A while back, I was working with a guy, on this thing, and I was totally impressed with him! He had some really critical thoughts, and his points of feedback were really insightful. I left the conversation a bit blown away by the different perspectives he had – he was drawing on a pretty wide range of ideas and background, and was spot-on in terms of what he was putting forward. I left the conversation inspired and really excited to work with the man.
Earlier tonight, I was chatting with a colleague and I was telling him about my first impressions. He said to me, “Sorry to burst your bubble, but…” The man had been flagged by previous EWB volunteers as “not serious”. I was really surprised by this! Certainly, people change over time, but to get two so radically different takes on a person struck me by surprise.
It got me to thinking about why this could be. As I understand it, the challenge the EWBers had had in the past was that the man didn’t seem to do a lot – as I interpreted it, he wasn’t particularly good at implementation. In the work context we’re in, implementation is where it’s at – government officers are responsible for implementation of projects, plans (their own, somehow, and donors’), and reporting. It’s bureaucratic, and a system that rewards conscientious ‘do-ers’. I still don’t have a read on this guy in terms of his capacity as a do-er, but let’s assume that that’s not a strength. My guess is that he has a wealth of other strengths – reflective, critical, even creative. Frankly, however, in the system in which we operate, these attributes are not going to be recognized as positive attributes, and if they’re coupled with a classic ‘reflective-type’s’ (a group I definitely fit in to!) difficulty with moving to action, then all that will be recognized is that that guy is ‘not serious’ about getting his work done.
Development is a massive industry in Ghana, and between government and NGOs, I’d guess that makes up a majority of professional employment opportunities in Tamale. The entire development machine is built around bureaucracy and implementation of plans developed elsewhere – a massive problem, not one I’ll dive into here – which create environment in which these conscientious do-ers will thrive, feel empowered, and love their jobs, while most others will really struggle.
Compare the performance of someone whose in ‘flow’, with internal and external motivating factors aligned, whose really hitting their stride and delivering to the best of their ability, to someone whose meeting the deadlines because they are supposed to and showing up from 9:30 to 5:00. I bet there’s an order of magnitude difference in the outputs of those two employees! One thing that I think is fantastic about the extremely specialized work-force we have in Canada is how many opportunities there are, for every kind of person. There’s the bureaucrats, the creative types, the tech geeks, the activists…. There’s a growing sense that the underperformance of employees is significantly (if not entirely) attributable to a mismatch in terms of the job description or the organizational culture – things external to that employee themselves. By creating so many niches, so many more people are seeking and finding that empowering work – through which they’ll deliver exceptional results. In development, it seems like the do-er mold is the predominant model.
It’s frustrating to me, to see so many people in really boring, disempowering jobs. It’s also really disappointing to see exceptional people underperform because of a system that’s just not good at creating space for their talents. And it makes me angry that this situation is so institutionalized by the approaches to development I’ve seen most often. The biggest argument against decentralization, against using government branches to deliver donor projects, is a lack of capacity, and yet you’re creating high-performance spaces for only the minority of staff that fit that one mold! Yes, planning takes some degree of technical expertise, but it also takes someone committed to thinking ahead, pondering possibility, and sitting down to think. People who would excel at that aren’t been given the space to dive into that job they’d love to do, and instead underperform in jobs that are not good fits for them. Yet, the only role given to these organizations is that of implementer (and micro-managed implementer at that). So, the organizational outputs are below what would be expected based on the inputs (in terms of money and people’s time), and the conclusion that’s drawn is that this is all due to poor capacity (so bring on the workshops).
I think we need to start giving people a chance to excel at the jobs that they’d love to excel at, and being intentional about this. The magic that comes out of a good ‘fit’ between a person and a position is so powerful, and until the development machine starts to try to capitalize on this, to capitalize on these people – which means giving more responsibility (giving up control) to the implementing partners – we’ll continue to see poor results, low-capacity institutions, and disappointing results.
What do you think? Does this resonate at all, especially in development outside of government bodies?