I am in a call with my team, talking about ideas for the future. One of my colleagues mentions that a group of civil servants she met in a recent trip to Uganda have shown interest in an INASP online course on social research. He suggests inviting them to the course. It won’t cost more money because the course will be running anyway. I don’t feel comfortable that they let them participate, with all the experience I have working with civil servants, surely this is not the right course for them (even though they have expressed interest for the third time in the last two years…) My colleague insists, it’s an opportunity to extend our relationship with this target audience. I ponder this, and I make up my mind, I say they shouldn’t go ahead with the idea, we risk offering something that is not relevant for them. We will find some other way to engage with them, develop a new course perhaps? Send them other material that we had developed for civil servants?
This situation happened last year. As of now, there hasn’t been new engagement with civil servants. The perfect idea or scenario has not appeared.
Sounds familiar? Hierarchies sometimes prevent us from carrying out our ideas, experimenting, failing, learning and trying again. Or… being successful and finding a new work opportunity! Our current global context presents us with an opportunity to re-design how we want to organise ourselves and where to put our attention and effort. In the face of complex problems which require we adapt and respond quickly, becoming more flexible and dynamic is paramount. This is in line also with the current funding environment, we are moving away from core funding and grants to contract-funded projects, which require we become more agile and quick in decision-making. Moreover, a movement that prioritises more flexible and adaptive ways of working that promote freedom to choose to do work that matters already exists. This coincides as well with the rise of the freelancer and the gig economy.
Wanting to learn more about how this works in practice, INASP decided to carry out a small study to learn how others in the development sector are getting organised. We interviewed 17 people from innovative organisations and carried out a light touch literature review. We identified three models or ways of getting organised according to the types of engagement/contracts held by the organisation and the degree of flexibility of the organisational structure and decision-making. These are: Decentralised office, relational matrix and ecosystems of innovation. I will focus here on describing the latter as it is the most innovative, creative and inspirational of all.
Ecosystem of innovation
Also called teal organisations, they are characterized by three breakthroughs in human collaboration: self-management suggests a system based on peer relationships with no need for hierarchy, consensus, nor central command and control; wholeness is about a consistent set of practices that invite members to reclaim their inner wholeness and bring on the workplace “all of who they are”; evolutionary purpose which leads to regarding the organisation as a living organism with a direction of its own where its members are invited to listen and take note of the purpose it wants to serve. The structure of an evolving ecosystem is always inspired and energised by its surrounding field. Hence, this kind of structure is constantly on the move. For example, they don’t have a strategy (in the traditional sense). Instead they tend to work from a general vision and ambition, some core principles, and a methodology that is applied across all the work. This means results are better without the huge investment in developing, agreeing, tracking, and evaluating a strategy document.
This approach allows for much more creativity, builds and sustains commitment, and avoids the crush of bureaucracy that people in many traditional organisations feel; often called “feeding the beast”. They have the ambition to change at the system level, while taking a systemic approach to how the work itself is done. The common ground of such an ecosystem of organising is a shared sense of purpose and principles.
Self-management, wholeness and purpose allow for overcoming the limitations of previous organisational models in that they welcome the emotional, intuitive, and spiritual elements. An ecosystem of innovation exhibits properties like complex adaptive systems because the interactions and relationships between its elements are nonlinear and based on few simple rules or guiding principles. These elements learn from the past and their immediate environment and then adapt accordingly for the survival of the system. It makes the most of collective intelligence, where all voices are heard. It is also about creating an environment where different types of knowledge are welcome (analytical, emotional and intuitive).
You don’t think it’s possible? Sounds more like a dream than reality? Well, a third of the organisations we interviewed are implementing and learning how to create such systems. The main advantages they shared are: high engagement due to a clear, genuine and shared purpose, high levels of adaptation and innovation, high participation that leads to the co-creation of more systemic and sustainable solutions, more openness to a wide range of contributors (inside and outside the organisation). Of course, there are some challenges as well, it can be difficult to fund as clear accountability mechanisms are not easy to define. Also, it’s important to establish incentives that work for every member of the team. It is a journey where organisations invent and reinvent themselves as they adapt to the context.
These findings are in line with the work that Politics & Ideas is doing on leadership, convinced that leaders have a crucial role to play for change processes. This field is getting traction, for those interested in exploring it further, you can find resources online and some excellent reading. I would also be very happy to have a conversation about how these initiatives could work in practices so if you are interested, get in touch with me!