Lessons from the field: Implementing a women’s collective...
Jun 1st 2023
“You’re telling us that we’ll have to sell products in the village to earn extra i...Read More
My introduction to Pratham was in class, during grad school. I was dazzled by the sharpness, passion, and pragmatism of Rukmini Banerji (now CEO of the organization, but at the time head of ASER – one of Pratham’s main efforts). Her commitment to levelling the playing field for children was so infectious, that I applied for an internship and ended up working there for a summer. To my surprise, everyone in the organization oozed the same passion, energy and ´can do´ attitude. From volunteers in the most isolated villages to Rukmini herself, they all lead with the same flame.
Pratham is my go to example of an organization that has been able to scale without losing its identity in the process. Today, its more than six thousand staff carry that same organizational DNA that spoke to me in class. I know firsthand this didn’t happen by chance but is the result of a purposeful commitment to their values and hard work at using them as a roadmap to guide strategic decisions. Many years after that unforgettable summer, through the work we do at Imago, I found myself working alongside Pratham’s leadership in developing a set of organizational and human resource practices that build-on its core values, nurture collective leadership, and keep Pratham’s magic alive.
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Preserving an organization’s identity, and ensuring it is alive in every person within the organization and in every action they take, is a difficult challenge. In the pursuit to scale many organizations risk losing the magic that defined them. Developed by Bill Isaacs  as a tool for personal and organizational reflection, the Flame is a framework we use at Imago to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between the identity, structure, and strategic direction within an organization. Bill, inspired both by physics and system dynamics at MIT, came up with a very powerful image that illustrates the interconnectedness of elements that make up for the culture of an organization.
Have you ever looked closely at a flame? If you have, you must have noticed the various colors in it, the unique shape it takes, and its mesmerizing movement. The flame of a candle has at least three different zones, each zone has a different temperature, a different color and represents different stages of the combustion process. The blue and white parts of a flame are its hottest, it is where complete combustion takes place in the presence of unlimited supply of oxygen. The red, orange, and yellow parts of a flame produce the most light although they are less hot. All the parts of a flame feed of each other and exist simultaneously.
Like a flame, every organization has different elements that influence each other and that together bring an organization to life. Identity and tone are at the heart of the organization and represent the hottest part of the flame. Action and structure are like the red and orange parts, in that they are the most visible, despite deriving their strength from the core. Moreover, just like a flame, all these pieces need to be in tune for the work of the organization (the fire) to flourish and thrive.
Organizations that achieve the kind of alignment that a flame has – where results, strategy and meaningful purpose reinforce one another – have a major advantage and a greater chance at longevity. Alignment gives organizations a clearer sense of what to do at any given time, and the assurance that people at every level will move in the right direction. Pratham’s journey highlights some important lessons of purposefully working to achieve and maintain that alignment.
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Over the last 25 years Pratham grew from a small organization with a core team of passionate, committed, and innovative people, to an organization with presence all over India. The growth in Pratham’s reach, staff and budget put stress on the informal systems the organization had in place. Along the way, Pratham had to institutionalize values and practices in a way that kept its core believes and vision alive. Pratham has been able to pull off this incredible transformation because it ensured that every move it made was aligned with the one clear and compelling mission, “every child in school and learning well”. This, along with leadership’s commitment to engage in widespread dialogue about the interpretation and application of Pratham’s values has given the organization a sense of identity that creates shared purpose and enhances accountability, collaboration, and initiative. There are four ways in which Pratham has been able to achieve alignment.
Valuable leaders – Through their behavior, Pratham’s leadership shows everyone they interact with what Pratham’s values mean in practice. From the way they spend their time, to how they deal with problems and crises, their actions speak louder than words. Actions reflecting values and principles – especially difficult choices – naturally become points of reference that are easy to remember and retell, stories that reinforce to the staff and the world what the organization stands for. At some point in Pratham’s scaling process the organization had to downsize to recalibrate and refocus. This has been one of the most difficult choices Pratham’s leadership has gone through, but they did in honor of their values and mission, and with incredible humility and transparency. It paid off! Today the organization is almost twice the size before downsizing with much stronger structure and its DNA intact.
Enabling environment – The most important and difficult task of leaders is helping people around them succeed. Removing roadblocks to values-oriented decision making and recognizing and rewarding behaviors that are in line with organizational values is key. In Pratham, people that showcase agility, resourcefulness and diligence have the opportunity to grow no matter their background. Their own staff is a testament to Pratham’s transformative mission. There are countless examples of people in positions of authority within the organization that started as volunteers after learning how to read and do basic math thanks to its programs. Pratham’s enabling environment allows people with the same DNA rise through the ranks of the organization in an organic way.
Children at the center – Everyone at Pratham has to start by helping children improve their reading and math. Every single person in the organization can tell you a story of someone whose life changed because of the work they personally did in the field. That kind of experience stays with you and becomes the perfect primer when working at the top of the Flame (structure and action). I have personally seen Rukmini spend hours teaching children in field visits, replenishing that connection. This bond embodies the mission and values of the organization like nothing else and, at the same time, it provides an invaluable source of insight into program effectiveness that Pratham has used to refine its approach and take it to scale.
Values as an on-going dialogue – In Pratham everyone can enter the conversation. Given that a lot of the programming is implemented by volunteers, the organization has a very strong on the job training system that allows the replication of their approach. This creates natural spaces for staff and volunteers to discuss Pratham’s values and principles in conjunction with their peers. Furthermore, Pratham purposefully discusses values in their leadership retreats at different levels, which trickle down to volunteers in the most remote villages. This helps ensuring alignment and brings important shifts from the bottom-up. The frequent discussion of values allows organizations to become a community united by shared purpose, reinforcing teamwork and collaboration.
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Many of the elements that allow organizations to find alignment come almost naturally when an organization is small. The level of interaction among staff, the exciting pace, the fact that everyone has to do a bit of everything, etc. allow for identity and tone to take centerstage. As an organization grows, the pressure for structure and results starts taking precedent and alignment becomes more complex. One of the biggest challenges founders face when an organization scales is de-personalizing the organization’s mission and values and ensuring that people two steps removed from its inception continue to lead with values relevant to the new stage of growth. This requires deliberate effort and thinking.
Keeping the magic alive at scale is what Imago and Pratham have been working on together over the last couple of years. The process has been inclusive, iterative and gradual. Through workshops with the top 40 leaders in the organization we have been working in designing hiring methods, performance management systems, professional development paths and many other aspects of the structure and actions (outer layers of the Flame) to enhance Pratham’s DNA as it continues to grow. Those 40 leaders have replicated these conversations with everyone in the organization, capturing insights, blind spots, challenges and opportunities along the way. These feedback loops have opened new communication channels within the organization and allowed Pratham to design for the outcomes they want, purposefully making strategic decisions that protect alignment as they scale.
All strategic planning and organizational structuring at Pratham always start and finish with the same set of questions: What is our mission? Where have we come from? How did we get here? What do we believe in? These questions are their north star, they are woven in conversations at all different levels of the organization, making Pratham’s organizational values the fuel of the organization. It is a measuring stick against which Pratham evaluates the wisdom of pursuing an intended course of action. The payoff is immense. Seeking alignment improves morale and commitment, provides impetus for action, improves productivity, and fosters creativity, trust, and enjoyment.
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Though it might seem simple, applying the Flame has powerful and profound implications for organizations. It ensures that as organizations spread their wings, they never forget their roots. At Imago, we frequently use the Flame to facilitate a deeper introspection on identity and tone and assist mission-driven grassroots organizations in achieving impact at scale.
 Bill Isaacs is the Founder and CEO of Dialogos, and author of Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. For the past 30 years Bill has served as a leadership advisor, educator, and architect of systems transformation for CEO’s, fund managers, development professionals and national policy and political leaders.