Case 5: Organisational change and FAO reform

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The problem

In 2007 the Council of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) commissioned its first independent external evaluation in the sixty-year history of the organisation.  The purpose of the evaluation was to “chart the way forward in order to make FAO fit for the twenty-first century and the challenges ahead”.  After 18 months and over 3000 interviews, the principle conclusion was this: “the organisation is today in a financial and programme crisis that imperils the Organisation’s future in delivering essential services to the world”.  Over one hundred recommendations were made.

In response, FAO leaders launched a dizzying array of initiatives including: a new corporate strategic framework, results-based management, a staff performance and monitoring framework, a major restructuring, a culture change project, and a detailed root and branch review of its administrative procedures.

Within this complexity, FAO’s Emergency Division (TCE) was responsible for delivering the largest budget within the organisation.  TCE was faced with a triple challenge: deliver results, transformational change, and as the most dynamic in the organisation – providing an implicit benchmark for the rest of the organisation.  I was hired to accompany and support the division as it navigated this challenge.

My response

Initially, I facilitated the preparations leading up to the first division retreat – a 5 day strategic meeting for 300 people.  As the Retreat Facilitator, I encouraged the use of dialogue-based methods that created a new dense network of internal relationships, and encouraged knowledge sharing.  Then, a small division-wide Change Team was created to catalyse and implement the vision that was agreed in the retreat.  I provided regular research and discussion papers, coaching and facilitation support to this Change Team.  As clarity and consensus emerged in the Division, my role expanded to support Division leadership with executive coaching.
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TCE established a new standard within FAO for openness and dynamism, and contributed significantly to a new organisation-wide culture of collaboration.  That said, time is needed before the impact of this new culture on FAO’s effectiveness in crisis environments will be apparent.  References are available on request.


“There are three broad approaches to designing a new division.  The inductive approach draws from what has happened in the past and present, through learning processes and discussions on how to improve the way the division operates.  The deductive approach learns from the future by beginning with scenarios to which the organisation will be expected to respond in say 5-10 years, clarifying what the organisation will do in those scenarios, identifying the functions, then the structure.  The political approach incorporates the interests and initiatives at play within the organisation and seeks to maximise upon the opportunities for advantageous change.

“The opportunity created by the organisation-wide reform process, is to consider the type of emergency division that FAO member states will need in the future, and to use the current change process to put that division in place now.  This is an important leadership opportunity for TCE.

“There are differences in perception about the extent to which the division change process is succeeding…resistance to change is a natural and healthy part of organisational resilience.  Also, certain personalities are more comfortable with change than others.  Some people are very happy with uncertainty, and consistently throw themselves into new challenges.  Others are more comfortable with the predictable.  Both types are needed in an organisation.  The role of the division leadership here is to contribute to how the division makes sense of things.  Yet organisational leaders have a careful balance to make.  They cannot extend too far from ‘public opinion’ and risk alienating staff.

“By the end of 2009, the Division must have a plan that explains how it will implement the Corporate Strategy.  This plan will not be successful if it exclusively focuses on working arrangements and procedures.  It must also address the more difficult cultural changes that the new corporate strategy implies.

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