarating climb.

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Nearing the top of North Tripyramid.

I arrived at the top of North Tripyramid at around 1pm, so it took me around two hours to reach the peak from the parking lot.  Sadly, the top is forested and somewhat unremarkable:

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The top of North Tripyramid

Although the top of North Tripyramid isn’t special, the climb up the northwest face, up that rock slide, was very memorable.

After lunch at the top, I continued on to Middle Tripyramid, which I will describe next time.

*

In my last blog entry, I described how Plan’s first Regional Office – for South America (SARO) – had embraced a key strategic shift towards what we called “empowerment” in 1991.  That’s what we called our change of approach, that emerged in the early 1990’s, from having Plan’s own staff manage the planning and implementation of development projects, to putting community members much more at the very centre of things in every way.

This shift had come as we at the Regional Office noticed, studied, and embraced  innovations that we saw emerging in Field Offices, in places like Plan Cañar (led by Annuska Heldring) and Plan Loja (under the leadership of Mac Abbey) and others.  These particular innovations were very similar in nature, seeking to “empower” local communities.

While we were very enthusiastic about the shift, as I mentioned last time I think that in some ways we might have been going a bit beyond our brief, filling an important, agency-wide void that was being left by an increasingly inward-looking International Headquarters.  But it was an exciting time for us in SARO.

Parallel to the move towards “empowerment” in South America, there were several other initiatives taking place in Plan.  Three task forces had been set up, working in a related fashion but not exactly in harmony.  All three of these efforts were connected, in some way, to stresses related to Alberto Neri’s initiatives and management style (described in earlier posts).  They represented efforts to correct the situation.

A “Morale Task Force,” was established, with representatives across the agency.  I think that the establishment of the MTF itself was an indication that Alberto was in trouble.  In fact, he would soon leave his position.  I wasn’t too involved in the MTF and, in fact, my morale was very good!  That’s not to minimize the real sense of discontent that had spread across Plan, and the MTF did a professional job of identifying the problem and proposing solutions, without being unnecessarily disruptive.

Two additional, separate, initiatives were undertaken as measures to address the morale situation inside Plan.  The “Strategic Plan Task Force” had begun to prepare a set of new guiding documents for Plan, including drafts of a “Vision” and a “Mission” (and, later, a “Commitment to Quality” that related to the work of the Quality Council – see below.)  These statements, which I will quote below, proved to be long-lasting and very effective in building unity of purpose across the organization:

  • Plan’s vision is of a world in which all children realise their full potential in societies which respect people’s rights and dignity;
  • Plan aims to achieve lasting improvements in the quality of life of deprived children in developing countries through a process that unites people across cultures and adds meaning and value to their lives by:
    • Enabling deprived children, their families and their communities to meet their basic needs and to increase their ability to participate in and benefit from their societies.
    • Building relationships to increase understanding and unity among peoples of different cultures and countries.
    • Promoting the rights and interests of the world’s children.

I found present-day references to Plan’s Vision and Mission statements, crafted, agreed, and approved in 1992, on several Plan website pages, though no longer at the level of governance.  Still, these statements guided the organization for well over twenty years, which is a tribute to the work of the people involved, including the SPTF Chairperson, Kevin Porter.

Many in Plan felt that Alberto Neri had moved the organization’s focus away from program, in his single-minded determination to introduce “professional” management, accountability, and systems befitting (in his view) such a large institution.  As a result, to bring focus back onto program, a third task force was established, building on an existing project that was developing indicators for program quality.  I was named to participate in this effort, representing South America, and attended an organization-wide workshop on “Program Quality and Program Quality Indicators,” which took place in Newport, Rhode Island in May, 1991.

My presentation to the Newport workshop proposed that program quality could best be achieved by focusing the entire organization on meeting the needs of the children, families, and donors that were Plan’s vital customers.  And I proposed that, to do this best, Plan should incorporate the principles and methods of “Total Quality Management” (“TQM”) into its working processes.

As best I can recall, my Newport presentation was similar to one I made a few months later, in Quito – which is here: quality-in-plan.  Here I outlined how Quality was seen, and achieved, in Plan, and how it related to program quality:

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Much of that presentation compelling, nearly 25 years later.  The way that we connected quality in the organization with program quality is great.  The focus on “community management” was the way that we incorporated “Empowerment” into the quality focus – nicely joined up.  And I really like, on page 34 of the PDF, how we reference work with “a permanent element in the local environment – the appropriate government agency, a local, specialized NGO, etc.” – our way of talking about partnership with local civil society.

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Total Quality Management was an important management topic in the early 1990’s, subject of a wide range of scholarly articles, case studies, and billable time for consultants.   As I came to understand it, TQM sought to empower employees to address customer needs, and to use data to continuously improve the customer satisfaction by improving work processes.  Several management theorists and practitioners had developed TQM over the decades, principally W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran.

Of course, TQM had emerged from the business world.  Deming, in particular, had worked in Japan from the late 1940’s into the 1960’s, helping that nation’s manufacturing base move from low value-added industries to the high quality, high-value products that we see today.  Juran had worked with Pontiac, for example, on the Fiero.

TQM was a very positive approach, leading to massive improvements in the quality of business processes, in the private sector and in government, even through to today.  And by 1991, it was a huge management fad, with many consultants earning good livings helping organizations implement the tools and methods involved.  As such, my suggestion that Plan adopt TQM was met with a large degree of skepticism by program staff in particular (my own peers!)  It felt to many that I was moving the focus away from program and towards more systems and procedures, playing into Alberto’s hands!

My own point of view was that TQM would help us become more effective and efficient, and clarify how all Plan staff related to program quality.  And I felt a huge affinity with the concept of “quality,” having been deeply influenced by Robert Pirsig’s classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Management.”  In particular, I was very influenced by this quote:

A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.

I felt that this way of understanding “quality” fit well into the value-driven nature of organizations like Plan, and with people working in that kind of organizations.  And TQM offered a way to combine that level of “caring” with a rigorous way of approaching our daily work.  This was exciting stuff.

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By the end of the 1991 Newport Workshop, Plan had agreed to address program quality while embracing Total Quality.  A working definition of “Program Quality” was agreed, for consultation across Plan:

“(Program) Quality is the optimal utilization of all resources to enable our vital customers (Foster Children/Foster Families/Communities and Foster Parents) to meet their needs.”

Also, a Quality Council was formed, to synthesize and disseminate the substance of discussions that had taken place in the Workshop; obtain consensus with respect to the definition of Program Quality; identify Quality Indicators or a means for identifying such Indicators; and prepare a proposal for working towards achieving Program Quality through a universal commitment throughout Plan to Total Quality.

The Quality Council included:

  • Me, as “Project Manager”;
  • Tim Allen, Director of International Relations at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  • Marjorie Smit, Deputy Program Director at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  • Glorianne Stromberg, Secretary and Director of Plan International.

Glorianne Stromberg was a dynamic force for positive change in Plan.  While serving as Board Secretary, she designed and implemented a major review of Plan’s governance, and led the resulting overhaul of the agency’s committee structure.  Near the end of her tenure, she was asked to become a Commissioner on the Ontario Securities Commission, and to review the regulation of Canada’s mutual-fund industry, an effort that produced a hugely-influential report advocating much greater transparency and enhanced consumer protection.  Glorianne remains a close friend today, decades later.

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By October, 1991 (five months after the Newport Workshop), the Quality Council had synthesized and distributed a Report on the substance of the discussions and conclusions reached by the participants at the Program Quality and Quality Indicators Workshop.  This Report was distributed with the Quality Council’s Update Number Two – quality-council-update-2, and is found here: fisk-workshop-report-may-1991.  It contains summaries of all presentations (including mine), and notes the establishment of the Quality Council.

We had conducted focus group discussions and, with the assistance of the Regional Representatives at the Program Quality and Quality Indicators Workshop, conducted surveys to ascertain the consensus on a definition of Program Quality.  The results of these surveys and of the focus group discussions were summarized in Part II of the Quality Council’s Report on Follow-Up Work Regarding the Program Quality and Quality Indicators Workshop.  This Follow-up Report is contained in the Quality Council’s Update Number Five, which can be found here – quality-council-update-5.

With the assistance of the Regional Representatives at the Program Quality and Program Quality Indicators Workshop, we had conducted surveys to identify Program Quality Indicators.  A summary of the suggestions for the development of Program Quality Indicators as well as an outline of PLAN’S efforts to date to develop Program Quality Indicators was included in Part III of our Follow-up Report.

And we had considered how PLAN could create a structured framework to strive in a unified way and on a continuous basis for Quality, as described in our Final Report – which is available here – quality-council-final-report.

In summary, the Quality Council had confirmed that there was general agreement:

  • with the Working Definition of (Program) Quality which is quoted above;
  • that (Program) Quality is part of Total Quality;
  • that PLAN should undertake a systematic worldwide program to manage and monitor the level of Program Quality;
  • that this program should be implemented through a Total Quality initiative, centering the efforts of everyone in the organization on high quality service to Foster Children, Families and Communities and to Foster Parents; and, finally
  • that the focal point of this effort should be the needs and requirements of these people.

That consensus formed the basis for the Quality Council’s conclusions that the most effective way to provide quality Programs was for the entire Plan organization to focus, on a continuous basis, all of its operations in a Total Quality initiative.

We advocated the creation of a new Quality Council to push the effort forward, along with steering committees across the organization.  Skills training would be required for all Plan’s staff.  And the organization’s systems and procedures would need to be aligned with TQM.  We estimated that this would cost just over $1m in Phase 1 (mainly piloting and training), and just under $1.4m in Phase 2 (staggered rollout across Plan).

What would Plan gain from this large investment?  We made an attempt to quantify the benefits in our Final Report, and included some case studies of initial efforts (in South America and the Netherlands) to demonstrate that our estimates were based on real, tangible, proven experience.  And, citing research, we indicated that between $3 and $6 of savings and improvements could be expected from every $1 invested in the initiative.

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Looking back on the Quality Council’s Final Report, and the Updates that I have access to now, I’m struck by how often we made the case that organizations that employed TQM as a means of operating had better morale, greater commitment, and increased cooperation and communication.  I find these recommendations included in the Final Report to be quite surprising and very forthright, considering that our remit was focused on Program Quality:

  • Establishment of Organizational Priorities.  In view of the organizational stress that is being caused by there being too many major projects under way at once, the Quality Council recommends that two to four clear organizational priorities be established. The Quality Council further recommends that the remainder of the projects be put on hold until they can be systematically reviewed and paced within the context of Total Quality management.
  • Leadership. It is essential that the management team be composed of people who create and maintain an empowering management environment in which the principles of Total Quality can flourish.
  • Decentralization. It is essential that the process of decentralization which was started with the establishment of the Regional Office in South America be completed without delay as the duplication of systems and procedures is placing undue strains and demands on the organization and its employees.

In this respect, it is recommended that the management structure with the corresponding staffing for the three remaining Regions be put in place forthwith and that these Regional Offices operate “offshore” pending completion of the necessary governmental agreements and concessions.

This step will facilitate the establishment of the Total Quality infrastructure that is necessary to support the Total Quality initiative throughout PLAN. In addition, it will expedite decentralization and permit staffing and the structuring of systems and procedures in a manner that facilitates improvement in Total Quality.

Clearly, as I have mentioned above and in earlier posts in this series, something was going wrong at Plan.

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Our report was submitted to Plan’s board of directors in November, 1991.  The Quality Council was excited and enthusiastic, and looked forward to what we thought would become a structured, methodical, scientific focus on program and program quality, centering the entire organization on our reason for existing.

Sadly, this effort became sidelined in the upheaval that followed the dismissal of Alberto Neri at that very meeting.  More on that next time… but by the time that a permanent replacement for Alberto was found, many months had passed and initiatives such as TQM had lost momentum in the tumult.  And, as a result, my own emphasis shifted towards working to rebuild the organization, based as I would soon be, at International Headquarters…

So was the work of the Quality Council a waste of time?  I would argue that it was a very important effort, one that influenced many of us as we moved into different roles in Plan.  The ideas and approaches informed how we approached our work, and had positive, subtle impact on many future projects.

But, certainly, had the Quality Council’s proposal been followed through as we hoped, there would have likely been a much greater, more-positive impact on the agency.

I would come to see other cycles like this in my career in Plan – a great effort to address a real priority, followed by poor followup, or worse.  And repeat.  This cycle seemed to breed cynicism across the agency.

I would learn some important lessons from my experience leading the Quality Council, and seeing our great effort result in much less impact that it could have had.  And I would remain friends with Glorianne Stromberg from those days until now.

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In my next post in this series, I will describe the rest of my hike that day, getting to the top of Middle Tripyramid and back down.  And I’ll continue this story – the arrival of Max van der Schalk, who would soon bring me to Plan’s International Headquarters as “Director of Planning and Program Support,” where my main focus would be to re-establish headquarters in its proper role at the center of the agency.

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Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!