Nothing permanent except change: leading an organisation through a strategic review

4th May 2016

It is an increasingly tired cliche to start any piece of writing with a quote, on a par with referring to a dictionary definition of some word or other in the title, so I won’t quote.  But I will paraphrase.  300 years ago Machiavelli talked of the difficulty and uncertainty of initiating a ‘new order of things’ and, while the language that we use may have altered, it is clear that the challenges associated with managing large scale change is not a modern concept.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with our work, Engineers Without Borders UK leverages the engineering community to respond to the most pressing problems that we face today.  As an organisation, we have just emerged from a strategic review that has lasted nearly twelve months, taken up countless hours of work and used more sheets of flip-chart paper than I thought possible.  As an individual, I have just led a strategic change process from an executive management position for the first time.  

A very full problem tree analysis, an exercise to determine solutions by mapping cause and effect.
A very full problem tree analysis, an exercise to determine solutions by mapping cause and effect.

Reflecting on a process that took eight days short of a year to complete is almost certainly going to produce mixed emotions; pride at what has been achieved, relief that it is over and perhaps some niggling thoughts that some of it could have been done better.

We decided to review the strategy primarily because of the enormous changes in the external environment in which we operate.  Charities are becoming subject to ever more scrutiny and, quite rightly, there is increasing pressure to demonstrate the impact that you are making.  For those of us working in international development, the recent ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals has truly shifted the global development agenda. Our operating environment was changing dramatically and my opinion was that we needed to be more focused in our approach to build stronger organisational resilience.  To do that we had to start with absolute clarity of purpose about what we were striving to achieve at a strategic level.  We also needed to be able to demonstrate a clear relationship between the activities we were undertaking and the outcomes we wanted as a result.  

Alexa Bruce and Nick Tyler, Engineers Without Borders UK Trustees, present their ideas at a strategy development day
Alexa Bruce and Nick Tyler, Engineers Without Borders UK Trustees, present their ideas at a strategy development day

Those familiar with the charity sector will be familiar with the input – output – outcomes – impact theory of change. Much has been written elsewhere about the idea and it tends to evoke strong emotions on one side or other of the debate.  Many criticise theories of change because they oversimplify complex challenges.  Others, for example Kail and Lumley, advocate their use for exactly this reason, arguing that the theory of change approach ‘forces you to take a clear, simple view’.  We were striving for simplification in our approach so opted for a theory of change approach.  To contextualise this we used a strategy development model developed by David Da Plana that took account of our history as well as where we wanted to go next.  We were assisted in all of this by an independent consultancy, Red Pencil, which proved to be a shrewd investment.

Staff at a mission phrasing workshop
Staff at a mission phrasing workshop

The major challenge for the staff during this process was how to incorporate the opinions and views of a wide variety of stakeholders into a theoretical model.  As an organisation, Engineers Without Borders UK has more stakeholders than most including donors, partner NGOs, schools and universities, corporate partners and individual members.  Consulting with as many of these as possible within tight resource constraints was difficult but we provided facilities for input both online and in person at a series of town hall style meetings in four cities around the UK.  We also ran more frequent workshops and planning days with the Trustees and volunteers.  However, for me, it was vitally important that those who would be entrusted to turn strategic direction into results, the employees, had a sense of ownership over the process, and the results.  Therefore, we spent a great deal of time with the whole of the staff team discussing ideas, language and approach.  As a result, all members of the team had an input into the final strategic direction and are therefore inherently motivated to enact it.

Engineers Without Borders UK Engineering Change Front CoverIt was a great feeling to reach the end of our strategic review and we raised a glass to a job well done which we finished on time and under budget.  That said, all of the team know that we’re really just about to start.  As Machiavelli reminded us, the difficulties and uncertainties associated with change management have been recognised for hundreds of years and, for us, that stage is just beginning.  Even though there is hard work ahead of us, I think we can afford a few moments to be proud of what we’ve achieved.  Our new strategy gives us a much clearer platform for the future of Engineers Without Borders UK.  Most importantly it means that we can deliver more focused impact against our mission.  We can better serve the communities in which we work, the UK education sector, and the people who make up our remarkable movement for change.  I am looking forward to working with our partners, donors and supporters to translate our objectives into action in the coming weeks, months and years.

Read more about our new five year strategy.

Written by Doug Harper, Chief Executive, Engineers Without Borders UK, May 2016

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Comments (2)

Our project management logic model - Red Pencil

01 July 2017
[…] from Engineers Without Borders, has written about his experience of working with us through the logic model process. And we have used them to test ’cause and effect’ relationships for proposed […]

Natasha Roe

04 May 2016
It has been an absolute pleasure to work with you and the team Doug. We've really enjoyed setting out the process and having a hand on the rudder but you guys have done the hard graft! All of us on the Red Pencil team now look forward to watching it in action. Thank you for selecting us.