Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters

In early May, 1997, Jean and I left the UK and flew to Boston, on our way to spend a year on sabbatical in New Hampshire.  I had spent four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”) as Program Director, having planned to stay for only three; as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I agreed to stay a fourth year to lead the restructuring of Plan’s field structure, and to support the rollout of the new structure.  Then it was time to move on.

The last four entries in this series have described the major initiatives that we undertook while I worked at IH (defining a new program approach, goals and principles; deciding where to expand and where to shrink Plan’s program work; and restructuring how we worked at country level), and included, most recently, a “guest blog” from Plan’s International Executive Director during those years, Max van der Schalk.

It was an honour to work at IH, to contribute to Plan’s work at that level.  I look back on that time with some pride in successes, and also with a clear realisation of areas where we fell short.

So, this time, I want to share my own reflections on those four years at IH.  Joys, sorrows, successes, and failures, and lots of lessons learned.

*

I’ve been writing a series of blog posts that describe how I’ve been climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall.  The idea is to publish 48 posts, each time describing getting to one of those summits, and also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago, on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.  This is number 16, so covering all 48 of those mountains might take me a couple of years…

*

Last time I described how Raúl and Kelly, friends and colleagues from Australia, and I climbed Mt Eisenhower on 20 August 2016.  From the summit of Mt Eisenhower we retraced our steps back down the Crawford Path and then reached the top of Mt Pierce (4312ft, 1314m), just after 3pm.

Slide15

IMG_6783

This Cairn Marks the Summit Of Mt Pierce

IMG_6782

IMG_6789

IMG_6788

 

Here are my hiking companions on the way down Mispah Cutoff, close to the point where we would rejoin the Crawford Path:

 

We had planned on climbing three 4000-footers that day – continuing south from Mt Pierce along Webster Cliff Trail, to Mt Jackson, and then dropping from there back down to Saco Lake where we had left the car.  But by the time we reached Mizpah Spring Hut we were very knackered, so decided to take the Mizpah Cutoff over to rejoin Crawford Path, and then hike back down to the parking area that way.  Retracing our steps.

So we didn’t get to the top of Mt Jackson, which awaits ascent on another day – but we did scale Mt Eisenhower and Mt Pierce.

It was a strenuous hike that day, but with beautiful views and no insect problems.  Glorious views from the Presidential Range, mainly looking south.

*

Looking back on four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), what stands out?  Let me share some thoughts on what went well and on what went badly.

What went well

  1. We made good choices about what to change;
  2. The way we went about making those changes was, mostly (but not always), smart;
  3. We were able to involve some of Plan’s future stars in what we did, giving them exposure and experience at the highest organisational levels, thus helping to build a new generation of Plan leaders;
  4. I’m glad I set a goal of leaving IH in three years, even though it took me four.

Let me reflect briefly about each of these positive aspects of my time at Plan’s head office.

First, in addition to normal, daily tasks and senior-management duties, I decided to focus on three major change projects, all aimed at creating unity of purpose across what was, I felt, a quickly-atomising organisation.

I had outlined these priorities to Max in our first interactions, before I even went to IH. Described in three earlier blog posts in this series, these projects were focused on: overhauling Plan’s program approach; deciding, in accordance with set strategy, where to grow and where to phase out our work; and finishing Plan’s restructuring by reorganizing the organization’s field structure.

Looking back, these were very good choices.  Before moving to IH I had served as Plan’s Regional Director for South America, and had appreciated wide latitude to run operations in that region as I saw fit.  As Plan finished regionalizing, with six Regional Offices in place by the time I was brought to IH, and as each of the six Regional Directors began to “appreciate” that wide latitude,  Plan was in real danger of atomizing, becoming six separate kingdoms (all six were, initially, men!)

So I selected those three major change projects carefully, seeking to build unity of purpose, to bring the organization together around shared language, culture, and purpose.  This would, I hoped, balance the centrifugal forces inherent in regionalization and decentralization with necessary, binding, centripetal forces that would hold Plan together.  Building unity of purpose around a common program approach, a common structure (with local variations in some particular functions), and a shared understanding of where we would work.

Plan should have taken these change efforts much farther – for example, to build shared staff-development tools around the core, common positions at Country Offices, and finishing a monitoring and evaluation system centered on the program goals and principles that we developed.  More on that below.  But, in four years, I think we accomplished a lot and, generally speaking, we were able to notably increase unity of purpose across Plan.

Second, as we developed those changes, we were (mostly) pretty smart about it.  Plan’s new program goals and principles evolved from a wide organizational conversation, which began with a workshop that involved people from across the agency.  Development of the Country Structure began with a “skunk works” that involved a very impressive set of people, chosen both because of their expertise and experience, as well as their credibility.  In both cases, we took initial prototypes across the organization, through senior management and the board, and the results worked well… and lasted.

As I’ve described earlier, the preparation of the organizational growth plan, on the other hand, was primarily handled by me, myself, without anything like the kind of participation, contribution, and ownership that characterized the other two projects.  Yes, we consulted, but it wasn’t enough.  Partly as a result, the growth plan was less successful in bringing Plan together than were the other two projects.

1607-4210So the way we went about addressing unity of purpose in Plan was effective, mostly.  The model of advancing change in an international NGO by convening a focused reflection, including key staff, and honestly consulting the initial prototype across all stakeholder groups, seems appropriate.  (See below for some reflections on implementation, however.)

Third, I look back on the people that we involved in those projects, and I’m proud that we helped bring Plan’s next generation of leadership into being.  Just to give a few examples, participants and leaders in those key efforts included people like Donal Keane, who would become my manager when I went to Viet Nam as Plan’s Country Director; Subhadra Belbase, who would soon become Regional Director in Eastern and Southern Africa; Jim Emerson, who helped me create the planning framework for Country Offices, and who would later become Finance Director and Deputy IED at IH; Mohan Thazhathu, who would become RD for Central America and the Caribbean, and later a CEO in other INGOs; and many others.  To a great extent, this was purposeful: I wanted to involve the right people, and I wanted their experience, and the associated high-profile visibility, to help move these amazing people onward and upward in Plan.

Finally, I’m glad I set a goal of leaving IH in three years, even though it took me four.  My experience working with many INGO headquarters is that people stay too long: head offices are exciting places to work and to contribute; people who join our social-justice organizations (mostly) have strong desires to make the world a better, fairer, more-just place, and a lot can be accomplished from the center.  Plus, there are great opportunities for power and prestige, not to mention ego-fulfillment.

This reality can be entrancing, and can lead to people staying for too long.  I wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t overstay my time, and I wanted Plan to be the kind of organization where the most important place to work was the field, not International Headquarters; in fact, my predecessor as Program Director, Jim Byrne, returned to the field from IH, as Country Director for Bolivia and then Ghana.  I was determined to follow that great example, and did so.

Plus, I was pretty burned out after four years, partly because of the things that went badly during those four years…

What went badly

  1. I was much too gentle with Plan’s Regional Directors;
  2. After designing organizational changes as described above, with lots of consultation and co-creation, we should have been much more forceful when it came to implement the resulting decisions;
  3. I wasn’t smart enough in relating to Plan’s Board;
  4. Again related to the Board, we didn’t tackle basic governance problems, especially the imbalance due to the huge success of Plan’s Dutch National Organisation in those days;
  5. Personally, I was much too focused on making the three major changes that I described above, and didn’t spend enough time attending to the wider, political reality inside the agency.

First, I should have been much tougher with Plan’s Regional Directors during my time as Program Director.  In this, I agree with much of Max van der Schalk’s “guest blog,” published earlier in this series, when he says that he “learned from experience to mistrust most of the RD’s. I wasn’t always sure of their honesty and I also doubted that the whole team felt responsible for the effectiveness of the organization. Quite a few RD’s appeared to me to take advantage of their position and to think mainly about their own achievement.”

I completely understand what he’s referring to.  When Max arrived as Plan’s IED, he organised senior management to include the Regional Directors.  This was a change – previously, Plan’s senior management had all been IH-based.  Thus, in principle at least, all major operational decisions, and proposals to be made to Plan’s board of directors, would go through a staff team that included the field managers at Regional level.

From my perspective, this was very smart.  It was a great way to balance headquarters priorities with the realities of field implementation.  But, sadly, Plan developed a bad case of what I called the “Heathrow Syndrome” in those years – the global agreements that we made when Senior Management gathered in Woking, outside London, seemed to evaporate (at least for our six Regional Directors) when they got in to the taxi to go to the airport.  And then, by the time they boarded their flights home, their priorities seemed to have already shifted to their Regions, and thoughts of the wider organisation seemed to have disappeared.

In fact, a couple of the Regional Directors of the time should have been dismissed for behavior that was even worse than the “Heathrow Syndrome“, and I should have done more to encourage that.  Even though they didn’t report directly to me, I should have been much more willing to advocate changes to Max, been much less gentle.  In the future, I would be more willing to take action in similar situations.

After leaving IH I came to realise that part of the problem was related to the emotional connection that NGO staff – at least the good ones – make with their work.  Our people, at their best, associate their own values and self image with the aims of our organisations: we work for justice, human rights, to overcome oppression and deprivation, because we hold those values very deeply.img_6662

This emotional connection is a strong motivational force and, if managed well, can produce levels of commitment and passion that private-sector organisations rarely achieve.  But it often also means that NGO people overly personalise their work, take things too personally, and resist change. Perhaps part of the reason that several of Plan’s Regional Directors in those days resisted thinking globally and acting locally was that their personal ambitions – for good and for bad – were advanced more easily by thinking locally and acting globally.

Second, and related to my first point, after designing organizational changes as described above, with lots of consultation and co-creation, we should have been much more forceful when it came to implement the resulting decisions.  For example:

  • there should have been no exceptions for putting in place the agreed country structure, because a suitable level of flexibility was already included;
  • we had agreed to develop training packages for the four core, common positions that would be in place at all Country Offices, but we didn’t get that done;
  • we should have mandated that all Country Strategic Plans be structured around the new Domains and Principles that comprised Plan’s Program Approach;
  • an effort existed to design and implement a “Corporate Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation” system, which didn’t really get off the ground until Catherine Webster took over the project;
  • finally, I should be been much more insistent that the agreed growth plan be followed, insisting on plans to close operations in the countries where our strategy mandated phase-out.

Generally speaking, my conclusion here is that we were right to design changes in a very open, participatory way, and to consult (and adjust) with all key stakeholders before finalising decisions.  That was good.  But once decisions were made, we should have been much stronger, much tougher, in carrying out those agreements.  Over time, that approach might have reduced the toxic “Heathrow Syndrome.

Third, I should have developed a much stronger relationship with Plan’s board of directors than I did.  Again, in his “guest blog,” Max notes that he is “… less than happy about my relationship with the Board and I missed a chance there…”  As Program Director, I naturally had less direct relation with Plan’s Board than Max did, but I could have usefully developed more of a connection.  That might have helped me achieve my own goals, advance the organization, and also helped Max (though he might not have agreed with that, or even accepted it!)

For example, one Board member was named to work with us on the development of Plan’s program approach; Ian Buist had worked in the UK government’s overseas aid efforts across a long career, and his contributions to what became Plan’s “Domains” and “Principles” were valuable.  In retrospect, I would have been more effective, more successful, and more helpful to Max if I had developed similar relationships with other program-minded board members.

But I wanted to focus on program, and felt that working with the Board was not my role; Max would involve me when it was necessary, I thought.  But, of course, I knew Plan much better than Max did, having at that point worked at local, regional, and global levels for nearly ten years, so my reluctance to put more energy into working with Plan’s board was short-sighted on my part.

Fourth, and perhaps most fundamental, comes governance.  When organisational governance doesn’t function smoothly, watch out!  And, in those days, if not broken, Plan’s governance was not working very well at all, for one main reason.

When I was at IH, Plan’s funds came from nine “National Organisations” in nine developed countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US).  The way that Plan’s corporate bylaws were designed meant that the Dutch organisation was allocated four seats, four votes, on the 25-person board, even though over 50% of Plan’s funding came from the Netherlands.  (In comparison, the Canadian and US National Offices, each bringing in around 10% of Plan’s funding, each had three seats, three votes.)

This lack of balance – over half of Plan’s funding coming from the Netherlands, with the Dutch organisation having just 16% of the votes on Plan’s board – distorted the agency’s behavior in negative ways, ways that I could see in my daily work.

Unsurprisingly, and most damaging, was that an informal power structure evolved to compensate for Plan’s unbalanced governance.  This could be seen in action in several ways.  For example, it felt to me as I observed board meetings, that Dutch board members had effective veto over any major decisions: if a Dutch board member spoke strongly against, or in favour of, a proposition at a meeting, the vote would always go that way, despite the Dutch only having 4 of 25 votes.

There’s nothing inherently bad, or wrong, or evil about what was happening; it was completely logical that the interests of the biggest financial stakeholder would become paramount.  Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg!  But the problem was, as I saw it, Plan’s formal governance structure wasn’t able to handle the reality of those days, so informal mechanisms evolved, and those informal mechanisms were not always transparent or effective.

For example, I vividly remember a lunch meeting which included Max, me, and the National Director for the Netherlands.  The Dutch National Director was, without a doubt, a genius fundraiser, and had build Plan Netherlands into an iconic force in Holland, known and respected by virtually everybody in the country from the royal family on down.

His undoubted accomplishments were accompanied by similar levels of ego and assertiveness.

I don’t recall the exact issue that we were discussing that day over lunch, but I do remember our Dutch colleague expressing his strong disagreement with the direction that Max and I were planning to take.  Those kinds disagreements are common in any human endeavour, of course.  But he took it one step further: in so many words, he made it very clear that, if we proceeded with the course of action we were planning, he would have Max dismissed.

In Plan’s formal governance setup, the Dutch National Director was not a Plan board member, and had no formal influence on Max’s job security.  But the informal governance structures which had evolved, to recognise the importance of the Dutch Office’s success to the overall organisation, meant that his threat was completely credible.

Another example of the dysfunctional consequences of Plan’s imbalanced governance came soon after I (and Max) left IH.  Max’s successor fired one of Plan’s Regional Directors, who was Dutch.  From my perspective, this was probably well within the new IED’s authority, but from what I heard (I wasn’t in the room!) the actual dismissal was not handled very astutely.  The Regional Director then threatened legal action to challenge his dismissal and, as I understand it, had an assurance of financial support from the Netherlands office in this action – essentially, one part of the agency would be suing the other!  This led to several years of estrangement (and worse) between Plan and the Dutch Office, our biggest source of funds!

Apparently, the imbalance in governance, and resulting informal power structures, extended to the Dutch Office having the ability to veto personnel-related decisions, at least when a Dutch Regional Director was involved!

These examples illustrate how our operational management was influenced by the realities as seen from the point of view of our biggest revenue source.  Nothing wrong with that, in theory – in fact, it makes a lot of sense.  But in the absence of a formal governance structure that reflected organisational realities, informal mechanisms evolved to reflect the needs of Plan’s biggest funder: such as heated lunch discussions, and a law suit against Plan funded by one of its own National Organisations.  These informal mechanisms drained our energy, stressed us all, and became major distractions from what we were supposed to be focused on: the effective and efficient implementation of our mission to help children living in poverty have better lives.

Now, the best solution to re-balancing Plan’s governance would have been for other National Organisations to grow – for the Australian or Canadian or German or US offices to increase their fundraising closer to what our Dutch colleagues were achieving.  Then Plan’s existing governance structure would have functioned well.  Alternatively, perhaps, at least in the short term, we could have increased the votes allocated to the Dutch organization.  In these ways, the imbalance described above would have been corrected without informal mechanisms.

What actually happened, sadly, was that the Dutch organisation ended up shrinking dramatically, as the result of a mishandled public-relations crisis.  In fact, I think that our management of that crisis actually illustrated the basic problem: Plan’s Dutch Office refused to let us address false accusations coming from a Dutch supporter as we should have done, and the problem just festered, got worse and worse.  But the informal power of the Dutch Office, caused in part by the governance imbalance I’ve described, was such that we at Plan’s International Headquarters were not able to go against the preferences of the Dutch Office to take the actions we felt would have defused the crisis.  (Namely, full, frank, and fast disclosure of the facts of the particular case.)  In this case, I’m pretty sure that we were right and the Dutch Office was wrong… and, as a direct result, Plan’s fundraising in the Netherlands dropped by half.

My sense is that these kinds of governance dynamics are common in federated International NGOs (ChildFund, Save the Children, Oxfam, World Vision, etc.) though there are differences in the particularities of each grouping, of course.  The solution, as far as I can see it, is to periodically re-examine governance and make sure that structures fit the reality of the agency.  (Ironically, Plan had attempted to review and adjust its governance before I arrived at IH.  Glorianne Stromberg, who readers of this blog series have already met, was Board Secretary in those days, during Alberto Neri’s time; she had proposed a far-reaching update of Plan’s governance.  Probably Glorianne’s proposals would have helped reduce the imbalance I’ve described, and would also have addressed Max’s feeling that the Board was too big…)

Finally, I was much too focused on my program changes, my three projects, and was not “political” enough.  In a sense, this failure on my part relates to all of the above accomplishments and setbacks – if I had been more astute “politically” I could have helped Max correct the behaviour of several Regional Directors, and connected more effectively with Plan’s board of directors.

But I just wasn’t interested in spending my limited time and energy on those things.  I was focused, passionate, and effective focused on program matters (goals and principles, structure, and growth.)  I felt, and still feel, that behaving “politically” would be inconsistent with the values and aspirations of the NGO sector.  I wanted to enact those values – honesty, transparency, empathy, compassion – and I didn’t see how I could do that while also being “political.”

Today I think I see that it is indeed possible to be focused and true to the moral and ethical values of our sector while also being “political.”  It’s not about learning from Machiavelli; rather, it’s mostly about being able to handle conflict competently.  Conflict is inherent in the human experience, certainly including at senior management levels in an INGO like Plan!  Managing conflict productively, being able to confront conflict situations with confidence and panache, is a skill that I would deepen later, some years after my time at Plan’s International Headquarters.

*

Those four years at IH were great.  Weighing up all the successes and failures, large and small, looking back there’s no doubt in my mind that Plan was stronger and more unified when Jean and I left the UK, in May, 1997, than it had been when I arrived.

But it was time to move on, and it would be for others to take up the challenges and joys of running that organization.

*

In future blogs in this series I’ll describe my tenure as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, as consultant at CCF, as Executive Director at the UU Service Committee, and as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia.  As I approached my work in those organisations, I tried to apply what I learned from those four years at Plan’s International Headquarters, from the successes and failures described above.  Stay tuned!

Next time I’ll begin to reflect on four years living and working in Viet Nam, as Plan’s Country Director in that very special country.

*

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;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters.

Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters

After four years as Director of Planning and Program Support (Program Director) at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), I stepped down in early May, 1997.  Jean and I would spend the next 12 months on sabbatical in New Hampshire.

My time at IH was very eventful for me, as I hope I’ve described in the four previous blogs in this series.  Even today I feel (mostly) proud of what we achieved, but at the end of it I was certainly ready to go back to the field.  After the year-long sabbatical, I would wrap up 15 great years with Plan: Jean and I would move to Hanoi, where I would serve as  Plan’s Country Director for Viet Nam.  But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself …

During my time at IH, I worked closely with Plan’s then-new International Executive Director (“IED”, equivalent to CEO), Max van der Schalk.  In an earlier blog in this series I described Max as “Dutch, in his late 50’s, who had just completed a long career at Shell, finishing up as President of Shell Colombia … 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.”

Before I wrap up my description of those years at IH, sharing some overall reflections, it occurred to me to ask Max to share his thoughts about his five years as IED: another perspective on some of the events I’ve been describing from my own point of view.

Max kindly agreed, and his reflections are included below as a “guest blog.”  Next time, it’ll be my turn!

*

This is one in an ongoing series of posts that has been describing how I’ve been climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall.  The idea is to publish 48 posts, each time, also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago, on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

*

I climbed Mt Eisenhower (4780ft, 1457m) on 20 August 2016, with Raúl and Kelly, friends and colleagues from Australia.  We also climbed Mt Pierce later that day, and we had planned to climb Mt Jackson as well, but we ran out of steam.  In my next blog I’ll write about our walk down from the top of Eisenhower, over Mt Pierce, and then the long hike back down Crawford Path via the Mizpah Cutoff.

slide14

We drove up from Durham that morning, and parked by the side of Saco Lake, just across from the old Crawford Depot.

img_6791

The first part of the hike took us around the lake, rejoining Rt 302 briefly, arriving at the start of the Crawford Path, the “oldest continuously-used mountain trail in America,” or so the sign says!  The section we walked on was created in 1819 by Abel and Ethan Crawford.

 

 

The walk up Crawford Path was pleasant, a steady upward walk.

img_6762

img_6763

We came across several large, beautiful expanses of bright green moss that day.

 

We arrived at the saddle between Mt Pierce and Mt Eisenhower a little before 2pm, and took a break there.  It was a beautiful spot, with a view towards the north and Mt Eisenhower:

img_6766

img_6780

Kelly, with Mt Eisenhower on the right.

img_6778

img_6777

Raúl and Kelly

 

From here, towards Mt Eisenhower, the Crawford Path forms part of the famous Appalachian Trail.  The section leading up to Mt Eisenhower is above the tree line, through some low scrub and ledge with fine views in all directions.

It was quite cool and windy at the top of Mt Eisenhower.  There were plenty of other hikers around, walking up or resting around the cairn at the top, where we arrived at around 2:15pm:

img_6773

The Summit of Mt Eisenhower

We were all pretty tired when we got to the top of Mt Eisenhower, and the day wasn’t even close to half over!

I’ll write more about our ascent of Mt Pierce, and the long walk back down to Crawford Notch, next time.  But the walk up Eisenhower was great that day, and the company was just as good.

*

Max van der Schalk served as Plan’s International Executive Director for five years; for four of those years, I worked directly with, and for, him.  Earlier, I described how I ended up being appointed to that position, and I noted Max’s involvement in the three major projects that I advanced in my four years in this blog on Plan’s Program Directions; in this blog on the preparation of Plan’s growth plan; and here as related to our creation of the new country-level operational structure for the agency.

I thought it would be valuable to get Max’s perspective on events during those four years.  And I don’t know of very many “memoirs” from nonprofit CEOs, particularly in the international development sector, so his thoughts might be useful more broadly.

So, since I’m still in contact with him, I invited Max to share his thoughts, which follow:

*

“I arrived in Rhode Island from Colombia. I had had 30 years experience in industry and the main reason I was selected for the job of IED was that this experience was mainly in the developing world. That also caused my interest in the job: I had seen enough poverty to know that something should be done to eradicate that pest on human happiness. When I arrived at IH I was asked whether I joined the charity in order to make up for the sins I had committed in private industry. My answer was exactly the opposite: I was going to introduce a businesslike attitude to the charity in order to make best use of the generous contribution of so many people to poverty reduction, specially child poverty.

I commenced by trying to create a management team (IED, RD’s and IH managers) that would feel joint responsibility for the quality of the programme part of the organization. Despite the efforts of some of the more capable managers in the team, this was never achieved. To the contrary: the RD’s didn’t see eye to eye with the IH managers and what was worse : they didn’t see eye to eye with each other. There was  a lack of mutual confidence. This was something new, in my 30 years industry experience I had not encountered that. I learned from experience to mistrust most of the RD’s. I wasn’t always sure of their honesty and I also doubted that the whole team felt responsible for the effectiveness of the organization. Quite a few RD’s appeared to me to take advantage of their position and to think mainly about their own achievement.

Part of the reason for that behaviour is the difference in work attitude in charity as compared to industry. Where in industry people are motivated by the objectives of the organization and by their success in achieving these, in charity staff has a much more personal viewpoint about what should be done. As a result you could find great differences in how the money was spent in PLAN: some field offices were mainly concentrated on health matters, others on education or on wealth creation for the communities they were assisting. My cooperation with Mark was so useful because he had the intelligence to see that that was not the optimum way to spend the money. I brought him into IH to create a framework, setting out the objectives and ambitions of the organization: to reduce poverty in our communities and achieve a way they could live comfortably without outside financial contribution. This was eventually achieved, though acceptance of this framework throughout the organisation took a long time. In the end it was generally accepted by all staff, but we never achieved full acceptance by the International Board.Max at IH01

The International Board (IB) consisted of non-executive directors of the fundraising organisations. The number of directors each country organisation could appoint to the IB was dependant on the money they contributed. The Board was far too big to be useful, some 25 persons. The main problem was that board members were generally from a business or government background, seldom was there any experience in development work. However they all thought they had a full understanding of the problems of international development and furthermore that they knew quite a bit more about running a business than the PLAN staff. This created an atmosphere where instead of being supportive they were often highly critical of the way the organization was run. Furthermore, because of the various nationalities that were represented there was often a cultural difference amongst the various board members. As IED I made the mistake to try running the show as far as possible without the active participation of the IB, but that led to a lack of trust of board members in their Chief Executive. This was shown very clearly when my 5-year term came up and I was requested to continue in the job. I said I only wanted to do that if the IB would become a supportive board rather than a critical one and if I would get complete freedom to technically run the show on my own, without specific approval for things like staff changes and office accommodation. The Chairman of the IB did a round of phone calls to discuss my request with his colleagues and the outcome was a clear NO to both .

Reflecting on the things that went well during my tenure and the things which could have been done better, I am not unhappy with the results obtained. We clearly formalized the objectives of the organization and the way to achieve them. We also exchanged many – expensive- expatriate staff members for high quality local staff, thereby reducing the cost of carrying out the work of the charity. We also created a career path for staff and improved the audit procedure: both financial audit – how was the money spent – as the programme audit – how successful were the programmes. The organisation grew rapidly in money, volume and results; a number of additional national organisations were created. However, I am less than happy about my relationship with the Board and I missed a chance there. It is always difficult to change the culture of an organization, but we changed the staff attitude considerably and with good results for our effectiveness. I could have achieved the same results with the International Board, but as I was unhappy with their attitude regarding my role, I decided to ‘walk around them’ . On balance I believe I made a wrong decision there and it resulted in my effectiveness being less than what could have been achieved.

After I resigned from the charity, I expected I would be asked to join the local board of either the Dutch ( my nationality) or English ( my residence) organisation. This didn’t happen and my relationship with the organisation ended the day after my resignation. I felt very disappointed about this, but now – at a much bigger distance – I feel I should blame my own attitude to the IB and also to the local boards for this total rupture. I just wasn’t liked by them………

My next job after PLAN was Chairman of the Board of my local Health Authority and I learned so much of my negative experience of dealings with boards in PLAN, that I was sure the managers in the NHS working in my area would not form a similar opinion about my board’s role. And that was indeed very effective, so I learned my lesson just in time before I sat at the other side of the table!”

*

Next time I will describe the rest of my hike with Raúl and Kelly that day – down from Mt Eisenhower and over Mt Pierce.  And I will share my own reflections from those four years at IH.

I’m grateful to Max for sharing his perspectives here in this “Guest Blog.”  They set up my own reflections – in some ways consistent, in other ways different.  That will come next time.

So, stay tuned!

*

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;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International.

Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International

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.

This is one in an ongoing series of posts that has been describing how I’ve been climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall.  The idea is to publish 48 posts, each time, also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago, on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

*

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.

slide11

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.

img_6633

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…

img_6637

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.

img_6643

From my lunch spot on Signal Ridge, you can see the top of Mt Carrigain – there is a fire lookout tower at the summit.

 

img_6646img_6645

I arrived at the top of Mt Carrigain around 1:30pm, and approached the fire lookout tower.

img_6648

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:

slide12

Here are a few more views from the tower that day, looking in various directions:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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.

slide13

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.

img_6650

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

img_6657

Ten minutes later, I reached the junction with Nancy Pond Trail.

img_6659

 

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!

img_6661

The walk back out to the parking area was pleasant:

img_6662

 

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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International.

 

  1.  Mintzberg, Henry (1993), Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, Prentice Hall International Editions, New Jersey USA.

South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International

In my last blog in this series, I wrote about the first 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.

Those three carefully-chosen major projects would be:

  1. 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.  I wrote about this last time;
  2. 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. That’s the subject this time;
  3. 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 for next time.

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 second of those three projects – the preparation of an objective, data-driven, rigorous growth plan for Plan International.

(Portions of the content below have been adapted from two journal articles I wrote and published in “Nonprofit Management and Leadership,” after I left IH.  Copies of those original articles can be found here: NML – Fragmentation Article and here: how-should-an-international-ngo-allocate-growth.)

But first…

*

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.

On July 3, 2016, Eric and I climbed North and South Kinsman, two of the three 4000-footers in the Cannon-Kinsman range, just west of Franconia Notch.  Last time, I wrote about getting to the top of North Kinsman, which was really just the first 25% of the day! Here I’ll describe the second part of that long, long day here – the ascent of South Kinsman (4358ft, 1328m), and our return to the beginning of the hike.

slide10

 

We had arrived at the top of North Kinsman at around 2pm, after leaving the parking area on NH 116 at 11am.  The short, 0.9m hike over from there to the summit of South Kinsman didn’t take too long – we arrived there at around 3pm.  It was a beautiful day, but you can see how I had perspired through both shirts on the way up!:

img_6559

The Summit of South Kinsman

 

img_6576

 

 

 

 

 

 

img_6573img_6567

 

 

 

The walk down off of South Kinsman was “steep and rough,” but otherwise a beautiful, typical White Mountains forest walk, with a nice rock sculpture along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 20 minutes after leaving the top of South Kinsman, we passed just to the east of Harrington Pond, with a beautiful view of the sky towards the south-west:

img_6578

Harrington Pond

 

It was a steep drop off of the top of South Kinsman, with several small waterfalls along Eliza Brook:

 

This section of Kinsman Ridge Trail forms a small part of the famous Appalachian Trail, which runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Maine, some 2190 miles, end-to-end.  Along the Appalachian Trail there are lean-tos and huts used by thru-hikers for overnights, as well as for day-hikers like Eric and I for quick rests.  One of those huts, Eliza Brook Shelter, is found along Kinsman Ridge Trail:

img_6586-1

 

We arrived at the Shelter at 4:45pm and, about a half-hour later, we arrived at the junction of Reel Brook Trail, which we took, heading west, downhill.

img_6590

 

After descending down Reel Brook to NH Rt 116 in around 3.5m of pleasant White-Mountain forest we arrived back where we started – it was nearly 8pm!

img_6591

Photo of the Trail-Head, Taken At 7:44pm

 

The loop over North and South Kinsman had taken us 9 hours, 13 hours if you include the drive up from Durham and back home.  But it was a fantastic day.

*

My second major priority at IH was finding a better way for Plan to allocate resources, which meant deciding where the agency would grow.  This felt like a very strategic question: Plan was growing quickly those days, and deciding where to invest those new resources was important.  It would be a tangible manifestation of our strategy.

My own experience with this topic was, in some ways, an example of how not to approach these decisions.  As Regional Director for South America, before going to IH, I had obtained authorisation to negotiate with the government of Paraguay with the aim of reaching an agreement for Plan to work there.  From my perspective as Regional Director, this made sense, and with my old friend Andy Rubi acting as International Executive Director at the time, before Max’s arrival, I was able easily to get approval and so we began to work in Paraguay.  My well-known ability to dazzle senior-management meetings with slick presentations didn’t hurt, either!

In retrospect, even by the time I arrived at IH soon after we opened in Paraguay, that decision seemed questionable: there were many places in the world with more need than Paraguay.  I had been very parochial in my approach, battling to expand as much as possible in South America, my “patch,” not really considering what was best, overall.  But there had been no overall strategy for allocating resources across countries in Plan at that point, no analytical approach to balance the normal political advocacy and rhetorical skill that was all we had.  So I was approaching things in the “normal” way.

Helping the organization make these sensitive decisions in a strategic manner would be valuable, a key lever of change that would help us “think globally and act locally.”  Once at IH, I thought that if I could find a way to approach resource allocation in a skilful way, it might help us pull together and operate as a united organisation despite the centrifugal forces created by regionalisation.

But, could I find a way for Plan to allocate resources in an objective way?

*

International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) can scale up their work and impact in several ways, but they often find expansion to be difficult to manage.  Of course, there are well-known strategic and managerial challenges facing growing organizations in all sectors of the economy, and INGOs in particular face tough choices when seeking to scale up their impact.1  In addition, unlike private and public sector organizations, INGOs lack simple and commonly accepted analytical tools for targeting additional resources consistent with their organizational aims. A slow but steady blurring of institutional focus can result.

As I have described earlier, by the time I arrived at IH, Plan was quite decentralized, with a structure divided into six regions spanning the globe; within these regions were 42 program country offices.  Day-to-day management was  undertaken by the International Executive Director (“IED”) and six Regional Directors; International Headquarters staff, based in Woking, England, provided services to program and donor country operations.  Members of the International Board of Directors, who were all voluntary, were nominated by the national boards of the donor country offices, in numbers based on the number of children supported by each donor country.  Staff in Plan’s fourteen national donor country offices were responsible for recruiting and serving individual sponsors and other donors.

Plan’s income grew strongly over the 1990s, and therefore annual field expenditures were increased from around $50 million in 1987 to over $219 million in 1997, an impressive increase in real terms of more than 220%.

Before 1995, when we created a new approach, Plan’s geographical expansion was guided pragmatically and opportunistically.  The result was that incremental resources were directed toward countries where the organizational capacity to grow already existed.  Although there is nothing inherently wrong with opportunistic growth, or pragmatism for that matter, this approach allowed the organization to drift.

For example, as can be seen in the Figure, the world average under-five mortality rate (U5MR), weighted for population, dropped continuously from 1975 to 1993.  The world was making good progress!  The weighted-average U5MR corresponding to Plan’s caseload distribution rose from 1975 to 1980, indicating that Plan was gradually moving toward needier countries.  But after 1981 this trend reversed, and the organization gradually began to work in relatively less needy countries. In fact, Plan gradually was, unintentionally, evolving toward working in countries in which under-five mortality rates were decreasing more quickly than the global average.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-9-26-30-am

Two examples illustrate the trend. First, from 1977 to 1978, Plan’s weighted-average U5MR increased from 126 to 132. This increase took place because of strong expansion in Burkina Faso, Bolivia, Haiti, Mali, and Sierra Leone, countries with U5MRs above the Plan average, and a reduction of caseload in Korea, with a relatively low U5MR. So although Plan was reducing its caseload in Ethiopia, a high-U5MR country, and increasing it somewhat in Colombia and the Philippines, which had U5MRs lower than Plan’s average, the net effect was to increase global weighted-average U5MRs.

From 1981 to 1982, Plan’s weighted-average U5MR dropped from 137 to 132.  Here an increase in caseload in countries with U5MRs above the Plan-wide average, such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Sudan, was more than offset by strong growth in Colombia, Ecuador, and the Philippines, which were relatively low-U5MR countries.  Caseloads were increased in Colombia, Ecuador, and the Philippines at least in part because it was easier for staff to manage growth in these countries, a trend that continued through the 1980s.

For an organization seeking to build better futures for deprived children, families, and communities, this drift toward relatively less needy environments was unsettling and inappropriate.  Especially during a decade of exceptional growth, a mechanism to enable Plan managers to target organizational expansion was needed.

*

Plan’s situation was not unique. Geographic expansion experienced by INGOs is often strongly influenced by where growth can be managed.  Internal politics, pressure from governmental development agencies and other external funders, attention from the mass media, theories currently in vogue among development professionals, the ability of an individual manager to speak persuasively in public, or simply the dynamics of a particular meeting often drive these decisions.  As a consequence, organizational strategy – particularly concerning target populations – can become less of a focus. Day-to-day pressures dominate the attention of managers.

That sounds a lot like what driven me with the (in retrospect, wrong) decision to open in Paraguay!

Such pressures are not necessarily harmful. But without objective analytical tools that can demonstrate that resource allocation decisions are consistent (or inconsistent) with institutional strategy, organizational drift of the sort that Plan was experiencing can result.

To help correct this evolution toward less-needy populations, I proposed that a methodology be developed to direct Plan’s geographical expansion, and Senior Management approval was obtained.

*

A wide-ranging in-house analysis of global poverty trends, funding prospects, and organizational capacities was then carried out in 1994. The culmination of this strategic review was the November 1994 approval by Plan’s International Board of nine “Strategic Directions for Growth,” covering a range of issues such as program effectiveness, priorities for institutional strengthening, the fundraising approach, and a policy for human resource development.

One of these Strategic Directions was particularly relevant in developing a methodology to guide resource allocation: in the section entitled “Where to Work,” it was stated that “Plan should gradually evolve towards needier countries, and towards poorer regions within new and exist- ing program countries.  The essence of Plan’s intervention is that useful and sustainable development is achieved, so that the quality of life of deprived children in developing countries is improved.  The potential for this impact should be verified before entry into new program countries” (emphases added).

Therefore, the first step for the growth plan was to develop indicators to gauge the two central points of the policy statement: the need of a country and the potential for impact of Plan’s program there.  Such indicators would have to be intuitive and useful for managers rather than suitable only for experts, employ data that were widely available in a regularly updated form and generally accepted, and amenable to quantitative techniques so that results could be as objective as possible.

Of course, a data-driven approach would only take us so far; but I thought it was the right  place to start.

Measuring Need

Because of the focus of Plan’s work on children, any management indicator of need had to be related to child welfare.  The Under 5 Mortality Rate (“U5MR”) can be viewed as the “single most important indicator of the state of a nation’s children” for a variety of compelling reasons:2

  • “It measures an end result of the development process, rather than an ‘input’”;
  • It is “known to be the result of a wide variety of inputs”;
  • It is less susceptible to the fallacy of the average because an advantaged child cannot be a thousand times more likely to survive than a deprived child.

At the same time, the U5MR is intuitive and useful to managers, and data are updated regularly by many agencies.  Finally, the U5MR is amenable to quantitative manipulation because it is an absolute, not a relative, measure.

On this basis, I selected U5MR as the parameter by which Plan would assess need for its growth plan.

Measuring Potential for Impact

The creation of a simple indicator for potential for impact was more challenging, but the concept of a national performance gap, pioneered by UNICEF, turned out to be helpful.

The idea starts with the fact that a strong correlation exists between national wealth, as measured by gross national product (GNP) per capita, and various measures of social welfare.  In general, the richer a country is, the better off its citizens are: average U5MR are lower, educational levels are higher, and maternal mortality rates are lower, for example.  Because of this strong correlation, given a nation’s wealth, various indicators of social welfare can be predicted with a fair degree of certainty.

However, some countries achieve more than can be expected given their levels of national income, and others achieve less.  These countries perform better than others.  War, corruption, the political system of the country, budgetary priorities, and many other factors can affect this performance.  In short, the performance of a country in deploying its national wealth, no matter how meagre, to achieve expected levels of social welfare must depend on a wide variety of factors – I felt that these were just the sorts of factors that could determine the potential for impact of Plan’s programs.

Just to go a bit deeper, consider two hypothetical countries with similar national wealth, as measured by their respective GNP per capita.  The solid line in the Figure depicts the global correlation between income and some hypothetical measure of child welfare, constructed by carrying out a log regression analysis on the performance of all countries.  As can be seen, country A has a (say, marginally) higher level of child welfare than does country B and is in fact doing better than the correlation analysis would have predicted.  With the same economic resources, country A must somehow be creating a socioeconomic environment that is more amenable to child development than is country B.  It is important to note that the absolute level of child poverty in both country A and country B can be quite severe, with many needy children in each country, but the relative performance of the two countries varies.

But we can see that something is going right in country A, relative to country B.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-9-39-08-am

Bearing in mind that Plan sought to focus its work in areas where conditions are not hostile to sustainable development (it was not a humanitarian organization, at least in the mid-1990’s), the organisation might anticipate having more impact in the country that is achieving all that can be expected (no matter how little) with the resources (no matter how meagre) it has. In other words, Plan should target its marginal resources on country A instead of country B.

Thus, instead of somehow directly measuring the likely impact of Plan’s program in a given country, a task that is conceptually complex, I decided to use an indirect measure: the performance of that nation in achieving child development, no matter its national wealth.

To assess this performance concretely, a compound index of the status of children was created.  The index was formed by combining the U5MR, the percentage of primary school children reaching grade 5, and the enrollment ratio of females as a percentage of males in primary school.  These data are all readily available, intuitively simple to use, and absolute rather than relative measures.  (The U5MR is therefore used twice in this analysis: once directly, to measure need, and again indirectly, as one of three components combined and analyzed to measure government performance. The U5MR was chosen again because it is an effective measure of need and at the same time well represents the impact of efforts of a government in the health and education areas.)

This index, which I referred to as the “Plan Index”, was then analyzed to determine whether a given country, while qualifying as a Plan program country, was achieving more or less than could be expected given its national income.  The difference between actual and expected performance was denoted as the “Plan Gap”.

I calculated the Plan gap by performing a standard log regression on the Plan Index against per capita income at purchasing power parity.  A graphical portrayal of the result is given in the Figure; the gap between the smooth series of diamond-shaped points, which represents expected levels of the Plan Index for all countries qualifying as program countries, and real levels, shown as round points, represents the Plan Gap.  A positive Plan Gap (actual points above predicted levels) indicates that a country is performing better than would be expected given its national wealth; a negative gap suggests that performance is lagging.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-9-42-50-am

The analysis described was carried out on the eighty-one countries that Plan considered for program operations.  Then these countries were prioritized by combining the U5MR (measuring need) with the Plan Gap (measuring potential for impact); the U5MR was added to 2.5 times the Plan Gap to produce a compound index that was used for sorting.

The results are shown next: the table orders countries by this compound index; current program countries are shown in italic type, and countries selected for active consideration as new program countries are shown in boldface type. Thus Niger would appear to have the highest priority and the Dominican Republic the lowest. Four countries in which Plan had program operations in 1995 – Colombia, Paraguay, Sri Lanka, and Thailand – no longer qualified and therefore we decided to discuss their phase-out.

country-priority-matrix_page_1country-priority-matrix_page_2country-priority-matrix_page_3country-priority-matrix_page_4

Qualitative Factors

All that data analysis was great, but it took us only so far.  We thought that a methodology based exclusively on data would still miss much of value: informed judgment, experience, and intuition – also valuable tools when considering resource allocation.  And responsiveness and flexibility are two of the virtues of NGOs.  These attributes can be especially useful when employed in the light of the rigorous data-driven analysis that was carried out.

Therefore, we arranged for the quantitative analysis outlined above to be reviewed by a panel of Plan staff, a member of Plan’s International Board of Directors, and an invited guest from another large INGO.  A few of the qualitative factors examined in this review included:

  • Projected U5MR.  What is the trend for need in the country? Is the effect of HIV/AIDS likely to increase U5MRs beyond current trends?
  • Development climate.  Is the environment in the country conducive to development? Is the government in favor of NGOs working there? Has the government signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and produced a plan of action to implement the convention?
  • Risk.  How risky is the environment in the country? Is it stable? Are international investors working there? How likely is conflict, war, or some other similar problem?
  • Market potential.  Is there likely to be interest from sponsors and other donors? Are there ties between the country and any of Plan’s donor countries?
  • Saturation.  How many INGOs, bilateral agencies, and multilaterals operate in the country? What are their budget and geographical coverage? Is there room for Plan?
  • Caseload potential.  Is the population of needy children large enough to enable sufficient economies of scale for Plan?

Starting with the quantitative analysis outlined above, this discussion produced a proposal for resource allocation (a growth plan), which was reviewed by Plan’s senior management team of field and headquarters-based staff.  Thus the objective analysis was complemented by extensive discussion based on real, informed experience.

For example, although analytical work highlighted Niger as the highest priority in 1995, political instability there (not completely captured in the quantitative analysis outlined above) meant that Plan did not consider working in that nation until later.  And though some Plan Regional Directors felt strongly that Plan should continue to direct resources to countries such as Colombia and Sri Lanka, analytical results were helpful in convincing managers that these countries, though undeniably poor, had less child-related need than others and should thus be lower priorities for the organization.

The final growth plan was therefore created by combining the priorities and recommendations emerging from rigorous analysis with the informed experience of field-based staff.  Decisions were influenced, still, by political influence within the organisation and by rhetorical flourish, but these factors were now balanced by data.

I attach here a version of the growth plan prepared for consideration by Plan’s International Board of Directors in June, 1995 – plan-international-growth-plan.  Note, on page 7, a recommendation that Plan phase out operations in Paraguay!

*

During the rest of my time at IH, Plan’s senior management team frequently reviewed resource allocation requests, both when annual budgets were formally approved and when adjustments were made during the year.  Since discussions began with a review of the analytical results from the growth plan, the entire process became less confrontational, more objective, less emotional, and more productive.  The competing views of field managers were tempered with objective and rigorous analysis.  Rarely, when consensus on a particular resource-allocation decision was not reached, Max made the final decision. In most, but not all, cases, he endorsed the course of action recommended by the growth plan.  Where his decision varied from the plan, it was often to strike a geographical balance across Plan’s regions.  These more-objective discussions had a significant effect on resource allocation decisions.

However, the process used to develop the growth plan was far from perfect.  I managed the project, partly this was because of my own background and training in engineering, I was comfortable with the mathematics underlying the growth plan.  In particular, explaining the “Plan Gap” to those in senior management with different backgrounds was challenging.

Feedback was sought and endorsement gained at several points along the way as we developed the methodology but, unlike the development of Plan’s organizational goals (described last time), real involvement from the field was minimal, limited to giving feedback rather than, as in the earlier project, managing parts of the effort.  The emotional commitment of members of my department to the redirection of Plan’s growth toward particular areas (Africa) or issues (HIV and AIDS) was strong; a vocal “Africa lobby” took vigorous part in the discussions as well as behind the scenes.  And, in contrast to our work on Plan’s goals, the process did not begin with an organization-wide workshop, and communication of results to the wider organization was sporadic.

Personally, I was quite enamored of the elegant methodology that emerged, taken by its rigour and the insights embedded in the Plan Gap and Plan Index.  As a result, even though Max was just as pleased with the end result as I was, and greatly appreciated its rigour (he was also an engineer by training), ownership of the growth plan was less evident outside headquarters, and resistance to the results that came from its application was pretty strong.

*

Why did development of the growth plan stray from the lessons learned in successfully developing the Program Directions (and, as will be described, the final of the three projects, the restructuring of Plan’s country operations)?

I think that, in part, it was because, unlike the other two projects, the growth plan was by nature a win-lose proposition.  The growth plan led to quantitative growth of the organization being redirected from one area to another, with some regions gaining resources and others losing.  This led to a high level of anxiety on the part of field staff.  Together with the emotional attachment of staff in my department and myself to the growth plan model, the trap was set and we fell into the old top-down behaviors that had been common in earlier reincarnations of Plan’s headquarters.

Still, I think that the growth plan served a useful purpose.  By the end of 1999, another review of Plan’s growth strategy concluded with recommendations forwarded to senior management.  This review was based on the approach outlined here, further refining the model built in 1995.  Although reaching similar conclusions, the study focused on internal systems needed to ensure effective short-term management of growth supply and demand, while updating the long-term, strategic aspect of the original plan with identical methods and similar results.

So, while not entirely successful, the Growth Plan helped us to allocate resources more strategically, and I certainly learned some lessons on how NOT to manage sensitive projects like this one!

*

My next blog in this series will describe how we finished the restructuring of Plan’s field operations, which led to the creation of Country Offices.  It was a big effort, with huge implications for many people… and it went much better.

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;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International.

 

  1. See  (Edwards and Hulme, 1992; Billis and MacKeith, 1992; Hodson, 1992)
  2. Reference to UNICEF here?

North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International

In my previous entry of this series, I wrote about my arrival at the International Headquarters (“IH”) of Plan International, in 1991, as Program Director.  I had proposed to the then-new International Executive Director, Max van der Schalk, that I would stay in that role for just three years, accomplish some specific goals, and then I would return to the field.

I hoped to advance three carefully-chosen major projects in what I planned would be a relatively-brief time at IH:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  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.

Each of these efforts would contribute to addressing the disunity and lack of accountability that had grown as the agency regionalised and as staff had rebelled against Max’s predecessor, Alberto Neri.  I felt that the centrifugal forces unleashed by regionalization needed to be balanced with stronger centripetal forces – building unity across regions.

Centrifugal force is a way of describing the way that an object following a curved path will fly outwards, away from the center of the curve.  Centrifugal force isn’t really a force, it describes how an object resists any change in its state of rest or motion, so any object moving in a curved path must be subject to some force to make it deviate from a straight line.  Centripetal force is a real force, counteracting the centrifugal “force” and preventing the object from flying away from the center of the circular path.1  

I hoped to strengthen the centripetal forces: 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.  And I was trying to take a systems approach – fix the problems by changing the system using those three key levers.  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 first of those three projects – the preparation and approval of a new set of program goals and cross-cutting principles for Plan.

(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.)

But first…

*

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.

On July 3, 2016, Eric and I climbed North and South Kinsman, two of the three 4000-footers in the Cannon-Kinsman range, just west of Franconia Notch.  I’ll describe the first part of that long, long day here – the ascent of North Kinsman (4293ft, 1309m).

slide9

 

We left the parking area on NH 116 at around 11am, having driven up from Durham that morning.

img_6540

 

 

After a steady climb of around 3.7m, at around 1pm we arrived at the junction of several trails that are arrayed around Lonesome Lake Hut, which we could see below us down towards Franconia Notch.  Here we joined Kinsman Ridge Trail towards North Kinsman.

img_6544

 

Less than a half mile after passing this junction, we arrived at the summit of North Kinsman.  The view of Franconia Range from North Kinsman was spectacular that day.

Here you can see, from the left, Cannon Mountain (in the near distance) and, farther away, Mt Lafayette, Mt Lincoln, Mt Liberty, and Mt Flume.  Obviously, it was a stunning day and, once we arrived onto Kinsman Ridge Trail, the views were gorgeous:

 

1607-4175

As can be seen on the map, above, when we arrived at the top of North Kinsman we were barely a quarter of the way into our hike.  It was a great, but very long, day – the rest of which I will describe next time.

*

Third sector organizations, in particular, have fuzzy boundaries and countless opportunities to drift away from their primary purpose– Hudson (1995)

The kind of drift that Hudson describes was clearly occurring in Plan.  By 1994, Plan had three formal program goals (education, health, and economy); six program policies (HIV/AIDS, special-need children, family planning, women in development, the environment, and urban-rural work); a global program document, with nine policy themes and strategies; and an official Program Manual, including additional related statements.

These goals and policies had been developed over a number of years and became outdated, incomplete, and inconsistent in form.  They were a mixture of strategies, targets, and indicators, predating the development of Plans vision, mission, and strategic directions, the World Summit for Children, the World Conference on Education for All, and other important shifts in the development sector that had taken place.  Importantly, this hodgepodge of statements were not very child-centered.  From my own perspective, having worked as a Field Director in Tuluá, Area Manager for Ecuador and Bolivia, and Regional Director for South America, Plan’s program goals and policies were not as relevant to field practice as they should have been, and they did not enhance unity of purpose or accountability.  We weren’t using them; we had no shared language to describe our work.

But there was another reason for the drift: the new Regional Offices were asserting themselves in the vacuum that was being created by the reality that IH was very distracted by conflict between senior staff and the new CEO, Alberto Neri.  As I described earlier, for example, in the South America Region we had created our own strategy process, which was very successful in unifying our work in that part of the world, but I felt, even at the time, that there needed to be a mechanism for common, consistent accountability across the whole organization. Otherwise, regionalisation would pull Plan apart.

From my perspective, regionalisation was, in fact, pulling Plan apart.

Once Max brought me to IH, I prioritized reviewing Plans program goals and policies.  And having been a Regional Director, I was determined to undertake that review using a very different approach, consistent with a very new role for International Headquarters in general, and my new Department of Planning and Program Support (PPS) in particular.

What was that new role?  Previously, headquarters departments would decide what to do, and would carry out whatever was decided.  Of course, like good NGO people, headquarters staff consulted widely and deeply, and there was always lots of participation.  But IH ran things, developed things in a participatory way, rolled things out.

Now that regionalisation had been completed, my view was that the Regions would carry out many of the kinds of initiatives that were previously handled by IH.  They were closer to Plan’s work, better and more authentic innovations would come from Regions.

But, as I had been as Regional Director in South America, Regions would naturally tend to see things through their particular lens.  That was OK, as long as that kind of centrifugal force was balanced by the centripetal force of an agent that naturally saw things from the overall organizational perspective.  That was, almost by definition, International Headquarters.

So, the role of headquarters departments, at least my department, was to define parameters and objectives, and then – whenever possible – devolve development of corporate initiatives to decentralised operational units which were, after all, headed by senior managers (Regional Directors) who reported to the International Executive Director, just as I did.  I thought that this approach would be consistent with our regionalised structure, put my IH department into a necessary and proper centripetal role, and be effective in achieving the desired changes for Plan.

As I will describe here, and in my next two blog entries, I think it was mostly, but certainly not completely, successful…

*

So I proposed that PPS review and update Plan’s goals using the kind of approach outlined above and, once support was obtained from Senior Management, and the international board approved the initiative, we got going.

As a first step, a conference was organized using a “future search” methodology.2 Participants at this weeklong conference included senior staff from each Region, from IH, from Plan’s partner fundraising organizations, and from other international NGOs.

A complete set of “Domains” of child development were articulated as representing organizational goals, and another full set of cross-cutting “Principles” guiding Plans work in each domain were also proposed. These Domains and Principles were designed to replace the patchwork of existing goals and policies.

The basic framework that emerged included five Domains, or spheres of work:

img_7539

Growing up healthy: here we articulated a move beyond child physical survival to address the broader development and well-being of child age groups, incorporating Plan’s existing policies for child survival, family planning and HIV and AIDS;

img_7540

Learning: in this Domain we put emphasis upon learning rather than just schooling, recognising the importance of early childhood, preschool preparation, and youth and adult literacy and skills;

img_7541

Habitat: this recognised the interconnection of numerous habitat elements, social as well as physical, and their importance for children;

img_7542

Livelihood: here we rightly placed the focus of economic activities squarely upon their ultimate benefit for children;

img_7544

Building relationships: in this Domain we made explicit the inter-relation between child-sponsorship activities and program.

The Building-Relationship Domain, in particular, was seen as a breakthrough.  Plan, like many other “child-sponsorship” agencies, struggled to make sense of that particular mechanism: was it “just” a fundraising tool, or was there something more?

Our new formulation put Plan squarely in the “something more” camp – sponsorship was seen as a way of involving children in community development and  building the competence of children to communicate about their daily realities.  Plan also committed, in this Domain of our work, to calling for “sponsors” to support – and understand – the development priorities of children and their communities.  This was a big step forward for the organization.

Seven “Principles” were also proposed, which would be qualities characterising Plan’s work in each program Domain:

img_7551

Child Centredness (The Fundamental Principle): Plan’s programs would be child-
centered.  This was known as the Fundamental Principle because we wanted the child to be at the center of all of our work – our unchangeable, indisputable foundation;

img_7549

Learning: the organisation would strive to learn from its experience to support the achievement of its Mission;

img_7561


Integration:
program components would reinforce each other, so that activities in various Domains would become more powerful together, in integrated programs;

Gender Equity: Plan would emphasise women and img_7552girls, working to provide equal opportunities for all.  “Across its program interventions, Plan will actively work toward the eradication of gender-based inequities in opportunities, and the access to and control over resources.”  Here we sought to transcend the debate between gender equality and gender and development and move towards what I would characterize, today, as gender justice;

img_7553


Environmental Sustainability:
“across its program interventions, Plan will promote equitable and sustainable access to and use of natural resources by the people with whom it works, based on an understanding of their relationship with the environment”;

img_7557

Empowerment and Sustainability: Plan would seek to build the capabilities of local communities and local institutions and organisations with the aim of ensuring the long-term well-being of children;

img_7559

Cooperation: Later our sector would come to describe this as “partnership” – “to achieve its Mission, Plan will work through communities, and with community organisations, government bodies, NGOs and others.  Work with these partners will be based on mutual respect, with specific rights and obligations for all parties.”

 

*

Output from the conference served to mobilize the organization.  Several decentralized units, coordinated by PPS, managed the ensuing process of reflection and discussion. For example, the region of Central America and the Caribbean led development of the learning Domain, and an existing organizationwide network led in developing the Principle of gender equity.

In several cases, PPS handled Principle development directly, in the absence of a champion inside a decentralized organizational unit.  But to a great extent, decentralized units handled the development of these crucial organizational policies, working with other units and consultants and reporting results out to the wider organization for discussion.

What was the role of PPS?  We set up guidelines for Domain and Principle development; organized project timelines; and coordinated and monitored the overall process of review, discussion, and consensus building.  PPS also compiled draft documents into complete versions for review by the IED and senior management at critical stages in the development process.  Purposefully, the role of PPS was quite limited unless it was absolutely impossible for a decentralized unit to manage a particular part of this effort.

This process worked well.  Ownership of the process and the result was strong across Plan. The role of PPS was clear and widely accepted; as a result a businesslike and harmonious atmosphere characterized the development of Plan’s goals. Headquarters staff felt that their role, though somewhat indirect, was still valuable.  At the same time, ownership of the process was strong in field units, as they directly managed policy development for the wider organization.

However, two difficulties were encountered. In several cases, decentralized organizational units found that they were simply not able to dedicate sufficient time to developing a domain. In these cases, PPS stepped in to support the process. Also, at one point in the development process, an interim draft of the complete document took a direction that was unacceptable to Plan’s senior management in some particular aspects. But even this was constructive, since it defined the outer limit of options acceptable to management.

(Let me just foreshadow here that the same degree of success would not be achieved with the other two major projects that PPS carried out when I was at IH, even though I tried to use the same approach; stay tuned for posts related to those processes…)

The International Board of Directors endorsed the final draft, and the resulting, and pleasingly-brief document (issued in July, 1996, and available here – program-directions-1996) had a healthy effect on Plan for a decade, contributing to the unity of purpose that

img_7538

Program Directions Booklet – July 1996

was its broader aim.

For example, a new corporate planning, monitoring, and evaluation system was soon under development and implementation, systematically supporting programmatic cycles centered on the Domains and Principles.  This, together with implementation of a new financial system in which all activities were framed in terms of Plan’s Domains, allowed for measurement of organizational progress related to the Program Directions.

The Domains and Principles were also the basis for much subsequent organisational development.  In particular, the Principles became increasingly central in program development across the agency as years went by.

img_7565

Principle & Domain Guidelines – December 1999

By the end of 1999, Country Strategic Plans, based on the framework of the Domains and Principles, were being finalized for all program countries. Guidelines for field implementation of the Domains and Principles had been developed and issued (the original document is available here – principle-domain-guidelines-1999), and Plan’s International Board of Directors had approved a further refinement of the Domains, termed the “core program,” identifying particular components of the Domains as mandatory in all locations.

This second document is perhaps a bit long (66 pages), as I read it now, but I do like the prominence given to the Principles in this revision.  Still, given that I had left IH by this point, and was serving as Plan’s Country Director in Viet Nam (more on that later!), I appreciate the way that my successors at IH sought to build on what had been achieved earlier – kudos to Martin McCann!

*

Around 2000, though, a new wave of change and innovation began to sweep through Plan: my old friend Mac Abbey, who featured in this blog series earlier as a pioneer of “empowerment” in South America, was once again pioneering change!  Mac was now Country Director (a new position, resulting from the third PPS initiative mentioned at the beginning of the post – restructuring at country level; I’ll describe that in due course!) in Bangladesh, and over the next few years he would lead an effort to frame Plan’s program work around a set of concepts known as “Child-Centered Community Development” – “CCCD.”  In some ways, CCCD built on the Principles that PPS had developed, but Mac and other Country Directors in Asia certainly moved things in a new direction, a direction which was later embraced across Plan.

One of Plan’s biggest weaknesses was, and is, that the results of major change initiatives such as the development of Domains and Principles would be swept away by new changes before the benefit of the previous change project could be realised.  I mentioned this effect when I described Plan’s TQM initiative.  But in this case, I think that the organisation did manage to benefit from the work we did to develop the Domains and Principles, even though the focus on CCCD began to move Plan forward fairly quickly.  That’s because, as I mentioned, CCCD did emerge in some ways from the Program Principles we had developed.

*

My next blog in this series will describe the development of a growth plan for the organization, perhaps the least successful of those three major centripetal projects.

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;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!

 

  1. This description was adapted, in part, from http://www.diffen.com/difference/ Centrifugal_Force_vs_Centripetal_Force.
  2. Weisbord, M., and Janoff, S. Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1995.

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.

slide7

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.

img_6470

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:

img_6472

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:

img_6486

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

img_6485

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

img_6484

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

img_6482

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.

img_6487

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:

img_6489

img_6488

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:

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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!

Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!

I’ve been writing over the last few months about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 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 ninth of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Whiteface (4020 ft, 1225 m), which is slightly to the Southwest of Mt Passaconoway.  I went up both of these peaks on 15 June 2016, just five days after having gone up Mt Osceola and East Osceola.

I hiked over to Whiteface from the top of Passaconoway along the Rollins Trail, reaching the top at around 2:30pm.  Whiteface’s summit is uninteresting, but there are some beautiful granite outcroppings just past the peak, which give the mountain its name:

 

slide6

img_6437

The Top Of Mt Whiteface

 

Here in the distance you can see “Ferncroft”, where I began and ended that day.  The photo is taken from the granite outcroppings just to the south of Whiteface’s peak:

 

img_6446

Ferndale, As Seen From Granite Outcroppings Just Past The Top Of Whiteface

 

Unusually, at least for the summer of 2016, there were massive numbers of black flies at those granite outcroppings, so I didn’t stay long.  Swarms, like other years.  It’s a lovely place with fantastic views, so it’s a pity that I had to leave so quickly…

Much of the way down was on the Blueberry Ledge Trail, which was very steep as I left the ledges, fleeing those black flies.  Many of the signs along the way were painted in appropriate colors:

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

This was a great day – warm but not too hot, and enough of a challenge to be interesting.  Except for the black flies at the top of Mt Whiteface, it was a perfect day!

*

Last time I described Plan’s first Regional Office in South America in the early 1990’s.  The overall organization was still growing quickly, and regionalizing.  But morale at International Headquarters (IH) in Rhode Island was poor and, as a result, it seemed to becoming less effective.  So, less relevant to what we were doing… My sense was this was mostly because of the clash between Plan’s still-new International Executive Director, Alberto Neri, and the existing organisational culture.

As a result, in the early 1990’s, under the leadership of Andy Rubi, the South America Regional Office (SARO) began to fill the vacuum.  This was, to a great extent, a reaction to Alberto Neri’s strong emphasis on financial controls – most of us supported those changes, but wanted also to work on improving our programs.

I want to describe two of the ways that SARO moved ahead as IH seemed to drift a bit.  In this blog post, I will describe our efforts to pull the region together around a concept that was new to us, which we called “empowerment”.  This evolution became one component of a strategic planning exercise – which, itself, was another manifestation of how we were filling the vacuum left by IH.  A controversial action.

Next time I will describe how we adapted and implemented Total Quality Management, which was picked up by IH and considered by the overall organization.

*

South America’s embrace of “empowerment” came as we learned from several innovations that were taking place in Field Offices in the region, in particular what Annuska Heldring was doing in Cañar.  So in many ways this strategic evolution was a  good example of bottom-up change: a wider organisation recognising and embracing an innovation that was coming from the “coal face.”  This process led us to establishing a “vision” for Plan in South America, something that we were very proud of.

But, on reflection, I think that we might have been overstepping some boundaries – more on that later!

*

I’ve described how I met Annuska Heldring when she arrived in Azogues to set up a Field Office for Plan.  As she set up Plan Cañar, I remember hearing her describe how she would have very few staff.  At the time I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and had never heard of Plan, so I had no sense of the importance of what she was talking about, nor the implications for Plan.  But I do recall Annuska telling me about the problems she had faced as Field Director in The Philippines, before coming to Ecuador, in the Field Office in Iloilo.  Because of labor problems there, the Field Office had been closed; that experience had obviously had a very large impact on Annuska.

As a result, when she left the Philippines and began to set up the Plan Cañar Field Office, she was determined that it would be set up without the dozens (or hundreds) of staff that were typical for Plan offices in those days.  Plan Cañar would have just a few, mostly senior staff, plus a driver.  This meant that, because there were virtually no staff to manage projects, community members managed project implementation with, for example in the case of the water system in San Rafael, the support of government.  (In San Rafael, that was IEOS and me!)

So, I think that putting the community in the driver’s seat wasn’t necessarily the point.  It seemed that Annuska mainly was determined to avoid staff headaches, so created a “low-staff” model.  What we ended up calling “empowerment” – communities leading their own development, as was their human right – was a by-product of having low numbers of staff.  Not that simple, obviously, but that’s how it felt.

As a Peace-Corps Volunteer in Cañar, years before I arrived in SARO, what Annuska was doing seemed to work pretty well to me, but I had no sense of the audacity of this way of working, from Plan’s perspective.  It was only when I got to know Plan, in Tuluá, that I gained a clear perspective, and began to see what a revolution Annuska had begun.  Plan Tuluá was pretty typical, with around a hundred staff, including dozens of “Social Promoters” that did much of the project work.  With, of course, lots of involvement of local community members, and it worked very well, but it was quite different from what Annuska was doing.  At its best, Plan Tuluá was very empowering, but Plan Cañar was very, very different.

By the time I got to the South America Regional Office, Annuska’s office had been running for four or five years, and was performing well in terms of many of the things that we measured: unlike many Field Offices those days, Plan Cañar was spending its budget¹, complied fairly well with what we called “Sponsor Relations” – the elaborate system that Plan had put in place to specify communications between sponsored children and families with “Foster Parents” – and was extremely “efficient.”

This last point became very important.  Because of Plan Cañar’s low numbers of staff, Annuska was able to allocate a relatively very high proportion of her budget to project implementation.  Not only were staff salaries a low proportion of her budget (although her staff were highly paid, there were few of them), but associated staff-related costs such as office rent, vehicles, etc., were also low.  Again, perhaps this wasn’t Annuska’s intention, but Plan Cañar really stood out when we in the Regional Office, and IH, reviewed budget ratios.

And for Plan in those days, budget ratios were extremely important.  Alberto Neri had established a goal that Plan offices would spend at least 70% of funds on “tangible benefits”; no more than 20% on staff salaries; and no more than 10% on operating costs.

Like many of Alberto’s initiatives, to me this one made a lot of sense to me.  Many of our offices were spending even less than 50% on “tangible benefits” in those days, and encouraging all of us to become more efficient made sense to me.  I could certainly see ways that we could become more efficient.  But, also like many of his initiatives, it was handled clumsily, pushed too rigidly, and alienated the very people who were implementing it, and who would have been his best allies.  There was a backlash.

So Alberto liked what Annuska was doing, because it was low-cost.  And we in SARO and across South America began to like the model, too, because there seemed to be a big difference in the communities.  People from villages in Cañar managed projects themselves, learned a lot from that experience, and did good jobs – at least as well as our armies of “Social Promoters” seemed to be doing in other offices.  And when I commissioned a review of the Plan Cañar model, asking my old boss Monique van’t Hek from Tuluá to review things, the conclusions were very positive.

There were a couple other Field Offices where Plan was putting community members more centrally into the driver’s seat; for example, Mac Abbey in Plan Loja (Ecuador) was doing something quite similar.  These other initiatives were perhaps not quite as radical as Annuska’s approach in Cañar, but the difference was that they were approaching the change intentionally from the point of view of “empowering” the community, rather than having a “low-staff” model as such.

We at SARO began to pick up the importance of these initiatives, and started a process of strategic planning that incorporated the shift towards “empowerment” into a region-wide commitment.  Plan South America got excited at this strategic movement, partly because the overall organization seemed to be drifting, and it gave us a cause to rally around.  And, ironically, Alberto was very supportive, for his own reasons (as I described above, he liked the low-cost aspect of the model.)  The rest of the organisation – senior management at IH, staff in other regions – was much less enthusiastic!

Here is a page from a regional newsletter that I prepared.  You can see that Plan’s South America Region was committing to working in a quality way; to “empowerment”; and to focusing on children and our donors.

 

saro-strategic-directions-april-1992

 

These statements were developed through a careful process of reflection and discussion – you can see me being rather careful in the last two paragraphs here, noting that we hadn’t yet “fully debated and endorsed” the final two strategic directions.

What I think became a bit more controversial were the Vision and Mission statements for the South America Region.  Here perhaps we went a bit too far, because the wider organisation was developing Vision and Mission statements at the same time, and it probably would have been more appropriate for us in SARO to simply focus on strategies that fit within Plan’s overall Vision and Mission.  In fact, the four Strategic Directions that are shown here fit very well within the final Vision and Mission that were adopted by Plan, globally.  But we in South America had a lot of momentum, felt that IH wasn’t leading, and we were going to move ahead.

Here’s another page, from a presentation I prepared at the time:

 

saro-quality-framework

 

The presentation goes into lots of detail for each of these three elements of what we thought “Quality” should be in Plan.

This was good stuff.  Defining “Quality” as having those three pillars – unity of purpose, continuous improvement, and an empowering management culture – still makes sense to me, at least in an NGO setting.

*

And we paid a lot of attention to implementation, with the Regional Office providing support, funds, frameworks, guidance and accompaniment.  Mostly, we provided ways to share across Field Offices.  For example, here are four pages from workshop materials supporting an important event held in Cali, Colombia, in March of 1992:

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

The purpose of this workshop was to help Field Directors from across the South America Region to prepare their transition to “Empowerment” – to “empowering” Field Offices, locally adapting what Annuska and Mac and others had pioneered.  There were few aspects of the end result that had been pre-defined; mostly, we learned together from what was happening out in the field.

*

I learned a lot from all of this.  As I look back on our regional focus on “empowerment,” a few things stand out to me:

  • I really like how we at the Regional Office were able to perceive that a key innovation was happening, how we paid attention to it, embraced it, without having to invent it ourselves, and that we sought to catalyze the spread of the innovation.  That was a good role for the Regional Office;
  • The documents I have, and my own memory of events, show a lot of enthusiasm, and mutual learning.  There was very little “top-down” feeling to SARO’s move towards “empowerment;”
  • The essence of the shift, that community members we were working with had the right to be in the driver’s seat, that the decisions they would make would be as good as, or better than, Plan staff’s decisions – that was a correct instinct.

But also, looking back, I think that other elements of the wider organization – at International Headquarters, in other Regions – were beginning to perceive us in South America as wanting to be independent, operating autonomously.  Our own “Vision” and “Mission”… rapidly changing program models … “not asking permission…” and even not asking for forgiveness!

Their suspicions were somewhat justified.  We in South America were asserting ourselves as a response to the weakness of the agency’s center.  Perhaps this is common when organizations regionalize, a normal struggle between center and region, between “parent” and “child.”  But from our perspective, norale at the center of the organization was bad, South America was the first area to regionalize, so we had a strong sense of unity and energy, and much of the rest of the agency was preoccupied with resistance to Alberto Neri.  So we simply filled the vacuum.

A couple of years later, as Program Director at International Headquarters, I tried to take these lessons into account.  I tried to reassert the proper role of the center of the agency, ensuring unity of purpose, measuring results, and supporting organization-wide learning, while taking care that elements of the organization outside head office took the lead in important agency-wide initiatives whenever possible.

More on that later!

 

*

SARO’s focus on “Quality” led to a Plan-wide movement to adapt and adopt Total Quality Management for the entire organisation, an effort I was a key part of.

I’ll describe my involvement in that project – chairing Plan’s Quality Council – in my next blog post in this series!

*

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.

 

¹  In fact, Plan was building up a big surplus of funds, as Field Offices underspent, year after year.  This was, of course, a problem: firstly, we weren’t using funds that the public had entrusted us with for an important purpose, which was not to save it.  Second, it was also a potential public-relations issue – why give to an organizaiotn that didn’t seem to need it?
When I went to IH as Program Director, a few years later, we solved this problem in a very-effective way, I think.  Field Offices were, on average, underspending each year by 10%, year after year.  And Plan’s fundraising offices were overachieving their targets each year by around 5%, year after year.  So it was easy to understand the sources of the problem.
So Plan had tried asking Field Offices to budget better, and spend according to budgets, and asking the fundraising offices to be more accurate in their projections.  But it wasn’t working.
The approach we tried when I went to IH was different: recognise that the system was leading Field Offices and fundraising offices to behave in a specific way.  And plan for this.
So we simply asked Field Offices to plan to spend 15% more funds than we thought we’d raise.  Then their underspending, and the fundraising offices’ over-performance, would balance out.  In fact, to work down the “surplus” funds that had accumulated by the time I got to IH (which, if I remember correctly, was over $80m), we increased this to around 20%.
Over a few short years, that solved the problem, and we worked down the “surplus.”  A good lesson for me – think about the system, how it behaves, and manage it or change it.  Simply instructing people to behave differently was ineffective.