Part 1 - Outside Experts

This article is Chapter One of TACSI’s Innovating Us series. Innovating Us is a look inside TACSI’s ongoing journey towards decentralisation. Each of the 11 chapters covers a different aspect of our experience, and some important things we wish we’d known before we started. The series was created over a number of interviews with CEO Carolyn Curtis and organisational development lead Euan Black, drafted by copywriter Cam Sullivan.

Expert advice isn’t always helpful.

When we started the journey to becoming a networked, decentralised organisation, one of our first priorities was getting help. The process was daunting and we wanted someone with experience to guide us. We already knew there was a global community of experts in organisational change available to us. We reasoned that there must be someone who specialised in exactly what we wanted to do, who could give us a ‘recipe’ to getting it right.

So we engaged consultants, more than once. We hired a number of operational leaders with experience in systems and organisational capability development. We convened international Skype conferences with experts, many of whom had written books on exactly what we were doing. Each came to us with new frameworks, new structures and new operating models.

And every time, the team would end up disillusioned because, in spite of the significant value they brought, these outside specialists couldn’t spark the change we wanted. We kept investing in relationships that didn’t work out, and it was exhausting.

There were two major barriers we faced. The first was clear: resourcing. We simply couldn’t afford an end-to-end consultancy. Even managing the transition internally was a much bigger strain on our resources than we would ever have anticipated. Our expectations in this regard were wildly unrealistic.

The second major challenge was more complex. We couldn’t find an outside expert with a vision and methodology that would fit with TACSI’s core mission. We were desperately looking for someone outside TACSI with a plan to implement a new structure that ‘worked’ (which we now know was the wrong focus). Each expert we engaged came with their own vision and their own plan, and we set it in motion. But this meant we weren’t co-creating the plan with them, and inevitably our vision and their vision were a mismatch. The end result was a bad fit.

What we really needed was someone with a deep understanding of our approach and the value we bring – to our clients, to our colleagues and to the world – and also the skills to create a plan for organisational change. It’s not a combination we would find (or be able to afford) easily.

So, we looked within. We began with the people who understand our business best – the ones who work there – and looked at the changes that would bring out the best in them. This gave us the challenge of designing our own organisation, which required holding and driving from within, which, again, we were not resourced to do. Crucially, we took a big step forward when we specifically recruited someone (Euan) who could provide the bridge we needed between the work that we do and the organisation we are, i.e. to help us ‘walk the talk’ of social innovation.

These changes were necessarily unique to us as a company and as a group of people. The work we do is complex, non-standard and difficult enough for our friends and family to grasp. It’s even more difficult to understand for a consultant who is dipping in and out in small ways. Looking back, it’s clear why entrusting this process to someone who didn’t know us resulted in a bad fit. We didn’t realise at the time how incredibly risky it was implementing a plan that we hadn’t helped create, and which wasn’t informed by our vision. We have now learnt this lesson.

For anyone else looking to decentralise their organisation, we’re certainly not saying you should go it alone – everyone we engaged brought real value to our journey. The problem was certainly more with us than with them. We would say rather that the role of experts should be a targeted one, with a scope that supports a finite aspect of the organisation you want to become. We find that now, after three years, we work much more constructively with consultants, because we know what to ask for.

There is no recipe for your evolution; your process won’t be exactly like anyone else’s because your business isn’t exactly like anyone else’s. It’s also important to know that nobody has really ‘got it right’ yet. You’ll need to feel your way a bit and explore some dead-ends. But stick with it. Trust that your people have the answers and let your collective vision guide the change. Allowing someone else to define the destination will get in the way of the unique journey your company needs to make.

Interviews with Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Euan Black, Organisational Development Lead. Writing and editing by Cam Sullivan.