working at disrupting
Akvo’s mission has always been to disrupt – in a good way. When Thomas Bjelkeman and Jeroen van der Sommen got together in 2006 it was because they felt they had some ideas that could help things work better in the field of water, sanitation and hygiene. Later on, our partners wanted to deploy our systems in other development areas, so the mission was expanded to encompass all aspects of the international development sector.

It’s quite an arrogant goal really – to improve systems and practices across an entire sector. It needs to be partnered with a degree of humility and a perpetual openness to and awareness of other people’s ideas and achievements. Humility and openness are things Akvo has always done pretty well on the whole. We tend to focus the spotlight on our partners much of the time and and we support, celebrate and join forces with other people and organisations doing really good work.

But does our internal behaviour as an organisation still reflect our disruptive mission, or is it becoming diluted as we grow at pace? How do we manifest our goals in our own practices? If we want to help make the development sector work better, we surely have a responsibility to constantly strive to work better ourselves, which means perpetually challenging our own assumptions. Are we continuously asking ourselves “Is this the best way to do this?” or are we just doing things the way we did them last year, or in our last job, or the way our partners like us to do them?

I’m currently reading and enjoying a book by Liam Barrington-Bush called Anarchists in the Boardroom which is about helping organisations to behave more like people. It resonates strongly with me because it spells out clearly why some of the behaviours Akvo manifests make me love working here so much. We are an organisation that tries to think and act like a human being rather than a corporation. One example of this is the way we generally hire people. It’s a bit like how people make new friends: you meet somebody somewhere because your shared interests mean you hang out in similar places; or a mutual friend introduces you because she thinks you’ll get on well together; or perhaps you seek each other out because you like what the other does and want to get to know them. Once you’ve found each other, your relationship is lead by what each person brings to the party and by how you both evolve over time, not by any specific hole in your life you were looking to fill when you met. In the same way, asking someone to join your organisation solely to fulfil a specific identified need significantly diminishes their potential contribution. (This practice is similar, incidentally, to the way Akvo usually goes about forming strategic partnerships.)

But as our organisation grows, the need to find good people fast who can do the stuff we need to get done quickly also grows, and the human (as opposed to corporate) approach comes under pressure. This is just one example of the temptation that is always present to follow the extremely well-trodden path of corporate norms. The pressure to conform increases as we grow from a small start-up to a medium-sized piece of the development sector establishment. It’s much easier to operate in a human way when you’re doing it on a human scale.

Within my own bit of Akvo, which is the communications department, it sometimes feels like we’ve acquired a bit of a rep internally for focussing on non-essentials, for constantly asking questions and creating problems instead of just getting on and doing stuff. To be fair, I can indeed understand how it might get annoying if every time you ask somebody to do something for you quickly the response you get is, “Why do you want to do it like that? Is that the best way? Have you thought about trying this?” It’s certainly easier not to ask or answer those questions and just knock the thing out. But of course that’s not good enough, so we do ask them. Repeatedly. And sometimes it feels quite uncomfortable for everyone. However, ultimately, that discomfort is probably not a bad thing.

Comms departments never have an easy life in any organisation. They don’t generate any revenue – but they can spend it. And in ways that, let’s face it, no one else really understands. Communications is a lot about focussing on the subtle, the incremental and the small – the stuff that is generally not noticed unless it’s not there (and possibly not even then). In the comms team at Akvo, we think a lot about how stuff makes people feel, and how it builds over time to form a coherent picture. Our creative processes are complex and non-formulaic and our outputs are, as often as not, intangible and unquantifiable. A lot of what we do generates no physical output you can point to. In fact, if you can point to it, it was probably clumsily executed or maybe a bit ill conceived and inauthentic – like so many corporate twitter accounts. We focus on enabling an environment for everyone within our organisation, and those connected to it, to tell their story in a compelling and truthful way. Our role in the comms team is to give people the tools to do that and to steer the narrative in a productive direction.

Another, non-traditional role we in the comms team often perform within Akvo is to irritate people a little bit. We tend to ask the questions other people aren’t asking but probably should be; to disrupt Akvo so Akvo can continue to disrupt the sector. Positive disruption is creative, and creativity is messy and painful. It involves failure and it causes arguments. Of course, it doesn’t follow that arguments and failure equal creativity. But if, in the course of our daily work, we are meeting no resistance, feeling no discomfort, never failing, then we are not challenging the status quo or ourselves. I don’t think we should be challenging things for the sake of it, but in a focused way, to make sure we never lose sight of our goal, which is to improve how things work. That means constantly improving ourselves. And that is hard work. It doesn’t happen without effort and it stops happening as soon as you stop working at it. It’s much easier to just do your job than to maintain a dialogue about whether there’s a better way of doing your job. 

It’s not only the comms department that performs this disruptive role within Akvo, others do it too. And it shouldn’t be a function of the comms team, it should be something everyone does as second nature. This becomes especially important as we expand and decentralise to hub offices around the world. People in all parts of the organisation should feel empowered to ask challenging questions and try out new things. There are so many nationalities, cultures and personal and professional experiences within and connected to this organisation – so many invaluable and unique perspectives to benefit from. Our real challenge is how to enable all that gold to be shared and put to good use. We may not always understand what our colleagues are doing and why, but we need to trust they know what they’re doing, and learn to stay quiet for a while and watch how it unfolds. Things move too fast for everyone to understand and buy into everything before it’s implemented. I find myself in this position of not following what others are doing a lot – it’s part of the joy of working with clever people. I’m still working on the staying quiet part, however. 

At an event I attended recently, someone asked me whether I enjoyed working for Akvo. I stopped and thought for a moment and replied, honestly, that I have never enjoyed working anywhere as much as I enjoy this job. I’ve blogged before about what an epiphany joining this organisation turned out to be for me, after years of working in the corporate and voluntary sectors. I love the open source culture, the collaborative mentality, the drive to do things differently to how they’ve been done in the past if how they’ve been done in the past isn’t working. In many ways, it’s freed my mind. That’s why I feel so strongly about all of this. 

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