COMPLEXITY, CONTRACTORS & CONSULTANTS. When is outsourcing appropriate?

Many of us engaged in humanitarian action, conflict management & peace work, human rights, state formation and governance improvement, use or are consultants and advisers. Generally speaking however, there is a very monochrome or one-dimensional understanding of ‘advisers’ and ‘consultants’. Here are three key attention points to introduce more nuance and enrich the advisory or consulting relationship.

1.     Differentiate Between a Contractor and a Consultant.

When we see our engagement as ‘implementing a project’, the task appears ‘complicated’. When however our objective is to catalyse positive change, particularly in volatile and even violent environments, and with a multitude of actors with a high degree of autonomy, the situation and task usually becomes ‘complex’.

Insights and approaches to ‘complexity’ have been articulated in different quarters, for example the FSG group or Matt Andrews & others who advocate for ‘problem driven iterative adaptation’. Snowden’s Cynefin framework offers one quick way of grasping the important differences in the consulting relationship.

It differentiates between four broad ‘types’ of situation: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. The key difference lies in what we understand about the relationship between ‘cause’ and ‘effect’: Is it fairly straightforward (simple), is it multi-layered but still understandable by experts (complicated), or is it only perceivable retrospectively (complex) or not identifiable at all (chaotic)?

Outsourcing a task is generally appropriate in situations that are ‘simple’ or ‘complicated’. You need a dam built and the irrigation canal system extended; you need a new flow design to better manage the traffic in your city; you need national identity papers that are very hard to falsify. None of this is simple, but there are (teams of) experts who can deliver on such complicated tasks. For 17 years construction teams tunnelled away from both sides on the 57 km long Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland. When the two sides met under the mountains, their respective tunnels matched almost perfectly. Very complicated indeed, but not with our current expertise in precision engineering.

Compare this with the much more modest ‘successes’ in e.g. overcoming ethnic divisions in Kosovo, building effective institutions in ‘fragile’ states, or reforming the welfare state in countries with ageing populations. Contrary to what we are made to believe when we have to write detailed proposals and work plans and what we ourselves may be telling the donors and the public, for such complex situations and challenges, we don’t have a ‘best practice’ roadmap that works in most contexts. Catalysing socio-political change is not a technical problem.

What is ‘complicated’ can quickly become ‘complex’: Introduce land right issues and development-induced displacement dynamics into your dam project, and you have corrosive acid into your precision engineering. Mix up the issue of who is entitled to citizenship with the national ID document, and in many countries you have a recipe for trouble.

Short of very authoritarian approaches, fairly generic solutions will not 'resolve' complex problems. From ‘Grand Design’ we will have to shift to ‘Location, Location, Location’, and discover the approaches that fit best in particular contexts. Rather than simply ‘implementing’ the ‘plan’, to achieve our higher strategic objectives our practice will have to be one of ‘probing’, of trying and testing, with quick feedback loops about what effects our actions seem to produce and what other factors also affect the situation. And then adjust and adapt. As we move along, we partially discover, but partially also create the ‘pathway’. We may have some good principles for practice but our actual practice will be ‘emerging’.

There is a, probably prevailing, school of thought that argues that the right approach to complex situations is to break the problem down into more manageable chunks, and work on those. The assumptions are that sub-sets of problems have a relative independence and that the cumulative effect of many sub-problems solved will add up to the significant change in the overarching problem. We therefore have created a large number of ‘specialist profiles’ for this, also in the consultancy world. Their work is relevant and helpful. But did the cumulative input of thousands of expert advisers and consultants in Iraq 'add up'? 

On the other hand, we have the ‘systems thinkers’, who take a holistic view and hold that we cannot ignore that different factors and different levels are actually interconnected, and that more systemic (i.e. more sustainable) change will not happen if we only work on parts of it. That awareness is gradually seeping in, with new language e.g. references to the ‘eco-system’. From that perspective, bringing in a specialist to review your organisational finance systems and bring them up-to-standard might be a sensible move – but doesn’t add up to ‘organisational development’. A broader OD perspective would consider for example how finance procedures relate to human resources and programming, and whether they are actually enabling or constraining. A real OD resource person must be a systems-thinker.

The prevailing expectation of consultancy reports is that they present preferably actionable recommendations. This is appropriate for those tasks or challenges that are ‘complicated’ and for which there is genuine expertise. But at the more strategic level, and for situations with a high degree of complexity, no outsider will have the fail-free solution for you. Most restructuring processes, even accompanied by expensive management consultants, go awry, create much grief and often don’t deliver on the expectations. In contexts with a multitude of semi-autonomous actors, ‘solutions’ in any case will have to be negotiated. So while it may be quite clear which courses of action are unlikely to work, there can be no certainty over which ones will guarantee results.

What are some of the implications?

  • Understand where you need ‘technical’ and where you need ‘strategic’ advice, and what sort of experience and personality enables the latter. Broad comparative experience; an excellent ability to grasp the specifics of a context, with its own history, values and multi-actor dynamics, and to look at it from different angles and perspectives; a fair degree of comfort with uncertainty; an ability to ask probing and catalytic questions and to zoom in and out between the relevant detail and the bigger landscape, are all relevant characteristics of a consultant adviser in complex situations.
  • Where you need strategic analysis and advice, do not fully outsource the task as if to a contractor, but explore and learn together with the consultant. Focus on the ‘findings’ and the ‘new questions’ of the joint inquiry, and don’t jump hastily to overly confident ‘recommendations’.

2. Consider What Role(s) an Adviser/Consultant Could Usefully Play

How many Terms of Reference include attention to possible roles? Already in 1990 Champion, Kiel & McLendon framed the different roles that consultants, advisers and change agents can play in a 9-grid model. 

With an X axis that focuses on results and a Y-axis that focuses on , we can see how the outsourcing approach comes in the bottom-right corner. You expect your contractor to do the job for you, to provide you with solutions. The role-opposite in this grid is the coaching role in the top-left corner. A coach guides your inquiry and discovery with little more than stimulating questions. A joint inquiry and learning process between you and your consultant is going to play out in the spheres of modelling, partnering, training/teaching and mentoring. Your consultant may bring much experience, but doesn’t pretend to have the success-recipe for this particular context. You probe together for what might be a good fit ‘solution’ for a particular situation. (From a return-on-investment perspective, this is actually a better-value approach, as you learn beyond the timeframe of the consultancy.)

Very experienced consultants (rather than ‘technical experts’) know that they are likely to play different roles in the course of an assignment, sometimes within the span of the same day. They have invested in personal and professional development, so they are comfortable playing most of them and can discern which one might be situationally most appropriate.

3. Expect Different Types of ‘Advice’.

The prevailing expectation is for consultants to make ‘recommendations’. There is generally little thought and appreciation for what can be very different types of ‘recommendations’. Too often they are phrased as ‘X should do this or that’. Not only is the paternalistic tone of ‘should’ not so helpful. More importantly, there is an implication of confidence here that may be overstated.

At least four different types of advice or ‘recommendation’ are possible. Each can be appropriate, but the appropriateness depends on the type of situation and challenge under consideration!

  • Solution: A specific advice that will solve your problem. Appropriate for ‘simple’ situations, but usually not elsewhere. As I learned from a colleague who had himself been a military adviser to the Afghan army: different countries had their own advisers helping to build the Afghan national army. Each of them was actually replicating their own national model as the ‘solution’– no one was building an ‘Afghan’ army, fit for the specific challenges and context of Afghanistan and its region.
  • Options: Political advisers are trained to provide their principals with options – three is a preferred number. Experts helping you with complicated problems will also offer you options: there are usually different choices that provide an a ‘good enough’ solution. Appropriate for complicated situations and challenges. Problematic for complex situations when taken, not as ideas to test out, but as different ‘turn-key’ solutions of which you choose one. What do the political processes over Syria and Libya most look like: the pursuit of a chosen solution or muddling through?
  • Ideas: Nobody can rightfully claim to be very confident about what will work in a particular complex situation. But your consultant can offer you a set of ideas – some of them from other contexts where people had to deal with similar challenges – but just for inspiration, not to copy. Others can be out-of-the box ideas, that challenge core assumptions on which your action was based. The only way to find out what may work in your particular context however is ‘try, test, learn, adapt’. Emerging practice.
  • Process advice: What would be a suitable process to identify a contextually appropriate approach that has a fair chance of achieving meaningful progress? One such can be for a multi-stakeholder process. After all, the other types of advice focus solely on the client. But one factor that creates complexity in our type of contexts is the multitude of actors. Typically, no single agency, however well resourced, can resolve the problem alone. There has to be enough convergence among key actors and stakeholders to get broad support for positive change. An appropriate advice may be to run a multi-stakeholder process to get to that point. The subsequent course of action cannot be predetermined: it will emerge from the process.

Let me illustrate this with two examples.

Case 1: Together with a team of locals, we spent several weeks on an intensive listening exercise in a place that had gone through a secessionist war but with also a lot of infighting. Through focus group discussions and individual interviews, we gained the perspectives of the local population on a broad set of conflict, peace, security and development related issues. One of the core findings was the strong disconnect and distrust between the population and their autonomous regional administration. The first draft of our report consciously presented the ‘findings’ without recommendations. We wanted particularly the authorities and their international partners to really focus on the findings, and think through themselves what the implications might be for what they could constructively do. The reaction of the authorities was: Where are the recommendations? Used as they were to international advisers and consultants presenting them with ‘solutions’, they were not prepared to engage with the findings, but wanted to jump directly to the team’s recommendations. As our participatory inquiry concerned vital issues of violence or peacefulness in the area, my local co-team leader was aghast and told them: ‘We need to stop outsourcing the thinking!’ Yet we couldn’t get attention for the report until we had put in our ‘recommendations from the team’.

Case 2: More recently, I was asked to do an evaluation of an organisation’s programme over several years in a MENA country. The small programme team was very reflective but hadn’t gathered much in terms of monitoring data. There was also an expectation that I advise on where the programme should go in the next 2-3 years. Time in country being very limited, I turned the exercise into a strategic review. The report contained some specific recommendations, especially related to ensuring that in future the programme would gather essential monitoring data. Most of it however consisted of showing where and why the programme had now developed to such a point that, in different aspects, it was now facing a strategic crossroads, and identifying some of the possible choices the agency could make, with some reflection around each. No recommendations were offered however on what choices the agency should make. For three reasons: While I had learned a lot, I knew that there certainly were important elements that I hadn’t picked up in the short time available. Secondly, different considerations would have to be weighed against each other, and any choice would involve trade-offs. That was the responsibility of the agency, not of the consultant. Because, thirdly, the agency would have to live with the consequences of its choices, not the consultant. In this case, the paucity of firm recommendations was not seen as a problem. Rather the reasoning behind presenting primarily ‘reflection and discussion points’ was well understood and appreciated.

In conclusion: Decades of experience should have told us that many situations we thought to be ‘complicated’ are actually ‘complex’. But we still plan as if they were ‘complicated’ and hire outside ‘experts’ with the general assumption that they can provide us workable solutions. Fortunately, the now very rapid pace of change in the world is helping us realise that our old approaches may not be the most appropriate and that nobody has confident ‘answers’. The broader use of ‘hackathons’ and ‘crowd thinking’, creative formats to try and find new ideas and approaches to seemingly intractable problems, are a manifestation of this.

So when looking for external support, consider the nature of the situation and the challenge you want support for. Hire experts for what is ‘complicated’ but ‘strategic advisers’ for what is complex, and consider what role(s) the latter can usefully play and what types of advice you might get from them. You can outsource to the first, but inquire and think together with the latter.



I. Our Practice Shows the Effectiveness of Our Learning.

Twenty-five years ago, Peter Senge published ‘The Fifth Discipline. The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation’. It remains as inspirational and aspirational today as it was then.

Ostensibly the aid sector has embraced the responsibility to learn: There is a proliferation of manuals; ‘knowledge management’ is a formal function in various organisations, we have intranets and ‘communities of practice’, and thematically specialised advisers. We invest a lot in training courses. We want to see more ‘evidence-based policy’ and are struggling with the challenge to ‘demonstrate results’. We are also enthralled by the ability of new technologies to generate ‘data’ much more cost-effectively and to provide us with ‘big data’.

Yet when we look closely at the actual practices on the ground, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that more often than not, these do not reflect the collective learning available: practices are not as sophisticated as they could be, key attention areas are neglected, known mistakes are made again, manuals sit unused on office shelves, we wait for formal evaluations to ask the key questions etc. Many lessons may have been ‘identified’ but are not ‘learned’ and applied. Actual practice is less shaped by the collective learning than by the knowledge, understanding, character, personal preferences, and competencies of key individuals, who may or may not have been good learners. There are two sets of reasons for this: persistent difficulty in being a learning organisation, and sector-wide disincentives.

II. The Challenge.

The learning challenge exists along three key dimensions:

  • Experiences need to be documented, brought together and reflected on; then they need to be reshaped in formats that can be communicated; the insights need to be paid attention to, absorbed and then applied in further practice;
  • Essential learning has to shift from the level of ‘awareness’, to ‘knowledge’, to ‘skill’;
  • Individual learning needs to become team learning, and organisational / network / partners’ learning.

Put together this is daunting but not impossible.

III. Five Fundamental Enablers for Organisational Learning.

   1. The Curious Manager or Team Leader

Observe what managers ask questions about, and you will see what an organisation finds important. Active managerial interest and support is critical. Without it, all efforts and investment will yield limited and temporary results at best.

Imagine managers or team leaders who regularly – several times a week and sometimes a day- ask: What are we learning from this? What must we learn from this? Are we documenting and sharing this? Are we using the available learning here, what have we or others already learned about this? Etc. Not only would this drive the attention to the learning content, it also sends a clear signal that ‘learning’ and applying learning is an important and valued organisational concern and objective.

   2. Make and Value the Time for Learning.

Time is as precious a resource as money. But the word ‘resource’ has two connotations: something finite that we can exhaust, or something valuable that we can invest. Driven by an atmosphere of ‘urgency’ and ‘the immediate’, often self-created and greatly encouraged by modern ICT, we only see the first connotation. But learning takes time: to reflect, to document, to share, to absorb, to apply.

How we choose to allocate our time, is moreover something that is partially under our control: Prior to a renewed escalation of war in Sri Lanka, I had instituted a practice of staff retreats about every 7-8 weeks, to share information and updates and to learn, and plan together. When renewed heavy fighting led to the swift displacement of some 400.000 people, we rapidly scaled up our operational crisis response, tripling the budget and quadrupling the staff within the span of a good 3 months. Notwithstanding the enormous pressures, I maintained the practice of regular retreats. This proved a very good use of precious time: It helped us to integrate new staff and provide them with the fundamental learning needed, to maintain a strategic perspective and regularly assess our positioning within an evolving situation, and ensure our programmatic and organisational coherence. Without it, the external crisis would have become matched by an internal crisis.

Learning organisations do not systematically deprioritise learning over other actions.

   3. Hire and Groom People with Strong Learning Abilities.

The not-for-profit sector has largely reproduced the functionalistic organigrams and command-and-control cultures of the public and private sector, yet without the much more dynamic ‘management’ of human resources that you find in the better private sector companies. In more than 2 decades I’ve never heard any manager talk about ‘attracting and retaining talent’ for example or, in a job interview, inquire about someone’s 'learning journey'. The trend is rather towards specialised jobs, looking for people who have been doing exactly that same type of work for at least 5 or 10 years, and to only call upon them for issues that fit with their job description. When new skills and competencies are needed, current employees are simply replaced with new recruits. If our accounting systems would show the true cost of such practice, we would not manage like this.

Making the working relationship highly transactional creates a false efficiency: On the surface it can give the impression that it attracts the best people. But who is going to be really committed, and give their best, to an organisation that doesn’t commit to its staff, and doesn’t care about their professional growth? Contrast this with the better private sector companies that go ‘talent hunting’, and invest in the systematic grooming of talented people. They make them work successively in different parts of the organisation and/or provide them with well-chosen training to develop skills (including emotional intelligence) they will need in roles of higher responsibility. By doing so, they not only deepen their expertise but also develop a more holistic and strategic perspective.

Mentoring can be a very cost-effective learning enabler. Many years ago, when my better half got her management training, she was told: ‘No promotion until you have trained someone to take your place!’. What an organisational incentive for mentoring - and working together!

We have entered a historical period of rapid and unpredictable change. Organisations will have to be more adaptable and innovative to survive. Old ways of thinking and doing may no longer be appropriate for the new realities. In such contexts, are we not much better off with staff that demonstrate strong learning abilities? Which – for adults- implies the ability to unlearn some old knowledge and practices that are no longer so adequate. That also applies to top management – the potential for an organisation to renew itself is closely correlated with the learning abilities of its the top management.

   4. Focus on Team Learning.

Learning is individual, yet organisational performance is dependent on team and collective effort. Many organisations over-emphasise the individual: We assess the performance of individuals as if that did not depend on wider team performance and a larger enabling environment; we send individuals on training who then can’t apply what they have learned as the rest of us continue with business-as-usual; if we invest in coaching support, it is more for individuals than for teams. Yet there is solid management literature that confirms the superior performance of learning teams. Learning teams thrive when the team leader is a learning leader and a team coach rather than a ‘boss’, and where all team members receive credit for what is a collective performance.

Team learning turns into wider organisational learning where learning is encouraged across units and offices. Silos encourage stagnation. Organisations need dedicated resources (people, money and time) to help document the collective learning and pick up and absorb the learning from others. But such ‘knowledge managers’ or ‘learning resource persons’ cannot get disconnected from their colleagues fully engaged in practical action. Broader ‘communities of practice’, within and across organisations, can be very stimulating if they are dynamic. But to have influence on organisational performance, managers need to take part in them, even if they only do so as ‘followers’.

   5. Pursue Organisational Learning Priorities.

Even if becoming a learning organisation is a strategic organisational priority, the amount of people, money and time that can be invested in it will be limited. So organisations have to set some learning priorities. How do you decide between the learning needs and preferences of individual staff, teams or units, HQ and field-based staff, your own organisation and partners? And between the learning needs of today and for tomorrow? Choices will be inevitable, but making them can be facilitated by exploring three questions:

  • What essential competencies do our people need to perform as effective teams?
  • What learning will take our teams to the next level of quality?
  • What learning does our organisation need to remain a high performer in the face of new challenges from a changing world?

Then pursue your choices with focus, determination and patience. A UK-headquartered peace organisation successfully introduced and mainstreamed a high quality learning-documentation-evaluation practice throughout the organisation. It took five years to get to that next level of quality.

Document the (team- and) organisational learning journey, and the enabling and constraining factors, so that you ‘learn to learn’.

IV. Is there a Business Case for Learning?

The persistent discrepancy between the collective knowledge or learning available and our collective practice, also results from disincentives in the aid-supported sector.

   1. Being Busy.

One big disincentive is the pervasive impatience of international actors that drives short-term thinking and sustains the myth of quick fixes to complex problems. Mixed up with an increasingly competitive environment for limited funding, this strongly encourages action over reflection, the import of external solutions rather than the search for contextually appropriate and locally owned ones, and pressures to claim ‘success’. Increasing scepticism about the effectiveness of aid among public opinion in donor countries will only reinforce this disincentive.

   2. No Serious Penalties for Failing.

A second major disincentive is that, by and large, at the organisational level, we can get away with not learning. Those with the broad cumulative knowledge are rarely the decision-makers, and there is little longitudinal perspective. There is no evaluation criterion for ‘learning effectiveness’ and evaluators are not asked to assess it. When serious programmatic or organisational weaknesses have become visible at some point, teams and organisations argue that they will learn from it. No one ever checks.

In 2016, almost 20 years after ‘Do No Harm’ was published, we still have experienced organisations that understand ‘conflict sensitivity’ as nothing more than ‘potential security risks to their staff and assets’. An organisation can be on the verge of bankruptcy twice in a decade, for spending money that was not secured, yet be bailed out twice by donors without consequences for its failure to learn. We keep spending a lot on one-off training courses even if we know that their effectiveness in improving practice is very modest at best. We know that sustainable solutions require good fit with the context and broad support from local/national stakeholders, yet continue importing solutions. How come that the value-for-money lens does not pick up on the general learning weaknesses?

On the other side, if the aid sector is really about providing effective services and/or creating enabling conditions for purposeful and capable locally- driven action, then, as for the business sector, the customer/beneficiary should be central. But by and large, the intended ‘beneficiaries’ of our programmes and actions have long been powerless or their views have not been heard. How about, for example, asking refugees who have been receiving aid for more than a year, whether or which aid agency they see as a learning organisation?

That situation may slowly improve with greater access to information, the introduction of formal complaints and response mechanisms, growing citizen activism, and increasing assertiveness of governmental and civil society actors in aid-recipient countries. Will it be enough for aid-supported organisations whose sustainability does not ultimately depend on ‘customer satisfaction’?

The aid sector has become an ‘aid-business’: From that perspective, the question for top management is: 'Does being an effective learning organisation contribute to business success', i.e. not only providing real benefits for others but also standing out as a worthwhile organisation, coalition or network, to invest in?

So far, effective learning has not been a requirement for business success. Will that continue to be the case? As aid budgets continue to shrink, and we will eventually be forced to acknowledge that we can’t quickly deliver big demonstrable ‘results’ for the big challenges in many societies and in our world today, I think our learning abilities will start to matter much more.


L’expérience est une chose que vous acquérez juste après en avoir eu besoin.


“It is only through a system of strong organisational governance that beneficiaries can be assured that an organisation established on their behalf is indeed serving their best interests.” (1)

“The Board sets the tone for ethical and responsible decision-making throughout the organisation.” (2)

Western civil society organisations, networks and membership organisations, tend to have a Governing Group (GG), referred to as a Governing Committee or Council, Board of Trustees (UK usage), Conseil d’Administration (francophone areas) or something equivalent. Similar governance arrangements are now found also in civil society elsewhere.

Outside the UK perhaps, with its strong Charity Law and oversight Charity Commission, little focused attention seems to be paid to the quality, effectiveness and accountability of such Governing entities. That is surprising, given that most civil society organisations around the world have a more or less expressed interest in the quality of governance in their home society and other societies they engage with. If that is the case, then leading by example would be the expected behaviour.

Standards are available to promote and protect the integrity, effectiveness and accountability of such Governing Group, that can serve as inspiration and reference.

But before focusing on those, we need to be clear about the primary purpose of a Governing Group, and pay attention to different visions and approaches how to constitute one. The key questions are: What are the primary responsibilities of a Governing Group; What composition of members do you need to achieve that purpose; How do people become member of a GG; and how does a GG relate to other governance and decision-making centres of the organisation or network?

1. What are Primary Responsibilities of a Governing Group?

Overall, a Governing Group provides oversight and support for the health of the organisation or network platform/secretariat. In practice that the GG will approve the strategic plan. They are also formally responsible for the hiring, performance assessment and renewal or termination of the Executive Director. The Treasurer on the GG leads on the oversight of the financial management and wellbeing of the entity. Governing Councils also have a significant role to play in times of organisational or network crisis, when restructuring, scaling down, replacing the director etc. might be in the cards. In addition, Governing Group members can also represent the organisation or network, help with raising funds, provide access to opinion and decision-makers etc.

2. What Composition of the Governing Group?

These are very significant responsibilities, which suggests that great care is to be taken with getting the right people and the right mix. You would expect that most GG members bring serious managerial, financial, legal and/or organisational development experience, and also understand the importance of credible leadership. You will also need members that are good at ‘zooming in & zooming out’, seeing the bigger strategic picture but also picking up on the significant detail. A Chair and Vice-Chair in particular have to be very good at running effective meetings.

In addition, people are also chosen to join a GG because of their ‘carnet d’adresses’, their personal contacts and networks. They can open doors to political actors, potential donors, local authorities, other networks of relevant organisations or constituencies etc.

The composition of a GG actually says something about the organisation – sometimes intentionally so. Members can be chosen to project and claim ‘prestige’: A lot of VIPs rather than more ‘ordinary’ people signals that the organisation sees itself (and wants to be) in the elite circles. An organisation that claims to be ‘international’ would be expected to have international diversity among its GG members. One that puts ‘partnerships’ at the heart of its mission, will be expected to have one or more members from partner organisations. The same for membership organisations. One whose mission is focused on ‘youth’ really should have younger people too. And why not a staff representative: Within the EU there are many countries that provide for worker representation at Board level; many universities have student representation there - yet few civil society organisations seem to consider this?

There are other considerations to take into account, notably:

  • Alignment with the values, principles and mission: Someone who is not aligned will not be able to really serve and add value to the organisation or platform, and may potentially be a reputational risk. Alignment cannot always be fully assessed on the basis of an interview, it may require a disclosure of past and current interests and affiliations. This also relates to the motivation of the individual: Is s/he genuinely interested in serving the best interests of your organisation or platform? Or is s/he primarily seeing this as a pathway to further career advancement (Being a Board Member looks good on the CV!) or to pursue the particular interests of her or his organisation or specific subgroup (in membership organisations)?
  • Availability: If you are only interested in the ‘name prestige’ of an individual being associated with your organisation or platform, then his or her availability may not matter much. But if you want the person to serve and add value, then a certain availability and quality time investment in necessary. The right person who is never available is only taking the place of someone else who could be more useful.
  • Real, potential or perceived conflict of interest: Past or current positions or personal and professional relationships can constitute a real or potential conflict of interest strong enough to prevent a person from being a member of this GG. Alternatively, the person can be a GG member but for certain issues will have to abstain from being part of the GG conversation or from voting. Obvious instances would be for example a person who has in the past been a lobbyist for a company that sources products in developing economies, that your organisation is likely to take to task for child labour and inadequate health and safety regulations. But there are other common scenarios: It is widely accepted that in the CSO sector GG members cannot be remunerated, as this may cast doubt on the integrity of their motivation. With membership organisations, there is also a common risk that a GG member prioritises the interests of his or her member organisation or members group, over the collective interest that the secretariat is expected to serve. Too close a past or present relationship to the Executive Director should also disqualify someone from the roles of Chair and Vice Chair, as it can compromise the objectivity of the performance assessment.

Hence our first strategic question: Do we have the right mix of people that represents who we are and how we position ourselves, aligned with our values and mission, available, without obvious conflicts of interest and with the necessary skills to fulfil their important responsibilities?

One more point requires attention: length of tenure. However good an individual, after a period of time you are likely to lose the freshness of perspective and the depth of interest. There is also a risk of individuals becoming too attached to the position, which is not healthy. So you don’t want to rotate too quickly, but also not enough. Perhaps a period of three years, with the possibility -after a performance assessment- of a two-year renewal, strikes a good balance?

3. How Do People Become Member of the Governing Entity?

How people get into the GG is also revealing about the actual character of the organisation. The most common mechanisms are: By invitation, ex oficio, through nomination and by election.
§ By invitation: The invitation comes from the Chair of the GG and/or the Executive Director, presumably after consultation with the rest of the GG and a senior management team. The individual approached accepts or not, depending on her or his interest and availability.
§ Ex oficio: Some seats in the GG are reserved for certain institutions, such as local or national authorities, perhaps a key donor, a partner agency, a staff member. The individuals may change but the position remains reserved for these entities.
§ Through nomination: A possible scenario particularly in membership organisations, where different member groups put forward an individual for GG membership.
§ Through election: Individuals put forward their candidacy to serve on the GG, explaining their motivation and qualifications. They stand indeed for election. A question will be who is allowed to vote?

A combination of ‘nomination’ and ‘election’ can be envisaged, in which different groups nominate more than one candidate, and voting takes place to choose one. A wider combination is possible of course, which some seats reserved ‘ex oficio’, some filled by invitation and others through nomination and/or election.
The different modalities each have their advantages and disadvantages. Having ex oficio members can strengthen their feeling of being a ‘core stakeholder’; but it can also open the door to interests that are different from the ‘best interest’ of the organisation or platform. High profile personalities coming from the political, financial, business, media sectors etc. will rarely be prepared to ‘stand for election’ in this setting. The only way of getting them formally connected to the entity may be ‘by invitation’. The risk is a lower sense of responsibility and ‘service’. Election of ‘candidates’ is the most ‘democratic’ method, but may not generate an overall group profile that meets the diverse set of expectations that people have for their GG.

Which modalities prevail says something however about the nature of the organisation or network. By invitation and ex oficio are intrinsically less open and ‘democratic’ than through nomination or election. An electoral approach also puts more spotlight on the person’s motivation, availability and competencies.

Our second strategic question: Different modalities of recruitment create a different type of governance atmosphere: which modality/ies will we use to recruit members of our GG?

4. How does the Governing Group Relate to Other Governance Organs?

There are of course also other governance & decision-making organs, such as the Executive Director, possibly a Senior Management Team and/or a ‘General Assembly’. How these relate to each other again says something about the character of the organisation.

An Executive Director without an effective Senior Management Team is like a Chair of a GG who tends to consult little with other GG members: They have a tendency to become sole decision-makers. All the business literature and practical experience signal that this rarely leads to the best decisions. It also gives a quite autocratic impression which certainly would not be appropriate for organisations that promote more participatory and inclusive forms of governance in today’s world. Organisations whose Governing Group equals the General Assembly are also intrinsically less participatory and more centralised. There is then no formal framework where other stakeholders can have an effective voice and influence the governance. Somehow the question becomes: Whose organisation is this? Real ‘stakeholder organisations’ may go further and periodically commission a ‘social audit’, inviting assessments, feedback and suggestions from a broader set of stakeholders.

The relationship between the GG and the Executive Director is a delicate balancing act. The GG definitely should not be micromanaging and constantly interfering. After all, it has appointed an ED to lead the organisation or network secretariat. But the GG can also not be so ‘hands off’ that it doesn’t really know very well what is happening except from the reports they get from the ED and possibly the Chief Financial Officer. Imagine a scenario where a GG member didn’t realise that an organisation is in financial difficulty until it has become a full-blown crisis. S/he then has been negligent or been deceived by the top management. In either case s/he has not been diligent enough. While staff should not be encouraged to bypass senior management, an organisational ‘whistle blower’ policy can create that pathway for very serious concerns. GG members should also actively follow the issues brought up in the organisational ‘Feedback & Complaints Handling Mechanism’.

In assessing the performance of the ED, a 360-degree process seems virtually inevitable. We are after all not dealing here with organisational entities where annual turnover, market share and share-price, where such figures are the key indicators.

Our third strategic question: How does the Governing Group relate to other governance and decision-making functions in the organisation?

5. The Integrity, Effectiveness and Accountability of Governing Groups.

While a GG oversees and supports the overall performance of the organisation of network secretariat, it does have to show active responsibility and accountability for its own integrity and effectiveness. This can be encouraged with explicit principles and standards.
Guidance on GG standards is available even if not well known. Some useful references are:
§ ‘Good Governance. A code for the voluntary and community sector.’ (UK)
§ ‘Good Governance Principles and Guidance for the Not-for-Profit Sector of   the Australian Institute of Company Directors
§ ‘Twenty Questions Directors of Not-for-Profit Organisations Should Ask about Board Recruitment, Development and Assessment’ by R. Leblanc & H. Lindsay for the Chartered Professional Accounts body of Canada

These can be further detailed and reinforced with, for example, a ‘Conflict-of-Interest Policy’, and a ‘Code of Conduct’ for Trustees'. (3)

This is not the place to summarise the key points, but some can be highlighted to show their overall flavour.

a. Work as a Team.Board members are expected not to try and influence other members outside Board meetings, as this may create factionalism. They are expected to make an effort to have constructive conversations, i.e. strive to understand what shapes the views of other members, and build on each other’s ideas or offer alternatives. Once a decision is made, they should support and even defend it, even if it was not their preferred option. They should not discuss their internal differences with others. This may mean that voting outcomes may be recorded, but not who voted how.

b. External representation. GG members have a duty to make it very clear whether they are speaking for the group or in an individual capacity. They are expected not to speak externally for the organisation unless duly authorised.

c. Consultative, Open and Responsive. Committee members are expected to consult widely and timely about issues that mean potentially significant changes for the organisation of platform, and take the various views into account.

d. Performance assessment and accountability. If the Board is to lead by example, it will conduct its own periodic performance assessments, individually and as a team, and also seek out the views of the Executive Director. (4)

Our fourth strategic question: How does the Governing Group commit to being effective and accountable, and periodical assess its own performance?

6. Governing Groups of Networks or Member Organisations.

Member organisations or networks create some particular dynamics and present some specific challenges, that need to be handled responsibly also in the composition and functioning of their Governing Group.
Three common such challenges are:

§ Imbalances among the members: Often there are imbalances among members, in size and resources, in experience and expertise, in access to high-level decision makers, in individual and organisational self-confidence, in familiarity with (Western) organisational procedures, in fluency in the language in which business is conducted etc. This can easily lead to larger, more international, better resourced and more widely connected organisations beginning to dominate the functioning and decision-making of the network. If not actively mitigated, this risks confirming existing inequalities, and perhaps gradually lead to resentment and distrust among the weaker participants.

§ Representation: With a large number of members, direct representation on the Governing Group becomes impossible and a General Assembly potentially expensive. A formula will have to be found to create some balance. A scenario to watch out for is block-formation and group-voting. This risks the GG becoming the battle field for competing interest groups, where the common interest and purpose of the coalition is lost sight of. Possible mitigating mechanisms are an electoral approach as described above, and the key positions of Chair, Vice-Chair and Treasurer being reserved for competent individuals without affiliation with any member organisation.

§ Secretariat hosted by a member organisation: If the Secretariat does not have its own legal identity and is hosted by a member organisation that also manages its finance and HR, then there is a risk that doubts arise whether the host organisation is serving the broader member platform, or rather using it for its own organisational interests. This too can be mitigated by a policy where a representative from the host organisation cannot be Chair, Vice-Chair or Treasurer.

Our fifth strategic question: How do member organisations ensure that the GG prioritises the collective interest over selective member interests?

Overall we can see how the choices made about the composition of the Governing Group and its relationship to other governance and decision-functions of the organisation (points 2, 3, 4, 6), will increase or decrease the likelihood of the GG embracing explicit values and standards to safeguard its integrity and signal its commitment to effectiveness and accountability (point 5).

(1) Chapter 2. Organisational governance. In Capacity Building for Local NGOs. A guidance manual for good practice. 2005 London, Catholic Institute for International Relations
(2) Principle 9 of the Australian ‘Good Governance Principles and Guidance for Not-for-Profit Organisations.’ 2013
(3) For an example see the 2012 draft ‘Board Member’s Code of Conduct’ of the College of Continuing Education of Dalhousie University
(4) A Board Self-Evaluation Questionnaire, that is freely available, has been developed by the same College at Dalhousie University in 2013.


‘Leadership’ is a big issue in our contemporary world. In politicians we lament the lack of principle and/or the ability to implement policy. Populist demagogues attract worrying numbers of followers. The big corporates generally have a reputation for ruthless treatment of staff and arrogant top executives. The not-for-profit sector pretends to be value-driven but, having become big business, attracts its share of ego-driven, authoritarian-minded managers. Networks, coalitions and people movements are often undermined by interpersonal rivalries. In many places where we need and would expect principled and inspiring leadership, we see people whose outstanding qualities seem to be acquiring power, self-promotion and gaming or faking values and results. They fail to lead or are bad leaders.

Most of us experience the ‘quality’ of leadership in our work place. The diagnosis is not good. Gallup polls around the world show that only some 13% of people feel passionate in and about their jobs. Some 63% are not engaged: they are not happy and inspired and have mentally checked out but are not ready to quit. And some 24% are deeply unhappy with their job and work environment. Money is not necessarily a primary reason. Major demotivating factors are lack of recognition, disempowering overregulation and micro-management, unhelpful and abusive behaviours of supervisors and bosses, and a disregard in practice for the professed values of the organisation. The result is a massive loss of intrinsic motivation, which is the fountain of active responsibility, productivity and creativity. If our accounting systems were less primitive and would pick up this massive wastage of ‘productivity’ and ‘value’, we would have addressed it long ago.

What does this say about the effectiveness and the ‘value-for-money’ or ‘return on investment’ of the huge leadership and management consultancy industries, the many human resource professionals and the smaller but growing coaching profession?

Many of us, including people in formally senior positions, remain confused about what ‘leadership’ – and followership’ is really about. In this post, I want to reiterate some of the key insights about ‘leadership’. In a later post I will explore some of the challenges for the leadership of development organisations in the 21s century.

1.     Leadership is a human relation, not a position.

There is no leadership without followership. Leadership is a relationship between different actors, with usually one leading others who accept to follow. Leadership is in the eye of the beholder. You can call yourself a great leader, but that remains a self-promoting myth if you are not recognised and respected for your leadership by others.

2.    Leadership is about providing people a purpose.

Leadership is first and foremost about providing people a purpose that inspires and motivates, and mobilises them into a commitment towards something that is greater than their narrow self-interest. Decision-making is often an important part of leadership, but less central than ‘purpose’. ‘Why’ is more fundamental than ‘what’.

3.    Leadership can rely on hard power and/or soft power.

Getting others to follow you is a form of power. Followership can be obtained by hard power: the use of rewards and threats. But such transactional relationship has high ongoing costs: the followers are not intrinsically motivated, and sticks and carrots need to be dispensed constantly. Leadership based heavily on hard power ends up breeding mistrust and apathy and in the end defiance.

Soft power relies on persuading but also attracting others to want what you want. The notion of ‘attraction’ evokes that of the ‘charismatic’ leader. Being an effective communicator is a key component of being perceived as charismatic. Yet we also know from human history the risks and disappointments with overly charismatic leaders. ‘Attraction’, and with it commitment and loyalty, can also derive from respect for someone being perceived as a real role model, who shows respect and is a great enabler for others. Soft power alone however is not sufficient in all situations.

4.    Leadership is intrinsically amoral.

The exercise of effective leadership says nothing about the ethical quality of the purpose for which people are mobilised. Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic and many others in human history were great leaders: they successfully mobilised millions of people for years on end even if achieving the ‘purpose’ inevitably involved large scale violence, destruction and domination. In retrospect we call it ‘mis-leading’. Effective leaders are not automatically ethical leaders. Ethical or principled leadership is a deliberate choice.

5.    Leadership is contextual.

Someone can be providing great leadership in one situation but not in another. When a fire breaks out in the cinema hall, the ‘leadership’ that results in an orderly evacuation may come from the popcorn seller and not from the governor who came to see the film. Winston Churchill was a great war-time leader but lost the general election in 1945.

Leadership can be ‘distributed’, it can be exercised by anyone, whatever their position within a formal hierarchy. It is not intrinsically linked to those at the top. The most appreciated great people at the top are those that are ‘leader-breeders’ – they encourage others to develop and use their leadership skills for the collective benefit.

6.    Leadership is imperfect.

No single person is best placed and most insightful to set the course and take decisions all the time and on everything. Mature individuals acknowledge their limitations and deliberately invite the perspectives, ideas and proposals from others. Mature leaders surround themselves with a capable team that has complementary experience and skills and that is not only allowed but encouraged to bring different views. The aim is to improve the idea by argument, to have the best possible decision under the circumstances, not the senior person getting what s/he wants. Excessive alignment kill diversity and with it creativity and innovation.

7.    Leadership and management skills are needed both.

Management mostly focuses on the what and the how, leadership on the why. Management focuses more on output, leadership more on motivation. Achieving desirable outcomes and impacts requires both. People will not sustain their mobilisation around a compelling vision towards a shared purpose if they don’t see progress. While a management that only focuses on outputs or on rule-compliance will destroy all intrinsic motivation and commitment. It must then largely rely on sanctions and rewards which does not bring out the best in people.

8.    Leadership skills can be developed.

Some people have a greater natural predisposition to exercise leadership, but anyone can improve their leadership skills. There is a very profitable leadership industry for the private sector that has increasing uptake in the public sector. The not-for-profit sector seems keener on supplying ‘leadership training’ than on applying it to itself.

A ‘leadership’ course can provide you some frameworks with which to think about what ‘leadership’ means and an assessment of where you (and your bosses) are at now. But a stand-alone course will not have much impact on who you are and how you behave. Some participants may even use the certificate of attendance as 'evidence' that they now have leadership qualities. Real leadership development comes from ongoing intentional practice ('10.000 hours'!) and personal growth, best guided by mentoring or coaching and regularly tested through honest feedback, for years on end. No person will become a ‘rounded’ or well-balanced leader, if s/he is not prepared to work hard on sometimes difficult and uncomfortable personal development.

9.    Leadership styles require contextual intelligence.

Between the aggressive, dominant, authoritarian alpha male (or female), and the ‘servant leader’ who sees her or his role largely as an enabler of the best qualities of others, there is a range of possible leadership styles. Most of us have one or two preferred styles, the ones that come most ‘natural’ to us. Leadership development however requires becoming more comfortable also with other styles, and developing the contextual intelligence to know which style is most appropriate for any given situation. Accomplished individuals may use several different styles within the course of one day, depending on the issue at hand and the people they are dealing with. This requires a strong ‘overall intelligence’ (analytical, emotional, cultural….) and a high level of self-awareness and self-management.

10.   Leadership styles can be constrained by social expectations.

Often the behaviour of someone who has or wants to portray him or herself as a leader is shaped by social norms. People in senior positions in the security forces, top politicians, top business executives etc. are typically expected to be very confident and decisive. People look to them for the answers and the decisions. Extrovert behaviour and being talkative are typically seen as qualities of leadership - until Susan Cain showed us the power of more introverted and listening styles. Being ‘tough’ is more associated with ‘leadership’ than being ‘compassionate’.

The ‘strong’ or ‘big man’ is certainly the predominant image of a ‘leader’ throughout most of Western history and remains so in many other societies. The ‘leader’ taking personal responsibility for (public) ‘failure’, quickly offering his resignation and in the past even committing ritual suicide, seems on the other hand a fairly unique Japanese feature.

Other people look for spiritual ‘leaders’, ‘guides’, gurus, and have different expectations about what is the appropriate behaviour for the role. This too can vary, from an apocalypse-promising 16th century Anabaptist prophet, to a licentious and libidinous guru who accumulates the wealth and sexual pleasures of his disciples, to the compassionate wisdom and modestly of a Dalai Lama. It is said that followers get the leader they deserve – but also the leader they create.

Given that ‘leadership’ is in the eye of the beholder, it is not always easy to display styles that do not correspond to the social expectations in a particular milieu. ‘Leader-breeders’ for example excel in asking the right question instead of always pretending to have the right answer. Yet it may not be advisable to pursue a style that goes very much against the prevailing expectations, before you have been able to build strong relationships and gain some respect.

In contemporary Western societies the tolerance for the ‘big man’ style, also when played by a woman, is growing thin. We want more enabling environments, less arrogance and more accountability. We feel stronger loyalty to those who are ‘fair’ than those who are ‘tough’. We appreciate people that believe in ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’. We accept criticism but want it to be constructive so we can learn and grow. We can see through people who are faking it, and reserve our respect for those whom we sense to be ‘authentic’. We need more team coaches and less chiefs.

As Barbara Kellerman has pointed out, responsible followership can be a powerful force to prevent and control the aberrations of ego-driven leaders and in support of good leadership. The overwhelming majority of people are ‘followers’ most of the time, and most of those in managerial and supervisory positions also have others ‘above them’ whom they report to. Why are we not offering training, self- and group development courses about ‘responsible followership’? If the supply of good leadership seems short, perhaps the 63% of disengaged employees can leverage their numbers into a stronger demand?