"Does Mourinho plan out 90 minutes of tackles, passes and shots in a logframe? Of course not, so why do NGOs?"Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza posed this question last week, making a case for more flexibility and responsiveness in NGO strategy, particularly where NGOs are working in the ever-changing world of public accountability.
Duncan Green used his From Poverty to Power blog to highlight a similar point from a recent academic paper by Rosalind Eyben:
"At their best, aid workers surf the unpredictable realities of national politics, spotting opportunities, supporting interesting new initiatives, acting like entrepreneurs or searchers, rather than planners. But when they report back to their bosses, out come the logframes and strategic plans".Duncan and Rosalind go on to suggest that this contrast between messy realities and tidy presentation is maintained by a fear that a more honest picture given to donors and donor country taxpayers would result in reduced willingness to hand over the money.
The key point for both is that the environment is so dynamic that only a flexible and responsive approach - "entrepreneurial" in Duncan's case and perhaps Ronaldinho-like in Rakesh's - can succeed.
Both make a powerful case, but it is Rakesh's footballing metaphor that I want to focus on here, to see how far it can be taken. Rakesh himself went one small step further, noting that what was important in a football match was the very clear goal - literally goals - and arguing that NGOs should also raise their eyes to a higher level, focussing on goals rather than getting bogged down in the detail of activities. But I think the metaphor can be taken even further. I hope it's clear enough without me joining up all the dots, and please forgive me if some of this becomes rather stretched!
Let's start with human resources. A football team is made up of 11 players, each bringing a different set of skills. Some have more fixed, disciplined roles - the defenders and most particularly the goalkeeper - while others are expected to be more flexible and creative. Isn't that much the same in an NGO team? Some staff - such as accountants and M+E staff - have more disciplined roles. Perhaps the goalkeeper would be the head of finance? Others are expected to be more creative - the frontline programme staff - who in my experience are the staff that complain most about rigid planning formats.
Players know their position, but this makes up a loose form rather than a rigid structure.
If you have too many creative players, you end up with a team that may be exciting to watch but is likely to give away a lot of goals. Balance is important.
There's a captain on the field, whose role is more about motivation and leadership than creating a decision making hierarchy.
And take strategy. Rakesh is right that football teams focus on the goal, but I think this can be taken further too. Teams rarely go into a match without some kind of plan - to defend deep, to go all-out on the attack, to play with patience and wait for opportunities to arise, etc. They would also usually have back-up plans already in mind - what happens if they concede a goal, or if the opposition is marking their best player very closely? And they would probably also have some set-piece plans, specific corner and free-kick routines, ready for when the opportunity arises.
Preparation is not about detailed planning but about making sure that the team has a wide range of options - skills, tactics, specific routines - at their disposal, ready to use when needed.
A few years ago I made myself unpopular in a team planning meeting when I argued against a colleague that planning was more an art than a science. But perhaps we were both wrong: it's really a sport?