In this blog I want to describe how we finished the restructuring of Plan International in the early 1990’s. Regionalization was complete, and Plan’s International Headquarters had been right-sized, and so now we needed to finish the job and review how Plan was structured in the field, at country level.
I began a new journey two years ago, tracing two long arcs in my life:
- Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers. I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
- Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it like in the sector as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
I climbed Mt Carrigain (4700ft, 1433m), a solo hike, on July 20, 2016. It was a fairly long, strenuous, and very beautiful hike. Like all but one of the hikes I did in 2016, there were no significant insect problems.
Sawyer River Road runs southwest from Hart’s Location, New Hampshire. It’s an unpaved forest-access road that is closed in the winter.
I drove up from Durham that morning, and left the parking area on Sawyer River Road at about 10:30am, and took the Signal Ridge Trail.
I arrived at the junction with the Carrigain Notch Trail at 11:15am. From here I would hike a loop, arriving back at this same place 5 1/2 hours later, after climbing Mt Carrigain…
At around 1pm, nearing the top of Mt Carrigain, I stopped for lunch on Signal Ridge. This view is towards the north, looking across Rt 302. The Presidential Range can just be seen, with Mt Washington in the far distance, on the left side of the image, just about touching the clouds.
From my lunch spot on Signal Ridge, you can see the top of Mt Carrigain – there is a fire lookout tower at the summit.
I arrived at the top of Mt Carrigain around 1:30pm, and approached the fire lookout tower.
Here I’m on the top of the tower, looking back down at the trail I had just hiked up. The arrow points to where I had lunch that day:
Here are a few more views from the tower that day, looking in various directions:
Here is a view of the section of the hike along Signal Ridge. This photo was taken about a month later, when I was climbing Mt Hancock and South Hancock; I’ll describe that hike later. You can see Mt Carrigain, and maybe also the fire lookout tower. The plateau where I had lunch, Signal Ridge, is also visible.
The evocatively-named “Desolation Trail” leads off of the top of Mt Carrigain. From here I would loop around to the east of Mt Carrigain, through Carrigain Notch.
I arrived at the junction of Desolation Trail and Carrigain Notch Trail at about 2:50pm, having dropped steeply from the top of Mt Carrigain. It was a pleasant hike
Ten minutes later, I reached the junction with Nancy Pond Trail.
From here, it was a long, long hike slowly up Notch Brook to Carrigain Notch. And then dropping down alongside Carrigain Brook to the end of the loop.
Mt Carrigain loomed over me through the forest cover as I walked through Carrigain Notch for nearly two hours.
Here I have arrived back at the earlier junction, which I had passed at 11:15am. It’s the end of the long loop over Mt Carrigain and up Carrigain Notch. The loop took me about 5 1/2 hours!
The walk back out to the parking area was pleasant:
It was a long day, which I could have shortened by turning around at the top of Mt Carrigain instead of continuing on the loop around and through Carrigain Notch. But I’m glad I did it, because the day was fine and the walking was interesting.
In my last blog in this series, I wrote about the second of three major projects carried out when I served as Program Director at Plan International’s International Headquarters (“IH”). When I moved from my previous post as Regional Director for South America, Plan’s then-new International Executive Director, Max van der Schalk, and I had agreed that I would stay in the Program Director role for three years, accomplish some specific goals, and then I would return to the field. (In the end, as I will describe below, I stayed at IH for four years, because it took us another year to finalize the country structures.)
Those three carefully-chosen major projects would be:
- We would articulate a set of program goals for the organization, high-level enough to be suitable across our six Regions, yet specific enough to build unity, align our work with best practices, and enable accountability. My description of that project is here;
- We would create a growth plan for the organization, so that resource allocations would be more rational, less political, less dependent on the force of character of a particular management presentation. I wrote about that project last time.
- We would finish the restructuring of the agency. Now that regionalization was complete, and IH had been right-sized, we needed to finish the job and review how Plan was structured in the field, at country level. That’s the subject of this blog post.
With clear goals, an objective way of allocating resources across countries, and the completion of our restructuring, I felt that Plan would be well-positioned to focus clearly on program effectiveness, and be less internally-distracted. More united. And I was determined to take a systems approach – fix the problems Plan faced by changing the system using those three key levers – goals, structure and resource allocation. I sought to change the system in part by creating a new and shared language with which Plan staff would describe and understand our work in common ways, a new lexicon.
In this post I want to describe the third of those three projects – finishing Plan’s restructuring by creating the key operational unit, the Country Office, in place of the Field Offices of the past.
(Portions of the content below have been adapted from a journal article I wrote and published in “Nonprofit Management and Leadership,” after I left IH. A copy of that original article can be found here: NML – Fragmentation Article.)
In 1993, Plan’s field structures were diverging. Notwithstanding superficial consistency, Regional Offices were gradually evolving, some moving toward larger structures, others devolving responsibilities downward. Of equal concern was the situation below the Regional-Office level.
Prior to regionalization, Plan’s operational structures were clear and consistent: a Field Director managed each Field Office, reporting directly to Program Coordinators at IH in Rhode Island. When Plan regionalised, Field Directors began to report to Area Managers who were located in Regional Offices, and who in turn reported to Regional Directors.
For example, when I arrived in Tuluá, Colombia, readers of this blog will remember that I reported to the local Field Director, Monique van’t Hek; she reported to Leticia Escobar, who was our Area Manager based in Quito.
In those days, most countries where Plan worked had several local Field Offices; no country-level structure existed as such. One Field Director was assigned the additional task of relating to national authorities in the country, as Plan’s representative. For example, when I was in Colombia that role was taken by Ron Seligman, who was Field Director in Cali.
But as a result of decentralization, these structures were diverging. In 1992, for example, the region of Central America and the Caribbean proposed eliminating all Field Director positions, releasing a large number of expatriate staff to be absorbed by other regions. This was a major shock – what was the organisation going to do with all the people no longer required in that region?! In West Africa, on the other hand, a country-level Field Director position evolved and local management was put into place in Field Offices, sometimes using a team-based approach.
This structural divergence was seen as a problem by Plan’s senior management: if our operational structures became different in each region, managing the organization would become unnecessarily complex. So in 1994 I proposed that we begin a study to define a common structure toward which all regions would evolve.
Mintzberg(1) advises that “the elements of structure should be selected to achieve an internal consistency or harmony, as well as a basic consistency with the organization’s situation”. Consistent with this aim, and mindful of my department’s commitment to build organizational unity while recognizing Plan’s decentralized nature, I designed a bottom-up, participatory process through which we would design a new structure.
During a preliminary stage, internal documents covering Plan’s entire experience with decentralization, relevant academic and professional literature, and practice in other (INGO and private sector) organizations were reviewed. Concurrently, each Region named a team to carry out a study of current structures and make recommendations. An extensive organizational design survey was circulated, collecting information about individual jobs, office workflow, and work-related communication from 232 managerial and professional staff in Regional Offices, Country Offices (where they existed), and Field Offices in all Plan regions. An expert external consultant (Dr Tony Dibella, who had worked with the organizational learning team at MIT) advised this process.
As a result, a set of general design options were presented to the Plan’s senior management (which I was a part of, of course.) Results of the ensuing, robust, discussion are shown below.
Senior Management Agreements Made Regarding Regional Structure
The International Management Team (IMT) recognized that introducing country structures will lead to adaptation and change in the current Regional Offices, and that country operations are being implemented in diverse forms across the organization. After reviewing current structures in each region and discussing the results of a study commissioned to propose a common field structure for the future, the IMT reached consensus on the following:
Countries will be the prime operational units in Plan International.
Over the next six months, standard countrywide functions will be defined, and a uniform job profile for country directors will be produced. This will be carried out by the Director of Human Resources together with selected IMT members and Country Directors.
Using existing methodologies, an analysis of skills required, and a review of training needs of the current incumbents, training programs for country directors will be designed. This will be coordinated by the Director of Human Resources together with selected regional and country staff, over the next twelve months.
After fully defining standard country roles, Regional Offices will evolve into networks. By moving some functions to countries, Regional Offices will shrink, becoming more focused on networking and learning. If new functions or additional human resources are needed for multicountry functions, the bias will be to locate them in countries, whenever feasible and cost-effective.
Countries will be given latitude to structure program operations.
However, best practices will be defined and implemented for nonprogram functions, unless valid reasons for variation exist. This will allow the organization to focus more on program matters in the future.
Subsequently, the International Board of Directors endorsed the proposal that “countries . . . become the prime operational units in Plan International.”
At this point, I had been at IH for the three years that Max and I had agreed. I felt it was important to move on, because many people at Plan’s headquarters, and in the head offices of other INGOs, seemed to get trapped and stay for years and years, or decades. Or maybe they wanted to stay on at the center, with the power and authority that came with being based there. I wanted to send a different message: working at IH would be like being based anywhere – you came in, made a contribution, and moved on. In this case, I tried to make light of it by saying that I would leave headquarters and go back to the field, to “face the mess I had created at IH!”
Plus I was feeling quite burned out. Headquarters for many organizations is a stressful place, because staff are squeezed by governance bodies (our Board of Directors) on one side, field realities on another side, and the normal politics of any complex human undertaking on the third side. I was accomplishing a lot, but felt stressed by managing the different realities.
But our IH-based senior management team (Max, me, Catherine Webster, Nick Hall, and Richard Jones) felt that I needed to stay one more year, to finish up the design and lead the implementation of the new structure. So I agreed, somewhat grouchily I recall…
To this point, the role of my department and of the field was clear. My department (Planning and Program Support, “PPS”) managed the process of organizational reflection, but Regions took the lead in analysis and proposal development. The process continued, as agreements recorded above set the stage for a full-scale, participatory design of Plan’s field structures, led by PPS.
I can’t remember why PPS took the lead, when (as can be seen above) we had agreed that the HR Director would manage the process. That is a logical choice, but it’s likely that such a challenging restructuring of field operations would not have worked without the person leading it having field experience and credibility, which our HR Director did not have. And I did still have…
From December 1995 through October 1996, a core, common country structure for Plan was developed in a bottom-up, participatory manner. Modelled after the process taken to develop Plan’s domains and principles, a workshop was convened first, to create a foundation for organizational discussion. This workshop, held in February 1996, again included participants from much of Plan, at various levels.
I designed that weeklong workshop very carefully. Modelled after the famous Lockheed “Skunk Works” that were successful in accomplishing nearly-impossible tasks in very short times, I invited a group of people who I knew would work hard, and who would bring both creativity, experience, and credibility into the process. We rented an entire, empty floor in the same building where IH was located, brought some basic desk furniture up, and asked people not to visit. I basically locked the door, because I wanted everybody very focused on the crucial task at hand. This would not be a normal NGO meeting, with everybody expressing opinions and going home. No, here we were going to work out a detailed proposal for a new structure, with tasks and job descriptions drafted and ready.
Here are some photos of that workshop:
I’m sure I will not remember the names of all the people involved in that workshop, but here are a few that I recognise from the photos: Amadou Bocoum, Catherine Webster, David Muthungu, Donal Keane, Ernesto Moran, Heather Borquez, Hernando Manrique, Janet Dulohery, Jim Byrne (who had been my predecessor as Program Manager), Mohan Thazhathu, Subhadra Belbase, and Winnie Tay. Apologies to those who I have inadvertently omitted.
I dropped by often, but didn’t participate all the time.
The workshop worked very well, and was a big success. The workshop first produced a purpose statement for the Country Office. Key activities carried out by the Country Office and the front line were articulated, and grouped into six “functions.” Then, importantly, a recommended core, common structure for Plan Country Offices was developed around those functions, with four core positions that would be included in each Country Office; job profiles and performance standards were defined at the workshop for these core positions. However, it was made explicit that other positions and structures would be designed and implemented in program countries, depending on local requirements. In other words, Country Directors and their teams would be completely free to structure operations according to need, beyond the core, subject of course to normal budgetary review processes.
The four core, required, positions would be:
- The Country Director, leading and managing, responsible and accountable for, all aspects of Plan’s work in a particular country;
- The Program Support Manager (“PSM”), focused on program quality and program strategy. The PSM would be located at the Country Office;
- The Sponsorship and Grants Support Manager (“SGSM”), focused on building strong and accountable relations with donors and other supporters. The SGSM would be located at the Country Office;
- The Operations Support Manager (“OSM”), who managed “back-office” administrative functions such as finance, IH, logistics, etc. The OSM would be located at the Country Office.
We were very clear that one of the biggest benefits from having four common, core positions was that we could develop and link our people: there would be enough commonality of tasks, terminology, and accountabilities that an SGSM, say, in Mali could relate very easily to what another SGSM in, say, Bolivia was doing. They could learn from each other because they shared language, etc.
So one of our key proposals was that the four common, core positions would be actively networked across the Plan work, enhancing learning and organizational coherence and culture. At the same time, we thought a lot about pathways for career advancement. We imagined that future Country Directors would serve in at least two of the other common, core positions, in at least two different Regions. Again, this would provide coherence across the wide variety of cultures where Plan operated, and a breath of experience in the basic roles in the organization.
Program implementation in the country was meant to be structured as necessary. Just to provide some degree of common terminology, we decided to call these structures “Program Units” that would be managed by “Program Unit Managers.” Program Units would most-commonly be geographical in nature – located in a specific location, ideally coincident with some aspect of the political structure of the country. But, since Program Units were meant to be very flexible, they could also be organised sectorally, or with a particular advocacy purpose, or located with a technical ministry, or in any number of ways.
The use of the term “Support” for the core positions, except for the Country Director, was very intentional. All Program Unit Managers were to report to the Country Director, helping keep the Country Director grounded in the realities of field implementation. Otherwise, we feared that CDs would be too distant from program implementation and that, therefore, decisions could become less realistic as the Country Director drifted into more abstract, country-capital-focused realities.
The PSM position would turn out to be the most problematic of all the four core positions, only because the position was designed NOT to have line authority over program implementation. People who moved into the PSM roles as we implemented the new structure, mostly, were accustomed to leading and managing, and found it frustrating to have to influence rather than direct. My reasoning was that the pace and pressures of program implementation were so fast and heavy, that it was easy to focus exclusively on getting projects implemented. Space for thinking strategically was squeezed out by the pressures, common in Plan, of spending the budget, managing sponsorship backlogs, and handling yearly audits.
The PSM was meant to be shielded from these pressures, so that SOMEBODY in Plan would have the time to focus on program quality! My own position, not in the line of authority, was similar in that sense, but I never had trouble getting things done. After all, I sat next to the IED! And the PSMs should realize, I thought, that they sat next to the CD!
Output from the workshop was shared with Plan’s senior management, and then with our partner fundraising organizations, in another two-day workshop. Nearly all Country Directors and Regional Directors, along with Regional Office staff, participated in full-day review sessions, during which they examined the draft structural recommendations made in our workshop, and made suggestions for improvement.
Throughout this process, a series of updates were issued to all staff, detailing progress, reporting interim results, and building consensus. Much of the feedback received was incorporated.
The Country Office was to be the key component of this new structural architecture. Positioned as the fulcrum between the micro and macro levels in Plan, the Country Office would handle program implementation at the grassroots level, while also becoming the key point of contact within the broader Plan organization outside the country. The Country Office would interpret and localize policy and implement operational systems and procedures in the country context. As part of this balance of micro and macro, it was deemed necessary to include some measure of standard structure. This core would tie the organization together; the remaining structure could be adjusted to suit local realities.
In late 1996, after preparing job profiles and performance standards for each of the four core positions and finalizing detailed guidelines for filling these positions in each country, final proposals were approved. In addition, a clear planning mechanism for the new country structure was developed, leading to production of Country Strategic Plans. It was agreed that the roles of Regional Offices and IH would be reviewed in light of the new country structures, to ensure that duplication and structural conflict were minimized. It was further agreed to develop training packages for each core position.
This process worked well, but perhaps not quite as well as the development of Plan’s program Domains and Principles. Generally speaking, field involvement and ownership of the process of restructuring was high. But it was difficult to assign discrete portions of the project to decentralized operational units, particularly in the second phase of the project, so ownership of the process was not shared quite so widely. This was due at least in part to the highly sensitive nature of the project, which was reshaping core senior positions (and livelihoods) across Plan. As a result, the role of PPS became somewhat more directive and the atmosphere slightly less harmonious.
Perhaps the level of process ownership was not quite as high as that achieved in developing Plan’s Domains and Principles, but the resulting structure was accepted and implemented.
As a result, by the end of 1999, all program countries had implemented the core common structure, and networks of the core positions were operational in much of the Plan world. In fact, the structure lasted for quite a while; there were some local adaptations, of course, but in general Plan would have CDs, PSMs, SGSMs, and OSMs, with Program Unit Managers, in most places for quite a while.
Later in this series, I will write much more about my experience serving as Plan’s Country Director in Viet Nam from 1998 to 2002. But when Jean and I arrived in Hanoi, of course, Plan’s new country structure was already in place, so I had a PSM (Le Quang Duat), an OSM (Pham Thu Ba), and an SGSM (Tran Minh Thu), along with four Program Unit Managers (Pham Van Chinh, Nguyen Van Mai, Nguyen Van Hung, and Hung Quang Tri.)
So the new country structure was implemented and functioned. On that most basic level, the effort was a big success.
But beyond that, followthrough was spotty, as was unfortunately common with Plan. I left IH fairly soon after completing this final project, and Max departed fairly soon after I did – more on that next time! Once we were gone, to my knowledge, no review of regional and headquarters functions ever took place, nor did “Regional Offices evolve into networks… (or) shrink, becoming more focused on networking and learning.” In fact, mostly, Plan’s Regional Offices continued to grow and grow over time, increasingly absorbing resources that, in my view, would have been better utilised at country level. At least, that was our idea when we developed the country structures in the mid-1990’s.
And networks of the four core, common positions never really functioned in as disciplined fashion as they could have and should have – they were in place, as I noted above, but Plan could have gotten much more benefit from the commonality we included. Also, to my knowledge, Plan never developed the training and development packages focused on those positions.
Perhaps if both Max and I had stayed at IH we could have seen this process of restructuring through to its logical conclusion, and battled back the forces of bureaucracy and top-heavy management structures. But, as I mentioned when describing how I led the adaptation of Total Quality Management in Plan, one of the organization’s biggest weaknesses was, and has always been, its inability to follow through on initiatives over the necessary period of time.
However, I would soon experience the reality of the new country structure, directly, myself!
Because it was time to leave IH. I had agreed to stay for three years, stayed a fourth, so it was time to go. So, on the day before John Major lost office, and Tony Blair became Prime Minister, Jean and I flew from Heathrow to Boston. I had been granted a one-year, unpaid “sabbatical,” and my plan was to relax and recharge, take some classes and learn how to meditate. We would settle for a year in Durham, New Hampshire, where Jean grew up.
Our next step, after Durham, would be Viet Nam, where I would become Plan’s second Country Director in that country, and where I would see the new country structure in action!
Before writing about that experience, my next blog in this series will contain some final reflections on working at IH: what was it like, how did Max and I do, what went well and what didn’t… stay tuned.
Here are links to other blogs in this series. Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
- South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
- Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
- Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
- Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
- South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
- Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
- Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
- Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
- Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
- Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
- Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
- Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
- Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
- Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
- Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.
- Mintzberg, Henry (1993), Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, Prentice Hall International Editions, New Jersey USA.