Friday, May 25, 2012

Getting back to basics

Sometimes when I am working with organisations I decide that there must be a return to basics. People are half-way through something but it is difficult to grasp what. This can be difficult if I am trying to mentor someone - to boost their confidence and show them new skills. I agonise for a long time over how I should address this but in the end these things have to be done. And in the main people appreciate my honesty and can see what I am getting at.

So what do I mean by this? I have been helping with a business plan for a charity. The first draft was put together by two people who had never done a business plan for a charity before although they had both extensive experience of business planning.

In the form it was in the first draft didn't really capture what the organisation was doing and why. It was based to some extent on a previous plan when the focus was on building a new organisation, this new plan was about keeping the organisation going. I started by talking through what needed to be in this new business plan and why. Their first attempt at this reworked format was OK but it had a lot of lists and description about what was currently happening but not why this was happening or what needed to happen in the future. 

There was quite a tight deadline for the work so I thought it would be better to re-write rather than just to offer pointers for how to improve it. Those writing the business plan were delighted as they could see that it now read better and that I hadn't in any sense removed their work just repackaged it (and put some in as appendices). 

I am still helping with the action plan to make it easy to understand but once this is done I suspect that in the years to come they will be able to do this themselves. Whilst most of us want to enable and encourage people to do things for themselves sometimes the best learning comes from going back to basics rather than rejigging what you have. Both the people had ideas in their heads about what a business plan should look like from their previous work, but neither models worked for this organisation. I think that I had actually do a lot of it myself and by doing it show them how it was done. This is the way that many people used to be trained and was affectionately known as 'sitting next to Nellie'. 

In another situation I am working with someone who lives in a rural location, owns a house and surrounding land and runs a charity on the land. The charity rents some of the land and has animals on the owner's land. After the first meeting I thought that I was clear about what the issues were but on returning I realised that the two parts of the person's life - her family life and her work life were entangled. So it was no wonder that life got a bit confused and at times complicated. I decided to go back to the beginning - who owns what, who pays for what, who rents what etc. My work is supposed to be tightly time-limited so the drive is always to jump in and get on with things but sometimes we need to ask ourselves, 'Do I really understand this situation enough so that I can be of help?' I am convinced that whether I can help this organisation or not, I will be in a better position having sketched out the basics or who owns what and who pays for what.

Another example is with our chapel and its proposed building works. I have not been involved in the early stages of the small group discussions but was asked to help with fundraising. I began to feel out of my depth. Many of the issues were about planning issues and listed buildings. I know the Conservation Officer at the Borough Council so went to talk to her. It was so useful to be able to understand what needed doing for each piece of the work. I then wrote this out for my own benefit and for others in the congregation so that we could agree what was needed. My understanding of the legal issues may be wrong but at least I have written them down so that people can see what I think. Often we ignore the significance of writing things down not as an end in itself but to focus the mind on what each of us is thinking.

And the last example was yesterday. An organisation that I volunteer with is having an issue with the local planning office. The head of planning came out to speak with us. All my questions were about getting to the basics. He said that they had concerns - I asked what those concerns were. He said that we were in breach of our planning consent - I had read this consent several times and still not understood it - so asked what our planning consent actually said (he did not know but is going to find out); and he said that we needed to take a certain course of action - I asked him to detail how we would do that. There was one person getting quite upset at how we had been treated (which was not great) and the head of planning needed to know that - but to move forward we needed to know the basics - what do we have to do, why do we have to do this, what will they do and what will the implications be.

It is quite interesting for any organisation to go back to basics and ask things like - why do we exist, what values do we have, how do we realise our values and how do we plan for our future? Organisational drift is a well-understood concept in the voluntary sector and happens usually for the best of reasons - people are busy doing. But sometimes we do need to stop doing and start thinking about what we do and why.