(or How to get stuff done when it’s no one’s job to do it)

In recent months a new process for making things happen has organically evolved at Akvo. It’s come about out of necessity because as we’re growing, we’re encountering things all the time that need looking at – things that are important, sometimes fundamentally so – but that we don’t yet necessarily have systems or people in place to deal with.

So instead of waiting indefinitely for someone else to resolve them, a few of us from different parts of the organisation have come together in small groups to just sort stuff out. The “stuff” is often something that has been particularly bugging us and that colleagues are fed up of hearing us rant about. Sometimes people may be encouraged to join a group because they know a lot about a particular topic, other times they get involved just because they’re enthusiastic and interested and have lots of ideas or care a lot about the issue. After it’s been sorted, or at least a plan of action has been agreed and shared so everyone knows what to do about it, the group naturally dissolves away.

Two recent examples of this process in action are the informal committee that convened to devise a new format for our annual company meeting known as Team Week and the creation of a file-naming convention to get us out of The Pit

During Team Week, which took place last week, a number of workshops were held, proposed and led by anyone who felt moved to do so. During one such workshop lead by Thomas and entitled Improving Akvo, we discussed this method of convening smallish, temporary task-forces to solve specific problems, and we gave them a name: Akvo Teams – which rapidly became A-teams. After all, “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.”

How it works
It’s important to make the point that an Akvo A-team doesn’t necessarily do all the work to resolve an issue. Rather, they research it and discuss it (via Skype and/or face to face) and devise the best approach to move forward on it. And they probably take the lead on implementing the next steps. Rather serendipitously, this can be neatly represented by the letter ‘A’. As in the diagram above (which sometimes perhaps resembles a mountain to climb), the team does the initial leg-work to put together a solid base to tackle an issue – the part below the horizontal bar. We establish a firm footing. The top triangle part of the A, or the mountain, represents what happens next – how the wider organisation then builds on it. 

There are a number of current issues and topics that are ripe for tackling by the A-team approach. Some (not all) of these came out of discussions in Team Week workshops and (en)lightning talks. They include:

  • training – how to continuously improve our partner team’s training skills, the content and format of our product training workshops and our training materials and how to share best practice with colleagues in different hub teams around the world. 
  • localisation and languages – the best approach for our website, our printed materials, our products and our whole organisation
  • being open source – should we be doing more to open up and engage the developer community, and if so what?
  • being carbon neutral – how can we reduce our organiation’s carbon footprint and maybe even become carbon positive?
  • hub comms – how to improve communications between hub teams around the world, so interactions and information flow around the rim of our organisation wheel as well as along its spokes. (This last one was an issue that was raised by almost every hub team during our recent Comms Week.)

There may well be others. I know a training A-Team had begun to get organised by the morning following the Improving Akvo workshop, and Ivan and Emanuel have expressed an interest in taking part in an open source one. (I also want to participate in that one because I’m interested in it.)

It’s important to keep people in the loop about who’s covering what to avoid duplication and to cross-fertilise. It was suggested in the workshop that Akvo’s management team should be kept apprised of A-team activity and I think they definitely should. But I actually think it will be helpful for everyone to know about it. 

Communities of interest
Another interesting idea that Marten was talking to me about last week was communities of interest. These are a bit like A-teams in that they bring together people with an interest or involvement in a particular issue, but they’re less task-focussed and more about discussion and sharing. And they potentially have a longer life-span. The existing entities that are closest to this that we already have within Akvo are the Proposal Writers Club and the Amintangshu Acharya Whiskey Club (the former being slightly more work-related than the latter). Maybe one or two of the A-team areas listed above would better work as Communities of interest, such as the training one and the hub comms one, with specific tasks identified by the community leading to the formation an A-team group. It will be interesting to see how this kind of format evolves too. 

Jo Pratt is communications manager at Akvo, based in the UK.