Building blocks and open source organisations

No doubt your organisation has lots of moving parts, many of which are specific to what you do.

But it’s probably also made up of generic components – accounts and inventory management, conditions of employment and contracts, safeguarding policy and procedures, communications manual – that you could drag and drop into another organisation with a bit of customisation.*

We have some way to go to good documentation at Saya Suka Membaca, but we’re getting ready to share them.

Let me know if you know any groups have good versions of these things and is sharing them… ideally bilingual in English and Indonesian!

There are only a few here, but it’s a start.

Financial Management

  • Mango has some great resources for NGO financial management

Child Protection and Safeguarding

Organisational Health

*See also: Easier tomorrow

Machine. Ecosystem. (1)

Here are two useful ways to view your organisation: as machine, and as ecosystem.

A machine is usually a complicated system: lots of moving parts, not necessarily easy to understand… but consistent and predictable once you do understand it, with a limited number of inputs and outputs:

  • Fail to put fuel in your car, and you can predict fairly accurately when it will stop.
  • Let your hard-drive fill up, and your computer will slow down.
  • Leave popcorn on the stove too long, and it will start to burn.
  • Run out of money, and everyone goes home.

This type of ‘complicated’ is largely reserved for inanimate objects. It seems obvious that things involving people – especially groups of people – won’t follow simple rules of cause and effect, and contemporary thinking is biased towards the back-to-nature sound of ‘ecosystem’ (‘people are not machines’), but there’s still lots of mileage in taking a systematic look at your organisation as a machine.

Mechanistic ‘if this, then that’ thinking runs the danger of over-simplifying things, but it’s great for working through regularly occurring processes. You have to take the time to think logically through processes like:

  • How money flows through your projects – how you make, request, receive and account for payments and expenses, and how cash flows through the organisation;
  • The logistics of product or service delivery and stock control;
  • How users contact you – or you contact customers, and how you make sure you respond in a timely and helpful way;
  • Completing reports on time, maintaining legal registrations;
  • Product development and regular (as opposed to custom or one-off) manufacturing;
  • Routine tasks like cleaning and maintenance.

Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited (amazon link) is a fantastic resource for thinking through your organisation as machine. If you often find yourself desperately trying to focus on doing the ‘real work’ while everything seems to be falling apart around you, this is the book for you. In Gerber’s words, you need to spend less time working in your business and spend more time working on your business, establishing the structures and systems that will keep the wheels on with far less effort from you.

The essential argument of the book is that you should have a clear and well documented system for every routine task in your organisation – and a system for managing and maintaining the systems, and for training people to use them. I don’t agree with his philosophy of aiming to turn your whole business into a MacDonald’s-alike franchise… but find his argument for making each part of your operation require the lowest-necessary level of skill compelling. The point is not to grow a business that can be run by robot, but rather to save time and creative and emotional energy for where it’s actually needed. If you want more time to do the ‘real work’, and/or are aiming to build something that will flourish even in your absence, you need to think like this.

Other resources for fine-tuning and automating your organisation as machine:

Double time

There is never enough time.

There are theories about why we’re so bad at predicting how long things will take: the planning fallacy, Brooke’s law (admittedly a variation on the theme), and my personal favourite, Hofstadter’s law:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Others have written helpful things about how to mitigate this problem.* I propose a simple experiment: allow double the time you think you’ll need for all of your tasks in the coming week.**

Let me know how it goes.

*One of the more helpful approaches is to ask how long similar tasks have taken in the past.

**Not including tasks where you know how long they’ll take – in those cases, you’re not estimating.***

***If in doubt, though, you don’t know.

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (4)


Being able to execute means being able to get the right things done at the right times. Good execution is a combination of:

  • Knowledge – do you know what to do and how to do it? This is a type of vision, but I include here for completeness.
  • Skill – are you able to do it? Skills need to be learned and practiced, and intuition improves with experience.
  • Will – are you committed? Do you make things happen and get stuff done? Skill doesn’t matter if you don’t take action.
  • Performance – how well do you do your part? Do you make the most of what you’ve got?
  • Bringing people with you – who else is involved? Are they ready?
  • Luck – do things go your way?

The Key

Having a strong will – strong enough that you consistently act on it – is the most important of these. Unless you’re committed and determined and actually show up, make things happen and get stuff done – nothing else matters.

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (3)


Being ready in the right place at the right time makes everything easier.

Sometimes you need to position yourself for a better view – to improve your vision – before you can position yourself to do. If you can’t see properly, you can’t decide.

Once you’ve got a decent view you can move to position yourself with respect to whatever’s coming, gathering the resources that you need and giving yourself enough time and space to use them.

Good positioning – creating time and space and being prepared – ends up looking like skill in execution, and it sort of is. It’s a skill of its own – the skill of making the most of what you’ve got.

The more I practice, the luckier I get

You can never see enough, never have all the information to be perfectly prepared – you do what you can with what you have. But the better your vision and positioning is, the better you’ll be able to respond to opportunities that come your way by pure, dumb luck.

Running to stay still

Once you’re in position, you might have to work hard just to stay there. Sometimes this is necessary – and keeping moving is almost always better than staying still – but if you find yourself having to run constantly just to keep up you might be playing the wrong game or need to think again about where the best positions are.

Some questions about positioning:

  • Where am I now?
  • Where do I need to be, by when?
  • How do I get there?
  • What’s my next step, and the one after that – and what will make it easier for me to take them?
  • What types of relationships do I need, and with who?
  • What skills and attributes will I need once I’m in position, and how will I develop them?
  • What resources?
  • What else do I need to know?
  • Who is in position already that I can learn from – or need to be cautious of?

(These are all questions about vision, too.)


What safety nets do you have in place?

If all else fails, is there a way to get the job done – even in your absence – that you can set up as a just-in-case, room-to-breathe backstop for when you most need it?
What’s your contingency plan?

See also: The level of your systems

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (1)

You see the traffic, approach the road, pause at the kerb, lean forward just as someone passes to get some forward motion, then step into the space between cars.
Or you press the button and wait for the light.

You see a public holiday on the calendar, decide that you want to go away, decide where and who with, then you book, pack, and go.

You see a teammate with the ball and an opposing player moving to tackle. You move into position for a pass – changing course slightly once the ball is in the air – catch it, and run into space.

You see your child growing up and glimpse what they need now and will need in future. You make changes to free up time. You learn new things to share with them. You spend the time, play, talk, teach, give them things they need.

You see a need for a product or service, know that you can make it, start working, gathering resources, building relationships with suppliers and buyers, making it, sharing it with the people it’s for.

You see a glass on the edge of a table and someone gesturing enthusiastically. You move the glass, continue the conversation.

You see someone in need, move closer to find out what’s going on, do what you can to help.

Vision. Positioning. Execution.

The level of your systems

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

James Clear – Atomic Habits

If you want things to be easier tomorrow, it really helps to have strong systems in place. Most of the important things that you do go a lot better if you have a system for making sure that they happen:

  • a regular commitment to eat something delicious with family or friends
  • a standing order for the amount you’ve decided to invest every month… and save for maintenance of your house/car/wardrobe… and pay for life insurance (see Barefoot)
  • something that will make sure you exercise
  • a habit that will help you to learn
  • something fun that you’ll get a kick out of doing

You get the idea. Even creative work (perhaps especially creative work) benefits when you make regular time and space for it. What happens in the space might be different every time, but if there’s no space, nothing will happen.

Even if you really can’t stand to make a system for creativity, having systems for other things in your life will make spontaneity possible far more often.

Atomic Habits is a good place to start – check out his interview with James Clear on the Read to Lead Podcast.

John Gardner on regeneration

Values always decay over time. Societies that keep their values alive do not do so not by escaping the process of decay but by powerful processes of regeneration. There must be perpetual rebuilding. Each generation must rediscover the living elements in its own tradition and adapt them to present realities. To assist in that discovery is one of the tasks of leadership.

Leaders must understand how and why human systems age, and must know how the processes of renewal may be set in motion. The purposes are always the same:

– To renew and interpret values that have been encrusted with hypocrisy, corroded by cynicism or simply abandoned; and to generate new values when needed.

– To liberate energies that have been imprisoned by outmoded procedures and habits of thought.

– To reenergize forgotten goals or to generate new goals appropriate to new circumstances.

– To achieve, through science and other modes of exploration, new understandings leading to new solutions.

– To foster the release of human possibilities, through education and lifelong growth.

John Gardner – On Leadership