Written by Mission Talent Team

Leadership Transitions #7: Velina Petrova

In 2016, Mission Talent placed Velina Petrova in the role of Knowledge for Impact Director at Oxfam International. She previously held various roles setting up systems for evidence building, monitoring, evaluation and learning at organisations like CARECreative Associates International, ChildFund International and Rare.

In this interview, she talks about what it means to lead a learning agenda across a complex global organisation that is always challenging the status quo—both of itself and the world.

You joined Oxfam almost three years ago, in the role of Knowledge for Impact Director, a new position at the time. How has this experience been for you so far? 
The experience has been captivating because I face creative tensions every day. When I joined, Oxfam had many ideas and much valuable experience in knowledge and learning for impact. But it also offered plenty of room for me to think, vision, and co-create with others just what this knowledge for impact mandate and agenda could be. As a result, I get to stand on the shoulders of giants every day, but I also get to look and reach further. I am still deeply humbled by everything Oxfam has achieved and learned throughout its history – and at the same time inspired to see how we can do better. This is a captivating combination, especially for someone in the knowledge and learning field.
What are you working on now that you are excited about?
My team is a group of truly brilliant and richly experienced people who make my days at Oxfam a joy. We have been quietly working on transforming some core organisational processes into more knowledge-driven ones. Our task is to ensure that organisational processes are done in a knowledge-based way because our success comes when others feel better equipped to apply what they have learned and to share the experience. At the moment, we are embarking on a journey of exploration and experimentation. We will accompany a process that will transform Oxfam’s presence in some countries and regions, building our relevance and impact in social enterprise and in new forms of evidence-based influencing and programming. I am happy that we are bringing an explicit knowledge and learning lens to this process. Ask me again a year from now – I will be excited to share the learning from what we have done well and not so well in this undertaking!
Your team has recently completed a new type of evaluation of Oxfam’s 2013-2019 strategic plan. Can you tell us about this?

We had a dual goal when working on the strategic plan evaluation: accountability and learning. First, we wanted to describe some of the results that we achieved which we saw as transformative in the world, and also some of the things that we didn’t achieve as well as we had planned in our strategy. Second, we wanted to have the explicit goal of learning because it’s one thing to describe results, and it’s quite another to honestly and carefully look at how you achieved them when you did, or why not when you didn’t. We have eight approaches typical to Oxfam work, what we think of as Oxfam’s “secret sauce”: active citizenship; thought leadership; influencing; impact at scale; partnership; knowledge and learning; program approach; and putting women’s rights at the heart of all we do. 

We looked at them one by one, and in combination, to see in which contexts and in which cases they did help us, and where we did not quite manage to apply them as well. Ultimately, we’ve written one part on results and one part on approaches. What it’s done for us is we have not only been able to be accountable in describing results, but we’ve also started to be able to strategise a lot more carefully and with more learning on what approaches we need to continue investing in.

So, that is how we have shifted the conversation a bit. It has been exciting to see senior management and global teams become engaged around the approaches and then the results become examples of them, rather than sort of, ‘here is a 50-page statement on results’, and it is a bit hard to know what to do with that.
How do you see the culture of Oxfam as a learning organisation and how do you promote that culture?
Internally, Oxfam is extremely self-critical. Unlike other organisations, where this can be more relaxed, in some cases, Oxfam is much more critical of its own work and ways of working, internally, than others are of it, externally. From a learning perspective, that’s a great culture to be in, because the organisation sets high standards for itself in everything that it does, and there is a constant drive to improve. Of course, it could lead you to some analysis paralysis, in the way that your strengths are also your downfalls. But the culture is one of very high standards and calibre of people coupled with very demanding ideas of what good work means.

I think the way to promote it is to both build on and nurture this, and at the same time in some ways to “smallify” things a little bit. With the knowledge and learning culture, it’s people’s daily micro-behaviours and micro-habits that make a big difference. Doing one small step better each day or asking one additional question in a reflection on programme quality, matters. If we want this to be the culture – the way people work and behave when no one is watching – we need to break down each big ambition Oxfam has to people’s daily behaviours and habits. 
As a confederation, Oxfam has been decentralising for many years and putting power in national leadership. How does your position help the national leadership of Oxfam to succeed?
Oxfam is, first and foremost, the 10,000 people who work, create, think, face problems, find solutions, and breathe life into everything Oxfam stands for, day in and day out. As a team, we have had an agenda of “democratising” our knowledge culture within the confederation. This is about acting on the belief that everyone is part of the knowledge and learning enterprise – but that some voices are not sought, heard, and valued when it comes to knowledge generation. This is true not only within Oxfam but in the world as well. So, this effort is about changing where, how, and by whom the knowledge and learning agenda is set, and whose knowledge is valued. We are seeking to promote a learning agenda by and for the Global South [and East], with feminist principles, and with more diverse definitions of the forms that knowledge can take. You could see this through the lens of gender, or race, or language, etc. You could use a more traditional human-resources take on diversity, and that would already be a big step in the right direction. But it is also more than that: it is about cognitive diversity. And I think that is the area where Oxfam needs to go next and where I think the world needs to go next. We want to live Oxfam’s transformative agenda on inequality – first at home, internally, in our own knowledge culture within the organisation.
How have you seen monitoring and evaluation be catalytic for Oxfam both internally, in how the organisation works, and externally, in fundraising, influencing or advocacy? 
Our knowledge fabric – the way we conceive it and practice it at Oxfam – is much more than our monitoring and evaluation work. We invest significantly in research. We do various assessments, reflection, sense-making, and learning exercises, as both one-offs and as longer accompanied processes. Most of all, we work under the assumption that everyone generates knowledge and learns every day in everything that they do — regardless of whether that is running an evaluation, a budget, a communications strategy, or a procurement process.

Internally, it has been catalytic when we have evaluated and concertedly learned from, then strategised around, “how” we get to impact. Many MEL efforts tend to focus on accountability for demonstrating results – this is, of course, hugely important. But at Oxfam, we are now increasingly seeing strategies focused on “how” results are achieved, who we need to be, how we need to be equipped in order to keep adding value in changing environments. This is both inspired by some MEL work we’ve done and inspiring us to figure out how to do MEL for it better.

Externally, there are various well-known examples of Oxfam using its knowledge to influence for change: from our overall inequality work to women’s unpaid care, even to responsible data practices (in the realm of influencing MEL practice itself!). These efforts have been catalytic because they have combined knowledge for impact contributed not only by MEL, but also by campaigns, programme implementation, policy, research, communications, and more. Our best efforts and our most influential knowledge solutions happen when many people come together to co-create them. 
One of the goals of Knowledge for Impact Director is positioning Oxfam as a knowledge-based organisation, collaborating with strategic partners – how are you doing that and what has been your proudest achievement?
We think of partnership as part of our organisational DNA, principles, and ways to add value in the world and not only as the instrumental means to operational ends. We are helping Oxfam programme staff reframe the narrative and practice of partnership to incorporate more strategic, longer-term alignments of interests and to ensure that the co-creation of solutions and mutual support for learning between Oxfam and its partners are always part of the relationship. For example, supported by an ongoing collaboration with the Partnership Brokers’ Association, we did several experiments in countries and regions that generated learning about what constitutes good partnering. The experiments included a range of initiatives, such as learning from new and unusual partnerships, the development of tools and guidance in partnership brokering, working out how to engage social movements and collectives, developing community feedback approaches, and more. Going forward, we will use these experiences to develop a blended learning approach for partnership. At the end of the day, we don’t always get it right in partnership. But I am proud that we ask the feedback of our partners, that we experiment how to be better together, and that we actively seek to learn and improve.
It must be challenging to lead across member and network-driven organisations. What are some of the advantages you see in this kind of model? What strategies do you use as a leader to keep everyone engaged?
It is challenging because we constantly have to assess which problems call for simple solutions and protocols for uniformity and efficiency across members of the confederation, and which ones are best addressed by multiple, diverse approaches better fit for complexity. From a knowledge for impact perspective, I cannot help but to see advantages: the pressing problems of our time, the ones that really matter, are complex, multifaceted, thorny, wicked, and not solvable by command-and-control ways of thinking or doing. Solutions to them will require the knowledge, learning, and wisdom of many, and the ability to figure out how to bring these together and co-create answers. 

I have a favourite quote about Ashby’s law of requisite variety. It goes something like this, “the internal diversity of any self-regulating system must match the variety and complexity of its environment if it is to deal with the challenges posed by that environment.” This also guides the strategy of keeping everyone engaged: work with purpose and build your collaborations and alliances around purpose, not around activities, deadlines, or steps. As the Knowledge for Impact Team at Oxfam, we get to be advocates, thought and resource partners, provocateurs, challengers, and critical friends across the confederation because we build relationships that focus on shared purpose and on the knowledge we can together generate around it.