Tensions & Progress in the IOA

By Mary Bliss Conger, Ed.D.

There is a lot to like about volunteering with IOA. First on the list is the collegiality, followed closely by myriad opportunities to learn, collaborate, and help shape the future of the ombud world. However, as an involved IOA volunteer, I’ve often been taken aback by how hard it is to get things done in this organization at times. This remark may seem harsh, but I sincerely offer it more as perplexed observation than sour complaint. Why, given the abundance of talent, good will, and motivation pulsing through IOA’s volunteer corps, is it so tough to see and feel progress sometimes?

Don’t get me wrong: It’s been a banner year for IOA--much has gotten done. A new management company, a public relations campaign, a new website, a new ED, a record-breaking conference, and more. Plenty of good work is happening. Even so, my experience these past six years has been that getting things done with IOA often feels harder--somehow more fraught, more confusing--than it needs to be. 

Maybe it’s just me. But recently, I stumbled across a leadership scholar who suggests that a common cause of this particular organizational phenomenon is “unacknowledged tension.” (Apologies for lacking the exact citation.) They wrote that unsurfaced tensions lead to unaligned energies and motives, hampering the ability for people to move an organization forward together with ease. Misalignment at that deep, almost philosophical level manifests in the smaller, more superficial work. Confusion about the organization’s most basic tenets (Who are we? Why do we exist? Whom do we serve?) can be what makes it hard to schedule a meeting, agree upon a vendor, or accomplish any number of straightforward tasks. It can also be what causes burnout and cynicism to arise even when everything is done with the best intentions. 

The scholar claims that the only way to get an organization functioning with ease is to surface and acknowledge its deepest tensions. Even if the tensions cannot be resolved, just naming them creates space in which they can become workable. Making clear the issues helps point the way, as ombuds well know. 

In her wonderful book, Dare to LeadBrené Brown asserts, "Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind." Since last year’s conference in New Orleans, we’ve seen some dedicated IOA volunteers kindly and thoughtfully pointing toward clarity (e.g., Cynthia Joyce and Marcia Martinez-Helfman’s post on this blog, Elisa Enriquez’s post on this blog, and Nick Diehl’s post on The Ombuds Blog). In a similar spirit, I want to share just three of the “questensions” (questions+tensions) that I have observed and felt within IOA. Perhaps attempting to name them might clear a bit of space so all volunteers can find greater ease and purpose in their work with IOA. 

Questension One: What is ombudship?

A profession and a calling
Is ombudship at its core a profession or a calling? Is the role one for which anyone with an interest can swiftly train and certify or is its primary qualification an ineffable personal quality, something more like presence or wisdom? Which, if any, elements of the work are so vital that if they were lacking, we would no longer consider one an able ombud?

Consistency and accountability
Do we want ombud practice to be uniform and consistent, such that we can recognize, standardize, and regulate it from organization to organization? Or do we believe that ombud practice is so fluid and circumstantial by nature that our goal is practice that stays within clear ethical boundaries yet can shape-shift to meet the need at hand?

Framing the SoPs
Are the IOA Standards of Practice promulgated with the understanding that they’re attainable or aspirational? Are they written as necessary for high-quality practice or as sufficient for it? What assumptions exist about all that is left unsaid regarding ombud practice in the one-page Standards document?

Questension Two: What is IOA?

Big tent or tight fence
Does the IOA aim to provide value to as many people as possible--all types of ombuds, all ADR practitioners, any interested party? Or does it exist to uniquely and specifically meet the needs of and advance the interests of organizational ombuds? Our mission states the latter yet the question seemingly remains open.

Mecca or federation
Is IOA, as an institution, a convenor or a connector? Should members relate to it as an authority to which we look for identity and direction? Or is IOA more of a facilitator, providing a structure that helps members get what we need when we need it? Put bluntly, does IOA exist to tell ombuds who and what they need to be or do? Or to help ombuds flourish as who and what they already are, and to support and connect them within and across their particular means, region, or sector of practice?

Pursuing revenue and pursuing purpose
As a formal organization with goals, obligations, and expenses, how does the IOA balance its drive to self-perpetuate against operating in full service of its purpose? Are the needs of members compatible with the responsibilities of the entity and vice versa? How do we design sustainable business practices that enhance our evolving purpose?

Questension Three: What does it mean to be an IOA member?

Cooperative endeavour or transactional exchange
Is being a member of IOA like participating in a co-op, where each person pays dues but also has service obligations (e.g.,, donations of time, thoughtwork, energy)? Or is it purely transactional, where members pay dues in exchange for goods and services full stop? How do we assess the “value of IOA membership” if we have different and perhaps incompatible ideas of what rights and responsibilities membership entails? 

External and internal recognition of value
Ombuds want to be taken seriously and have the role’s value widely recognized. External validation is important. And yet, how are we valuing ourselves within IOA? Are we willing and able to “professionalize” from the inside out? To acknowledge the worth of our time and expertise as we would hope others do? Relatedly, are we able to identify and admit when certain tasks are beyond what unpaid volunteers can or should reasonably accomplish?

Governance, transparency and decision-making 
Despite IOA leadership’s sincere efforts, there has sometimes been a disconnect between those doing the sensemaking and decision-crafting for the Association and those being asked to vote on or live with the consequences of decisions taken. We struggle to both do the work and communicate about the work, leading to a perception of secrecy and fragmentation. This perception can in turn create an environment of criticism rather than curiosity, disincentivizing open communication and exchange. At root, is IOA’s governance ethos more so one of consolidated or distributed power, and how do our internal structures and routines reflect it?

Naturally, very few of these “questensions” could ever be resolved with an either/or choice. The good news is we don’t have to land on one answer in order to make progress--it’s the conversation not the conclusion that makes the difference.

The opportunity to get clear about what we’re unclear about shouldn’t be missed. Last year, IOA had the good fortune of a real crisis--the abrupt departure of our management company--to force us to pare down priorities and start to confront some tough realities about our habits and expectations. That crisis has since passed, with IOA coming through better than before. Hearty congratulations (and relief) are due. But addressing a crisis competently isn’t the same as properly dealing with the dynamics that brought it about. I believe that genuine and sustained engagement with some of our deepest tensions will be key to IOA’s continued success. 

Many across IOA leadership and membership have thought and are thinking carefully about these and other issues. I do not think I’m alone. Yet we don’t yet seem to have a space or a process for rumbling with them as a collective. “Unhealthy peace can be as threatening to human connection as unhealthy conflict,” says Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, and I think she’s right. Grappling with the big questions can help move IOA forward, sustain (and even energize!) our very special community of volunteers, and ultimately ensure the world of organizational ombuds practice is a healthy and vigorous one. 

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Comments on "Tensions & Progress in the IOA"

Comments 0-15 of 6

Dr. Bruce J. MacAllister - Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Mary, thank you for the perspectives. There seems to be some consistent threads that keep surfacing in the various posts. I think IOA continues to struggle with its own identity crisis on a number of levels: are we really "international" or have repeated efforts to SAY we are, actually not born fruit? Are we welcoming at the expense of projecting that our standards of practice mean anything beyond aspirational "it would be nice if ombuds were" these things? Is our name confusing and in need of an update to distinguish what we do from other models and approaches? What is the IOA role in terms of enhancing "professionalism" and consistent practice approaches? Do we, e.g. tolerate the "Ombuds/Title IX Officer" title and role, when our standards echew such inappropriate commingling of roles? Who do we want leading the professional direction of IOA? People on the outside, such as the ABA, university attorneys, or the Department of Education? Will we ever embrace a serious approach to lobbying for our interest with these and others? .... and many more questions. Thanks again for the thoughtful post! - Bruce MacAllister

Mr. Thomas G. Griffin IV - Friday, May 01, 2020

Thank you for sharing your thoughts Mary. To me it's encouraging to realize that while there might not be right or wrong answers to these questions, they're worth asking so we can all be on the same page as we move forward. Grateful for your example of courageous leadership, as well as the effort and energy you put into generating these frames.

Ruthy Kohorn Rosenberg - Monday, January 06, 2020

Thank you Mary! I am with you - I hope that as the board engages in its strategic planning process it finds a way to build consensus around these important questions. I think if we can do that, we can bring more people in to volunteer and share the work in a way that is invigorating more of the time.

Dr. Jennifer Smith Schneider - Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Refreshing candor -- and I agree that we'll never resolve these "questensions" without calling them out. Thanks for doing it! While those of us who invest many hours into this dynamic organization may sometimes find it frustrating, I do appreciate this "liminal" space (thanks, Jon Lee) where we're wrestling with our identity and purpose. I'm eager to see where we land...

Charles L. Howard - Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Mary, Thank you for addressing these "questensions." I think you have articulated important issues for IOA: What is ombudship?; What is IOA?, and What does it mean to be an IOA member? Please be assured that in my new role for IOA I am thinking about these questions. And I am not alone--the board has decided to move forward next year with a strategic planning process in which these issues will be front and center. While people may answer these questions differently, I believe we will be able to reach a consensus on how we should move forward, though I am also fairly certain that the underlying issues are so fundamental that they likely will not disappear. In the meantime, I welcome comments from anyone who wants to venture forth with recommended answers on these issues.

Elisa Enriquez - Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Mary, Thank you for writing what I have been feeling for a while. There is a lack of common definitions and a systematic approach to solving problems with a GROWTH mindset. Thank you for sharing your perspectives. I hope that others take the time to listen and engage in dialogue. The silence can be deafening.

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