• Facilitating complex international project.
  • 1000+ staff, main focus on de-escalation through grassroots focus and cultural understanding.
  • Strongest results in country, zero security incidents.

Zaranj, Nimroz, lies between the Desert of Death and the Desert of Hopelessness, but that’s not the real problem. It lies at the very southwest corner of Afghanistan hence neighbouring both Iran and Pakistan, and 80% of the world’s heroin passed through here in 2005. A range of Western countries had Special Forces teams and drug eradication schemes rolling through the province, whilst at the same time tribal and ethnic factions were at each other’s throats. The job was to facilitate a province-wide election.

After the regular civic education campaigns displaying posters of happy peaceful voters had failed to quell centuries of tribal warfare, and after assertions from US and other countries’ senior military command failed to de-escalate allied targeting operations on the ground, a new approach needed to be had. The message was clear – an Afghanistan where all have a say and we handle conflict without weapons – and it was actually somewhat acceptable to all, including the most fierce warlords in the no go areas of northern Nimroz. Still, they kept fighting, and the election was in peril.

I was consulting on logistical operations in Herat at the time, but was asked to take on this contract instead, and within a month I was helicoptered in to the desert via Kandahar. The first weeks was pure relationship building – having tea at the Loya Jirga followed sharing MREs with US Rangers, flying to Kabul and Kandahar to talk to the brass. I was always accompanied by two close protection officers, and as we chatted on the dusty rides, a picture emerged. This was all about relationships. The leader of Chakansur loathed the cousin in Zaranj but had good connections with a Dutch Major, US Rangers had an understanding with the Drug Eradication people, the links were a haystack. And the person to solve it was not me. My close protection officers were private military contractors, but they were also ex UK and South African paratroopers. They knew how to talk to the Western soldiers, and the warlords respected them.

The fancy consultant needed to get out of the way, and the fighters needed to connect. My job was simply to act as a sounding board and filter to the UN, whilst my close protection team criss-crossed the deserts each day, establishing trust, seeking concessions, spreading information. Sometimes it isn’t what you say or how you say it, it is about who says it. The connections built were real, between people that felt honour bound to hold to their word.

Nimroz, one of the poorest, most remote and most violent provinces in Afghanistan had the fewest incidents of electoral complaints in the election, and the local electoral staff had the highest ratio of female and disabled employees in the whole country. All because of two paras at the right place, or rather all over the place. Not one shot was fired.

  • Organisational transformation and growth.
  • Transforming traditional counselling provider into Bristol’s most innovative young people’s service.
  • Became main provider of YP services in Bristol, received King’s Fund Award.

Off the Record was a small young people’s counselling service in Bristol. It had been pottering along for almost fifty years. Things were fine but not dynamic. The new CEO wanted change, a more responsive, client led, socially responsible movement. As I engaged with this service transformation, it soon became clear that we had three directions that we were pulled in.

The CEO, the National Lottery that was funding it all, and many of the non-counsellors working in the organisation wanted change. They wanted a dynamic organisation with many offerings, where young people would be warmly welcomed but also stretched to grow in ways they perhaps wouldn’t expect. Meanwhile, the traditional counsellors, used to and trained in traditional six-sessions per client with strict boundaries and talking as the only intervention, saw these new ideas as a threat to their practice, themselves and their clients. Finally, our young people and their parents had been taught by society that distress warrants counselling, so counselling was what they wanted. The challenge of engaging with an occupational therapist or a social justice group rather than a traditional counsellor was too different and too challenging.

Counsellors’ resistance and concern coupled with parents’ and clients’ unease fuelled each other and tensions were high. An entire organisation that genuinely wanted to help couldn’t agree on how to help, and needed help.

It took a mix of firmness and flexibility to move forward. Whilst the overall frame of the service transformation was set in stone and could not be allowed to budge, we made sure that all voices were heard (not always heeded) during a succession of practical away days. Counsellors were allowed to show non-counsellors (OT’s, social workers, artists) the merits of traditional counselling. The same counsellors also partook in more alternative ways of support, and saw its value. The us-and-them of the new and old was toned down.

Not everyone liked it. A good 10% of traditional counsellors left the service, though not necessarily on bad terms. The organisation had changed, but it was respectful of the past, whilst aspirational for the future. My job is to facilitate the thriving of an organisation, and as an organisation changes it may be less appropriate for some. Holding a firm line for the greater good is uncomfortable yet essential.

Three years after the service transformation began, Off the Record was the largest provider of services for young people in Bristol, with a range of innovative practices working for the benefit of young people but also having greater impacts on the community as a whole. We won the NHS King’s Fund Award for our work. Check them out at www.otrbristol.org.uk

  • Staff training, crisis response preparation
  • Aligning diverse organisational cultures, training staff outside traditional roles. Psychological support.
  • National crisis support streamlined and strengthened

How do you get a bunch of engineers to become mental health supporters, and how do you do this in an organisation with a mix of French, German and British culture? This is what my Airbus contract entails.

Airbus has dedicated substantial funds and effort on their employees’ well-being, and I support them with their crisis response work. In the event of an accident or incident, they now have a cadre of purposely trained mental health first responders as part of their staff, ready to immediately assist.

The road there has been interesting, distilling the best from very different countries’ cultures of management. Do we follow a set of rules when we respond, a checklist to ensure that good practice is upheld? Or do we train the responders up to a level that they are able to organically respond naturally to what arises? Such deliberations, as well as managing tensions as they arise, can shed useful light on an organisation, light that allows the organisation to grow.

The actual work with training up the responders has been revelatory for me, and shown me how useful the Cynefin framework is (see my Resources page). As we engage with an issue or a territory, we first need to know what kind of territory or issue it is. Are we talking about a jet engine – fantastically complicated yet still something that an expert knows how to engage with? If so, bring up the manual, call the expert and the problem will be solved. However, what if we are dealing with a group of people being terrified? Do we know what they will do? Can we calculate exactly what we should tell them to calm them down? Living systems are complex, not complicated. We cannot know for sure how they respond to our intervention, so we carefully start a conversation and continually adjust based on the response.

I didn’t think that these logical engineers and administrators would get it, and how wrong I was. I have been genuinely impressed by how quickly the penny dropped, how their openness allowed for their aha! moments. Key to their growth has been a highly individualised training, where we do teach some concepts and tools, but put our main effort on finding out what it is that makes each future responder resilient and useful.

UK Airbus has managed to find its own version of crisis support that is still in sync with Global Airbus. Each emergency responder has managed to find their own way of caring for themselves in order to care for others, yet this unique way is still in sync with the overall aim of the program. We all know where the limits of the space are, and can move more effectively within this space.

Does this sound interesting?

Whether you need just a few meetings for yourself or an organisational overhaul – get in touch.

© Niklas Serning