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…

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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).

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

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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.

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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:

 

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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:

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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;

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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;

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

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

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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:

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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;

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

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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;

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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”;

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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;

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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

Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!

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

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

 

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

 

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The summit of Middle Tripyramid

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does ‘RDE’ mean?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beginning of the loop over North and Middle Tripyramid mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nearing the top of North Tripyramid.

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

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The top of North Tripyramid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Quality Council included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

 

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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:

 

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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:

 

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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!

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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.

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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:

 

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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.

Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South American Regional Office (SARO)

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 eighth of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Passaconaway (4043 ft, 1232 m), which is slightly to the Northeast of Mt Whiteface.  I went up both of these peaks on 15 June 2016, just five days after having gone up Mt Osceola and East Osceola.

It was a very beautiful day.  The hike started from “Ferncroft”, a very lovely farm settlement:

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Ferncroft, With Mt Whiteface Just Above

I left Ferncroft at around 10am, walking alongside the buildings that can be seen above, and quickly entering the Sandwich Wilderness:

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The hike up Mt Passaconoway was beautiful, climbing up Dicey’s Mill Trail on a cool, partly-cloudy day.  A near-perfect White Mountains climb… challenging enough to get me drenched with sweat, so there was a sense of accomplishment, but not ridiculously hard.  There were very few insects, at least until I got over to Mt Whiteface!

Near the top of Passaconoway, I passed the junction with the Rollins Trail, which I would take over to Mt Whiteface, after lunch.

I had lunch at the top at around 12:30pm: not a spectacular view, actually not a view at all!, but there had been plenty of vistas on the way up:

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The Summit Cairn, Mt Passaconoway

Here’s a view back towards Mt Passaconoway, looking from near the top of Mt Whiteface, later that day (around 2:30pm):

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*

I left off my narrative, last time, as Jean and I were leaving Tuluá, Colombia, and heading to Plan’s first Regional Office, in Quito, Ecuador.  Of course, I was very familiar with that city, having arrived there as a Peace Corps Volunteer-to-be in early 1984.  My two years as a PCV in Ecuador were described in earlier posts in this series (here, here, here, and here).

We moved to Quito from Tuluá in 1991.  The city hadn’t changed very much since I left Ecuador in 1986, which was (mostly) a good thing.  Living on 6 de Diciembre, near the Olympic Stadium “Atahualpa”, we were a short walk to the Plan office, close to Parque Carolina (where I jogged), and shopping was easy.  This was before the Ecuadorean government adopted use of the US dollar as currency, so the old “sucre” still circulated, but had devalued massively.  For us, the cost of living was low – not so for the bulk of Ecuadoreans, however, who suffered high levels of inflation.

Our house was at the top of the “Jockey Club” building – pretty nice views of the city, and of surrounding mountains (which were MUCH higher than little Passoconoway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire!):

My new boss, Plan’s first Regional Director, was Andy Rubi:

saro-1

Andy Rubi, Plan’s First Regional Director

Andy was a gifted leader, with many years of experience in Plan – he understood our work very deeply, and he understood the dynamics of the organization very deeply, too.  I learned a lot from Andy, and often find myself using advice he gave me.  For example, when in conflict, stepping back and remembering to ask “what is the issue.”  That’s a great question!

(In fact, much later on, when I was in Australia in the mid-2010’s, I reached out to Andy for advice on a personnel challenge I was facing.  Andy, now retired and living in Honduras, was of great help to me then, as always…)

Here is an image of the Regional Office team, and senior staff from across South America a couple of years later, with many of the same people:

saro-2

(Some names, from the left side of the photo: Luis Alfred Cevallos, Kevin Porter, Roger Braden, Hank Beder, Zach Macy, Washington Muñoz, Diane Carazas, Frank van den Hout, Durval Martinez, Martin Fanghaenel, Hernando Manrique, Beatriz Gonzales, Michael Taylor, Paul Bode, Prem Shukla, Palmiro Soria, Leticia Escobar, Hans van Oosten, Luis Paredes, Freddy Diaz-Albertini, Ron Seligman, Tony Nolan, Mac Abbey, Larry Culver, Yvette Lopez, and Alejandro Acosta.  Missing: Andy himself, Ricardo Gómez, Rezene Tesfamarian, Henk Franken, Jairo Rios, and others.  A great group of people.  Apologies to those whose names I’ve forgotten! – please write with additions and corrections!)

Under Andy’s leadership, Plan’s first Regional Office had been established in July of 1987; I wrote a bit about this in an earlier post, describing how I came to join the organization.

One feature of the Regional Office, when it was established in 1987, was that it was not really guided by a goal to regionalize; it was actually more of a decentralization of headquarters functions.  This soon became very problematic.

Here is my recollection of that initial RO design:

slide1

The International Executive Director, Alberto Neri, had his office at Plan’s “International Headquarters” (“IH”) in Rhode Island, in the US.  Reporting to Alberto were several Directors, a few of which are shown in the figure, above.

As you can see, in the initial iteration of the South America Regional Office (“SARO”), staff in Quito related to IH through four separate reporting lines:

  • Andy Rubi, Regional Director, reported to the Program Director at IH;
  • Hernando Manrique, Regional MIS Coordinator, reported to the Technical Service Director at IH;
  • Jairo Rios, Regional Administrator, reported to the Finance Director at IH;
  • Washington Muñoz, Regional Auditor, reported to the Board Audit Committee.

In addition, when SARO was created, the “Area Managers” had two “hats” – they managed a group of Field Directors, and they had a technical responsibility as well.  For example, Leticia Escobar, Area Manager for Colombia and part of Ecuador, supervised my boss in Tuluá (Monique van’t Hek) and also supported the implementation of new Human Resources systems across South America; in this, she related to the HR Director at IH.

Leticia’s colleagues, the two other Area Managers, handled, along with the rest of the Field Office Directors in Ecuador and Bolivia, the other areas of systems strengthening that Plan was piloting:

  • Impact evaluation, through the implementation of the new, pilot “Field Office Evaluation System” – FOES.  This was system was developed by the Technical Services Department at IH;
  • Planning and Budgeting, using the new, pilot “PB2” software.  This was developed by the Finance Department at IH.

So Regional Office staff were pulled in many directions, mostly towards headquarters (rather than towards serving and supporting the Field Offices).  These multiple reporting lines made life very challenging for the human beings involved… on both sides of the organization.

But SARO was meant to be a pilot, with lessons learned to be incorporated as the five other projected Regional Offices were rolled out (in Central America and the Caribbean, in West Africa, in Eastern and Southern Africa, in Southeast Asia, and in South Asia.

So the experience with SARO was studied very thoroughly, very professionally.  For example, when I was working in Tuluá, we hosted a couple of visits from Bill Kieffer, who was in charge of regionalization (reporting to Alberto Neri), and Fred Thomas, who was a Plan board member at the time, and a very experienced management consultant.  It was an excellent process, with Field Office staff (such as myself) listened to as important “customers” of  regionalization.  And, in fact, all of this attention led to major adjustments being made over time, in SARO and also as other Regional Offices were established.

But the initial pilot structure created plenty of conflict, which I could see and feel when I arrived in Quito, especially between Andy and the Regional Administrator: initially, Jairo Rios, and later Luis Paredes.  For example, I vividly recall Andy and Luis arguing over the relative sizes of their offices and, in the end, sending floorplans to International Headquarters for the issue to be arbitrated!  What a waste!

 

Early in my time in Quito, the structure was changed, and our Regional Office began to look much more like a Regional Office, with the entire regional team, except for the very-appropriate exception of Regional Audit, reporting to Andy:

slide2

Around the same time, the “dual hat” for the Area Managers was simplified: we focused on supporting and supervising Field Directors, and a new position was created to support the implementation of the Field Office Evaluation System.

Now Andy was able to form a real team and create a sense of unity of purpose.

*

Several developments around the time when we arrived in Quito led, eventually, to dramatic changes in Plan.  In an earlier post in this series, I described the arrival of Alberto Neri, an Italian businessman, as Plan’s International Executive Director.  As I said there, it seemed (and seems) to me that Alberto’s initiatives were on target, and necessary, but his “approach to implementing them, and his interpersonal skills, however, let him down and created upheaval at headquarters.”

By the time I arrived in Quito, as Andy was consolidating a strong, creative, and united Regional Team, morale and effectiveness at International Headquarters was falling fast.  Many at Plan’s Rhode Island headquarters, including much of Senior Management, were extremely unhappy with Alberto’s leadership; as a result, the organizational center was becoming increasingly weak and inward-looking.

Meanwhile, across the world, people were showing signs of impatience with us in South America.  The establishment of other Regional Offices had been delayed, partly because changes in structure of our pilot Region were being made, and these changes needed to be assessed, too.  At the same time, headquarters was losing effectiveness, so staff outside of South America weren’t getting any more support than before – even less, since headquarters was focused on South America.  Alberto’s initiatives were getting a lot of attention, and they were only being implemented in South America, so understandably others got tired of hearing all about the work we were doing, and were skeptical about it – they wanted to get going, too.

Finally, alongside regionalization, and the HR, evaluation, and planning and budgeting initiatives that Alberto was pushing, he was very strongly focused on making Plan more “businesslike”.  This made a lot of sense to the finance and audit teams, but we development hippies grumbled as more financial systems, controls, and were put in place – didn’t Alberto trust us?

This was a potent mix, that only become more dangerous when Andy’s team decided to fill the vacuum that Plan’s headquarters was leaving.  We filled the vacuum with two big initiatives:

  • We rallied around an initiative, coming from several Field Offices but, most strongly, from my old friend Annuska, in Cañar.  Annuska had implemented a “low-staff” model which seemed to be effective and exciting.  We rebranded this as “empowerment” and ran with it;
  • Total Quality Management (“TQM”) was receiving lots of attention in the business world, and we at SARO decided to explore what this might mean for us.

These two initiatives gave us in South America a strong sense of momentum, that we were innovating and unifying, in an organization that seemed to be drifting.  For us, it was very exciting; for others, it seemed that SARO was going its own way, endangering the unity of the organization…

*

Stay tuned for more about “Empowerment” and TQM in Plan’s South America operations in upcoming blog posts in this series…

*

Here are earlier posts in this series – 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.

A Human Approach To Conflict

“When I was young, about four years old and my brother was six, we often fought together. But even when we did that, we soon forgot about it, and in minutes were playing together again. Older people have a greater tendency to nurse a grudge and to look for opportunities to pay it back.

When we face conflict we need a human approach to a solution: dialogue.”

* The Dalai Lama