When recruiting, especially senior posts, interview panels always test the ‘self-awareness’ of the candidates. This, IMO, is very critical. I have seen reasonably competent candidates rejected simply because they exhibited very poor self-awareness. Rightly so. I really would be worried if a candidate with over 2 decades of experience claimed that (s)he had never failed at anything.

Off late I have been wondering whether institutions are self-aware. To satisfy my curiosity, I have been asking a lot of questions.

  • Who are you as an institution?
    • Service delivery agency?
    • Campaigner?
    • Change agent?
  • What should you be doing?
    • Funny how often the answer to this does not flow from the answer to ‘who are you?’.
  • What should you NOT be doing?
    • This is the trickiest of them all. There are so many issues facing a development agency that the natural temptation is to try and do too much. Saying NO to something is much more difficult. It requires a lot of self-awareness to realise that one is perhaps not the best placed to deliver on something and hence one should stay out of it.  Not enough to have that self-awareness, it needs to be backed up by the courage to say NO.
  • What can you do?
    • This is normally an easy one. I have more or less seen a decent amount of clarity on this one.
  • What is it that you CANNOT do?
    • This is messy. No one likes to admit that there is something that they cannot do. Though the reality is that of all the factors affecting development and poverty alleviation, there are very few that we can actually influence or impact.

From the answers I have received, I am not convinced that institutionally teams are on the same page. Clearly even after being staffed with reasonably self-aware individuals does not make the institution self-aware. Else why would we see

  • NGOs trying to work in every sector imaginable – livelihood, governance, humanitarian relief, HIV/AIDS programming, violence against women, environmental degradation, education, human rights, food security etc.
  • Mixed messages through programming – one project trying to promote citizens voice demanding better governance and another in the next room taking contracts from government to deliver services.
  • Programmes that are, how should I say this? Ah. Ambitious – outcome statements like
    • “Government of the People’s Republic of China will amend its policy of investment” or
    • “Our peace-building efforts will lead to stopping of violence before it starts” (No jokes. I have actually seen this line)

Surely something is not quite right here. There needs to be more institutional clarity? That clarity needs to be common and shared across the team members?

The dangers of not knowing one’s limitations can be catastrophic. Futile in the best case scenario (where you do lots of action with little / no result whatsoever) and dangerous in others (Just imagine you are David who has set off to battle with Goliath. The dreams of thousands are on your shoulders, because you said you could deliver on those. At the last moment you realise that you have left your catapult at home!)