An organisational culture of change

Organisational culture is usually the most undervalued and neglected component in the design and implementation of change processes. ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ as the saying goes. Culture is even more voracious: I have frequently observed how culture has devoured all kinds of well-designed structures and processes from governance at the top to the basic provisions and routines at the bottom of the hierarchy. If an organisation’s culture and the way it goes about achieving its mission are not aligned, this can prevent the organisation from achieving its objectives. And when an ICSO tries to change its way of doing business, for example by employing different business models or by changing its approach to management and governance, it needs to take potential conflicts with the existing culture into account. ICSOs will only be successful in undertaking the in-depth change processes they will have to go through if they are able to overcome the cultural hurdles deeply embedded in the organisations’ traditional identity.

Intertwining activist and professional cultures

In the beginning all ICSOs started as small outfits run by volunteer activists. People worked without pay driven by the ethical objectives they had set their organisation up for. As the organisation became more successful and started to secure a regular inflow of funds the first salaried employees came on board. This was the start of a two track system which had to constantly balance the skills and the needs of volunteers and employees. Many years ago I was involved in a discussion with an activist board member. Our disagreement illustrates very well one of the typical challenges arising from the dichotomy between salaried staff and volunteer activists.

I was discussing with my board the need to close down some programmes which were no longer required. One of the board members fiercely resisted this decision. He argued that the programmes were a key part of the idea behind the founding of the organisation and thus could never be closed down. The board chair argued that society had changed and hardly anybody was still supporting this old approach, which drew the answer: “I don’t mind what society thinks about all of this – we know that these projects are essential and we have to stick with them.” This brought me, as the CEO, into the discussion arguing: “But if nobody is still willing to support projects of this kind we will run out of money and will have to release staff.” The board member’s reaction was stoic: “So be it. If society doesn’t understand our values we will rather go down than change.” For a volunteer earning his salary from some other context this may be a perfectly valid position. But for employees depending on the income they receive from working for the ICSO this is a very threatening experience. I have been part of many discussions of this kind, though less radical, where volunteer activists were defending the ‘eternal values’ of the organisation and staff took a more pragmatic position. But equally often I have experienced discussions where activists wanted to try new approaches and were stopped by salaried staff that could not or did not want to accommodate innovation in their well-established rules and procedures. Generally this conflict of interest is a very healthy one as every ICSO has to navigate constantly between its pure values and the practical demands of the real world.

Over the last one or two decades, as ICSOs have multiplied their income and size, professionalisation of salaried staff has advanced considerably while in most organisations investment in the qualification of volunteers has been very limited. Together with other factors this has led to a decrease in the role of volunteers and further shifted the balance towards salaried staff. And as activists’ roles were shrinking, so was their motivation. The next generation of volunteer activists is looking for affiliation in structures which are quite different from ICSOs. If ICSOs are serious about delivering on their ambitious missions, they will have to convince the average citizen of the challenges they perceive and of the solutions they propose. Without volunteer activists it is unlikely they will be able to succeed in this endeavour. In order to regain lost ground, and once again become attractive for volunteer engagement, ICSOs will have to provide more opportunities for activists to directly and tangibly contribute to their work. This requires offering volunteers a role in the practical work of the organisation, giving them a say in decisions at implementation level and providing them with training and other forms of support which enables them to learn and improve their contributions.

All too often volunteers are confined to assistant roles: they help with office work, support campaigns, contribute to fundraising etc. But there is no reason why volunteering should be limited to positions of rather limited responsibility. For instance, during my time at Save the Children we established a ‘Panel of Chief Advisers’. The panel had up to 20 members, all retired senior managers, most with a business background. Membership on the panel was by invitation only. We used the panel to advise the organisation on policy decisions, to develop and review our governance and to support national affiliates with strategy development, governance reviews or reorganisation. In one of the panel’s major projects a chief adviser provided consultancy support for the merger of our Korean affiliate with another national organisation. Save the Children contributed to the adviser’s travel and accommodation costs but did not pay for his work: the merger turned into a great success at very limited costs.

In the salaried part of the organisations increasing professionalisation has led to a growing separation between professional and personal objectives. As ICSOs have been raising their expectations concerning technical abilities together with increasing the salaries they offer, they have attracted staff from other sectors with a wide range of motivations, not all of which are fully aligned with ICSOs’ missions. While employees of a producer of cameras, sportswear or gardening equipment do not have to use any of these products in their private lives, staff of an ICSO are in a different situation. Working for the benefit of children, the protection of the environment or ending poverty on the day job and being indifferent or even acting against these objectives after work can endanger the organisation’s mission. Volunteers who dedicate their free time to the organisation’s mission expect everybody in the organisation to ‘practice what they preach’, and conflicts about consistency and credibility have arisen. An organisational culture which ends at the doorstep of its offices is not very convincing and ICSOs need to put more effort into securing the consistency of values and actions across the whole organisation.

Bringing professional and activist cultures closer together is essential for the future success of ICSOs. This requires changes in both directions. Volunteers need to be offered more options to actively contribute towards achieving the organisations’ missions; they need to be better equipped to play their roles and they need to accept and embrace professional standards and expectations. Employees need to be tied more closely to the organisation’s activist culture; they need to understand that good professional performance cannot compensate for lack of personal commitment, both inside and outside the work place.

From silo to platform

Developing an organisation’s identity means defining what exactly it is and what it is not. This is a process like fencing a garden: it defines what is inside the fence and what is outside, and, once the fence has been erected the gardener can tend to his greens without much external interference. The concept of a fenced garden – or silo, if you wish – is part of the very genesis of any established organisation. Building silos is much easier than constructing platforms; and building silos continues inside the organisation. No wonder there are so many complaints about silo-mentality, conflicts between fundraisers and programme experts, competition between national affiliates of the same organisation, etc. Erecting walls and defending what is inside against everybody else in the outside world is a very basic human instinct. On the other hand complaints are very rare about an organisation that is too open or about too much co-operation between different divisions or affiliates of an ICSO. In well-established organisations silos are a given and platforms need to be carefully developed with a lot of cajoling, convincing and hard work.

Breaking the silo-mentality and resolving internal blockades have been key motivators for many reorganisations. However, if the cultural background of the silo-mentality is not addressed, chances are that a redefinition of the size and scope of different departments or divisions just changes the positions of the silo walls but maintains the silo principle. Working in silos is problematic under most conditions, but it is even more challenging in a world of digital communication which creates platforms which are much more dynamic, attractive and powerful than the traditional silos. But at a time when effective open platforms have been emerging, ICSOs have become more protective of their brands and have fortified their walls against the outside world rather than tearing them down. Recently established powerful brands such as Wikipedia, which invites literally every-body to contribute to their content, or Amazon, which opens its sales platform to its competition, show that brand protection and openness do not mutually exclude one another. ICSOs need to find ways to develop their own identities, protect their brands and, at the same time, become much more open and inviting to the outside world.

Let us look at some important steps in this direction. We have mentioned the challenge of mission creep before, but it is not always the blurring of an organisation’s mission, it can also be the existence of too many, too loosely connected auxiliary objectives. I remember a Save the Children board member who from time to time challenged his colleagues with the question: “How many children have we saved today?” Though the question was a bit simplistic and some of the board members started groaning when it came, we all had to admit that we had predominantly dealt with issues which, at best, had a very indirect link to our mission of saving children. When analysing many of the discussions in today’s ICSOs we will find that quite a few of our debates are mainly about defending specific interests, protecting the silo walls of national affiliates against global organisations or one department against another. Confronting these discussions more systematically by referring to an up-to-date and widely shared mission statement can go a long way in bringing down the walls.

Another area in which a culture shift away from silos can be promoted is the way in which success is determined. All too often we have compartmentalised the overall success criteria into categories which promote silo-thinking: fundraising results are measured in income in US$ or Euros without questioning whether more money takes us closer to fulfilling the mission or whether shifting resources to improving the quality of our programmes would have been the better choice. Successful programmes we run may allow governments to continue neglecting important areas of their responsibilities, and investing more in advocacy might have been the better option to promote our mission. But most importantly, we forget all too often, that most of our programmes are filling gaps in the tasks governments are not (yet) taking on and that it is even more important to mobilise public opinion for more social justice, better protection of the environment or a more responsible use of the earth’s limited resources. Under such a perspective opening the organisation to the outside world is essential. One way of promoting this opening process is to change our success criteria from “how much money have you brought in?” or “how much money have you spent on programmes?” to “what have you contributed to promoting our mission?” Widely sharing what we do, convincing others to join in, building increasing consensus on desirable change and showing with our work that change is possible and desirable: such a package cannot be delivered in a world of carefully separated silos.

The way in which the organisation’s leadership interprets its role is another important factor in the change process from a culture of silos to one of platforms. Many senior managers react to the enormous workload and daily pressures by focusing exclusively on their immediate tasks. This often means that they narrow down all of their attention to internal matters. In this way they serve as role models for silo-thinking. Leaders who deserve the name ‘leader’ take time to step back and review their tasks in light of the wider situation. They try to find the most effective way to serve their organisation’s mission. They look for relevant examples even outside their own organisation and will invite thoughts and criticism beyond the immediate scope of their role. Such leaders can serve as role models for platform thinking. Weak senior managers use silos and promote compartmentalisation in order to secure their own position. Such a ‘divide and conquer’ approach is not part of a leader’s tool box and should be banned in any organisation but especially in ICSOs which have understood that they have to overcome silo-thinking.

From change as an exception to change as a rule

Earlier I mentioned that most of us instinctively see change as a menace and ourselves or our sector as a potential victim. We prefer to stay where we are: we know the terms of the present state, we know the benefits and downsides, we have found our own place in the existing order, and change means that all of this may be affected. We may end up in a better place as a result of change, but we also may be worse off than before. I remember a caricature from a presentation I once saw on the issue of change: It showed a person in a torture chamber with the warden coming with a key to let him out, but the prisoner said: “O No! I’m quite comfortable here.” Even when we are in a rather bad situation our first reaction to change often is: Better not – it may get even worse…

In evolutionary terms this approach has served us well. Humanity has survived and flourished because it did a lot of things right, and before leaving a successful path it is worthwhile thinking twice. However, over the last few decades change has accelerated so much and has become so radical that thinking twice can easily mean being too late. At least for the next few decades we should not expect change to slow down. Change will be fast and furious and those who do not find the right answer to change will suffer. ICSOs increasingly understand that staying where they are is not a viable option. All of them are undertaking a range of efforts to catch up with the changes around them. I recently attended an ICSO’s global leadership conference on the topic ‘Accelerating Change’. However, change does not come naturally to most ICSOs. Even an organisation like Greenpeace with disruption and change towards ‘a green and peaceful future’ at the very centre of its mission finds it difficult to undertake changes in its own way of operating. We can work hard for change in the outside world while rejecting out of hand the idea to change our own way of working.

Generally ICSOs have a conservative culture and usually this culture has been useful to them. Change in the past has been a time-limited exercise with a clear beginning and a foreseeable end. The typical change process in an ICSO is defined by a board decision which tasks the management with changing a certain aspect of the organisation’s operations and to return to the board at a specific time to report on implementation. For staff in the organisation this means that they have to get up and move away from their well-established routine before they are allowed to sit down again at a slightly different place and get on with a slightly changed routine. Change is seen as the uncomfortable, time-limited shift between periods of comfortable, long-term stability. Change is bad, stability is good, and thus change is rarely perceived as a value in itself: it is usually justified as the nuisance the organisation has to go through in order to get to an even more comfortable new stability. As change accelerates in the outside world ICSOs’ ‘stop and go’ approach to change meets its limits: one reorganisation quickly follows the other and the periods when staff can sit down and follow routines get ever shorter; several change processes are being conducted in parallel, some overlapping, some contradicting each other. With the arising confusion change becomes even more of a nuisance and extensive ‘change fatigue’ sets in across the organisation.

As a crucial component of their survival ICSOs need to develop a new and completely different culture of change. First of all, change is the very reason for ICSOs’ existence: if all children were leading decent lives, if nobody would suffer from hunger, if our environment was well protected, if human rights were globally respected, we would not need ICSOs. But since this is not the case ICSOs are here to change the world for the better. If there is one mission which unites all ICSOs it is ‘change’. Change is necessary, change is desirable, change, which goes in the right direction is wonderful. I am sure that during the first months and years of their existence, all ICSOs were very positive about change. Re-discovering this enthusiasm for change is essential for ICSOs to remain relevant. Secondly, driving change towards their mission in a fast-paced world requires ICSOs to continuously change themselves. There needs to be an ongoing dialogue between the organisation and its key stakeholders – the people the organisation works with, the partner institutions, the donors, the relevant authorities, etc. – and this dialogue has to be transformed into organisational learning and adaptation to changing conditions and expectations. Change is permanent and we have to continuously explore change and adapt to it. We have to be on our feet all the time. Phases of sitting down and following a well-established routine are gone for good.

Closing the time gap between change in the outside world and ICSOs’ responses is a key requirement for the survival of ICSOs. However, this is not enough for those who want to drive the transition. In the past, ICSOs have been best when they were pre-empting future developments, when they were the vanguard of progress, when they were showing the way forward. Catching up with external change will not be enough to fulfil the role as drivers of transition. Systematically exploring the future and giving people the hope and courage required to embark on change is the essential task the ICSOs of the future will have to fulfil. The first test of whether they will be able to do this is with their own employees. Once ICSOs have managed to transform their own culture into one which permanently seeks change, which is excited about the opportunities of change and not scared about its risks, they stand a good chance of also convincing people outside the organisation.

From a culture of harmony to a culture of openness

When I arrived in England to take up my new position as the CEO of Save the Children International – at that time we had to call it ‘Alliance’ as some of the national affiliates feared the organisation would otherwise be wrongly perceived as a global entity – I quickly found out how much I had to learn about ICSO culture so different from my German one. My first lesson concerned the word ‘interesting’. We have a word in German, ‘interessant’, which comes from the same Latin roots and, so I had learned, has the same meaning as the English ‘interesting’. So, when people reacted to my views, telling me that they found them interesting, I understood that they had a real interest in my perspective. I told them more about it, sent them additional information and thought I had won an ally for my position. Very soon it became clear that this was not the case at all. I found out that I had been told, in the politest form possible, that my position was seen as not convincing, slightly weird or even complete nonsense. How interesting! I have also experienced the Japanese version of ‘interesting’ which means you have reached complete agreement on a difficult issue in all its details. Everything has been signed, sealed and… well, not yet delivered, and delivery will never happen because we are not in agreement, but that could not possibly be expressed in a form which someone from a simplistic European culture understands. I tell this story not only because it reflects different cultural perspectives on politeness but also because it describes one of the major weaknesses of our sector. We want harmony – at any price.

Meanwhile I have learned to translate ‘interesting’ correctly and to find Japanese translators who are prepared to provide me with the correct information at the meta-level, but I still regret that so many people are not prepared to tell me that they disagree with me and give me their reasons why they think differently. I am sure I could learn a lot, and possibly change my own perspective as a result of such a discussion. Now think about Japanese, British, Germans, US-Americans, Mexicans and Australians sitting together, trying to resolve a problem… well, shouldn’t we rather call it a challenge, or is it even an opportunity? This is a truly and utterly interesting experience (in the German meaning!). The challenges of inter-cultural communication exist, whenever people from different cultures come together but in the civil society sector they are enhanced by the sector’s addiction to harmony. We want to do good, we are against conflict, we believe in universal peace and understanding. Yes, we do, but we should not assume that all of this is here already.

Here is a typical situation: a global board consisting of CEOs from some of the ICSO’s main affiliates takes a decision on a contested issue. The decision is taken unanimously, formally recorded and made known across the organisation. Some weeks later it becomes clear that only some affiliates have implemented the decision while others have not, and some of those who haven’t were in the room when the decision was taken but did not raise their opposition. Rather than be so impolite as to disagree when face-to-face with their colleagues, they opt for harmony and express their different opinion later by not implementing their own decision. I often tell this story when I am invited by ICSOs to share with them experiences from across the sector which they may find helpful for their own development. I always produce some laughter when concluding my remarks with the words, “but such a situation would never arise in your organisation, of course”. In fact, situations like this are endemic in ICSOs with two competing strands of loyalty: a strong one from the national CEO to the national board and a weak one from the national CEO to the global CEO and the global board.

Our sector is certainly not short of people who want to preserve peace at any cost. This becomes more problematic the higher the person is positioned in the hierarchy. I once had a chair who desperately wanted to be loved by everybody – and he was very successful in collecting brownie points from all parties he worked with. Sadly he was unable to lead the organisation out of its comfort zone, which was required in order to make progress. The two of us discussed the situation and found that our analysis was fully aligned. I suggested that he should risk spending some of the enormous goodwill he had accumulated in order to help the organisation advance. He agreed, but once the concrete situation arose in the board meeting he once again avoided conflict and postponed the decision. He went on collecting brownie points which he never spent. Until today many people probably regard him as a good chair because he managed to keep peace in the organisation. He preserved harmony at the price of stagnation.

Another area where ICSOs’ culture of harmony hampers their effectiveness is the reluctance to be open and clear with colleagues who do not do their job properly. The immediate reflex in our sector is to show solidarity with the colleague and to work a bit more to support him. This is a very positive feature of our sector and an important reason to work in it. But it also entails a danger: in real life there are always some people who skilfully exploit the solidarity of others. And in such cases the sector often looks very helpless. Typically underperformance is tolerated far too long and once it has become a habit it is very difficult to address. I have seen several labour conflicts become nasty because the colleague who had underperformed had never been given proper warning but was sacked when his behaviour had become completely intolerable. Avoiding conflict at any price usually increases the potential damage. A culture which values openness, which fosters learning by exploring rather than ignoring disagreements would go a long way towards increasing ICSOs’ effectiveness.

A culture of openness identifies and allows for addressing failure. Organisations which are at the forefront of developments, which explore new options and cover new ground, will necessarily make mistakes. Identifying mistakes, making them known to others and making sure they are properly analysed, and ways are identified to make sure they are not repeated is essential for the organisation’s future success. However, if mistakes are swept under the carpet due to politeness towards colleagues who have made mistakes, the organisation deprives itself of an important opportunity to learn and improve its performance. Surviving in a fast changing world implies taking the risk of making mistakes and being much more effective in learning from failure. ICSOs need to trade in their culture of perpetual harmony for a culture of openness, one which takes disagreement as a source of improving organisational performance, one which honours taking calculated risks and accepts and forgives occasional mistakes as long as they are put out in the open for all others to learn from.