Organisation building for systems change

In 2019 the Lab team took the decision to recruit a Chief Operating Officer, a strategic partner for the CEO focused on building our strength as an organisation: the people, processes and resources which enable our work. Our new COO, Rebecca Sumner Smith, shares some reflections on her first three months with the Lab.

Since joining the Lab in September, I’ve had the chance to engage with many different parts of our community, with Lab Fellowship Demo Day (the showcase event for our incubation programme), a range of board and committee meetings, and the Lab team retreat all taking place within my first twelve weeks. In November, we launched the recruitment process to find a new CEO, a process I’ll be closely involved with. All food for thought in the context of how we best steward our people, processes and resources for the future.

One of the key questions which was raised even in the COO recruitment process is:

What does it mean to build an organisation that’s working for systems change? How might this look different to a traditional organisation?

Back office in the basement

It’s easy to dismiss Operations as back office work to be endured and, mostly, ignored. I’m sure many people are familiar with the more traditional model of large organisations putting teams like Finance, HR and IT on a different floor to those doing the ‘real work’ and engaging with them only when necessary. Some have since realised this is a faulty model, and I’ve had first-hand experience of some very large organisations at the point when ‘business partnering’ became the buzzword driving integration of back office functions into strategic and programmatic conversations. Some organisations do this really well. But is it enough?

I would argue this isn’t enough – and simply can’t be enough – for organisations working for systems change. We can’t build a new system if we embody the old, not just in our external work, but also in the heart and guts of the organisation that supports that work.

So what does that mean in practice?

Bringing it to life

I’m still grappling with what this means for our systems and processes, but there are two areas where it is already clear I need to think differently from how I have in previous organisations.

Firstly, bringing our full selves to work must be at the core of our approach. The Lab’s commitment to action learning – iterative and ongoing testing and adaptation – means that holding uncertainty (and turning it into insight) is a key part of our work. Supporting the team through this can be intense and requires greater commitment to reflection and, often, vulnerability. This flows into our commitment to personal development, and means our team discussions often dig deep into emotions and assumptions, to help us understand our own place in the system and the work. There is no way our team could achieve this if we didn’t always strive to nurture and protect a healthy culture.

Luckily for me, the human piece is something the Lab has been thinking about and bringing to life since its inception ten years ago. Our Strategy for Systems Change notes that as the original core team was established it was clear that culture change was part of our deeper work – beginning with the culture of the Lab itself. Core to this is leadership as a practice, rather than a status or a title, shifting the focus from ‘power over’ to having ‘power with’. Our culture is deeply founded in our values of collaboration, action-learning, and empowerment. These values flow through all our work, and are embedded in our hiring and appraisal processes. The first step of our 2020 strategy redevelopment work is to reflect on and rearticulate those values, which are at the heart of all we do.

A second area where I’m already having to think differently is finance. We have all the usual processes around budget setting and financial governance, and yet we also work with an adaptive strategy which evolves as we learn and as the external world changes. Of course change happens in all organisations, but this arguably happens more frequently for those working to change complex, dynamic systems. Navigating the space between the emergent nature of our work and, for example, the constraints of grant reporting to funders highlights even further the importance of core values like collaboration, and how these must apply not just to our internal dealings but to our external relationships in all their forms. It is incumbent upon us to help others understand how we work, and why, and many of the projects on my hit-list for 2020 relate to how we might do this more frequently and more consistently.

A new approach is required

It seems clear that achieving our strategy requires an approach to our internal functions which can’t fully follow the more traditional models. For me, the most important implication of this is that we also can’t rely on existing, mainly corporate, structural paradigms when thinking about how we set ourselves up to scale – particularly when we think about how scaling our impact could be separated from scaling our size. Yet, it can be hard to see what this ‘new’ way of organisation building might look like. That’s the question underlying all of my work right now, and I know there are many organisations already making strides with this from which I can learn. If you’re grappling with similar issues, I would love to hear from you.