Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sustainable development in times of crisis: coaching and/or advising?

The time that work in the international development sector could rely on merely ‘good intentions’ is far in the past already. What we want today is professional, result-oriented support. And, highly important: support needs to be sustainable.

Young Professionals supported by ICCO are working all over the world, trying to build up sustainable changes with ICCO counterparts within a period of 1,5 to 2 years. This task is not always easy. The organisations we work with often have problems that need to be solved urgently and there’s always a lot of work to do. Short-term tasks, being a stand-in for a colleague and crisis management are daily business. Being an advisor within such an organisation, it is sometimes difficult to escape from this daily business and to dedicate time and energy to long-term planning and capacity development. Several advisors feel the tension caused by this situation. You want to help, and therefore feel you can’t refuse assistance in reaching short-term objectives. But at the same time you know that you might be able to contribute more when working to serve more strategic goals. All are wondering what we could do to turn our work into a more sustainable support. How could we lift our support to a higher level of capacity development?

To find out more about this question, we analysed a case of one of the advisors.

This case concerns a company that exports products of small-scale farmers in a developing country in Latin America. The company works with a local ngo, a partner of ICCO. The ngo gives the farmers seed credit, trains them to comply with quality and safety regulations for international markets, etc. The company links the farmers to supermarkets in Europe and the US.

Mini-squash, one of the export products

This concept worked well from the start in 1999 until the year 2005. The company was unique (first exporting vegetables), the market position was positive and the company was collaborating well with the ngo, which was doing very well at the time. In 2005, hurricane Stan and the strong rainfall afterwards destroyed the production of many farmers. Around the same time, a US client of the company only paid half the prices that were agreed upon. Because the company reacted slowly, the working capital was ‘eaten’ quickly. As a result, the company plunged into a crisis, without working capital and with many debts.

Snow peas, another export product

To solve problems, the director of the company reduced the fixed team to a very small team. He arranged small amounts of credit with several organizations and suppliers to be able to restart business. He changed marketing strategies. Since a convincing restart was not made, a junior advisor quality management and marketing was contracted through ICCO. In practice she was expected to save the company, in all areas, all departments. Until now, she reached several objectives; for example certifying farmers and the packing plant according to an international trading standard. Many things have been learned so far and colleagues are open for changes. Still, she feels that on a daily basis, she spends a lot of time on crisis management where she might in fact spend time more strategically working on long-term goals.
Learning questions: How can we, in a crisis situation, come to a higher level of capacity development?How can we make a sustainable difference that will stay when we leave?

Case Analysis
The advisor has tried several times to organize sessions on longer term planning, but it was cancelled each time: a sign that it apparently wasn’t a priority, or that the company and management team was not (yet) receptive for this level of planning.

Yellow summer squash, a popular export article

When looking a bit closer at the case we identified main problems that inhibit sustainable development.

1. Lack of money and working capital, which makes it very difficult to restart business.
2. There are many factors in the process that seem to be difficult to control and that come up unexpectedly. That’s why everybody is always working under high pressure.
3. Quick rotation of personnel. Therefore tacit knowledge is lost every once in a while.
Two necessities were identified in this case.
A: Help the business to survive (related to problem 1 and 2) and
B: Sustainable capacity building (related to problem 2 and 3).
The advisor is revising and controlling processes and communication very much, most of her time serving necessity A. Her help is often requested in this area. But, being busy with that, she doesn’t come to work at necessity B, which she thinks would be more important.
In the D-group this was recognised. Also, ICCO advises not to get trapped in a situation in which you are executing too much yourself, instead of being an advisor. Some advisors feel pressured by this.

Theoretical analysis: 3 coaching techniques
In this section, 3 theories are presented that could help advisors to get insight about the situation of the organization and to come to a higher level of capacity building.
1) Demoralisation or distortion of resilience
The company seems to have come in a phase of demoralisation[1]. Demoralisation is a situation of not being able to oversee the real problem and to make strategies to overcome this problem or to find ways to live with it. It’s thinking in terms of obstacles rather than in terms of goals. Demoralisation often occurs when there’s a misbalance between the carrying capacity and the burden. When the burden is heavier than the carrying capacity, the resilience of the company will come in danger like an elastic band that is overstretched.

The article warns coaches not to get trapped in the flow of the organization. Amongst others: advisors often tend to take over the problem, find solutions for the problem owner and execute things themselves.

What can we do about this? Define and limit the problem together. In this way we can make the burden clearer and so, lighter. At the same time the organisation must be coached to strengthen the carrying capacity. In this way a new balance can be found and the resilience healed.

2) Transactional analysis
Another theory that could be used to analyse a problem situation is the transactional analysis[2], a theory that could help to heal what went wrong in the past. It analyses relationships between people and identifies different roles that a person or organization can take. All fall back on the parent-ego position, the adult-ego position and the child-ego position, which are commonly present in any person, all at the same time. The theory can show insight in how a person behaves and could help to change problematic behaviour.

3) How to get the right person in the driver’s seat?
We discussed another theory: the ‘driver seat’ concept. It can be wondered who is in the drivers seat in this case. Who is finally taking charge? Coaching techniques using this model could help to guide colleagues to get them to take responsibility and avoid creating a dependency relation.

What elements of these theories are relevant for this case?
In the case of the advisor, there is an opportunity to analyse the company situation with her colleagues using the demoralization theory as an example. What is the current burden and what is the carrying capacity? How are these related to each other? Is it quite an equal balance, or did it lose its resilience already?

This could show insight in the situation of the company and make a good start to find strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats that play a role in getting the organization in balance again. From this SWOT the advisor could start making strategies. Resulting in an action plan where the advisor could give her colleagues back responsibilities.


Transactional analysis
TA is developed by the Canadian Psychiatrist Eric Berne, MD (1910 – 1970). The transactional analysis theory might be applied on organizations as well. The company acts like it is still too much in its impulsive child-phase while it should already be more in an adult phase. Analyzing behaviour of the organization and identifying its patterns and positions could help the advisor to show it to the organization and to reflect on its own attitude. Which position is dominant and which one do we want it to be?

The article explains several tools that can be used to help a person to change behaviour. These tools might help the advisor to analyse and help the company to change it practices.

Driver’s seat theory
The advisor does not feel she is too much in the driver’s seat, but maybe spending too much time supervising the driver being next to her. Instead of that, she feels that she could improve the vehicle itself on the long run. What could she change within herself to….
- get her colleagues more in the drivers seat / letting them drive alone
- dedicate more time to sustainable long-term development?
One of the advisors referred to the problem of quick rotation of personnel, which she experienced herself as well. It is a risk that other driving people might leave the organization. She experienced that to avoid that the knowledge gained in the process is lost when personnel changes, an advisor can do a lot in writing. Writing manuals about themes related to work could be a concrete solution.

Transport of the vegetables

One of the advisors coaches advised not to worry too much about this theme: there are many ways too learn and teach. By doing things yourself and showing it to colleagues, or doing things together with colleagues, you can set an example. You can learn together and when you’ll leave, people can do it without you. This is also capacity development. So driving together can help the organisation to make people drive for themselves when you leave.
Furthermore, the writer of this article notices that we should not forget that there's a difference between coaching and advising. Where a coach takes distance, makes the ‘client’ reflect on his situation and guides him to change behaviour without doing things and picking up responsibilities, an advisor can be a person internal to the organization who collaborates in the daily work and can set an example. We should not forget that we are probably more advisors than coaches.

Conclusion: How to get to sustainable development?
In many organisations we can see people working hard and everything seems to be important and urgent. Things might work out differently (or better) if there would be some long-term structural changes, but sometimes, although everybody seems to see the need of it, in the end there is a lack of time and everybody just keeps on working the way they do, especially on short-term basis. But making this change isn't always easy, 1) because of this lack of time and 2) because you as an advisor have fit into and become adapted to the same system in which everything is urgent and important.

Taking some distance, letting things go and starting to wonder who is actually in the drivers seat can help the advisor to get a clearer picture of the situation.

Letting the people drive themselves, while you are close to the driver or work on the improvement of the vehicle, are important basics for sustainable development that stays when you leave.

Several tools from demoralisation theory and transactional analysis are available to analyse an organization and to start working on change on a higher level. Letting the organization reflect on its behaviour, identifying parent-ego, adult-ego and child-ego positions could help advisors to create self-awareness in the organization in the first place. Making the balance of the organizations’ burden and its carrying capacity could be a start to work on strategic change using the existing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Finally, there's a difference between coaching and advising. We should be aware that we are more advisors than coaches and therefore shouldn’t regret too much that we also participate in the execution of daily work. Also through giving an example in the daily processes we can work on capacity development.

[1] Nederlandse Academie voor psychotherapie (2006) Demoralisatie en weerstand en het draaglast/kracht model