EWB is actively developing a culture where we learn from our mistakes. In our 2015 Annual Report, we listed a number of the areas we believed we had not fulfilled out mission and potential. We list them, openly and honestly, because they provide our greatest opportunities to learn.
Failing with Integrity: Our lessons for 2014-15.
As facilitators of social change, EWB Australia is no stranger to complexity. We have learnt that to deal with complexity we must trust our knowledge, be resilient and foster a culture of innovation and learning. We have also discovered that with complexity comes failure, an unavoidable and integral part of our growth. We are learning that to encourage real change and shift values in our sector we must promote transparency and publicly discuss such failures. In 2014/15, we started publishing our failures and learnings on EWB Australia website, we plan on continuing that tradition. Here are four failures we learnt from this year:
Failure 1: Learning that to create change, we must change ourselves.
How we failed? At the beginning of 2015, EWB Australia enjoyed a broad sense of possibility – we had the credibility, ideas, and knowledge to scale our impact for the coming decade. We’d invested in our programs and people with a long term view. We failed however, to establish and communicate a sense of urgency around our need to undertake a bold organisational refresh. We were embarking on a period of significant organisational growth, but the internal implications of embracing this growth were not effectively communicated by the leadership team to staff. This failure lowered the sense of clarity and unified purpose that has existed culturally. It also resulted in a loss of trust and burnout in the leadership team as staff struggled to understand why change was needed and the method by which that change was to occur.
What we learnt? We learnt that communicating change requires inclusion and clarity throughout the early stages of the process. While there will always be significant amounts of ambiguity in change, we will now encourage ownership, participation and articulate our long term vision to staff more clearly. We will communicate the broad steps involved in making change and create effective consultation points to allow staff the space to input their ideas and concerns. We will articulate the pathway that we will use to achieve our organisational goal and continue to foster a culture in which programs are seen as a part of the whole, all contributing individually to a collective success. This way the successful running of individual programs will be complemented by an understanding of how those programs together help us fulfill our mission.
Failure 2: Learning that speaking to everyone can mean speaking to no one.
How we failed? As we grew, the EWB Australia message and brand became diluted by attempts to engage numerous and often undefined audiences. By placing our focus on multiple audiences – engineers, community leaders, corporate executives and academics – we failed to create a consistent organisational language that reflected our wider values, purpose and mission. This meant that our communications were broad and did not target the specific audiences they were meant for. This minimized the effectiveness of our engagement. This resulted in mixed communications that did not appeal directly to important stakeholders, a result that led to lost opportunity and erosion of our brand.
What we learnt? We learnt that continually evaluating and rating organisational stakeholders and audience is increasingly important to our ability to engage in a globalised environment. The articulation of strong, clear messages to defined audiences will create a unified internal and external presence that our brand will benefit from. Our unique position across sectors – education, industry, community, government – means there is considerable value in being able to connect and attract different stakeholders. Thus it is important for us to identify and articulate our value to those different audiences and target them with our engagement. Without this we continue to risk an ‘all but nothing’ dilution of our communications. Over the next 12 months, we will refocus our brand by developing key messages and engagement strategies for each audience that builds to create a unified organisational language that appeals all stakeholders.
Failure 3: Collaboration is key - missing opportunities in a busy organisation.
Where we failed? Our reputation as a leader in the field of humanitarian engineering has meant that we often have opportunities to collaborate with industry, partner organisations and influential individuals. However, the legacy of traditional organisational structures and siloed programs meant that we have not always positioned or resourced ourselves to respond to opportunities in a timely and efficient manner.
What we learnt? We learnt that facilitating peer to peer education to increase staff awareness of all EWB Australia programs will help our staff recognise opportunities for programs other than their own. This in turn will strengthen and deepen the long term impact our programs have on beneficiaries as we identify and leverage more opportunities that where previously missed through lack of cross-organisational knowledge. This education will also allow us to identify program and knowledge overlap and increase our ability to use our resources efficiently. Our current shift towards the use of a collaborative organisational structure (Holocracy) and the development of a staff capability framework will provide transparency and understanding of the individual and team capabilities that exist in the organisation. This knowledge will allow us to better understand where and how collaboration can benefit us as understanding of our strengths and weaknesses become more apparent.
Failure 4: Tied and untied funding - reducing financial inefficiencies at ewb.
Where we failed? Following the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, our revenue mix was altered by a downturn in the Australian engineering sector. Between 2003 and 2013, we were in the fortunate position of attracting relatively high proportions of untied revenue from our donors. Between 2013 and 2015, although our overall revenue increased, the proportion of untied revenue decreased. This resulted in some key areas within the organisation being unfunded. The situation was compounded by increasing indirect expenses required to support the growth in program delivery and impact.
What we learnt? That an intimate understanding of direct and indirect expenses, rather than just fixed and variable expenses, can help us be more agile and responsive to changes in the sector. As a result, we are implementing and educating our staff to use a new multi-year rolling budget with each program contributing to indirect expenses. To complement this, we have allocated greater staffing resources to work on our finances, these extra resources increase our ability to make strategic financial decisions and help us develop a deep understanding of the fully loaded costs of the organisation. This will allow us to determine our market worth and ensure we design robust financial models to enable our programs to scale.
We acknowlege the inspiration from our friends at EWB Canada, who publish an annual Failure Report, and will continue to share our successes and failures with our community through publications and events such as National Council.