Organising your back office for innovation - welcome to the Bubble!
Earlier this year, I ventured that 2016 might be the year when the long-neglected back office operations of development organisations would take centre-stage and become territory for experimentation and innovation.
I was therefore delighted to learn about the Bubble, a fairly unique experiment (to my knowledge) in self-organisation run by Action Against Hunger’s operations unit inside what is a fairly traditional hierarchy. Letting a team select their own tasks and their own clients, determine their learning goals and pick their own mentors may be a common sight in the private sector, but is still something of a unicorn in nonprofits. And all of this happened at Action Against Hunger without modifying any formal policy or procedure.
To find out more, I interviewed the masterminds behind this initiative: Juliet Parker (Director of Operations) and Saul Guerrero (Director of Nutrition).
Let’s take the time machine back. How did you come up with the idea of the Bubble?
It’s fair to say that it was an organic process that started one year ago - in some ways, we simply acknowledged something that was spontaneously emerging in our team. We had realised for some time that our human resources were not utilised in an optimal way. Project-based financing of job posts meant that some resources were utilised 120 per cent, while others were under-utilised but not fungible across projects.
Efficiency, however, was not the only consideration; hierarchies are not ideal for learning. Just because you are at the top or have been around for a long time doesn’t mean that you always know best. Yet in a rigid structure, junior staff tend to defer to senior judgement or are often too intimidated to try out new things. We also knew from experience that people who carry no baggage can often come up with fresh perspectives and novel solutions.
Finally, our hunch was that attracting and maintaining millennial talent would require a radically new way of doing things for us. This is how we embarked on our search for an organisational structure that would allow for the organic emergence of a wide spectrum of expertise across some common denominators.
I can think of many people inside nonprofits that have had the same desire to experiment with new organisational structures, but were unable to turn their vision into action. What made it happen for you?
External validation was critical for us. We wanted to make sure that what we were attempting to do was not complete madness! With hindsight, the process we followed to get that validation was key. We put together an initial list of organisations (from disparate fields, well beyond development) that had experimented with different degrees of holacracy and leading thinkers in this area (from Zappos to the Assembly, from Valve to Esko Kilipi). We asked team members to cast the net as wide as possible: add to the list and self-select to investigate the experiences of these frontrunners and conduct interviews with key people within them. They then reported back to the group.
This process was instrumental in creating a sense of distributed responsibility and triggered a process of collective, continuous discovery. Colleagues to this day are debating among themselves the findings and drawing inspiration from them! A sense of self-awareness emerged that wouldn’t have had we followed a traditional, top-down benchmarking approach.
A team retreat gave us the opportunity to reflect on what we had learned and to initiate our restructuring around three common processes that, we now realised, cut across all of our services (namely, the accessing, sharing and managing of information - whether it is M&E or operations related). In a now infamous moment during the retreat, someone drew a bubble around those three areas on a board, and this was how the nickname ‘the Bubble’ originated - and has stuck to this day. We tried, but there was no way to change it!
With hindsight, this was perhaps a boon since the vagueness of the name allowed us to fly under the radar for a while. The Bubble was originally an experiment involving six colleagues, but then it kind of took on a life of its own and spontaneously drew in the whole team of 15, who latched on to the new way of working with no need for any top-down directive.
So how exactly is work assigned and managed inside the Bubble?
The ‘input’ to the Bubble are the requests that can come at any point from any of our clients. This is very different from our previous set-up, where staff were clearly associated to a project, so requests were automatically directed to a particular account manager.
Every week, team members meet, analyse the pipeline of requests coming in and self-organise around it: they collectively negotiate the allocation of tasks and resources, timelines, etc. Importantly, anyone can take the lead on a project and on a client, regardless of their seniority. In addition, anyone can choose a mentor for the project. The latter creates a sort of a ‘market’ for the best mentors, who are not necessarily the most senior people!
It was the team itself that came up with this process of task allocation. Colleagues also spontaneously came up with a skills profile, consisting of seven categories. This allows them to self-assess their needs for professional development, and encourages them to take on stretch assignments to broaden their skills and trade their existing skills across the Bubble.
The team keeps track of assignments through a virtual whiteboard, a Google doc and a blog where informal updates and learnings are shared on an ongoing basis. All that is left for us to do is to sit and watch! We don’t manage the Bubble, we just create the conditions for it to thrive. This might not seem a big deal for people working in the private sector, but we haven’t found to date many NGOs that are following a similar approach.
Apart from the ‘cool’ factor, what are the key advantages you’ve noticed to date of this new way of working? And what are the challenges?
The efficiency argument is huge. There is basically no longer overstretching or under-utilisation of resources. Client satisfaction is also enhanced. Previously a client would get only one person assigned for, say, an M&E support task, whereas now they might get two or three for at least a percentage of their time. This means tapping into a broader variety of views and expertise.
Perhaps most importantly, staff motivation has significantly improved and, even if it is difficult to quantify this, so has the level of creativity. In this new way of working, each project is collectively evaluated and progress updates are constantly shared. Whereas before we had silos, we now have a constant flow of information that opens up opportunities for finding creative solutions. The Bubble is generating its own culture, and we can see that over time people in the Bubble will tend to attract their peers to the organisation who will also favour this style of self-organised work. It is fair to say that we think that offering this type of working environment is our best chance to attract millennials.
Perhaps the most important challenge this system has introduced for us as managers is the need to guarantee long-term employment to staff in a situation where their salary is no longer clearly linked to a donor or funder, as used to be the case. So far, we managed to create a highly attractive working environment but we need to match this with long-term financial security. It’s a challenge that we relish, but of course is predicated on trust and us being able to creatively mobilise and allocate resources in what is still a very project-based world.
Many innovators find that being under the radar, at least initially, is the only way to get anything done in a bureaucracy. Are you still ‘incognito’, and if not, how has the rest of the organisation reacted?
Amazingly, we have not broken any rules yet! What we realised is that the Bubble actually embodies the original spirit of many of our guidelines and procedures, which somehow got lost along the way [Giulio: this is consistent with other innovation projects]. So in the end we found allies where we thought we might encounter potential obstacles!
Take the case of finance: the new way of working actually allows for a much more granular accounting of people’s time - to the point where we now provide possibly even too detailed information! And of course we are cultivating leadership and project management skills that are very much in line with the spirit of our HR policies.
Where things might get eventually more difficult is, for instance, with recruitment. It is impossible to probe for the ‘bubble factor’ and assess whether someone would be a good fit in a traditional one-hour interview, whether it is competency-based or not.