This is the second post in a four-week series of guest blogs by influencers in the civil society sector, reflecting on ideas and topics brought up in the book The Hedgehog and the Beetle – Disruption and Innovation in the Civil Society Sector by Burkhard Gnärig. The below blog by Philip Goodwin, Chief Executive of VSO International, relates to the book section “An organisational culture of change” (pp.140-155).
Photo: Philip Goodwin visiting one of the worst hit districts during the 2015 earthquake in Nepal (Credit: Suaj Shakya/VSO).
The challenges facing society seem increasingly complex. This is the nature of a globalised world in which our very connectedness “scales up” the problems we face whilst simultaneously obscuring the levers that we can pull to change the course of events positively. In his book, Burkhard writes, “change will be fast and furious” and we should not expect it to slow down in the near future.
Ending global poverty and inequality cannot be achieved by hierarchical or technocratic models of leadership, management or knowledge creation. Instead, it requires knowledge and action to be developed across boundaries and in all directions. These boundaries are both vertical (across power and hierarchy) and horizontal (between communities of interest, expertise, culture, sector, geography and so on). Here are just four ways I have identified as being critical to sparking the kind of change needed, and there exists various overlap with Burkhard’s idea of an “organisational culture of change” for civil society organisations (CSOs);
- Turning social Innovation into social action
This is the world of social innovation: where new ideas (products, services and models) simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships. The international CSOs that will successfully deliver social innovation in the 21st century are those that are able to create the conditions in which multiple perspectives can be integrated and transformed into social action. This is one concept of an organisation as a change platform, one that’s alive to how the world is changing and where the opportunities and challenges might emerge.
This is what we are currently working on at VSO. If our organisation is to be truly transformational then one of the first steps must be to ensure our internal and external practice is congruent. Our implicit practice at VSO – which emerges from a culture of volunteerism – is built around what Robert Chambers calls Adaptive Pluralism. This means that it “embraces, underpins and expresses ideas and practices of reflexivity, continuous learning, value and principle-based eclectic improvisation, co-evolution and continuous emergence”.
- Recognising people as agents of change
This recognition of people as agents of change is key to delivering the kind of social innovation required. Our challenge at VSO is to make that practice more explicit in our ways of working, to understand and deliver it, inside as well as outside the organisation.
At the same time, we are undergoing a radical restructuring to embed the kind of adaptability needed to promote social innovation. This restructuring is based not on a top-down blueprint but is emerging from a rapid process of organisational engagement. That process is framed, firstly, by target ways of working – our culture – and secondly, by a broad discussion around the organisational functions that we think will deliver our mission. Our future relevance will not be rooted in the organogram we create today but in the ability of that structure to constantly shift in light of what we know, who we meet, what we learn.
- Distributing leadership across the organisation
One of the big challenges around this kind of change is that it requires us to actively distribute leadership across the organisation, creating the conditions in which collaboration and action thrive. Essentially, we’re asking people right across the organisation to take responsibility for identifying and acting upon organisational challenges. The responsibility for initiating and delivering change is being “syndicated across the organisation”.
- Embracing the Unknown
To build leaders, you need leaders with the confidence and capacity to embrace uncertainty and to go on what I would call ‘a journey of not knowing’. This is not often easy in organisations firmly entrenched in a particular way of working. The shift in gears can feel unnerving at times and so investing in leadership at all levels has to be a key part of the organisational journey. We have to seek reassurance in our ability to build processes that deliver adaptability, flexibility and trust in the face of the unknown.
This requires a measure of courage given the enormity of the global challenges we face but I believe now is the time to be bold.