Monday, July 28, 2008


Some very personal opinions on why the Trust was always going to go wrong

The practical origins of the Trust’s formation go back to the spring of 2006, when discussions first took place between the First Lady, Rafif Raslan, me and a Swiss management consulting firm.  These consultants (as far as I know) had no prior experience of organisations similar to the Trust.  Indeed it was not at all clear just what sort of organisation the Trust was intended to be. The premise brought to the table at that time derived very much from previous experience with FIRDOS, where management problems had over-consumed the time of the First Lady due to the absence of any form of executive or governance layer between her and the FIRDOS organisation.  Newer projects, Massar and SHABAB, were now also drawing significantly on her time, and it was determined that some form of organisation was required that would: avoid the need for the First Lady to micro-manage or problem-solve; ensure that her time could be better managed for the benefit of projects on the ground; derive efficiencies and synergies between projects as they grew in scale; and back up projects’ activities with in-house professional services.  The prime imperative behind the Trust’s formation, therefore, was to create organisational efficiencies, and had little to do with beneficiaries, vision or values.  

Massar was seen at the time as having already built a very successful, results-oriented, team culture, and it was stated on several occasions that the new Trust should “retain the best qualities of Massar”.  In the event the consultants showed very little will or ability to appreciate what might have made Massar successful, or what those qualities were, and instead started the construction of an entity which might well have been its deliberate antithesis.  Elaborate, hierarchical, centralised, bureaucratic and entirely conventional, with an organisational emphasis on the firm central control and Trust-wide conformity of throughput rather than the achievement of output, it was a very Germanic response to a Syrian circumstance.  In the Trust model there was no primacy given to those projects providing for beneficiaries, even though the emerging vision statement made empowerment of Syria's people the overarching goal of the organisation.  Instead, two (later three) project division directors would sit alongside four service division directors, giving the executive a clear bias towards internal process rather than external purpose.  A director managing 75 people delivering programmes in the field carried no more weight than one managing three people in a back-room service function.  The Executive Management Team structure also introduced multiple accountability, with equally senior directors able to question each other’s decisions, slowing process and making the CEO an inevitable arbiter.

The divisional structure, as its name implied, fostered the creation of policies, objectives and priorities derived within each Division rather than from the interests of the Trust as a whole.  Each Division created its own definition of best practice in relative isolation - the old problem of local optima obstructing the effective delivery of the system as a whole.  Of these, the most fundamental has been that of Finance.  The Finance system is massively complex, time-consuming to service, and to date has yet to provide simple, robust and useful management information suitable for running a project.  In many cases two sets of accounts are now being run, so that managers can sense-check (and often correct) what Finance provide against their own expenditure spreadsheets - hardly efficient or cohesive.   An early decision was made that the Trust would meet the highest international auditing standards, without consideration of whether the organisation could demonstrate even the most basic capacity to run its financial affairs competently for a complete year.  As a result, the system is not just unwieldy but inflexible.  To a large degree the Trust has an accounts system but no actual finance system: budgeting is a process in which the wood often cannot be seen for the trees; the process is largely retrospective - forecasting for the purpose of cost control is absent; financial analysis in the form of trends, apparent risks or variances from expected patterns is also absent.  It is concerned almost exclusively with managing expenditure.

The inevitability of the divisional silo effect was compounded by the consultants' inability to resolve properly “the CEO issue”, which I raised from early in discussion.  With the First Lady holding this role, the proposal was that she should be replaced by a full-time CEO and herself take on the chairmanship of the board only.  The embedded “issue” was and is both cultural and practical. A considerable part of the personal investment by staff in the organisation derives from the First Lady’s direct involvement with their work; their loyalty is very much to her, and a replacement could well dissipate that.  Her status lends the Trust considerable weight in negotiations with third parties; a different CEO could not replace that. So there were significant reasons to retain the First Lady in the CEO role.  Set against them was the fact that the Trust unquestionably required a full-time head whose responsibilities crossed the divisional boundaries, and who could stimulate on a day-to-day basis the institutional development of the whole Trust.  The consultants rejected the option of a COO as a means of resolving the issue (my own proposal) on the grounds that the job would not be appealing to anyone capable of doing it.

A matrix management structure was proposed by the consultants. They did not set out how such a matrix management structure, complex to get right even in mature organisations, should work in practice, or how the Trust should establish operational practices that would ensure its success.  Essential management functions such as prioritisation, decision-making, accountability and communication were effectively left for later resolution (which unsurprisingly never happened).  To a large degree, the lack of operational clarity implicit in their structure can be seen as the source of much of the Trust’s current management problems. It is unclear what the real drivers of the business are; how the core purpose (whatever it is) of the organisation is achieved and therefore in what direction decision-making should flow.  As was pointed out at the time, the most likely means of making this work would be a Service Level Agreement between each Service Division and each Project, again hardly an efficient process.

The other factor not taken into account by the consultants was the prior existence of projects which had already established working practices, mapped out their organisational cultures, and built effective relationships in their marketplace.  In principle, the consultants treated the Trust as an organisation starting entirely from scratch and with a clean slate.  This would not be a process of change management in which the current situation of the component parts needed to be accommodated.  It was not regarded as analogous to an M&A process of integration. The practical result of this was that for the projects, which were already deeply  committed to activity plans which would deliver value to beneficiaries, a large new commitment was imposed as top priority – the creation of the Trust. Anything to do with the Trust’s formation was expected to override any other prior commitment.  Throughout 2007 this has been causing increasing conflict between projects (Massar and SHABAB primarily) and the Trust.

As a newly-formed organisation, the Trust has had the opportunity to create a powerful and liberating internal culture, very much embodying its stated values, inspiring to its own people and a model for others to follow. It has comprehensively failed to do so.


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