Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lasting change or passing fancy?

On how to make your work more sustainable

Working as a temporary advisor at a local organization can turn you into a manic depressive in a way. You will have your high highs and very low lows. Sometimes you feel elated because you see people have changed their way of working after you gave a training. But expect to also be disappointed when two months later they seem to have slipped back into old patterns.

Most local organizations are overloaded with work. At the Indonesian human rights organization I work for, more than seventy percent of the work (that's my guess) happens ad hoc. The Minister of Law and Justice says something about a law he would like to have revised, my colleagues immideatly respond. A video comes out of military officers torturing a group of Papuan prisoners, the office phones will not stop ringing for hours. Journalists, other organizations and international NGO's will all want to know what KontraS' opinion is.

My colleagues feel that they don't have time for monitoring and evaluation. Even though I know that it's an investment in the future, I can often relate to them. American management guru Stephen Covey speaks of the difference between urgent and important work. Important being the bigger projects, the in-depth analysis, and self-reflection, while the urgent comprises emails and telephone calls. In my case the challenge is to ensure the important is not always swallowed up by the urgent. How do make the lessons you taught stick? How do you make sure that the change will last?

A group of capacity builders working all over the world, came up with the following eleven tips for making your work sustainable. Very importantly: be realistic and don't let it get you down if big change doesn't happen right away. Instead, celebrate the small successes. They are more important than you may realize!

1. Give positive feedback to your colleagues, so that they gain confidence - in themselves but also in you. This is also a way of building trust. You let them know that you are not here to change everything, you are here to help improve things based on what's are already going smoothly.

2. Break the lessons you want to teach up into small bite-size bits. Do exercises during trainings which people will easily remember or refer to. For example, I use the happy horse analogy for discussing the chain of results in planning, monitoring and evaluation. Now in meetings, my colleagues will refer to “the horse is happy” when we discuss our overall goals.

3. Work with motivated people and those who are open to learn. Help the people that come to you for advise and involve them in your trainings or work. Let them for instance pick methods and share ownership of the work you're trying to do.

4. Don't forget that making your work sustainable takes time. Try to see it as an investment and give yourself time to build trust. Also, plan ample time to go from knowledge sharing to other's actually doing their work differently than before.

5. Convince people of the benefit of your intervention. Make it clear why you are there. First you have to show things and then make people part of the experience.

6. Build in a monitoring system together with your colleagues, to monitor the change process and have a learning process together.

7. Focus on the people, not the systems. Even when your goal is to strengthen the organizational capacity of an organization, start by working with some people you see are interested. By helping them develop the skills, on the long term organisational changes will occur.

8. Work with a counterpart in your work, so that that person is able to adapt new ways of working in the organisation.

9. Try to check if the right conditions are there (such as funds for printing the handbook you wrote), and include these conditions into your plans.

10. Plan for a return visit, several months or years after you have completed your placement. It gives you the opportunity to review the work you have done and give suggestions for improving it.

11. Plan a meeting (at least 6 months before your placement ends) where you remind your colleagues and supervisors that you are leaving. Ask them what they want to have in place or accomplished as a sustainable result before you leave.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A unique challenge: how to position yourself as a Young Professional in a different cultural context?

When I left to Latin America, I did not really consider the challenges that I might face by working in another country. Instead, I focused on obtaining new knowledge and skills. Thus, I read books and materials on international lobby & advocacy and talked to experts. However, during the first weeks at my new employment, I found out that not only the content of the work would be challenging: colleagues were postponing deadlines; everyone was supposing to attend all social events after work -even if one was deadly sick - ; relations were more hierarchic.

Challenges as a Young Professional in a different cultural context
In this period the following question was popping up in my mind regularly: how can I as a person, who has been brought up with Latin American and other cultural influences, have problems with this new cultural context? Or even worse: how could I sometimes miss things I was used to in my previous work such as the many meetings I once disliked? At the same time, I was enjoying being surrounded by my colleagues, who are very spontaneous Latina’s and Latino´s. When I was working in the government in The Hague some people would not say good morning in the elevators and just stare at the floor like zombies. Currently, I am welcomed every day, and several times a day, in a friendly way by my colleagues. Also, they have a lot of knowledge on the practice of children´s rights and they can give their opinions beautifully. Nevertheless, I felt sometimes as if I was in a ´clash of cultures ´rollercoaster that was not going to stop any time soon.

Also, I experienced difficulties in positioning myself as a Young Professional by being in a different cultural context: is this young European girl not just going to be one of those volunteers who will show up a few times and then leave to backpack? I therefore had to demonstrate that I had good professional capacities and that I was willing to adapt to the Latin American work culture. It took me a lot of energy, but eventually I felt that I had positioned myself as a member of the team.

Sharing experiences and solutions
Together with colleague Young Professionals working all over the world we shared experiences with each other. When I spoke to other YP´s in the field, I found out we were experiencing similar difficulties in positioning themselves in a different cultural context. Most YP´s experienced that relations between colleagues are even more important, besides they are often based on gaining respect and power. Here some conclusions from YP´s around the world on how to position yourself as a Young Professional in another cultural context:

1. Start implementing from the beginning. Try to gain trust by accomplishing short term results in the beginning. Gradually go towards the role of facilitator, co-operant or advisor (depending on the context).
2. Give yourself the right title in order to prevent confusion with your Partner Organisation. In case you call yourself advisor, it might be misintrepretated and nothing might happen. If you call yourself 'volunteer', people might have different expectations from you. So give yourself the right title when you begin, in order to prevent misinterpretation and to gain respect.
3. Gain respect by accomplishing short term results or by listening or building close relations and trust with your colleagues.
4. Try to get (moral) support from the regional office from ICCO. This also creates status and respect in the Partner Organization. This has been helpful to various Young Professionals.

Be flexible
Luckily, I found out that things become easier when time goes by: just give yourself some time to adjust to it and don´t forget to enjoy all the good things to keep a good balance. However, I do still struggle with some issues: how to position yourself as Young Professional when sometimes you feel you are crossing certain boundaries? Should you completely adapt to the cultural context for you positioning or should you also sometimes set your boundaries as you are living in other circumstances than your colleagues, namely you are on your own? Should you communicate about your positioning and problems related to it in a direct way or rather in an indirect way as they are used to in the new context you are working in? Just to name a few!

To end, I believe when you are able to position yourself as a Junior Professional in a different cultural context you have proven to be very flexible as a person. By achieving this, you will be able to work in any complicated setting in the future. Most definitely something to be proud of.

Alice Kooij Martinez
Junior professional lobby&advocacy at DCI