I’ve just gotten mostly through with a major strategic planning exercise which made me think back on the many, many planning processes I’ve been involved in over my career. I thought I’d share a few of the recurring challenges in how we develop and use our plans in large public sector organizations such as the UN (which I also saw in DFID and the EU when I worked there, but that was a loooong time ago so I’m sure they’ve fixed it all by now ).
1. Over ambition – in most areas of our work it’s easy to see lots of things that need to be or could be done, especially when you are new and eager to please. In the context of trying to “do more with less” then it’s especially tempting to try to add everything you know that needs doing, you want to do or is suggested to you in your plan (like my own workplan for the first year in my current job). One way to avoid this is to try to realistically map out how much work effort is required for each, and to prioritize carefully to pick those things which are likely to have the biggest impact for the time/money invested.
2. Underestimating the time it takes to get stuff done – related to the above, things just take longer than you think they do. Apart from the actual working time it takes to do something, major reasons that things take longer than you expect is “waiting time” i.e. the amount of time you are waiting for other people or processes. The major culprits in this are i) length of time taken to get feedback/comments on your work that are needed at various stages ii) procurement and hiring processes – these always take a lot longer than you think they should and there are often unforeseen complications iii) personal calendars – when you need to wait for something because a key person is on leave or off sick or travelling iv) approvals and sign-offs – things often get stuck on some busy higher-ups desk.
3. Undervaluing the contributions of others – Often your work requires inputs of others – if these are financial or material inputs they might already be in someone else’s plan, but time contributions from others for commenting and technical inputs are often not budgeted or even communicated in advance to the people you need them from. If you expect others to spend significant time providing inputs or support to your workplan it’s important to let them know so they can plan for this, and also include this in your assumptions and risks as your priority might not be their priority (and it’s also good to ask others what they are assuming you will do for them that they are not aware of).
3. Planning yourself into a straightjacket – complicated projects might require detailed timelines and budgets together with flowcharts of activities and dependencies, but it’s good to be careful as to what exactly you will be held accountable to and how far you want to commit to specific things to others including managers, donors, executive boards etc. It’s fine to have a detailed plan to keep yourself on track – but its good to avoid being micro managed by others, especially if your detailed workplan is built on some guesswork and subject to extensive change based on experience, it’s good to have enough leeway not to have to go back for approval for small changes to the plan. This also applies in budgets i – it’s useful to avoid needing to get approvals for every small change in budget within an overall envelope, especially where actual budget costs are heavily dependent on items with a lot of potential variation such as for specialized consultants and expertise – getting budget changes approved, especially if they need to go back to donors can cause large delays.
4. Poorly thought out indicators – it’s a good thing that we are now required to include indicators in our plans but I’ve seen a lot of poorly thought out ones. Everyone knows indicators should be “SMART” but there is a tendency either to i) choose indicators that are really just measures of inputs or activities e.g. report produced, money spent that don’t really look at what you are trying to achieve or ii) which are at too high a level of impact which can’t be measured easily or which won’t show results within the timeframe of the project or iii) indicators which sound like a good assessment of progress (like “number of national plans that fully follow gender mainstreaming standards”) but for which there is no existing or easily created method of regular monitoring and so either they won’t get reported, or it will be a one-off exercise that requires additional costs itself to collect.
5. Focus on the activities rather than the purpose – a workplan with specific activities is good to ensure we know what to do and whether we are on track – but we need also to review our activities against our intended outputs and outcomes to see whether we are still on track to achieve them or whether the activities need to be changed to achieve our desired goals. Once we have developed our plan we often focus our monitoring on whether we followed the plan and are on schedule rather than whether we are making progress towards where we want to be in terms of outputs and outcomes, and whether the activities are still actually appropriate.
6. Developing a plan to look nice on the shelf. Sometimes plans are developed in response to demands from others rather than as something we actually intend to use ourselves to help us do our work e.g. because a donor or our board has asked for it or to get a funding allocation. If you are going to take the time to develop a plan, it’s important to make sure you can/will actually use it yourself to manage better rather than having parallel processes to monitor yourself and to report to others.
6. Not leaving space for the unexpected. We often end up planning 100% of our time not accounting for delays, but also not allowing space to deal with unexpected developments, new opportunities, demands or emergencies. In reality there are always unexpected developments that will need urgent response or which will provide opportunities to advance our work. Not allowing space for these will either mean delays in our plans as we take time away to deal with emerging issues, or lost opportunities and poor response when we fail to address new developments because they weren’t in our plan.
7. Not planning for failure (or success). We often plan assuming that our pilot projects or new initiatives will be successful, but they will not always work. we need to plan in time for reflection and revision of our plans or even ways to drop or scale back unsuccessful initiatives. But similarly if an approach is very successful then there might be an opportunity and even demand to scale it up. But if our resources are already 100% committed we won’t have the capacity to scale up or hand over. Similarly if we don’t think about what might happen if something is successful, we also might plan a pilot in a way that is not easily scaled e.g that relies on non scalable factors such as key personalities.
8. Or maybe we are just using the wrong planning tools in general. Much of the work we do is in trying to influence complex adaptive systems and maybe some our current linearly focused tools just aren’t up to the job. That could be the subject of a whole other blog post but a couple of references on this are i) a previous blog I wrote on “Who’s afraid of complexity in aid?” and Duncan Green’s latest blog on “What to do when you don’t know what’s going to happen?”
I’m sure there are many other pitfalls that I’ve missed. What are your lessons learned?
Duncan Green of Oxfam and author of “From Poverty to Power” book and blog recently did a bunch of presentations at the UN on “what’s hot in development”. I attended his UNDP talk which you can see here, which was lively and thought-provoking. But I almost wish I had attended his talk at UNICEF where there was apparently an interesting discussion on why (unlike the World Bank for example) there are so few UN bloggers.
He wrote a blog on it here which I recommend you to read, and this is now doing the rounds inside UNDP and possibly other agencies too.
So as one of the few UN staffers who blog I wanted to share a few thoughts of my own as to why we don’t blog more.
1. Political sensitivities and neutrality – at the UN we obviously need to be especially careful about not discussing publicly political or other sensitive or controversial topics, and to behave in a way that reflects positively on our role as international civil servants and avoid doing anything that would reflect badly on the UN. This isn’t particularly about blogging or social media – it’s part of the UN rules that apply to us all the time – including when we are not at work. We also need to be careful not to speak officially for the organization except when authorized to do so.
But this means we need to be mindful – not that it’s not allowed. These types of rules are also typical in other public bureaucracies including DFID, the US State Department and the World Bank who have a number of public blogs.
2. Risk aversion – I’ve written before that the UN is quite risk averse as an organization and often for good reason. In addition to political sensitivities there is also concern about saying things that might upset donors (institutional, corporate and individual), or for “being wrong” about something or making a mistake which might also reflect badly on the organization’s reputation. Again this isn’t unique to the UN – but I think this is more acute in the UN (and probably in organizations like Oxfam that raise money from the public) than it is in the Bank or DFID where there is less perceived risk to funding from a bad blog post.
3. Lack of publishing culture and guidance – the lack of blogging is perhaps the tip of a bigger iceberg which is the much lower level of publication of UN staffers at least when compared with the World Bank. Our internal procedures make it relatively difficult to get permission to produce an official publication in terms of approvals, reviews and timeline. These systems are largely put in pace for some good reasons e.g to ensure quality and deter frivolous proposals for publications that haven’t been well thought through. But at the same time they way they are implemented can seem a little stifling and so you are only likely only to pursue publication selectively. UN publications often don’t clearly identify staff contributors further reducing incentives and it’s “not done” to seek personal recognition. Publishing externally (such as in a journal) or blogging suffer from this overall approach to publishing and this is further compounded by the fact that the rules on what is permitted, or what permissions you might need and from who mare not clear. Is it an official activity, or is it an activity for personal time? do you need permission from your boss, your ethics department, you communication team? can you identify your affiliation? well it depends on who you ask.
4. Platforms and tools – There is no official UN blogging platform, so if you want to blog, you need to find, learn and maintain your own tool. It’s not difficult but it means that blogging skews heavily towards the technology savvy. Some organizations have internal social networking platforms such as UN Teamworks, Yammer or UNite Connect. These are great for encouraging internal dialogue and sharing, and allow people to “get their feet wet” with blogging but they are usually agency specific and closed off to the outside world. But this means that they are missing out on some of the best discussions and feedback which come from sharing your ideas with the outside world and we risk to mistake the internal dialogue with the real development conversations taking place “out there” (see here for a comparison of internal and external blogging I did some time ago).
5. Lack of people with interesting things to blog about? – one commenter on Duncan’s blog suggested that qualified, clever people were few and far between in the UN. I have to say that in my experience – this in NOT the case. There are lots of very smart, dynamic, dedicated people who have much interesting knowledge and experience to share. Sure not everyone has something to write about – but there is no shortage of people who do.
6. Leadership support – probably the biggest difference between those organizations that do and those that don’t is that blogging organizations have support from the top. Basically if the leadership of a public organization decides it want to use blogging as a means of outreach and as a way to show intellectual leadership, then many of the other issues can be resolved. In the UN it’s not that we’ve been told not to blog, but we haven’t been explicitly encouraged to do it either and so it’s just too difficult or unclear for many people to make the effort. By contrast in blogging organizations it’s accepted as part of business, there is guidance and support on how to do it (and what not to do), there might well be a technical platform made available, and it might even be reflected in job descriptions, and it factors positively into how you are viewed by your colleagues and bosses (and will also reflect back positively on your organization).
In the meantime you will still have a few UN bloggers pop up here and there, especially in knowledge management since blogging and exchange form part of our toolkit, but we will probably remain the exception.
Despite that there are more UN blogs, official and non-official that you might not have heard of. Here are some highlights.
Some official UN blogs that are not just promotional in nature:
- IFAD social reporting
- Stories of UNICEF innovation – from the UNICEF innovation team
- UN Global Pulse blog – from the Global Pulse team on their work with data, technology and development
- ICT-ILO blog – on learning training and technology
- UNDP Voices from Eurasia
Some personal blogs by UN staffers that are well worth a read:
- Buridan’s Blog – on knowledge, information and change management.
- Stepping Higher – Johannes Schunter’s blog on knowledge management
- Gauri’s mumblings – Gauri Salokhe of FAO on knowledge management (unfortunately not updated recently)
- On the road to discovery – by Roxanna Samii of IFAD on knowledge management and organizational development issues
- Sebastian Rottmair’s blog/webpage – features “The Little Peacekeeper” as well as the extremely useful (but unofficial) UN Job list.
- Talk-Share-Learn – by Luca Servo of FAO on communication for development
- A Digerati Wannabe – by Michael Riggs of FAO on knowledge sharing and development work
Have I missed any?
This morning I’ll be presenting at a panel discussion at the UN Evaluation Group Annual Meeting – Evaluation Peer Exchange on “Knowledge Management and Evaluation”.
I’m writing up this session as two blogs posts – this one which contains my talking points which I’m putting live at the same time as the session, and part 2 which will be my reflections on the session as a whole including the other presentations and the audience discussion.
I started out by UN career in the UNICEF Evaluation office in 1996 (is it really that long ago?) – but ended up drifting first into information management, then communication and finally knowledge management, so I’ve seen both sides of this discussion up close.
For me they are two valuable and potentially complementary approaches – but often practitioners of one aren’t able to see things through the same eyes of those of the other, and we don’t always make the best use of the two approaches in combination.
First, I’ll start out with what’s in common between the two approaches. In essence both are about “learning” – finding out what works and what doesn’t in order to understand and learn from our experience and feed what we have learned back into the project we are managing or extract any usable knowledge that might inform other projects or even our overall organization policy or approach.
But there also a number of important differences. This might be a bit over generalized but a number of key distinctions can be seen in this table:
Explicit focus on (donor) accountability
Limited implicit focus on (beneficiary) accountability
External – done by evaluators
Internal – done by programme managers
Focus on explicit observable knowledge
Strong focus on tacit knowledge, know how and experience.
Independent of programme
Integrated as part of programme
Each of these then lends itself to different types of questions and situations. For example if you want quick cheap feedback on how your project is doing for immediate action then you might be better off using knowledge management tools such as after-action reviews or peer-assessments. You can’t evaluate everything because it would be too resource-intensive – and by the time you have completed an evaluation the situation might already have changed. But at the same time, if you want to explore scientifically in-depth what happened in a programme, or you want to have solid evidence for scaling up of a new approach then an evaluation will give you something much stronger than a KM process.
But it’s also interesting to compare the results of the two approaches for the same project or type of work – do they back each other up or do they contradict? Do they give you contradictory or complementary insights into what is working in a programme and what isn’t?
It is also interesting to compare their impact on use and policy. Evaluations are often called for as a way of assessing pilot initiatives or as a funding condition – but at the same time, due to their external arms length nature – while they might be good to support a particular advocacy position or funding discussion, they are often less useful as tool for internal learning in terms of feeding back into the programme or into practice in general. Knowledge management tools if done well are likely to had a greater impact on learning because they are usually done by the people running the programme themselves or professional peers doing similar work. The Management Response is a step forward in the sphere of evaluation in that it ensures people formally respond to an evaluation – but the risk is that people will go through the motions, especially if they don’t really agree with the observations.
But how might these approaches be usefully combined? One way is to make use of knowledge generated through KM processes in the evaluation itself. In particular to make use of knowledge networks to help support the evaluators in formulating the right evaluative questions, help bring in relevant experience and comparators during the evaluation, to validate the findings with practitioners and in helping to engage the “community” around the implications of the findings for their work, and in supporting the programme managers in implementing the follow-up. To be useful therefore, action on the follow-up to the findings should be started before the report is finalized.
Another aspect is that if you keep getting similar conclusions about a systemic issue from informal KM processes you might want to follow this up with an evaluation to analyze the issue more rigorously and to help identify and justify whether, for example, policy change is needed. Or you might try to develop a system to collect feedback and reflections (both internal and external) throughout a project and then aggregate these as a primary information source for your evaluation – which would also mean that you could produce evaluation conclusions at any stage of a project once enough data has been collected rather than being forced to decide on a single episodic assessment.
Another is in methodological exchange. On the one hand evaluation can (and does) adopt techniques from Knowledge Management – examples include the use of storytelling – including through audiovisual techniques to collect either records of the programming process, or on the impact on and views of programme beneficiaries. This can be both informative – but also if scaled can be made to be more representative – and the materials collected can also be very useful to support the dissemination of the formal findings, since whatever policy makers say about what they want, in practice they react more to real life stories than they do to dry analysis alone.
My last point is that evaluators need knowledge management for evaluation work itself i.e. to reflect on and learn from their own experience (without needing to formally evaluate themselves) and to help network with and learn from other evaluators and provide peer support, such as through the community of practice that is being developed by the UNEG KM group. And knowledge managers need you – the results of knowledge management are notoriously difficult to quantify and to evaluate, posing a number of methodological challenges – and too often we shy away from doing so – yet we do need to do this to be able to improve and advocate for our work. Evaluators help us out!
This one’s for my more seasoned readers
In a previous blog post I wrote about the challenges of the bureaucratic mindset, and how we also need to look at our own actions to see if we are just going through the motions and using bureaucracy as a screen.
One tactic I’d suggest for overcoming your own bureaucratic inertia is to do something new or different in the workplace. It doesn’t have to be something big, and it doesn’t have to be permanent – just something small and experimental, like trying a new technology, doing an unconventional presentation, or trying a novel approach to organizing a work meeting, learning a new skill or taking on a side project.
There are a lot of good reasons why a seasoned aid worker might not want to step out and try something new. Doing something differently is harder than business as usual since it requires more effort to learn how to do something a new way, you won’t be as good at it, it might not be as effective (at least the first time you try), people might be skeptical, and you can risk looking foolish if you don’t do it well or if it doesn’t work.
So given all these risks, why might it be a good idea to try to do something different?
- Trying to do something new forces you to be more mindful of what you are doing and to be more conscious of what you are doing and why. Often when we do things the way we are used to we go into autopilot and forget why we are doing it and how that contributes to what we want to achieve. For example we often end up sitting through traditional meetings in order to take important decisions without any real, frank discussion whereas using a different meeting format can really shake things up.
- A new approach or tool can also give you a new perspective on an issue because it forces you to tackle it from a different angle. for example trying to create an infographic to explain your data instead of a written analysis will make you look differently about what stands out and what is important. Using a different approach can also help provide insights and make connections with other fields to help solve a problem.
- You will develop a new skill, or tool or at least get an insight into what people are talking about when they refer to an approach and its potential. An example for me was using twitter. Despite working in knowledge management I was initially very skeptical, thinking it a superficial waste of time. But I was at a conference (Web4Dev2009) and I saw lots of other people doing it, so I signed up to see what all the fuss was about, and I’ve been hooked since. I also signed up much later for Pinterest and have found absolutely no use for it personally – but I now know what it is and have an idea what the fuss is about.
- People will notice. If you do something differently it will attract attention. Some might be skeptical – but others will be attracted just by the fact that it is different. A very practical example is that I’ve found that whenever I use Prezi for internal presentations people are always impressed – not because the content is necessarily any better than a regular presentation but because it is a refreshing way to present it. Trying something new might also inspire others to give it a go and create some creative competition. I mean if YOU can do it surely they can do it too.
- You might find a better solution to your problem. It’s not a given that your new way will work, or be a good approach for you – but if you don’t try something you will never find out. Our work is constantly throwing up new challenges which our existing tools don’t fully address and it often seems like the rest of the world is moving much faster than we are – so we have to keep trying if we want to keep up, even if it is hard (which reminds me of one of my favourite quotes: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” – the Red Queen from Lewis Caroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”)
- Doing something new can give you a buzz when it goes well. The buzz comes both from the mental stimulation of actually thinking about what you are doing and the apprehension about whether or not it will work and how others will react, and the joy when it succeeds or when it attracts the attention of others. The act of learning and experimenting is fun – and can be quite addicting. It’s like a game where you play to find out what works and how to get a better score.
- It’s always nice to have a new skill or project on your CV, especially one that’s innovative!
So go out and try something new. It doesn’t need to be revolutionary, and it doesn’t need to be big and risky – just try something small and it will make work more interesting and fun, and it could take you far.
Last week the UNDG launched “The Global Conversation Begins: emerging views for a new development agenda”. This report summarizes the inputs received so far in the various global conversations taking place around the post-2015 development agenda (see here for my previous description of the aim and the challenges in this global consultation project). It draws in particular from the global, thematic and national consultations and from the My World 2015 global vote.
But already the work of the high-level panel is drawing to a close to a conclusion with the final official panel meeting taking place this week in Bali, and their report to the Secretary General due by the end of May. Many of the thematic consultations are now wrapping up while the national consultations are at various stages of completion, and the global vote is still ongoing.
Taking it at face value, given the very diverse group of people who have been involved in some way or other in the post-2015 discussions, and the broad range of issues and opinions shared, it’s likely that a large number of people will experience some disappointment that their views or issues don’t make it into the report of the High Level Panel. And beyond that, once the report is submitted it then goes into the “official process” for inter-governmental negotiations and any resulting agreement on the post-2015 goals will be made by agreement of UN member state governments, which might or might not follow the recommendations of the high-level panel.
So the question is, what is the value of the global conversation once the High Level Panel have completed their work and the intergovernmental negotiations begin?
1. Most obviously (and reassuringly) – the global conversation is helping shape the views of the High Level Panel. They have been strong supporters of the consultation efforts and have been quite open to hearing from and interacting with a broad range of partners about what the agenda should look like. they will of course need to prioritize carefully from among the ideas they have heard, and their own perspectives – but the level of openness to hear from others is something we have rarely seen in the past.
2. Once the report is completed, the discussion moves on to the intergovernmental sphere. Here the record of listening has not historically been so good – but this time it will be much harder for negotiators to ignore voices from civil society, youth, academia, media etc. there has been so much discussion on post-2015 that it seems hard to get away from it, and with many more people actively following and engaged with the discussions it will be much harder for government representatives to duck difficult issues – for example the issue of growing inequalities keeps coming up in different guises, a sensitive issue to be sure, but one which I expect will be hard to sideline.
3. One additional benefit from all the conversations is the mobilization of diverse group of actors around the future of development. The networks built and the issues discussed will reverberate well beyond the discussions around agreeing the agenda itself, both informing how it is implemented, and creating a movement of people who will be watching government commitments and action, and also continuing the discussions around the best way to make things happen and helping contribute to them.
4.While the outcomes of any of the thematic discussion may influence only a small number of the goals in the final agreement, they did also create a conversation about prioritization, implementation and measurement within those themes and the outcomes of those discussions have the potential to influence future directions within that theme or sector and create new partnerships and approaches. Similarly while any individual national consultation may have limited influence over the global agreement, they have, if successful, succeeded in creating broad-based discussion about national development priorities which is more inclusive than the processes usually used to elaborate national development plans. These can also serve as an important basis for the UN’s planning as part of a strategic dialogue which can be used in preparation of the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF).
5. The global conversation itself sets a precedent in consultation and citizen engagement on major international decisions which shows that it is possible, and worthwhile to reach out to citizens and broaden the conversation beyond the usual suspects – and in so doing make it harder for others who seek to continue with intergovernmental decision-making behind closed doors.
For these reasons the global conversation is about much more than the final summaries or the eventual post-2015 agenda – it’s about doing development a different way. But this will only work if the international community keeps the conversation going, and maintains the focus on delivering the post-2015 agenda and in holding themselves to account for it.
The UN is often spoken of as being very bureaucratic, and not in a good way. And those of us who work here have all had days when we struggle with trying to maintain optimism and getting things done due to the challenges of following myriad rules written and unwritten (see an earlier blog post “working with one hand tied behind your back”).
I’ve also written before about some of the problems with how we develop rules and the large number of them (see earlier post “afraid of responsibility – try regulation”). But rules are also very valuable in ensuring that as public employees are accountable both to our donors and beneficiaries, to help us systematically follow good practice that has been developed from experience, to ensure that we are consistent and fair in how we work, to minimize risks and to save time and energy by avoiding us making up new procedures every time we do a new project.
But while we can criticize the number and nature of some of the rules we have to follow and how they constrain us – I’m increasingly aware that it’s often not the rules themselves that cause the problem but the mind-frame that many people within the system adopt in applying them, often after a career of frustrated attempts to change things. Often when we are “fighting the system” to get things done it feels like we are actually fighting ourselves – or at least our bosses and colleagues.
So what’s behind this mindset? A few things include:
1. Risk aversion – Public bureaucracies are notoriously risk averse – and not without reason. Both donors and internal control mechanisms encourage compliance with rules, long deliberation and sticking with fixed plans over taking initiative and seizing opportunities or doing something bold. This translates at an individual level to taking it slowly, consulting widely often to cover your back as much as to seek insight, and ensuring everything goes through multiple formal review mechanisms and sign-offs.
2. Tall poppy syndrome – a fear of taking initiative and drawing too much attention to oneself for fear of being “cut down to size” by others in the system. This can be especially true in a bureaucracy as the culture is one of duty to the institution and the system over pushing ones own ideas or agenda.
3. Reluctance to change. We’re all to some extent resistant to change – but in public organizations the organizational culture is one of stability or slow change. Security including job security is one of the motivating reasons why some people choose to work there. Of course public organizations do frequently have change management processes introduced or imposed on them – but in practice these are often quite painful processes that awake resistance rather than something that motivates people to change. A part of this is because the processes are usually imposed by external forces who see public organizations as rigid and the employees as something that needs to be fixed. (I’m currently taking a course on “Leading strategic innovation in organizations” with Coursera and heard this great quote from the course professor, David Owens “Innovation is something you do to others, change is something that is done to you”).
4. Losing sight of the results. In a large organization it’s easy to end up focusing on the mechanics and processes of your work and your specific tasks (and thus following procedures and rules) rather than focusing on the larger goal to which your work contributes and how you do your work fits in with that.
5. Split between doers and enforcers. Often in the UN our work is divided between two groups of people – those who develop ideas or programmes, and those people who perform the operational support that to happen. This means you often have “programme officers” who want to get things done but who don’t know the rules and “operations and support staff” whose job it is to keep them in check and make sure that all the rules and procedures are followed correctly. This often means that programme people can’t understand why we need to follow certain procedures to protect the organization and operations people don’t feel they have a stake in the results the programme people are seeking.
How can we overcome this? There are a number of systemic issues I’d love to change such as the relationship with donors, or the organizations approach to innovation and risk management, but while we are waiting for Godot those to happen, we should ask ourselves: what can we do as individuals to overcome the bureaucratic mindset in colleagues, or in ourselves? I don’t have any silver bullets since if I knew how to overcome this I’d probably already own a highly profitable consulting firm by now but here are a few thoughts that are looking for feedback:
1. Focus on identifying the results you want to achieve first – then figure out how to achieve the results within the rules. It might be necessary to modify your plans in order to do them according to the rules and to get people to buy into what you are doing – but you should continually remember what it is you are trying to achieve and whether your modified plans are still getting you where you want to be. If you start by thinking about what you know you are able to do you are already restricting your possibilities. Better to work backwards from an ideal that starting off with something that is already limited. Even if your work seems a small contribution to a much larger distant goal, it’s always good to retain focus on the larger picture and judge your work on whether it continues to support it.
2. Don’t rush to judgement. Try to identify multiple possible solutions to any problems you are facing including a few crazy ones. Don’t assess and discard them too early or rush to pick a single solution until you’ve had chance to think of the problem from different angles. The more ideas you have the more likely that some of them will be good, and you might be able to pull things from the ideas you discarded to help you later in the project – but only if you had them in the first place.
3. Challenge your assumptions – or have someone challenge them for you. If you think something can’t be done – try to identify explicitly what the barriers are that you are seeing and look to see if there is some way to overcome them or what might happen if you lay them to one side for a while to be dealt with later while you flesh out the easier aspects of the problem. Getting someone from outside your usual circle to look at your problem might also help bring in new ideas or avoid getting stuck on familiar barriers.
4. Develop a support network. There’s nothing more discouraging than having someone say “I told you so” after an unsuccessful attempt to do something new. Try to develop a network of other people who have a similar mindset and mutually support each other both with ideas, but more importantly with moral support whether it be encouragement to keep going when there are setbacks or actual substantive support if you are in a position to do so. And just as you count on others for support, so they should also be able to count on you. (and a quick plug for the UN Transformation Network a group of UN staffers and consultants who work with the UN who are dedicated to transformation from within).
5. Build bridges to create co-ownership in the results – in particular try to get the people in procurement and human resources or elsewhere on board with your project and to also want it to succeed so that they will help you find a way to get it done that also conforms to the requirements of the organization. This way your result will be a better one both because it’s more likely to make it through the administrative hurdles, but also because you will have profited from the expertise of your colleagues in formulating it in the first place.
6. Get advice – but take your own decision. It’s likely that someone else has faced a similar situation to yours in getting things through the system and that they will have valuable lessons for you, even if they were unsuccessful.
7. Do something – even if it is small. Use whatever opportunities you have to make a change – even if it is a limited pilot or prototype. If you can’t persuade your bosses or “the system” to make a major change or take on a large project – try to get the space to do something small and experimental so that the risks are not too large, but that will allow you to test your ideas, refine them and prove that they can work (or try something else with your reputation intact if they don’t).
8. Finally, be true to yourself and your values. Try to keep focused on why you joined the organization and the change you wanted to make and don’t compromise on that, even if progress is slow. And try to set an example that others can follow, and get feedback from others on whether you are living up to that.
Fellow travellers: What are your suggestions for avoiding the bureaucratic mindset? I’d love to hear from you.
I was recently asked by some colleagues to help them set up a Facebook page for a community of practice for a small group of field based UN staff working in a number of challenging locations. They preferred Facebook over the UN’s official systems for this purpose as according to them everyone uses Facebook, and it’s more user-friendly.
I can see the attraction of setting up a Facebook space – making use of a tool everyone already uses, it’s quick to do, no technical skills are needed and no forms to fill. But for internal business related communities of practice Facebook also has a number of important limitations and for most circumstances I wouldn’t recommend it for this purpose. Here’s why:
1. You don’t own your content, and you don’t know where it will end up and how it will be used. There have been a number of controversies around the ownership and use of data posted on Facebook. While some of these have been resolved – there is a real concern that whatever you post is sitting on an external server somewhere and is being shared with people who you don’t want to see it – even if it’s just to help target advertising (so Facebook can recommend flack jackets and mosquito nets to you perhaps). Given the confidential and sensitive nature of some (but certainly not all) of the UN’s work this could be a little risky. And how many Facebook users really understand how to use the privacy settings correctly.
2. There’s no helpdesk. Yes it’s easy to use – but if your content is lost, or you didn’t adjust your privacy settings correctly or you can’t find something you entered, there’s no person to go to get help. And the nuances of Facebook are harder than they first appear, especially for managing pages and groups. Facebook are always updating their product, which can be good as it constantly improves, but you also have no control over how this happens –they can discontinue a feature or change what you see or chose to block content at any time and there’s nothing you can do about it (timeline anyone?).
3. Clutter. Facebook has so many features and add-ons and has so much diverse content that it can be hard to use – particularly to sift through everything that turns up in your feed and notifications to find what you want. It can be very hard to find past contributions and discussions, and even when a discussion is currently active it can be hard to find what you are looking for in between all the Farmville notifications, birthday calendar invitations and holiday pictures from your friends. Yes, you can specifically navigate to your page or group – but that’s an extra effort that most users don’t make – they generally only look at their feed.
4. Mixing the work and pleasure. Much as I have advocated for living out loud, I don’t think everyone is ready for that yet – but using Facebook for work purposes might bring your colleagues closer to your private life than you might think. They may now be tempted to browse your profile, look at your holiday photos, see what you are reading and what games you are playing etc. even if you are not “friends”. Here it’s not your group’s privacy settings but your own. (I know that whatever you put on Facebook might eventually be seen by your employer – but I can see from some colleagues/friends feeds that they haven’t realized this yet!)
5. Despite all the features it does have, it’s missing a few critical ones such as the ability to easily share and collaborate on files, or having tools such as wikis. Although Facebook pages have some good analytics and other useful tools, it doesn’t have all the kind of features that a community manager needs for managing interactions and memberships (although every tool out there has functionality weaknesses of some sort or other).
It’s not that I don’t like Facebook. It has a number of useful features that can be valuable support you in your work – but you might be better off using something else for your work related communities of practice, especially internally focused ones.
Just to show I’m not totally down on Facebook, here are a few examples of where it can be very useful:
1. It’s a great “address book” to help keep track of all the various people you have befriended and worked with over your career. It can be hard to keep up with people and keep track of where they are, especially if you move a lot,but Facebook is great to help you do this, and to maintain your “weak ties” with people you don’t regularly interact with so you can find them again later if you might need them (and vice versa).
2. It’s good for serendipitous news sharing – I often find interesting and sometimes useful things from my friends Facebook feeds and the pages I follow. I prefer twitter for this, but the user base for both platforms is slightly different and so it’s certain;y useful to use both.
And combining 1. and 2. it can sometimes e a great way of making an important work connection. I recall once shortly after the Haiti Earthquake I was able to connect two different parts of UNICEF one who was requesting a supply and anther that had access to it – just through spotting the connection in my feed (and this is the type of connection that usually doesn’t happen in closed communities of practice but can happen through the more open social web).
3. It’s a great tool for publicity and marketing and engaging with a community of external supporters such as volunteers, supporters, potential donors etc. to get them involved in your work and to get their views. There’s lots written on this elsewhere so I won’t.
It’s also great for all the personal social fun stuff you do on Facebook. Just don’t ask me to recommend it for a work related community of practice.