Thursday, July 21, 2011

Succeeding whilst failing

It seems like there is a lot of self-reflection amongst the other VSO volunteers at the moment. So, having had my mid-year review (admittedly a couple of months late!), I thought it was time to take stock of my placement so far and think about what constitutes a “successful placement”.

Paul (via Corey) talks about his three rules:
  1. Do no evil
  2. Have fun
  3. Treat any difference you make as a bonus
This might seem like a pretty low bar to success, but the reality is that making changes is difficult. VSO warn you about not expecting to change the world, but surely we can hope to do something a bit more than just not make things worse?

I had a number of objectives when I was sent to India. In theory these were agreed between VSO India and my organisation and should have formed the basis of my placement. In reality, for me and for the majority of volunteers, these objectives are turned on their head in the first few months of the placement. I was no different.

My role at Srijan is “MIS Officer”. I've only just (8 months in) been able to even think about MIS. My objectives were to build an MIS system and develop the organisation's MIS abilities and practices. Measuring my placement on this basis, it's been a complete failure. Yet Srijan are delighted with my work and would have happily had me extend my placement (which I'm unfortunately unable to do - visas, funding, job back in the UK, Suzie!).

So how can both be true? How can my organisation be so happy, yet I've missed my objectives so completely. It's down to those objectives being completely inappropriate to the work actually required. MIS? Srijan didn't need MIS – they needed basic project management processes and a move towards professionalism.

Seth Godin wrote about this the other day. Before you can teach anyone anything, they need to act in a professional manner. When I joined Srijan two things were clear: firstly, that communications between the senior management and the field offices were poor; secondly, no-one did anything independently – they had to be chased and chased and chased.

Fast forward eight months. All of the project managers and senior project staff have access to an internal email system and are using it. Reports and plans are submitted on a timely basis giving the senior management far more visibility about what's happening on their projects. Staff are working independently and taking a pride in their project's success. There is a desire to improve and to do a good job that didn't exist before.

IT training in MS Office skills has resulted in a significant increase in quality products being developed. Project Managers are far more comfortable using IT systems and this is saving time and increasing productivity.

We have initiated three new projects, for which I've had major input into the proposal writing. We are now working with Unicef on iradicating Polio in eastern Jharkhand. We also got funding to continue the work we are doing on education in a mining area and start an innovative HIV / Aids project to combat the dangers of diseases spread by migratory workers.

All of the project staff now have a documented Roles and Responsibilities document. We have set six month objectives and development areas for all of them to try to develop their career and make Srijan a positive place to work.

Srijan has a web presence, which although not particularly active yet, will be developed over the final months of my placement to help raise the organisation's visibility.

Are these massive, sweeping changes? Not at all. In isolation these changes would be seen as fairly minor, but when you look at the culture of Srijan. When you speak to the project managers and notice how much more involved and engaged they are on their projects. When you look at the work the senior management team is doing – finding more time to work on strategy and proposals. When you consider the visibility of issues on projects. All of this is difficult to measure and yet is of vital importance to an organisation like Srijan.

So yes, when I sit down at the end of the year with VSO and assess the success of my placement, I may not have met many (or indeed, any!) of my initial objectives. Does that make my time here a failure? Does it mean I'm not proud of what I've achieved so far (or hope to achieve before I leave)? Not in the slightest.

Oh, and when it comes to the first two of Paul's objectives? Well, I hope I haven't done any harm here – I certainly don't think I have! And fun? Well I think this blog is testimony to the fact that I've managed that one... :-)


  1. Actually I would say they are massive changes in 8 months...and I reckon Srijan now have as good a set of processes etc (if not better!) as many small charities in this country, let alone India. I take my hat off to you Mr Myles!

  2. Thanks Anna! Not sure we're quite there yet, but we're at least moving in the right direction :-)

    Congrats on the Pfeg & NBS tie-up by the way!

  3. Just like you were jealous of SOVA's resources, I'm jealous of your ability to make organisational changes. You must really have the ear of the boss and the respect of the project coordinators. It took me a long time to get the respect of the project managers and I still don't have the ear of the boss. I'm glad you recognise that you've accomplished a pretty good amount, especially after comparing with other vols.