Interview with Paul Ronalds, CEO Save the Children Australia
Ponder interviewed Paul Ronalds, CEO of Save the Children Australia, about his thoughts on grappling with complex policy challenges.
Paul Ronalds is currently CEO of Save the Children Australia. He has previously worked as a Senior Executive in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as Deputy CEO and Director of Strategy for World Vision Australia, and as COO for Urban Seed, an NGO that provides a range of services to marginalised people in Melbourne’s inner city. He has also worked as a lawyer and co-founded an e-commerce company. Paul has deep and broad experience working with complex social issues and has written and contributed to several books on social policy, including The Change Imperative: Creating a Next Generation NGO, a book that examines the challenges faced by international NGOs in a rapidly evolving global political context, and the Three Sector Solution, available to download free at https://www.anzsog.edu.au/blog/2016/07/440/the-three-sector-solution.
Things are complex now. Everything seems interconnected, with complex cause-and-effect relationships creating flow-on effects from almost anything we do, uncertainty, many people and interests involved, and no ‘right answer’. How should we go about making informed decisions and opinions in this context?
We need to start with a high degree of humility, and remember that, for some issues, there may not be a right answer. Be clear about the goal you are seeking to achieve and how to measure it, take a series of small steps and assess your progress. Then adjust your actions accordingly.
If your goal is difficult to measure – because its subjective or too broad, or the data is not available – try for a middle ground, for example finding proxy measurements of the goal you are trying to achieve. They might not be perfect so identify where they might be deficient. Keep in mind its just a proxy.
What skills do you think are required now and will be in the future, to grapple with complex problems?
We need people with the ability to take calculated risks and be a little entrepreneurial. People are often reluctant to take risks – we’re not typically taught how to do it; we seem to expect people to develop the capacity innately. Instead, we should view it as a quality that needs to be encouraged and developed. This is an important role for organisational leaders.
It doesn’t help that in the public sector the incentive structure isn’t conducive to creative thinking and risk taking. It punishes some forms of risk taking, financial mismanagement for example, but often completely ignores the risk of failing to achieve our ultimate objectives. The conversation needs to better balance the fear of failure around inputs, with a fear of not getting the outcomes we want.
We also need collaboration skills – complex problems are beyond the capacity and capability of any one person or organisation, so collaborate is critical.
More lateral thinking is required. By this, I mean taking the learnings from one field and applying them elsewhere. There is a huge pool of insight already out there. While new and creative ideas should also be welcomed, we shouldn’t ignore what we already know.
And, we need to work with a high degree of pragmatism – to make timely decisions about when to stop doing something, and when to try something new.
When an idea is contested, with many conflicting viewpoints … what approach would you recommend taking?
Collaboration. But collaboration done well. I’ve come across examples of collaborative policy making or program implementation that has been so complex that the whole process has ground to a halt and nothing was achieved.
Find a few, knowledgeable partners whose interests align around the problem you are seeking to solve and start learning together.
You’re interested in making a difference to the world – achieving outcomes. If you could change one (or more) thing(s) to make it easier to achieve outcomes in your area of work, what would they be?
The failure to seek and use the evidence of what works. Too often, we set off with a poor understanding of the actual problem we are seeking to solve and then implement a solution based on untested assumptions, biases, fads or anecdotal evidence. We need to better use the available evidence of what works, which will be an appropriate balance of quantitative and qualitative information.
Is there one (or more) project or initiative that stands out as having been successful despite the inherent complexity? To what do you attribute the success?
The work we’ve done recently with the Tasmanian Government on reducing youth recidivism is a good example. Many stakeholders were involved – the police, courts, child protection, various Government departments and service providers – and the clients had complex problems. Despite these challenges the results have been fantastic. Since the program began, the number of young people in youth detention in Tasmania has fallen significantly.
Several things allowed us to work together well – we had highly capable people on the design team who were willing to be innovative and entrepreneurial. The capability of the front line staff was very high. And the Chief Magistrate for children was committed to improving the situation and willing to try new approaches. We also found philanthropists who were prepared to back a new approach for sufficient time for it to be tested and evaluated. To have so many ingredients present is, however, rare.
Are there any books, papers, people or historical examples which have particularly inspired how you approach or think about complex things?
One of my favourite humanitarian thinkers is Dr Hugo Slim. He seeks to bring practical ethical thinking to bear on the difficult moral and operational challenges of humanitarian action.
I have also really enjoyed recently reading Lead and Disrupt, by Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman. The book provides really practical advice on how larger organisations have successfully been ‘ambidexterous’: able to continuously improve the existing parts of their operations while also being successful in new areas.