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Transforming Make-A-Wish UK

May 09, 20188 min read

Transforming Make-A-Wish UK

All organisations need to adapt to the ways the world is changing. Both technology and the ways we think about organisations are undergoing rapid change, and it’s speeding up. Digital Transformation is an attempt to help companies through that change. Increasing numbers of large enterprises are attempting to transform themselves in order to remain relevant and avoid younger, more agile, upstarts. But not every transformation involves large enterprises, or even small ones. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get to take the things we’ve learned about helping organisations change, and use them to help charities. I had the pleasure of doing this recently and wanted to share my experience.

Make-A-Wish UK grants wishes to children with critical illnesses. Their goal is to grant not just a wish, but the child’s One True Wish. They aspire to grant a wish for every eligible child, and knew that in order to succeed, they needed to grow in a sustainable manner. They believed that improving the wishgranting process would allow them to scale while working with the reality that charity funding is limited. The challenge, as with many organisations, was that they did not have a systemic view of wishgranting — nobody understood the complete end-to-end process and how different teams fit into it.

They contacted me to see if I could help. I was delighted to and suggested that changing the process alone wouldn’t deliver the results they wanted. Instead, I would need to take a holistic view of the organisation to help them see how the organisation itself needed to change to meet their goals. We reached an agreement, and myself and a colleague dove head first into the world of wish-granting.

It was amazing. The people we met were passionate, interested, knew their domains, knew the shortcomings, and loved what they did. They put helping children first, which gave everybody common ground to work from, and it meant that there were very few egos to contend with — everybody knew there were challenges and everybody wanted to improve things. They took us in and treated us like part of the Make-A-Wish family.

We work on projects like this in 2 phases. The first phase is learning — cultural immersion. We spend weeks speaking to as many people as we can. We then check in, provide and get feedback, and move to phase 2 — identify what work needs to be undertaken, and in what order, to help the organisation meet the challenge it has set itself.

Phase 1 — Learning

We spent two weeks speaking with 35–40 people within Make-A-Wish UK. Our goal was to figure out how the organisation worked — what worked, what didn’t work, and what the challenges were — from as many perspectives as possible. We weren’t simply interested in learning what management thought, or front line staff — we wanted to know what people throughout the organization thought and felt. We use an empathy-driven, people-focused, anthropological approach that has a basis in both systems thinking and service design. We developed this approach for a couple of reasons:

  1. It engages people. It’s impossible to successfully introduce on-going change and improvement into an organisation where the people responsible for implementing the change haven’t been involved in identifying both its problems and the solutions. For more on Fair Process, check this link out.

  2. It ensures we see organisation-wide challenges

(If you want a more detailed look at the ‘how,’ you can read about what we did with another organisation here.)

During the learning phase, we spend all our time listening to people and writing down what they have to say. We ask open-ended questions and follow them up with further questions for clarity. We do not judge. We do not criticise. We do not draw conclusions.

After gathering all the data we can, we collate it and turn it into a logical cause-effect map that shows us what the underlying challenges are for the organization. Fixing these will have an outsized impact on the organisation, so doing this stage well is very important.

What we discovered during this mapping exercise, is that the things we originally suspected were the bottlenecks to scaling, weren’t the underlying challenges. This is important, because proving ourselves wrong indicates that we weren’t too focused on getting the result we wanted, but were instead following what the data was telling us.

What We Learned

The biggest challenge to scaling was a belief that wish quality and wish quantity were in conflict (if Make-A-Wish UK wanted to grant more wishes, to reach more children, then there would be an inevitable reduction in the quality of each wish granted). This, on its own, was not surprising — it holds some intuitive appeal that time is finite, and both quality and quantity take time. What we found underpinning this belief, however, was the unspoken, widespread assumption that the quality of a wish was impacted (and in some ways determined) by the amount of time and effort that people put into granting it. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense — more effort means better wishes. Were this assumption true, it would mean that quality and quantity are zero-sum.

Luckily, years of work in manufacturing, agile development, and construction have demonstrated that more time does not necessarily result in better quality. Exposing this concept meant helping Make-A-Wish UK clearly identify whether an activity contributed to the quality of a wish. This lead to a secondary challenge — Make-A-Wish UK did not have an agreed way of identifying quality.

Our weeks of immersion really paid off here. Based on our experience and what we’d learned, we were able to put together a simple checklist for whether an activity or action did, or would, improve quality:

  1. Does it improve the child’s experience?

  2. Does it improve the family’s experience?

  3. Does it put wish timelines more into Make-A-Wish’s control?

Publicly sharing these three questions with everybody in the organisation, and adopting them in word and deed, would allow the senior management team to provide a common decision-making framework that would allow everybody to act in the best wishes of the wish recipient. It would also have knock-on effects:

  1. Teams and individuals would have the autonomy to make decisions, as long as they acted within the framework

  2. Reduce fear among teams of making mistakes or being judged on criteria they didn’t understand

  3. Provide a common language and set of goals which would propagate down to teams and individuals

  4. Embed the habit of each individual reflecting on what they’re doing and seeing if they can improve it

Because of the questions in the framework, it also inherently opens itself up to review. At some point, the organisation will question whether using the framework satisfies the requirements that it sets out. When it no longer does, it will be time to change it — it should continually evolve as the organisation grows and improves.

We took our insights and information back to the executive team and worked through it with them. During our conversations, there were several aha! moments with the leadership team, and some changes in how they saw the behaviours of their teams. It became apparent why some of the the changes they had been trying to make weren’t working and gave them a new way of thinking about what they were trying to achieve.

For me, it’s the aha! moments that I live for. All the time spent listening, taking notes, and mapping everything pays off when it results in a connection with people who didn’t originally see what we saw, but now do.

“We don’t know what you did, but the staff really liked you.” -Mark Curtin, Director of Operations

Phase 2 — Projects

Once we all agreed on the scope and nature of the challenges, as well as the value of a framework, we put together the projects we thought critical to allowing Make-A-Wish UK to scale with demand. This included reassessing the wish-granting process with external facilitators, and approaching it from a whole new view, as well as a number of other projects. The most important work, however, was to embed the new framework, and to run all future projects with the framework in mind.

Our feedback was well-received. Make-A-Wish has some very positive things to say both about the work we had done and the way their staff felt about working with us.

“This work [the framework and projects] should form the foundation for our entire transformation.” — Mark Curtin, Director of Operations

Phase 3 — Make-A-Wish UK’s Commitment

We finished our work with Make-A-Wish UK in early March. Since then, they have continued the work we started together. We remain involved as much as they need us, but they are doing the majority of the work that we identified themselves.

Since finishing the project, Make-A-Wish UK has made some major changes. First, they made some minor modifications to the framework in order to make it easier for their teams to understand. We were delighted to hear about this change, because it’s important that the framework is their own and fits their needs — our version was our best guess, but we expected them to be able to improve upon it.

Second was to embed the framework into their decision-making process — Teams and individuals make use of the framework, which allows the executive team to devolve responsibility to people on the ground. If a proposed change doesn’t satisfy the framework, they explore why they want to do it and if it’s still worth doing.

Third has been to tackle waste. We defined waste as ‘anything which takes up time, but doesn’t contribute to wish quality.’ The wish-granting team spent some time going over the wish-granting process, identifying areas of waste, and eliminating them to improve the wishgranting process and experience.

All in all, there’s a lot of exciting work going on, and a lot of what’s happening stems either directly, or indirectly, from the work we did. I feel a lot of pride in that, but more, I feel a lot of pride that we were able to help an organisation that does important work do it better.


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