Timing denial

Theo Jansen, artist and creator of Strandbeesten explained in a TV-documentary about his work that in his creative flow every problem that presents itself immediately comes with the dream to solve it.  I so admire optimists!

Seeing in a crisis the opportunity as the famous saying goes requires you – at least temporarily – ignore the pain of failure and problems, and be a dreamer. But what if the problems are existential? Existential as in exit.

“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” – Tom StoppardRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Exits, transformations and radical cut-backs in not for profit organizations are profoundly painful processes for all those who are affected. Yet some degree of denial of the pain may allow you to see the opportunities. But productive denial requires good timing. In the world of funders and not-for-profits I also see a lot of denial of organisational pains that allows crucial problems to fester and lead to crises. So how do you time your denial well?

Over the next months I expect to be immersed in issues faced by not-for-profits from which funders exit.  None of the NGO’s involved has been part of a formally planned exit by a funder(s). Questions like: How long do you keep on trying? What did we miss, should we have seen this coming? What about the future of the paid staff and (unpaid) volunteers? Do we scale back? Liquidate?  Go dormant?

Funders of not-for profits have serious problems with exits, planned entrance in a country or field on the basis of an entrance and an exit strategy. I wrote about exits for funders in a GrantCraft publication.  Emulating venture capital practices, the venture philanthropist are very keen on preparing for exits and sustainability and EVPA also collected lessons learned and provided guidance to their members through and EVPA guide on planning and executing an exit.  Many funders circumvent the exit problem by suggesting from their side there is not real entrance: they provide funding on a project by project basis and do not really strategize about the field or sustainability of the continuity of the capacities and organizations that implement the projects they support.  It is an opportunistic approach, but unless a complete field collapses none of the crises that exits cause will affect them.

But awareness and commitment does not provide guarantees. What if NGO’s and their funders both underestimate or even deny the financial fragility of the causes and organizations they support. Problems of financial fragility are rarely a crisis that hits out of the blue. The problems tend to creep-in very slowly: how to manage growing budgets changes into making ends meet, into chronic deficits. After a bad year, if there is a financial reserves, extensive discussions about their use to stop-gap ensue. And a lot of effort and dedicated capacity will be invested in gettin fundraising back on track, but do you revisit your fundamental strategy?  Or do you delay that discussion until the next year. Will doubt vis a vis the fundamentals undermine the effort to get back on track?

Ironically, denial of structural problems can also be fed by unexpected large gifts that hide more strategic issues.  And another factor that allows for financial fragility to remain unaddressed is the urgency of the cause as it stimulates a focus on fixing things instead of managing with a long term perspective.

So how do you manage to balance optimism and realism? The guides for funders referred above encourage funders and charities to work together and face financial sustainability at every stage of their relationship. But equally important is  how the management and board members of NGO’s can support each other to face this issues at the right moment and see the opportunities, the new spaces opened by the exit doors.

New challenges: GrantCraft

My consulting practice is on hold because I dove into a new project. It is called GrantCraft, a joint venture of the European Foundation Centre and the – New York-based  – Foundation Center. GrantCraft collects practical wisdom from grantmakers and philanthropist and turns it into guides, workshops, videos, and other tools to help philanthropists hone their craft.  Grantcraft is not about blueprints or recipes. It explores how practitioners deal with dilemma’s and tradeoffs. It helps you organize yourself and your  work and provides tools to make grant-making more strategic, and benchmark effectiveness.  GrantCraft delivers these materials through its website www.grantcraft.org

When I started out as a consultant in 2008, I was ready to head where my clients were leading me.  Without a detailed plan, just like Yogi Berra warned – indeed, I did end up some place else. But I very much enjoyed the trip.  I definitively will not miss having proposals rejected, the umpteenth tender failure….  But it was certainly very gratifying to explore and address a variety of organizational problems with clients: from mainstreaming gender in international coöperation,  to supporting good governance of a Women’s Fund in South Africa, addressing age diversity in HR policies in Dutch municipalities and measuring effectiveness in attending to victims of commercial sexual violence in Latin America. With GrantCraft I will still be working very much around learning with those who try to promote social justice.  But it will no longer be in a personal, advisory capacity.

I may be blogging here but you do check the GrantCraft blog!

Monitoring advocacy and (policy) change e

Comments on a very useful brief on theories of (policy) change on evaluation5.0  : check it out!

Evaluation5.0 is an initiative of people that work together to promote innovation in evaluation. Recently evaluation5.0 has been working on its business model, using the approach that I used on an earlier occasion with WHEAT to develop their business model. The evolving Evaluation5.0 model looks like this.

A lucky 2011


I wish all my readers a very healthy and lucky 2011 and hope for a year full of inspiring meetings – virtual or real-time.

We seek evidence to confirm preconceived notions, even ambiguous evidence we interpret in favor of our ideas, this is what psychologist call the “confirmation bias”.  Psychological experiments also found that we consider people who succeed more valuable, admirable than people who do not and other theories and experiments argue that we feel more comfortable and happy when we see patterns in events, as opposed to having to undergo than as completely random. Yet a lot of things that happen around us and with us are quite random, more random that we are comfortable to see. And then the “butterfly effect” which says that very small changes (the flutter of the wings of a butterfly) can have enormous effects.  Success, so much valued can be derived from random chance and very much based on biases instead of intrinsic value.  And so is failure.

Leonard Mlodinov’s book “The Drunkard’s Walk – How Randomness Rules our Lives” is a great read for anyone interested in diversity and change in organizations. Learning from best practices is not one of his recommended strategies:  that success may have been quite random and been the result of a drunkards walk: the path molecules follow in space, incessantly bumping and being bumped. Eager as we are  to see patterns we look at the best practice to see how they can be replicated, but randomness cannot be replicated.  Mlodinov questions learning from past performance and recommends we focus on our ability to react to events and not to rely on our ability to predict them. Altogether an interesting book to read.

Over the past year I have blogged infrequently and the last few months I have read mostly quite boring documents. So  my new year’s resolution will be to blog and read more,  to trust and respond to chance and hope for a lucky 2011 and lots of inspiring people and reads.  Which I also wish to anyone who reads this.

Granny driven change …………..

At a workshop in Brussels last week I heard Alan Fowler and friends about what they call civic driven change, change for the benefit of the community that spontaneously  emerges from groups of citizens that solve their problems, change that is not driven by governments or donors.  A good description can be found in this brief leaflet on civic driven change published by Fowler and Biekart.  It is a concept under construction they warned, the thinking evolves as they say.

Somebody at the Brussels meeting noted that the concept of CDC  – the way that Fowler and Biekart describe it –  has an eighties-ring to it. Could be,  but I do not think there is any misplaced nostalgia to it.  The concept of civic driven change actually takes the idea of people helping themselves to the next level, as the example of Kwanda showed.

Having exhausted to complete boredom the aid-does-not-work-argument, some people think that politicians in European countries may find in the sheer force of this “un-aided” change a new reason to promote cuts in budgets for international coöperation.  No true.  Civic driven change should inspire aid, not replace it.

And for some more inspiration, this great video:


Reinventing the wheel in a U-shape

Reinventing the wheel has a notoriously bad connotation, at least in my mother tongue. It stands for a useless waste of energy and money. For doing something that has already been done, finding out what has already been found out.

Best practices are the prescribed remedy against reinventing wheels since the 80-ies. Every development organization – governmental or non-governmental – has at some stage tried to identify its “best practices”. Not always very successfully. Joint efforts with the communication department were doomed even before they started.  But also among the operational staff and policy makers the debate would normally focus on which practices were “best” and not on what we can learn from them. I remember in 1998 trying to introduce the alternative concept of “interesting practices” in one organization I worked for. Simply to be able to move ahead a process that was stuck in a debate about what was “best”.  Without success however, they insisted they only wanted to learn from the best.  Best practices are still very popular. Recently in a blog on best practices for knowledge management,  Suarez expressed the hope they would soon transform into “good practices”, to become “common practices” and hopefully disappear altogether.

But knowledge practitioners have become increasingly aware that the learning is not in the practice itself but in the process. Nancy Dixon wrote about an exiting process in her article of 2004 entitled: Does your organization have an asking problem? She emphasizes the process of promoting dialogue and asking questions instead of the storage of solutions or best practices.  While the learning process she designed and describes in the article is labor intensive (and therefore costly), Dixon insists that such elaborate process is much more efficient than building and maintaining a costly database with good practices.

Theory U (2009) of  Otto Scharmer could be an explanation of what happens when we identify and discuss “good practices”.  Theory U is a model that identifies different phases in a dialogue and learning process.   In three steps you go down in the “U”. During these steps you let go of the past. That allows you to connect (presencing) and continue to go up the other leg of the  “U” and co-create and co-evolve.

Getting down the first leg is difficult. When reading or listening to someone elses experience we start what Scharmer calls “downloading”.  Even if we are not defensive, we tend to look at something new by trying to connect it to our own experience, to patterns we know. Nothing wrong with that, but learning requires we move on and let go of our existing patterns, suspend judgement and look at what we see with new eyes. That allows you to see the things that do not fit your existing patterns and connect emotionally with the experience.

Sharmer insists learning is a process involving emotions.  As he puts it:  “at the bottom of the U our current self and our best future Self—meet and begin to listen and resonate with each other”.   Let’s look at that again: “my current self and my best future self listening to each other” – to my current rationalist self  that sounds pretty odd.   But it does resonate with my experience that the most productive learning experience involved emotions, painful sometimes.   Actually, that thought is a perfect example of “downloading”.   So,  as a next step on my way down in the U of Theory U,  I will have to suspend my judgement, try to see things with fresh eyes (or did he mean a fresh I?).

Anyway, meanwhile I guess I will continue to do some reinventing on this blog.

Evaluation frustration and fun

Evaluations have always been very important in international coöperation. Some of us evaluate, others are being evaluated or manage evaluation contracts and processes. Some of us find evaluation processes rewarding, many find it a frustrating experience. Too often we hear too little is done with the outcomes of evaluations, that no real learning comes from them. We also see that important stakeholders are not heard, or cannot influence the outcomes.

What is it that makes evaluating or being evaluated so frustrating? How can we do things differently. How can we use images? Social Media? Triggered by our frustrations and inspired by the ideas we developed addressing them, we want to create opportunities to share experiences. To do so we offer a compact series of tailor-made, modular – open subscription – learning events the first to take place in June 2010. In our philosophy the best cure for frustration is fun and the best learning is learning from each other!  We are not subsidized or sponsored. Participation in the events will be low-cost but not free.

The first event is scheduled for 23-25 June. Want to no more and register visit our website for more information? Go to www.evaluators5-0.net . For more stuff on evaluation check our blog evaluation5.0

Learning and accountability

If you Google for development coöperation (just over 1.000.000 hits) you will find that some 132,000 of those hits refer to both “evaluation” and “behavio(u)r(s)”.  So behaviour is clearly an issue when you look at evaluation of development coöperation.

Out of the one million hits on development coöperation, 4730 give a hit for “evaluation tools”, 2180 for “evaluation tool”. For “evaluation methodology” the result is 5160, and for its plural 2430.  If you look within the one million hits for development coöperation for “behavior(u)r(s) of evaluators” you will get exactly two hits.

Evaluation. So much reflection on behaviour, on evaluation methodologies and tools but the behaviour of evaluators is never studied,  at least not in the context of development coöperation.

4 Rooms of Learning

Most evaluations primarily aim to satisfy accountability requirements. Tax money is allocated and channeled down a chain towards public or private actors and finally to the ultimate beneficiaries. Actors in the chain need to inform the actors one step above them. Besides information coming from that actor itself, external audits ensure that resources are handled in accordance with certain standards and not misused for other purposes than they were intended to. External evaluation normally looks as to whether the “use according to the originally intended purposes” actually has any of the originally intended effects on the ultimate beneficiaries.

But do we actually learn from evaluations. Learning and accountability are not the same. Accountability normally has a legal and institutional dimension; it involves negotiation, judgment and possibly punishment.  Learning is much more fluid process, there are few rules, it can be an individual or organizational dynamic and it can be quite irrational, involving emotions.

It happened to me again a few months ago: the evaluator comes in, hired by the provider of our project’s financial resources. We are to be reviewed “as part of standard accountability procedures”.  After having told us what will happen to us – we and our work are the ‘object’ of evaluation, the evaluator and donor are the subjects in this evaluation grammar – the evaluators cheerfully adds he hopes we will also learn from the process.  Intimidated, I nod, off course we hope to learn, it would be actually inappropriate to say you do not intend or expect to learn. But you know you will not. The fact you are treated as an object, and respond that way seems to play a role in does, but how?

Weisbord and Janoff use a four room model for learning: Home base is the room labeled “contentment”.  Inevitably at some stage we are in “denial”: reality has changed; our assumptions were wrong, things do not go as well as expected.   In a learning process you are able to move on, acknowledge you have a problem and focus on finding a solution: you may linger sometime in the room labeled “confusion”. That uncertainty can lead you to growth, change and move you back into “contentment”, or – if learning does not take place – it hurls us back into the room of denial, waiting for someone or something to draw you back into the uncomfortable room of confusion.

What influences whether the evaluation actually help us overcome denial and confusion and generate growth and learning?  When I commission an evaluation or when I am being evaluated in order to be accountable, will I actually also learn? Besides methodologies and tools, the behavior of all those directly involved that will also very much determine or not whether I will actually make my round through those four rooms of learning. But if Google is a measure there seems to be no yet any serious confusion about behaviours of evaluators.

Business models in not-for-profit

Recently I worked on strategic planning with a women’s fund in South Africa that supports local grassroots women.  We took an approach that looks at not-for-profit organizations as a social enterprises that offer value to both grassroots women and to donors, people, businesses or institutions committed to support women.   The business model we mapped  includes value propositions to grassroots women that generate social benefits and value propositions to donors that generate revenues for the organization.  For an organization to be sustainable those two types of propositions need to be compatible and balanced. And not only the propositions have to be compatible, also the values that drive the relations with the two groups of “customers”.  How often do you see in not-for-profits that the fundraisers are completely out of sync with the people in the field and vice versa? The model highlights the connections.

The methodology is exiting to work with.  For the ‘enterprise’ to work, we need to make sure that we know on an on-going basis what grassroot women (and donors)  need and what works.  In this model being participatory, client-oriented and responsive is not an add-on feature, limited to a stakeholder event or something similar;  being responsive is build into the venture right from the start.

The standard approach in planning development coöperation is the LogFrame.  This is a detailed action plan incorporating goals, results, outputs and inputs, based on an analysis of the problems, root causes and possible solutions.  You can do it in a participatory way, but there is nothing in the methodology that requires that.  Also, the approach is quite rigid and tends to start from what is wrong, what is missing. In my experience, LogFrames works well for quite straightforward, discrete projects. LogFrame and organizational change on the other hand do not really mix very well.

Contrary to the LogFrame, this approach of mapping a business model directly builds on what the organization has done well in the past. The point of departure are the services  – intended or not – that beneficiaries and donors responded well to. You draw on that positive core to come up with your value propositions.  This makes change inspiring for the team and the organization’s stakeholders. And that is something change processes in organizations can never do without: inspiration and motivation.

To map the business model we used an approach developed by Alexander Osterwalder c.s. For more information go to the businessmodel alchemist , thank you Josien Kapma for introducing me 😉

The women’s fund whose business model we mapped is WHEAT.  WHEAT is a venture of a great group of women in South Africa supporting grassroots women who work to improve their livelihoods and to build their communities. WHEAT has shown to be very effective in reaching out and supporting these women. The fund supports women by making grants to invest in (leadership) skills and by providing tailored advise.  A few years ago  a small grant enabled a group of women in a township to start producing their own soap – instead of simply retailing soap they bought wholesale at considerably higher costs.  WHEAT also encourages women to get together to discuss local problems at so-called “convenings”.   WHEAT is non-partisan.   Check out the website for more information.

Weak signals and coincidents

“Niets nieuws onder de zon”, is the title of a book I am re-reading.  Roughly translated the full title reads: “Nothing New under the Sun and Other Coincidences, aka Strategy from Chaos”. The book was published in 1987/2003 in Dutch only. It connects concepts on chaos and strategy at a practical level and I have drawn on these ideas of when supporting organizations in their strategic planning because I find them to be inspiring.

The authors are Jaap Peters and Rob Wetzels.  Peters is a Dutch management consultant.   Other books published by Peters have similar catchy titles like – again in translation – “Intensive People Farming” on human resource management, and “At Which Reorganization Do You Work?” on change management.  He also edits a journal on organizational development entitled “Slow Management”.  Peters draws on his experience with organizations in the Netherlands, but I feel his ideas can be very well applied elsewhere.

There is no future you can predict, and standard planning models usually only help us to copy, possibly improve on the past.  Here and now, there is a dominant current and there are weak, undercurrents.  For the future, these weak signals are significant but within our organizations they remain usually unheard. These weak signals usually do not fit in our Results Oriented Strategic Plans and LogFrames and tend to be ignored.  Too bad, according to Peters, because the future is emerging from that undercurrent.  These weak signals represent what is coming.

Peters feels that most standard strategic planning and management models underestimate the creativity and power of self-organization.  We have to treat organizations as chaotic systems.  The McDonalds or “factory farm” approach to management implies splitting-up everything, standardizing processes, making everything and everyone perfectly manageable and measurable.  McDonaldized systems dampen external signals, they are closed, only change under pressure and are based on one single “truth”.  Organizations that function as chaotic systems on the other hand absorb and process signals, are open, change organically through commitment and allow for contrasting ideas and multiple interpretations.

Peters observes that managers and planners in what he calls the McDonaldized organization ask quite different questions from those that treat organizations like chaotic systems or chaordic organisms.  If you want to discern strategy from chaos, you need to hear and see the weak signals, as a group you have allow for different perspectives, both dominant and weak.  Hearing and observing the weak signals requires a special effort.  You can only do it if you are able – and willing – to lose some of your mental formatting, you also have to allow for “seemingly stupid” questions and answers. Allowing for different perspectives is essential. To illustrate surprising perspectives Peters quotes in his book a story about a Texan and an Israeli farmers discussing how big their farms are. Boasting about the size of his ranch, the Texan explains he can drive his car a whole day without getting to the limits of his property.  “I had such a car once” the Israeli commiserated.

Like the oyster making pearls out of irritating grains of sand, in an organization problems and dilemma’s can be used as inspiration to change our perspective.  This is where I feel that Peter’s “Strategy from Chaos” complements Appreciative Inquiry.   Appreciative Inquiry rejects the McDonaldized approach to planning that tells you to identify the problem, conduct a rootcause analysis, brainstorm for solutions and develop action plan.  Appreciative Inquiry works differently.  It departs from the idea that organizations are a solution to be embraced. For planning you appreciate what is (discover), imagine what might be (dream), co-construct  what should be (design) and co-create what will be (destiny). AI teaches us we are to embrace what works in our organizations.  But I feel Peters has a point when he urges us to face our problems and dilemma’s and draw on their creative force.

Peters approach to strategic planning can help the imagining what might be.  Acknowledging weak signals and exploring the dilemma’s Peters advices to draw a cross to map the chaos within and surrounding our organization.  Its axes represent old and new thinking and old- and new behaviors. The four quadrants of the cross capture reflections on the present that have significance for the future. Drawing on the present we develop four different stories about our future.  I like his approach. More particularly I think it reinforces creative and inspired “dreaming” in Appreciative Inquiry.    I also like the idea to capture the future through stories. The cross looks like this. The most left “wave” is the dominant current; the other wave is the future, the undercurrent, present here and now through its weak signals.

On chaos and complexity in relation to international coöperation and development you will find interesting stuff at the portal from Wageningen University on their Complexity – Innovation Dialogues or the blog from Ben Ramalingam,  all in English. For more on Appreciative Inquiry check-out the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.