Change Management: Failing to Assess Organisational Readiness

by Florian Villaume, African Program Staff, Engineers Without Borders Canada

  • Project: Rural Agricultural Entrepreneurship
  • Location: Burkina Faso
  • Sector: Agriculture
  • Professional Designation: NGO



The ERA team decided to partner with a federation due to its initial openness to change and its widespread network of affiliated unions throughout the country. African Program Staff (APS) were to be partnered with provincial unions in order to assist in the implantation and scale up of the “Conseil à l’exploitation Familiale” (CEF) approach for which the federation had received funding from a donor.

The process to select partner unions started with a pre-selection by federation officials of seven unions touted as being the most dynamic within the federation. The ERA team leader conducted its own evaluation of the unions via a questionnaire and an onsite visit. Insights and recommendations where then discussed. Although the final selection of unions was left entirely to the federation’s board of directors, they were in line with recommendations made by the ERA team leader.

What Transpired

An APS was placed in a very small, village based union. It was well known that this union was weak, however it did have a president known to be quite dynamic and who also served as the vice president of the federation. The hope was that with the APS’s assistance, the president would be able to drastically improve the union’s performance. Early into the placement, the union’s weaknesses were painfully apparent. There was very little engagement by the executive board, low motivation of field staff and a high dependence on the president who was often away. In the process of trying to dynamize certain union members, the APS made the mistake of taking initiative without respecting hierarchy within the union. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the APS expressed doubts regarding the success of the partnership.

At this point, APS and team lead re-evaluated the strategic approach to behavioral change of the president and organizational change within the union. Specific actions were defined to address the difficulties encountered. Difficulties were also brought to the attention of federation officials who provided some insights and recommendations.

Despite the adapted strategy, there was little advancement of the union. Resistance from the president was met when APS tried promoting increased initiative and dynamism of union members. She viewed these activities as a threat to her control and power over the union.

These difficulties were again brought to the attention of federation officials. An internal discussion took place with the president regarding her leadership style and the management of her union but failed to inspire any change in her behavior. As a result, it was unanimously agreed upon to reduce the APS’ involvement with the union to a part time partnership.

The main challenge during this placement re-evaluation process was to minimize the negative impact it may have had on other placements within the federation. In the end, the team lost a lot of trust with the union president which impacted its relationship with the federation.

The Failure

The failure in this case was threefold.

Initial failure

The decision of co-team leaders to scale-up ERA’s partnership with the federation was made without having fully gauged how many unions within the federation were genuinely open and motivated to change.

Second failure

The president was considered the major factor for success. The president had a reputation of being a strong willed and dynamic woman. This coupled with her enthusiasms to be partnere­­­­d with EWB led to a false assessment of the potential for organizational change within her union.

Third Failure

The team leader took two months to react which was frustrating for the APS.


Recommendations and learning upon reflection:

  1. Partner diagnostics:
    1. Set eliminatory criteria for partnership selection. Communicate, clearly and explicitly the expectations of both the partner and APS and the consequences for not meeting these criteria.
    2. Shift perspectives and reflect on what motivations may be at play for a partnership. Take into account the internal and external political environment and hierarchal relationships.
    3. Diversify sources of information regarding a potential partner. Aim to find independent sources that interact with the partner to verify information from different perspectives.
  2. Placement design:
    1. Placement design should include built in flexibility with respect to objectives, partnership duration and time investment (full/part time). This flexibility would be based on performance criteria communicated to both the partner and APS at the start of a placement.
    2. Set an exploration phase aimed at evaluating explicit “Go/No go” criteria. Activities carried out during this period should asses the partner’s motivation and potential for change and evaluate their level of corporation and interaction with the APS.
    3. A placement of one year should not be assumed for a new partnership or for one where major challenges are anticipated. After a positive exploration phase, minimum objectives and expectations of both APS and partner should be outlined as “Go/No go” re-evaluation milestones for each subsequent period of 1-3 months.
    4. Except the reality that a placement can be terminated prematurely once supporting arguments are justified by concrete transparent information. Take into account the political environment and follow the necessary steps to try and ensure good relations with the partner.


Select three phrases that describe this failure.

Your reactions could not be saved.
Your reactions were saved.


Got something to say? Feel free, I want to hear from you! Leave a Comment

  1. Léonce says:

    I am from Burkina Faso and I am not very surprised by this failure of the partership.


  2. Villaumé says:

    Hello Léonce,

    that an interesting comment. It seems that you have some experience in Burkina Faso,i am curious to know what are you thoughts. Don’t hesitate to share here or you can also write me directly:



  3. John Collins says:

    Hi, I’m writing a paper on cultural barriers in regard to NGO program management. I was wondering where I could get information on the Conseil à l’exploitation Familiale program that was being scaled up (In English if possible)

  4. John Collins says:

    Also which federation was it? EWB apparently partners with four?

  5. Florian says:


    here is the link:

    Sorry, I can’t share the name of the federation (confidentiality reasons).


Trackbacks for this post

  1. Celebrating Failure | concrete solutions c.i.c.

Leave a Comment

Let us know your thoughts on this post but remember to play nicely folks!