We can keep ourselves busy with urgent things, struggling to sustain increasingly complicated organisational realities, and miss what is really important. In his seminal work Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge (1990) distinguished between three types of organisational change:
Incremental change – single loop learning within existing policies and procedures
Reframing change – double loop learning achieved by changing the rules
Transformational change – triple loop learning leading to a change in the culture
The 21st Century is an organisational age. Most activities of consequence are now conducted through organisations: from birth to education, trade, recreation, governance, conflict, health, taxes, death and international affairs. Our rural ancestors needed competence in agriculture to survive. Today’s survival competence is about how to operate within an organisation, and how to create organisations that produce the results we intend.
The main challenge is this. Most organisations have been designed using the predominant 20th Century metaphor of organisational design – a rational machine. Theorists now use social metaphors – organisations are social arrangements that exist to pursue collective goals. I like the conversation metaphor – organisations are a collection of self-organising patterns of thinking and relating. They are open systems that co-evolve within highly interconnected social ecosystems.
Organisational change is therefore complex and unpredictable. Transformational change in organisations ultimately involves the creation of new realities that can break the hold of dominant organisational patterns. For the individual, this means both opportunity and loss.
Change means the unknown
Eleanor Roosevelt, architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems
I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself
Aldous Huxley, writer
Single organisational change – FAO reform
In 2009 FAO underwent a vast range of organisational change processes, from a new corporate strategy, to results based management, restructuring and culture change. I was engaged by the emergency division to support its navigation through significant internal complexity, and to help as it positioned itself for effectiveness in future emergencies. This support included facilitation of meetings and retreats, researching and making specific recommendations on organisational arrangements, developing a staff training programme, and executive coaching. A key element of this ongoing support is my position as an external facilitator of safe conversations about things that matter.
Network change – SCHR Peer Review on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse
Peer review is the examination of an organisation by other similar organizations, which is based on trust with the goal of mutual learning. Peer review is neither an audit nor an evaluation, but rather an assessment of professional competence on a selected issue, which examines organisational practices in light of the organization’s commitments. Peer review is an exciting concept that can simultaneously improve an organisation’s learning and accountability.
The Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) is the network of the largest international non-governmental humanitarian agencies, a bit like the G8 of the humanitarian community. The SCHR is using peer review as the mechanism to improve its learning and accountability. I was the facilitator and analyst for the first SCHR peer review teams to protect people affected by disasters from sexual exploitation and abuse.
System change – The Sphere Project
From 1999-2003 I was the Training Manager of the Sphere Project in a critical period of that initiative’s history. The Sphere Project is a multi-agency collaboration to produce quality standards founded in international legal instruments for international humanitarian action. Training was a key strategy for the initiative to address the behaviour of individual aid workers by demonstrating how to apply the standards in crisis situations. The project was, and still is, about changing how humanitarian organisations behave.
System change – Humanitarian Futures Programme
Since 2006 I have been a core team member of the Humanitarian Futures Programme, an action research project at King’s College London. This programme aspires to change the behaviour of the humanitarian system from its current reactive and insular orientation to one which is more anticipatory, adaptive and collaborative. A range of initiatives and innovations are underway.