Ten years ago when Meta Management was newly hatched, I was fortuitously introduced to the CEO of a disability services organisation who was looking to expand its management capability from Board level down to developing supervisors.  As is the norm for the not-for-profit services sector, operating lean is embedded in the organisational psyche.  However, I was to learn Encompass Community Services was not your typical not-for-profit organisation, mainly because the CEO was not your typical community services CEO.  Elaine Robb is unconventional, feisty, and plain-speaking.  Through her single-minded efforts the small, on-the-brink-of-failing organisation she took over has grown into a 100+ employee, multi-service provider supporting around 2000 clients each year.

Encompass’ major difference is that it does not believe that its work is providing services to people with disabilities; instead it believes people with disabilities are best served when they have equal access to opportunities.  With this mindset, Encompass operates service divisions and social enterprises, which include a farm, a ceramics studio, a catering service and a retail store at a local university; it invests in its employees’ continuous learning; it funds travel to learn and connect with international best practice; it operates a service called ReadyStart that provides pre-loved work clothing to help its clients join the workforce; and it makes none of its decisions on the funding it receives, but uses its funding to make the best decisions possible.  Almost one third of Encompass’ employees have a disability.

When Encompass became committed to person-centred excellence, an approach based on the principles that a person with a disability should be the key decision-maker in his or her own life (against the traditional mindset that those with disabilities are not the best judge of what is good for them, or the one that believes it is better to be realistic than be disappointed), Elaine and the Board of Directors knew it was time to replace the organisation’s vision.  The one that had served the organisation for many years stated:

The vision of Encompass is founded in the shared values of the Board of Directors and staff.  We value:

While this vision reflected the values and goals of Encompass, it failed to capture its spirit.  So in 2011, working with the Board over a number of hours, we discovered Encompass’ true vision.

Your Vision is Our Vision – whatever it takes!

The new Vision would commit Encompass and its people to always be working towards the life that their clients want.

Unfortunately the system that supports and funds disability services does not share Encompass’ Vision and funding is subject to government policy and budgets and distributed on the basis and clever tender-writing.  Like a hormonal teenager, Encompass has never been satisfied to play as the sort of organisation that bureaucracy and norms dictate.  Encompass’ old mission statement expressed what Encompass did but not what it drove it to constantly fight for better services and resources for its clients.  Therefore shortly after the new Vision was launched, this mission statement:

The purpose of Encompass is to promote the interests of people with disabilities and others who are disadvantaged via:

too was replaced with Encompass’ true Values:


Impatience to achieve our goals and create positive change

Stubbornness to not give up on things we believe

Frustration to not be complacent with things that should change

Conflict that comes from wanting things to improve

Pushiness when there is much to be gained

Inexperience because we keep trying new things and pushing boundaries

Outspokenness to not accept the unacceptable

Oppositionality to agitate for change

Fast-forward to 2013 and Encompass was suffering from a perfect storm of difficult events including reduced funding, increased costs, falling donations, and more clients needing its services.  Contrary to the way funding systems would have you believe, clients do not suffer issues or seek solutions in categories, so when a client’s particular circumstances do not fit in a neat ‘problem’ box or the ideal solutions cannot be classified into a single program like ’employment services’, Encompass never takes the option of declining to help but rather finds a way to do what it can.  The accumulation of these ‘out-of-funding’ cases was also have a significant impact on the cash flow of the organisation.

Elaine and I had been meeting regularly to discuss the tactics that would help Encompass meet its strategic goals.  Cutting services and finding new funding sources were two of the obvious options discussed.  The first was such an anathema to the culture of the organisation, that it was always rejected.  I believed the second would only add to an underlying issue that was contributing to, if not the major cause of, the difficulties Encompass was facing.

Organisations need a structure – it’s the basis of being organised.  The structure used must support the way the organisation achieves its goals because the structure determines how the processes people must follow are designed. Organisations that are publicly-funded are required by the funding bodies to comply with a raft of criteria.  Encompass had effectively organised itself to best carry out its work under the compliance regime imposed and rarely experienced difficulties with the regular audits to which it was submitted.  Many processes followed in the daily operation are of a highly bureaucratic nature as the funding criteria require them to be.  Like the vast majority of organisations, Encompass operates with a top-down hierarchical structure. Encompass’ successes have always been achieved despite not because of its structure.  The financial situation however meant the  structure-to-purpose mismatch was adding enormous pressure to every facet of the operations and management.

As for any field, organisations will not perform for today’s needs with yesterday’s methods.  Most people think that the first modern automobile was developed at the turn of the 20th century.  In fact they were available to the market in Great Britain since the mid-1800s.  The lack of infrastructure to support the increasing appearance of large, speedy vehicles however prompted a backlash from various sections of the community and the Locomotive Act was enacted in 1865 to control their use.  This law decreed that no self-propelled vehicle could use a public road in the United Kingdom unless it was proceeded on foot by a man waving a red flag and blowing a horn.   This law, not repealed until 1896, effectively killed further development of the automobile for the rest of the century.  Encompass’ organisation structure was having a similar effect on its work.  It was finding it increasingly difficult to achieve the outcomes of a knowledge workforce it desired such as collaborative self-management and local-level initiative and solution generation with an traditional management structure.

Encompass, aiming to be client-responsive AND benefit from an empowered workforce as the key to achieving its vision, has been reviewing the impact of its structure and processes on its effectiveness.  The organisation currently suffers from what I call a chrysalis crisis.   A chrysalis is the stage in the development of a moth or butterfly when a hard shell forms to protect the pupa as it grows.  Like the chrysalis, organisations develop protective shells in the form of policies, procedures, compliance regimes and management structures, however the crisis forms when the protective mechanisms stifle the growth and abilities of the very thing it aims to protect.  For Encompass, operating under financial pressure, it was being crushed under the weight of its own administration and management overheads.

The organisation estimates its compliance regime alone is costing the organisation in the vicinity of a quarter of a million dollars per year.  This is only taking actual costs into consideration and not the cost of lost opportunities.  While it is difficult to quantify the value of this type of loss, during one Board meeting, the Board members were prompted to list all the assets currently available to the organisation that it was not effectively utilising.  The Board members compiled an extensive list including the ideas of its staff, the potential of its clients, their knowledge about things that were not working and skills that were not being utilised.  Typically organisations only utilise 50 per cent of their available intangible assets so the benefits for Encompass undertaking changes to its organisational structure and management is not just the reduction of costs but increasing the utilisation of its workforce knowledge (where the majority of Encompass’ intangible assets reside including skills, ideas, relationships, teamwork, and so on) by a significant degree.

Through this process of evaluating the organisation and how to prepare for Encompass’ desired future, we conceived the need for sweeping changes based on four broad goals:

  1. Incorporate clients into the organisational structure
  1. Remove position and department barriers to fulfilling potential
  1. Move to a 120-day strategic cycle to maximise results (i.e. leveraging, learning, correcting) from efforts in progress rather than planning for hypothetical futures and fixing not-yet-occurring problems
  1. Shift to a social enterprise model that:

These goals are now to become the #encompassproject.  Over the next weeks and months I’ll be sharing our progress in this blog.  The number of people with disabilities needing support will increase in the years to come.  The aging population, the rise of mental illness, lifestyle factors such as binge-drinking and financial stress contribute to the estimation that one in four people will suffer a disability in their lifetime so we need service providers like Encompass to succeed.  In the end, it’s not even about disabilities; it’s about the ability to live the life you wish to live, and one in which your participation in your society, community or family is valued by those in it.

Author’s note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the author reflecting her opinions and experiences and are not the views of Encompass, its Board, management or employees.