Discovering relatedness between self and systems

We were engaged in an organisational development project for a mid-sized Indian non-profit organisation over 18 months (for the purpose of this article, we shall call it Angad), which had started off as a courageous initiative over 20 years ago. Despite commitment and hard work, its actions and efforts seemed to have diminished relevance and impact over time, and the results it expected to achieve in the lives of people it worked with were not showing anymore. On the one hand, it was deeply convinced about its mission and values, and at the same time, because of the lack of impact of the kind that it wanted to see, the organisation also felt doubtful about the meaningfulness and the worth of its work.

Angad had a cadre of 5 senior most people after the CEO, who have been with the organisation from its early days and who were very committed, sincere and loyal. However, people in 2nd line leadership positions seemed to have difficulties in working together, they co-existed through turf division and the CEO often found herself being held hostage by these members, with infantile demands of affirmation, assurance of their uniqueness and indispensability, or demand trust and faith without accountability. The organisation took pride in low attrition despite its modest salaries, significantly lower than its peers, and the CEO was resistant to equalise it with other organisations for reasons of sustainability and its own limitations in fundraising. People stayed back because they have high loyalty and commitment, and also may be lacking in presentation.

The OD process was triggered by one of Angad's project financiers demanding better alignment between its actions and outcomes, and was willing to support it through transitions in management, systems and strategies. The CEO nominated a team of 15 people, including the 2nd rung of leadership for the process. Over 18 months, we conducted 7 interventions with the team, the number of participants were streamlined to 7 by the end of the process. At the end of 18 months, the team reflected on what changes it had experienced in itself (self) and in Angad (the organisation), and their learnings from the experience.

Evoking Potentials in Leadership

The reflections that emerged from the team is perhaps relevant to all organisations - across the corporate and non-profit space, the bureaucracy and political organisations.

"We tried what we thought was not possible": Angad's strategies and actions were often based on assumptions and givens on what was possible and what was not possible. Some of these assumptions were formed through experience, some through perceptions, some defined in the books of law or governance. In the course of 18 months, the team had to deal in several moments of disconnect between its own strategies and actions, and the feedback of its effectiveness from stakeholders particularly children and women it worked with. 'What they may be asked for is beyond our powers, and control...' was the refrain that seemed to emerge as a lament from the leaders.

'In whose powers are they? The lawmakers, the judiciary? Would you like to challenge their decisions, rules and norms then?'

'Why would they listen to us? What if we get blacklisted for challenging them?'

The team would confront these doubts with the facilitator and continue with these conversations, and it would reflect in their actions that they tried in their own work in a manner and process that they felt was trying out the uncharted/ untried with manageable risks. 

In the 18 months, each member of the team could identify actions and strategies that they had tried in the process that they had never tried before.

"When we tried something, and it worked, it gave us new courage and excitement"

In the words of one of the participants:

'Every time, we decided on an alternative strategy, I felt cynical and skeptical. While it sounded rational and logical, and therefore made perfect sense to try out, I knew that it would be very hard - because as a non profit organisation, we have little leverage with the bureaucracy, and if the bureaucracy does not agree to something, we are not always in a position to challenge. We have to let go of the ideal and settle for the feasible.

But nevertheless, I decided to try it out because it was decided as a group, and the task was to check assumptions that we were holding, and if it did not work, it would not be counted as my personal or Angad's failure. The starting was tough - and like I had predicted, decision makers in the bureaucracy with whom I had to negotiate were not willing to concede. But we were persistent and persuasive, and finally it budged a little. In three months, there was a complete turnaround - because the initial results from the initiative convinced the bureaucracy of what we were asking for, and it came on its own with much larger support than we had asked for. It made me, and all of us, feel very excited that it worked, made me want to try out other explorations and experiments.'

"Trying out what we thought was impossible, and when the system responded differently, I realised that the system is not as rigid as I thought it would be"

Another participant recounted a turnaround with the judiciary - which was being unduly moralistic and prejudicial in a matter of abortions of minors. "In the ten years that I have worked with the judiciary, I have seen that they operate from a hierarchy. If a magistrate has told me verbally not to go ahead with the abortion plea but to get the baby delivered and then to put it up for abortion, and if I should still go ahead and file a petition, he would take it as a confrontation. It is an ethical dilemma, but is it a risk that we are willing to take? ". Confronted with questions on ethics and accountability, the member followed due process as advised by the lawyer in the team, and with her sharp diplomacy skills, also worked with the magistrates to prepare ground for the intervention. The turn of events that followed was quite unexpected. When the petition was filed, the magistrate in question asked for the petitioner to clarify clauses and sections of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act under which it sought the order. Upon clarification, it became obvious that the magistrate's reluctance was out of ignorance of the law, and the assertive process provoked him to clarify his knowledge and today, MTPs for minors in state custody are not a problem anymore.

"I found that the system was not as rigid as I thought, and engagement with the system through persuasions, persistence and confrontations also make it more responsive. Like any relationship," she observed.

"We experienced renewed respect for each other"

"The process, and all our debates and discussions, engaging with differences helped in clarify our positions, made us reflect on our own values, morals and dogma that we may be holding, and enabled us to agree on common rules of decision decision making and rational organisational values. Our dependence on the CEO reduced, and we have developed greater trust and respect with each other. We can now anticipate how each of us thinks and responds, and that makes their behaviours and responses predictable and familiar which brings safety, and we know that behind a statement what may be the thought process. It helped in building our trust with each other", said one of the leaders.

"At several points, while we were reviewing our programme jointly, we would also offer opinions and suggestions to each other, which was sometimes met with resentment at the time. 'What would he know about my context to advise me on it? All he is trying to do is to come across as being wiser and smarter in this space,' is what would ring in my head. However, in the course of this process, based on our shared experience, shared joy and pride, and because our achievement was jointly owned, (and the CEO was not using it in any other way), we also realised about each other's skills and competencies beyond the role and function - the cognitive, rational, analytical or emotional. We are more collaborative and seek each other's opinions more, I know whom to go to for certain perspectives'.

"Growth is not about expansion, growth is when we find that we are learning new things, and our work is becoming more meaningful"

"How do we measure success in the non-profit sector? Numbers can be dangerous game. Budgets and utilisation does not give us the answer. For long, we have considered expansion in numbers, budgets, programmes, and employees as being markers of our footprint, value and recognition from the external world. What we have discovered in this process is that leadership is about learning from experimentations, discovering innovations, trying out the untried and about discovering relationships and new parts of ourselves, others and the system. That is what makes us feel validated, to ourselves."

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