Our response to COVID-19   

Ride the wave of uncertainty

The Blue Solutions Project is a complex global initiative implemented by four leading environmental and development institutions: GIZ, GRID-Arendal, IUCN and UNEP. Since 2013 we have been working to support healthy oceans for sustainable development.

In early March 2020 we had our last in person steering committee meeting. We excitedly planned for our activities with our partner countries and sketched out our contributions to the upcoming key political events in the super year of biodiversity.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic arose. Immediately we realized the significant impact this was going to have on the course of the project implementation. It felt like we were standing on the bridge of a ship, heading on a collision course but unable to initiate an evasive maneuver –how were we going to deliver now that all in-country workshops and global events were cancelled.

And so, we began to reflect on our cooperation and management model and we started developing answers to the question: How to organize ourselves and collaborate to be an impactful initiative in uncertain times?


The way towards self-organisation © Der Loop Approach: Sebastian Klein

We began by drafting an amendment proposal for our donor to approve adaptations of the project activities to the global situation. Our new proposal consisted of a hybrid portfolio of virtual and in-person formats, including the development of digital learning, exchange and training formats as a response to travel restrictions and changing situations in partner countries.

For the project consortium, the more exciting and yet challenging part was how to lead and collaborate differently. COVID-19 was a push-factor, but the team’s appetite for innovation and the need for new ways of leadership were two additional drivers of change.

For this diverse team of 16 people, working for 4 different institutions in 4 countries, the first challenge was to define a clear purpose for our new way of working to be in line with the project’s strategy. This helped us to get a common understanding and a clear orientation of the steps to come.

 Blue Solutions orientation chart – ©Britta Heine/GIZ

Based on that, we sketched a new management model and developed Workstreams. Workstreams are flexible work packages with a clear objective and contain different activities. These Workstreams can be merged, re-adapted or closed, whenever necessary. Currently, we have 14 Workstream focusing on a number of topics, such as a partner country engagement (e.g. Costa Rica), a specific topic (e.g. Sustainable Ocean-based Economy), a partnership (e.g. PANORAMA) or a political process (e.g. the CBD post 2020 Biodiversity Framework).

The members of the different Workstream form Streamteams composed of members of the Blue Solutions team. The Streamteams consist of 3-6 people, depending on the workload and the capacities needed to deliver according to the objectives set. Each Streamteam has a focal point responsible for hosting the group, members who have responsibilities over specific tasks, resource persons, connectors to other groups, and external partners or consultants as appropriate. Key to this set-up is that the Streamteam is responsible for the results they have committed to achieve. This means that responsibility was handed over from management and is now shared among the team members based on capacities, technical expertise, roles etc. Support processes, such as communication, monitoring, dialogue with the German Ministry of Environment (BMU) as the donor, finances etc. assist the Workstreams to deliver efficiently. A strategy team helps to keep the whole initiative on track. The Workstreams use MS Teams online tool for collaboration and schedule their meetings based on current needs. Once a month, we meet virtually with the whole team to update ourselves on the most relevant topics, cultivate connections among the Workstreams, and celebrate the social bonding.

Does this work? Is this what we call Cooperation and Leadership? Maybe… we don´t know yet. What we can say is: Yes, it works for us! We are more flexible and quicker in terms of decision making and implementation. Our responsibilities and workload are shared. Team members focus on their strengths and have ownership. And we have a high degree of transparency and self-organization.

At the same time, organizational change is also cultural change and people deal very differently with it. It takes time to make a new organizational model run smoothly and it requires a high degree of social skills. Sharing responsibility in practice is not easy and needs two sides: the one who hands over and the one who takes over.

These are only a couple of reflections and lessons learned. We have just started our journey and are learning every day to ride the wave of uncertainty… 


Our Team: