In 2019, selected young leaders from organisations across South Africa were involved in a year-long DG Murray Trust fellowship for Organisational Innovation. Our very own Thuliswa Nodada and Sarah Caine joined this cohort of young leaders and embarked on a year-long journey asking the difficult questions about our organizational culture and looking at the future of Axium.
“I used to think that innovation was coming up with successful answers. You know? It sounded like I needed to be clever; that solutions had to be so out of the box!” Sarah said, reflecting on the year, “But now, I see it as more of a willingness to make mistakes and to have curiosity. It was very reassuring that you don’t need to know the answers before you start out. Try something and if that doesn’t work, try something else.”
“For me,” said Thuli, “Innovation feels like doing something to create change, or it just feels like change. Change can be change but you can also have an innovative way of changing which is a little bit different, a little bit intentional and strategic.”
Both Sarah and Thuli arrived at Axium in 2016. They have watched Axium grow from sharing a small rondavel with a neighbouring organisation to expanding into our own office space, to making the jump to another district entirely! Because of this they were ideally placed to ask the difficult questions about our organization and the direction in which we are heading.
“It was tiring,” Thuli says thinking back on the fellowship, “it was taxing emotionally but the timing was perfect because it was addressing what was going on inside of us. That being said, the timing was also not perfect because of those reasons. If we had done it at any other time, it would not have been as intense but it would not have been as deep.”
“It was quite empowering. I definitely felt the fellowship was extremely transformative for myself. And because it’s transformed me as a person, everything I do now going forward, whatever title I hold, or whatever organisation I work for, my approach is going to be very different” Sarah reflected.
The fellowship’s aim is to help equip emerging leaders to be able to be innovative, to take age-old problems that we all face in the development sector and try to be more explorative around them. One of the requirements of the fellowship was to come up with one ‘central question’ that participants would explore over the course of the year.
“We had three!” Thuli laughed , “which showed that there was innovation in our thinking,” she added, half-jokingly.
“Our question kept changing as we pushed deeper and deeper. Each time we felt: ‘No, this wasn’t the root question, we’ve got questions even deeper.’ Having that time and flexibility, and being encouraged to ask questions really supported this process!” Sarah commented.
Our two Fellows really embraced the mantra “Fall in love with the questions not the solutions.”
The question Thuli and Sarah eventually settled on was:
“How might the executive committee receive a more comprehensive and authentic report of the health of Axium’s staff and programs?”
This question goes to the heart of Axium’s growth and rapidly developing structures and led to thinking about how we can create a better communication flow, ensuring our people are looked after and our growth is sustainable.
As Thuli explained, “If this year we can focus on the health and well-being of the organisation - that would be a great achievement from the fellowship. In fact, it has been. The mere fact that on our agenda as the executive we can talk about the well-being of people, has been a change in its own. It’s something we’re increasingly aware of and asking ourselves questions even if we are not sure how to answer them.”
Thuli said, “For us, if there was anything innovative, it was the ability for us to do a bit of introspection and for once it was nothing outwards to the learners. One session stood out for me in particular, the speaker asked, “Is the heart that you say that you have for humanity expressed within your own organisation?” I think we sometimes focus on the receivers of our services, our students, teachers and schools but don’t always think about how we get there and how we use people to get there. If, at Axium, we are passionate about people completing their matric and pursuing further studies, our passion shouldn’t start outside the gate. And we've attempted to be a developmental organisation where many of the people who work for Axium are furthering their studies. But we need to make sure we are taking care of our people and that we don’t overlook the means to the end goal.”
Sarah added, “It was such a healthy pause. Giving us the time and space outside of our day-to day, outside of emails and checklists and getting things done. We ended up digging quite deep. One of the challenges of this fellowship was that in order to be able to think outside of the box, what can often be a heavy problem solving space also needs to be a playful space so we also did a lot of playing around, and using various colourful, fluffy and sparkly resources.”
So, how did it feel coming “back” into the day to day working space? And how do these exciting ideas translate into day to day action? “I knew that we were coming back to an organisation that was open and receptive to new ideas and to leaders that were supportive of what we would be doing. But I knew that the hardest place to change would be the DNA of Axium which is more emotional - more about our work culture. Whereas other participants in the fellowship tackled programmes and what they were supposed to do, we were tackling identity.”
Sarah confessed with a smile, “I would change the question again: How do we make our organisation more innovative?”
In the spirit of asking hard questions, Can we ensure that innovation becomes a part of our DNA as an organisation? Can we create spaces for people to collaborate and experiment, to ask questions and to shape the organisation together? Can we make time and space to be explorative, to think, wonder and brainstorm. Can we get to a place where these tools become non-negotiables?
We’re so excited about the possibilities this Fellowship has opened us up to for the coming year!
*photo credit DG Murray Trust