more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

You are currently browsing the campaigning category.

Five bad pieces of advice young activists hear about organising

This was originally written for a student zine called ‘Free Lunch’ at the University of York in late 2013. In 2015, however, there is no such thing as a (zine called) Free Lunch… so I thought I’d re-post this one here.

Older people often come to universities and tell younger people what do to. Often they are paid to do so and some even make careers of it. This is not without merit, but should be taken with a grain of salt, especially when it relates to certain kinds of organising advice.

Below is a non-comprehensive list of advice for young organisers, coming from the ‘adult’ world of social change, that may well do more harm than good.

‘Be serious if you want to be taken seriously’

One of the underpinning beliefs of the ‘adult’ world of social change is that it shouldn’t be fun. If it doesn’t offer real and practical potential for burn-out in the short-to-medium term, you’re not doing it right. A big piece of this is about ‘seriousness’ – it’s in how you dress, what kinds of meetings you have, what types of actions you take – and it sucks the life of activism, turning it into an exercise in self-flagellation, rather than something that can feed and nourish you, while affecting the wider world. Those who don’t take you seriously for being involved in organising efforts that are fun or silly, need to look themselves in the mirror for a minute and see where all their seriousness has got them.

‘Someone has to be in charge!’

‘Now this consensus-based, leaderless hippie stuff is fine for now,’ you might hear, ‘but eventually someone’s gotta step up and take charge if you want to make a real difference.’

What they’re really saying is a continuation of the ‘be serious if you want to be taken seriously’ crap – that you need to act like dull and oppressive institutions, if you want to be effective.

They have leaders therefore you should have leaders… presumably so they can then co-opt them into fitting into a pre-set mould, or discredit them if they don’t follow an established narrative of how change should happen. When there are no individual leaders to point to, or hierarchies through which decisions are made, it is far harder to manipulate a group into becoming an extension of the groups that have come before it.

Telling you that you need leaders, is a way of making your activist group less threatening to those who have assumed a certain kind of power and influence around the issues they address.

‘Effective change involves getting yourself a seat at the table’

Replying to similar advice offered by countless pundits to the Occupy movement in 2011, New York City activist and anthropologist David Graeber wrote: “If one were compiling a scrapbook of the worst advice ever given, this sort of thing might well merit an honourable place.”

Essentially, he says, well-meaning institutions have spent decades trying to influence government policy to reflect the kinds of change we need, and have still presided over the greatest deterioration of workers’ rights, the environment, social inequality, etc that we have ever seen.

‘Getting a seat at the table’ has broadly come to mean the ability to mend a patient’s paper cut, while ignoring their gaping knife wound. When we take the seat at the table (while occasionally a necessary stop-gap measure), we end up playing by a set of rules that are broadly working against our interests. While many still cling to the value of such approaches to change, several decades in, its failure is becoming clearer and clearer.

‘Focus on the detail’

Much as lots of seasoned voluntary sector and civil society bods will emphasise the importance of trying to change governments from the inside, this approach inevitably leads to a principled insistence on spending unimaginable amounts of time trying to get three words in a 50-page piece of destructive legislation changed, while the legislation itself basically sails through. Then that change is touted as a major victory.

Focusing on the minutia of policy detail can at times be a necessary survival strategy, but when it becomes our primary focus it broadly allows those who are writing shitty legislation to shape the terms of the debate. By engaging with every consultation and every draft bill, we hand-over our power to change the discussion entirely.

‘Be realistic!’

This one is a killer. Never have two such innocuous words ground down the passions of so many committed organisers. They are code for ‘Stop trying to imagine something too much better than what we’ve got.’ They are the formula for a special breed of jaded cynicism which has never changed the world. ‘Realism’ is the stuff of the present, and we are certainly more imaginative than to think we simply want more of what we’ve already got!

See! There used to be such a thing as a Free Lunch!!

See! There used to be such a thing as a Free Lunch!!

1 comment

Structuring our Beloved Communities?

I wrote this piece for Contributoria, as my longest exploration of how we organise for social and environmental justice, since the publication of Anarchists in the Boardroom. It looks at the messy relationship between the kinds of organising structures we use, and the kinds of relationships we create. And I got to speak to some truly inspiring people in the process! Enjoy!

'I LOVE HUMANITY! LET'S FIGURE THIS SHIT OUT TOGETHER!'

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankbone/6193404069/sizes/l

In the early days of the US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. used the phrase ‘Beloved Community’ to describe the kind of change he was working towards. The Beloved Community expressed a way of organising that made non-violence and compassion both its means and its ends, and placed strong relationships at the core of wider social transformation. The phrase, initially coined by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, articulated the idea that organising based on Love will create a culture of Love in its wake. King said:

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method… is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.”

The King Centre describes the Beloved Community as “an overall effort to achieve a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential.” But what does the Beloved Community look like when we get past its romantic broad-brush prose? And how can we organise ourselves in ways that align our methods with the visions our social change organisations and movements are trying to create?

The chicken-and-egg of structures and relationships

“I often say to people,” Margaret Wheatley tells me over Skype from her Utah home, “if you get the room set-up right, you’re at least 60 per cent of the way towards creating what you want.”

While seemingly a far cry from the ideals of Beloved Community, Wheatley has spent decades exploring what helps people to work meaningfully together, primarily in organisational settings, and places great importance on structuring the kinds of spaces we gather in. Her first book, Leadership and the New Science, became a best-seller in 1992 and offered a glimpse of what human leadership might look like if it followed the organising patterns found elsewhere in nature. She is deeply critical of hierarchy and over-specialization and an advocate of self-organising and individual autonomy.

“If we’re creating a good process – people are highly engaged, self-motivated, thinking again, feeling creative,” she tells me, “what we’re really doing is reintroducing people to what it feels like to work well together.”

But to what extent is ‘working well together’ something that is created – by place or process – and to what extent does it emerge through the individual relationships involved? Or is this simply a chicken-and-egg conundrum that leads in an unending circle? Even if the ‘relationship/structure’ question is ultimately rhetorical, the exploration remains a critical one if we are going to find better ways of organising our communities, organisations and social movements towards something resembling a Beloved Community.

The political is personal

Following King’s articulation of Beloved Community, the feminist movement in the 1960s made a quantum leap in Northern/Western understandings of social change with the articulation that ‘the personal is political,’ grounding each of our lives in the wider social dynamics they are a part of. More recently, new social movements have traced this relationship back again, looking at how widespread system change is dependent on deep reflection about the kinds of individual relationships we choose to form together. In other words, the political is also personal.

Marina Sitrin lived in Argentina for several years in the early 2000s. An American activist and writer, she documented and took part in an emergent form of organising – Horizontalidad (or horizontalism) – that offered an alternative to the top-down structures of most political parties, unions and NGOs.

While many of our current organising structures were initially used to bolster the iron-fist management practices of the industrial era, horizontalism emerged in worker-occupied factories, neighbourhood assemblies and direct actions undertaken by unemployed workers after Argentina’s economic collapse in late 2000. Hierarchies were flattened, management teams disappeared, decisions were made via consensus and actions were taken collectively. Sitrin has written two books about her experiences there, offering eloquent articulations of horizontal organisational forms that have influenced countless social movements around the globe in the past decade.

“In Argentina,” Sitrin explains to me from Berlin, “the focus was on creating a new relationship where people could be heard, and finding that in that process it was developing… new ways of thinking about oneself, a new dignity.”

It is around this ‘new relationship’ that Sitrin’s work meets with Wheatley and others at the more progressive end of the organisational spectrum, grounding organising in the transformation of the relationships between those involved. “We are all bundles of potential,” Wheatley opines, “that manifest only in relationship,” highlighting that if we are to realise our individual or collective potential, it will be based on the quality of connections we are able to form with one another.

Liberation via Structure

Kiran Nihalani is a founding member of The Skills Network, a women’s collective based in Brixton, South London that organises cooperatively around directly-democratic principles. She finds it hard to distinguish between the means and the ends of organising, as have so many others – from traditional charities to revolutionary armies. “It is difficult to separate structures and relationships,” she tells me via email. “They feed off each other… [the structures] help people think about their relationships with others in the group (and people outside it) in a different way.”

In societies built on deeply unequal power dynamics, we often need to be reminded of equality, wherever we are used to finding ourselves in the social pyramid. “I would be a proponent of a little more structure,” Marina Sitrin cautiously encourages, based on the relatively loose methods used by most of the non-hierarchical groups she worked with in Argentina. “Structure helps facilitate more horizontal relationships.” Making explicit reference to King’s idea of Beloved Community, Sitrin continues:

“Beloved Community …doesn’t just happen magically; we’re coming with so much baggage… people are coming from the system where [they] are so divided from each other and so alienated from each other, and alienated from themselves, that we need help in relating to each other in an equal way… We need help with structure to not permit certain behaviours. And if we agree to those structures ahead of time, collectively, there’s nothing hierarchical about that.”

Similarly, Peroline Ainsworth, another founding member of the Skills Network adds:

“…in our context, where people are so used to feeling ‘less than’, realising that everyone gets paid the same rate, deciding on paid to unpaid ratios together and seeing that you can participate in making formal decisions is crucial.

…the nuances of interpersonal relationships, although they are important, need to be combined with the really objective structural stuff to make it real for people. …This is an essential starting point in situations where a lot of people are so used to being made to feel unequal, even though they are told that they are equal.”

Another core member of the Skills Network, Hannah Emmons, described the liberating nature of their organising structures as follows:

“I think if those [non-hierarchical] structures and processes didn’t exist… [members] would be exactly where they felt they belonged – at the bottom … that they didn’t matter. So the structures we put in ensure people know that they do matter, and they are relevant, and what they have to say is worth hearing …[In] the hierarchical state, there’s always someone at the bottom, and unfortunately the majority of the people coming through our doors, they believed they were at the bottom of that hierarchy. So …when we’ve kicked off the hierarchical structure, for the first time in ages for some of them in a public space, they are equally important as everyone else in the room.”

But are alternative structures enough to undo all the ways we inevitably adopt bits of the structural inequalities that surround us, when we have been raised in deeply unequal societies? Tana Paddock, co-founder of the South Africa-based Organization Unbound project, says this:

“Those experiences live on inside of us and we’re going to replicate them… So what do we do when these patterns come up? …No structure can keep them down. No structure can rid our inner selves from those patterns.”

The question then becomes: are non-hierarchical structures and processes enough? Or do we need to think beyond these nuts and bolts if we want to foster our own Beloved Communities?

The shortcomings of non-hierarchical organisation

According to Paddock, “the form should always grow out of the experience. All the time, no matter how beautiful that form looks from the outside, it can eat us.” While no advocate of hierarchy, Paddock is also dubious of the focus many social movements since the 1960s and 1970s have placed on non-hierarchical structures: “The feminist movement was hugely successful in experimenting with ways of flattening hierarchies,” she argues, “but in doing so they became quite ideological. And thus the ideology started to overrun everything else.”

Paddock stresses the need to stay open to a range of forms, and that those forms must remain responsive to the people in the group, and the contexts they live and work in. “Structures are certainly helpful,” she says, “but they are only helpful if they grow out of relationships,” pointing to various experiences where “pushing the structure on the people just because of a philosophy of participation can end up having the opposite result in practice and in experience.”

Similarly, in North America and Europe, the concept of horizontalism has become rigidly associated with the particular form of consensus decision making used by Occupy and the 15-M movement in Spain since 2011. The experiences of some participants in both movements reinforced the thesis of Jo Freeman’s 1970 essay , ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ in which she argued that soft hierarchies simply replace formalised power when formal hierarchy is removed. In some of these protest camps, the rigid adoption of a particular form of decision making ended up placing power in the hands of those most versed in that process, often silencing those less familiar with the intricacies of ‘jazz hands,’ ‘blocks’ and ‘speaker stacks.’

Sitrin echoes Paddock’s sentiment about ensuring structures grow from the place they are being used, describing a far less dogmatic understanding of consensus in Argentina: “Horizontalism doesn’t necessarily mean any form of consensus… it’s that the group together decides what makes most sense for that group without anyone having power over other people.”

She continues by highlighting that in many of the neighbourhood assemblies, “there was no formal consensus process at all… People referred to consensus, but what they meant was finding agreement with each other by seeking a compromise in a conversation.”

Wheatley, too, warns against the wholesale adoption of any particular structure or process:

“The issue for me is getting hooked on one, and only one [process]… so it’s all that you know how to do. It’s just like people assumed I always want to sit in a circle [when facilitating a session]… I would urge people to stay with their game here and not get hooked on one particular practice.”

When relationships transcend structures

While in theory non-hierarchical structures are more egalitarian, this is not universally the case in practice. In fact, does an on-paper hierarchy necessarily create inequality, any more than a flat organisation automatically creates egalitarian relationships? Tana Paddock began to wonder about this question when working with a community organisation that had adopted a very traditional management structure:

“This place seemed to develop this really embedded culture of strong relationships and trusting relationships, so much so that no matter who came in, in those positions, they were forced to work in that way because it was so embedded in their being as an organisation, as a collective. …I’m in this place that looks on paper to be very structurally hierarchical, and it’s the healthiest place I’ve ever been, and it had consistently been like that for years and years. So it’s not just reliant on a charismatic leader or someone who’s really good at relationships, it seemed to really develop this really deep way of working, despite the structure… Who am I to say, ‘No! You should be a flat structure!’?”

Many of us have experienced moments where particular organising relationships become so much more than how they are described on paper. Peroline Ainsworth of the Skills Network describes some of the relationships she has there as feeling more “like equals than most relationships I’ve had in my life.” While they have initially been shaped by formal process, they have become “something that is more than and exists beyond and between the formal structures.”

This is further reflected in Hannah Emmon’s description of the day-to-day application of the Network’s decision making process, where a culture of ongoing dialogue has often come to supersede the formalities of consensus:

“The more important decisions which really need everyone, we do ensure there is everyone… However on smaller ones, I think we’ve got mini-versions of consensus, where… you turn to the next person [and ask their perspective]. Nothing in Skills happens completely individually… before anything is finalised it always comes back to the group before the next step happens. …We are always… conferring with each other.”

Amongst Argentina’s primarily Indigenous-led defence of the land movements, formal rules were often eschewed in exchange for a culture of direct discussion, and when needed, confrontation. According to Marina Sitrin:

“When faced with the challenge of different kinds of political parties… trying to infiltrate [assemblies], they tend to not have rules that [those parties are] not allowed to participate, but… a culture of calling them out. Which is a step forward.”

While this hasn’t always been the case within these movements, Sitrin sees this type of constructive confrontation as an improvement on the culture of passivity that pre-dated it. Rules become less necessary if you have a culture that offers collective accountability. “Once you have good trusting relationships,” Margaret Wheatley adds, “you can sit on the ground or meet on a bus and it all works … over time [structure] becomes less important.”

What does it all mean?

So let’s recap:

• Non-hierarchical structures can help us challenge the parts of ourselves and others which have been negatively shaped by wider social inequality and injustice.

• But those structures, just like their hierarchical counterparts, can become oppressive when used too rigidly, playing into wider social privilege and bestowing undue influence on those who know the systems best.

• Relationships may transcend the structures we create, though if we want them to do so in a positive way we still need to be very conscious of how we relate to one another.

Rather than juxtaposing structures and relationships, perhaps a Beloved Community is more about the intent behind them? “When you’re creating structure, where is it coming from?” Tana Paddock asks me pointedly. “Is it coming from a place of fear, of what could happen if you didn’t have that structure, or is it coming from a place of wanting to generate something positive?”

“Most institutions,” she asserts, “are created out of fear. Rules and structures are created [because]… something bad happened and you don’t want it to happen again, so you create a structure or a process or a regulation to keep it from happening again.”

If we start from a place of fear – expecting the worst and focusing on avoiding it – how much more likely might we be to create the very patterns we are afraid of? Many traditional organisational policies start by telling people what they can’t do, and end up spawning the kinds of dishonesty and carelessness they aimed to avoid. Might some of our most-seemingly democratic and participatory organising structures have the same effect?

Imagine if we organised primarily with the intention of liberating human potential? While the prevalent use of horizontalidad amongst Argentine social movements reflected widespread intent to create equal relationships, the specifics that emerged in groups varied vastly. And while the Skills Network remain strong advocates of consensus because they want to correct the powerlessness that so many of their members feel in wider society, it hasn’t stopped them from adapting their understanding of consensus to fit the needs and aspirations of those members.

In other words, there is no silver bullet that will address the rich complexity of human dynamics, but if we think more about the intent behind each structure, each process, and each relationship we form on the path to creating a Beloved Community, we may just find we get there along the way.

Thank you to Contributoria for commissioning this piece and making it available Creative Commons!

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr






Add a comment

Jim Coe: Theories of change vs dart throwing chimps

Jim Coe has kindly agreed to us re-posting his blog demolishing ‘Theories of Change.’ He has captured the essence of why so many organisational campaign planning efforts – as they are actually practiced – are unable to handle the complexity of the real world. The blog was originally posted at CoeAndKingham.org.uk

Jim Coe

Jim Coe will smash your theory of change

I wouldn’t ideally call it a ‘theory of change’, but I think it can be really helpful to develop – at an organisational level – a shared view of how change happens, the power dynamics at play, and the best ways to intervene.

The absence of this sort of analysis can be problematic for many reasons, to do with what flows into this gap in understanding.

However, it’s at the campaign level, not the organisational one, where ‘theories of change’ are all the rage these days.

And, as a planning process and tool, the approach has some obvious advantages:

It uncovers, and allows for interrogation of, assumptions about how change happens.

The process of developing theories of change can expose vague and unfounded assumptions and help ensure that strategy is anchored around the change you are trying to achieve.

The process of planning can give valuable space to reflect on the bigger picture.

This is true as long as it doesn’t just end up privileging particular groups or opinions and excluding others (which it can easily do, for reasons to do with how power plays out).

It can help create a common understanding.

Theories of change can get everyone on the same page, and help in communicating a common direction.

On the downside, though, I would say that campaign ‘theories of change’ are pretty much nonsense. In that they are based on – and then further encourage – a fundamental misinterpretation of how change happens:

1/ PREDICTION

Campaign ‘theories of change’ tend start from the expectation that social change is predictable and that the steps can be plausibly laid out.

In a few cases – to do with the stability of the issue or the context – some sort of formalised forward planning may make sense. And in theory, if not generally in practice, there is scope to continually adapt the ‘theory of change’ as the context evolves.

But even so, the ‘theories of change’ approach seems to be based on over-optimism at best.

In a classic 20 year study for example, political psychologist Philip Tetlock asked nearly 300 experts to make political and policy predictions in their specialist fields, and he then looked back on these predictions and reviewed their accuracy.

He found that the forecasts overall were barely better than a ‘chimp strategy’ [of randomly guessing], and in many cases they were worse.

Tetlock judged the reasons for this poor showing were to do with:

* How change actually happens (and its inherent unpredictability)

* The psychological properties of people making the predictions (we prefer simplicity, are averse to ambiguity, like to believe in a controllable world, etc.)

These factors combined make it unsurprising that predictions about what will happen and what actually does happen can be so far away from each other.

2/ THE SOURCE OF CHANGE

Theories of change – as they are typically applied – help promote a false and solipsistic sense of organisational self-importance.

They are attractive because they fit with our understanding of time, as something that goes forward. We intervene and this has effects that then lead to later outcomes.

This very much encourages a distorted, organisation-centred picture of the nature of change, with everyone else bit part players in it.

But social change is far more likely to be happening in all kinds of directions, driven by all sorts of actors and factors in all sorts of different combinations. Organisations find themselves aiming at moving targets rather than living in a world where everything else revolves around the organisation whose theory of change it is.

And so as an alternative I would suggest a more sensible approach to campaign planning, a ‘balance of forces’ approach, based on:

1. mapping where the power lies in the system
2. setting out the barriers to achieving the desired change (and the favourable factors)
3. identifying in what ways the campaign will intervene to change this balance

The campaign plan would then follow this logic, setting out

* What needs to change and

* Which changes the campaign is focused on helping to achieve, and how

Not in a grand, long-term blueprint sense, but in a ‘let’s do this and then see where we are’ kind of way.

Ongoing planning would then be about iterative course-correcting. Revisiting the analysis of the barriers to change along the way, tracking any progress, or shifts, and adapting strategy as needed.

This approach

* Embeds the importance of a robust analysis of power and the dynamics of change

* Focuses on outcomes and the kinds of interventions an organisation can best make to help achieve them

* Helps in shaping a common strategy

* Allows for a more fluid approach, a shift from ‘predict and control’ to ‘assess and react’

And its starting point is a much truer picture of how change actually happens.







Jim’s take on Theory of Change is closely related to the chapter of my book, Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people, on strategy and planning. You can order it here.

Add a comment

Social media for organisational change @ ECF2014

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the eCampaigning Forum in Oxford on April 11, 2014, describing how social media can act as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for the constructive subversion of organisational bureaucracy. Here’s the video to prove it.

…If you’re not yet convinced that you want to commit 28 minutes of your life to watching me talk, here are a couple of teasers:

  • I describe ‘three stages of organisational social media embrace’: ‘the new fax machine,’ ‘the social engineering project,’ and ‘the more like people organisation.’ Most organisations are stuck at the second stage, but the real magic happens at the third stage.
  • You’ll get to see silly image macros that involve the Hulk, the boss from Office Space and a bunch of wanky pics that come up when you search ‘professional’ in Google Images.
  • I explain constructive subversion, as a way of changing your organisation, without expecting the turkeys (senior management) to vote for Christmas (flatter, more democratic, transparent and trusting organisations).

I’m especially keen to hear peoples’ thoughts on this one, and if they have been able to put any of the ideas into practice in their own workplaces.

May your subversions be constructive!

Liam

EDITOR’S NOTE: For those who really don’t have time for the video, here is the ‘3 stages of social media embrace’ I recently described on the ECF list. They are admittedly crude and no org will fall 100% into one of them, but I think they provide a bit of a sense of a trajectory for getting the fullest potential from online campaigning tools.

1. The new fax machine – it’s a tool that gets given to a low-ranking member of staff to handle, with little-to-no autonomy or recognition of its significance. ‘One Tweet per week’ kinda thing. Where lots of orgs were a few years ago, and at least a few still are… The point tends to be to keep up with the Jonses, cause others are doing it. Nothing more.

2. The social engineering project – highly specialised digital teams that add up lots of metrics and then conflate them with campaign success or failure. This tends to involve lots of assumptions about the people who support us, boxing them into demographic groups and feeding them lowest-common-denominator (clicktivist) actions based on those assumptions. The point to this approach tends to be bigger numbers, and that more=better. (This is obviously true in many situations, but can be a misleading metric of success in many others, if it is a kind of involvement that minimises what people feel they are able to offer to a cause, to give people something that is likely to boost total figures).

3. The more like people organisation – everyone who wants to, tweets, blogs, shares, etc. The tone is less managed, the line between staff, members, beneficiaries, supporters, etc is blurred as freer conversations emerge within and around the organisation. There is an honesty and openness rarely found in many more trad orgs. These conversations lead to freer collaborations and faster responsiveness, as important information tends to travel where it needs to more effectively through networks than hierarchies. The point becomes about nurturing stronger relationships, which lead to more resilient networks. This stuff is far harder to measure, but comes from a deep belief that if we aren’t building stronger networks amongst those who care about our work, we are making ourselves very vulnerable to a range of outside shocks that might make top-down campaigning models more difficult or impossible (laws, tech changes, natural disasters, etc). It also recognises that there is vast untapped potential within and around organisations, that our structures prevent us from realising, and which social media has the potential to open-up, through freer connections between people, ideas, and those needed to make them happen.

This last one is much closer to how social movements tend to organise, and I’d argue that it offers the most potential significance and impact for organisations, because it can start to model new ways of organising that move beyond the Industrial-era hierarchies most of our orgs have ended up adopting over the course of several decades, which have come at massive cost to the people and causes we champion.

I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.







Add a comment

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Following this year’s eCampaigning Forum in Oxford, I find myself revisiting a perennial ECF question: social media policies. I’ve developed a simple flowchart tool to help your organisation decide if a social media policy is indeed right for you.

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Jokes aside, I stand by this little doodle, in all its simplicity.

Like concepts of accountability and order more generally, the idea that social media ‘best practice’ is the result of some people telling everyone else what they can and can’t do is absurd and elitist… and is the kind of organisational behaviour that discourages actual ownership and responsibility amongst those doing the work, creating the very problems it tries to mitigate against.

What I tend to propose as an alternative, is simply having regular conversations amongst the responsible adults the organisation has hired, for whom social media will be a part of their jobs. You can all raise the thorny issues that the internet will inevitably throw in all of your collective faces, and work together to figure out what the best ways of handling these things are.

When the context shifts and a new thorny issue arises, whoever is facing it should be able to deal with it at the time. Then you can use it as an reason to revisit the discussion, acknowledging that you hadn’t predicted whatever has come up, but can work together once again to adapt the shared understanding of how to handle challenges.

The underpinning point here is that most organisational social media policies are based on a premise of mistrust – that staff will mess things up if given half-a-chance to do so. If this is truly the case, social media is not your problem – your hiring and/or management practices are.

When we have the chance to shape a process together, we both bring new perspectives into the fold and tend to feel more invested in whatever decisions or directions emerge. Collective process improves our sense of agency, responsibility and pride in our work.

So, like with so many organisational policies, skip the document, have the conversation. It may be the first step to unleashing some of the latent online potential our organisational structures have been restraining for so long!

I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.








Add a comment

Quiet No More: How activism is changing organising

Last summer I did a workshop in Ottawa, which was attended by Joel Harden, an old friend from the Toronto activist world, who I hadn’t seen for close to a decade. It turned out he was writing a book, with a lot of similar themes to mine! His is called ‘Quiet No More: New political activism in Canada and around the globe.’ It’s good! Here are a few reasons why you might like to read it.

Quiet No More

Quiet No More is an account and analysis of grassroots organising in social movements, unions and political parties in Canada and beyond, looking at the changes in activism since the rise of the Zapatistas (twenty years ago, on New Years, FYI).

I wanted to include a few quotes and passages that were particularly powerful to me.

This is a quote Joel borrowed from Pam Palmater, a lawyer from the Mi’kmaq First Nation, active in the Idle No More movement, which emerged in December 2012 amongst indigenous communities in Canada, to challenge the active colonial policies being pushed by the Canadian government. Palmater, describing Idle No More, had this to say:

“This movement is unique because it is purposefully distanced from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can or can’t do.”

Some of Joel’s own words resonated strongly with me as well, for instance, his conclusions about what makes the organising processes of new social movements unique:

“…one is struck by the organization of grassroots movements, whose boldness and creativity demonstrate that the future is truly unwritten. On paper, networks of green organizers shouldn’t be able to stall energy giants, but activist mobilizations have had that very result. Networked round dances, flash mobs, and blockades shouldn’t shift the edifice of Canadian federal politics, but they have…”

And while less-inspiring, Joel’s critique of current trade unionism also struck me, capturing the increasingly transactional nature of many workers’ relationships to the institutions which were critical in bringing about things like forty-hour work weeks and weekends:

“As recent internal union studies have shown, the wider malaise that workers feel with conventional politics includes existing frameworks of trade unionism. In this cynical context, workers often treat unions as insurance agencies rather than sites for collective action.”

More optimistically, Joel’s reflections on the victories of grassroots leadership in the Chicago Teachers Union (who then chose to pay themselves the average wage of their members, a democratic act which is largely unprecedented amongst union brass), and the Canadian Labour Congress’ pensions campaign (which placed its emphasis on the human stories of pension cuts, told by those experiencing them), also explain the organising changes that are happening in the union movement:

“Simply put, direct democracy is the soul of grassroots unionism. It empowers union members to be leaders, and realizes this requires substantial change for unions themselves. … Today, there is much talk in organized labour about ‘branding themselves better” to withstand employer attacks – but the idea that a better pitch is needed misses the point. Effective union organizing will not be driven by brilliant ads, or by focus-group-tested messages that get released, like carrier pigeons of old, only to bring back good news later. Effective union organizing must being by developing the political capacities of union members, the vast majority of whom are spectators in politics.”

While Joel and I place our emphasis in slightly different places (I probably have a bit more faith in the possibilities for NGOs to create change, whereas he probably has a bit more faith in the ability of political parties to do so), we are definitely singing from similar hymn sheets, in our respective writings.

We may also diverge a bit on our sense of the value and importance of autonomous organising methods and the issues often associated with ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness,’ but we are both coming from the perspective that progressive institutions need to change (in a more democratic, transparent and participatory way), if they want to affect wider change themselves.

In brief, I suggest reading it, if you are at all involved in activist organising, inside or outside of progressive institutions. The stories that Joel tells offer hope, and the analysis he adds offers strong insights, from a seasoned activist, as to how we can bring that hope to play in our own activism.

———–

I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.







Add a comment

‘Occupy Sandy operationalised Occupy Wall Street’

This summer I met two activists in New York City who had helped spearhead Occupy Sandy, a self-organised disaster relief effort that emerged from the Occupy Wall Street networks after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC. I wrote this piece for rabble.ca, but wanted to share the two interviews in their whole, because they were so damn good. Below is the audio and transcript of my interview with Michael Premo. Stay tuned for the 2nd interview, with Tammy Shapiro.

michael premo

Michael Premo of Occupy Sandy

Normally when I interview activists or staff from organisations and movements about something they’ve been involved with, I end up adding a ‘meta-narrative’ explaining how their story fits into a range of wider trends I am exploring. With Michael Premo, a film maker and housing justice advocate who helped kick-off a self-organised disaster relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I didn’t have to add a word.

______________________________________________________________________

How things kicked-off

Occupy Sandy started the day of the storm. So there was a couple efforts happening. The sort of person-to-person effort that was occurring, was myself, a friend, Diego, Laura Schlomo, a couple other people, just headed out after the storm, to just check on people, to see what was what and what was happening and who was doing what. At the same time as our friends, Bobby and Brie, were driving out to the Rockaways and some of the neighbourhoods, Breezy Point, that were on fire. And I had a relationship with a group in Red Hook, called the Red Hook Initiative. And I just literally called them cold on the phone to see if anyone would answer the phone at their office, as we were driving down into Red Hook. I talked to them and I said, ‘Look, we want to help you help your community in any way that we can. What we can provide is the potential to be able to amplify your needs throughout our networks, so that you can identify what you need and we can support you getting what your need and support you until you’re at a point where you’re up and running and back in your normal functioning. And that became the first site of Occupy Sandy, which was in Red Hook. And then we sort of set out with that explicit intention to be able to support community-led rebuilding hubs throughout the city and we called those sites hubs.

And throughout the city we just went kinda door-to-door, and were talking to people who owned store fronts or had churches, saying ‘Hey, how can we help support you, and compliment the resources you’re getting through your networks, so that we can really work together?’

At the same time there was this sort of like emergence of people who wanted to help, and trying to figure out how to help. And so what happened was this network of little drop-off sites emerged in people’s lobbies, on their street corners where people were like, ‘well I didn’t get hit, but I have a front porch. If people want to drop of stuff on my porch or in my building, you can drop off stuff and then we’ll figure out how to bring it out to the areas.’There was one story of one girl who volunteered to do that and her neighbours got up in arms, she had no idea, her whole hallway was filled with goods that you couldn’t even get in and out of the hallway, so, people had to kinda scramble to get all that stuff into two or three carloads.

The transition to longer-term support

There was a group of folks within Occupy Sandy who understood that there are really multiple disasters; there’s the initial disaster and then there’s the long-term disaster that happens after the sorta volunteers leave, after the cameras leave, that is deeply related to the failures and ongoing crisis of capitalism as a system. And so we wanted to set up our initial, our goal was to set up the initial house with the stated and implicit intention to be able to have community-led rebuilding, so that when we got to that point when we were transitioning away from immediate relief, and into a sort of longer-term recovery and rebuilding and redevelopment phases, there would be some type of infrastructure, some type of support network, to be able to support for that long haul.So in about, I would say between December and March, the efforts started to transition from the immediate relief, to the sort of longer-term recovery.

What was the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy?

So there’s this theory, there’s this school of thought called ‘complex sciences.’ In those, one of those ideas is network theory and there’s another theory is called ‘emergence.’ Some people have written that in order to support the emergence of social movements, it’s necessary to develop a community of practice, right? Shared values, shared principles, that has a sort of like, cohesion and language and way of working, that will kind of support the further emergence of sort of, positive activity and positive action, right? So Occupy Wall Street in a lot of ways was sort of the seeds that helped create a community of practice. And what happened with Occupy Sandy is in a lot of ways we operationalized some of the more abstract ideas that were floating around Occupy Wall Street. So what I mean by that is sort of lateral, horizontal sort of approaches to, sort of, problem solving, as well as analysis, right? So if you could free up those systems of being able to sort of analyse a problem, being able to, like, strategize a problem, and being able to, like, implement those strategies, and open that up to a lateral or horizontal structure, so that you’re really supporting creativity, innovation from your community, to be able to like, really problem solve in a dynamic way, that speaks to and represents the inclinations and desires of multiple segments of your society, or of your community. It really creates the conditions to really have a robust, and really dope solution, right? And so with Occupy Wall Street, it created a cadre of people that sorta had worked together, had a working relationship, had a degree of sorta like a community around how and what they wanted to see in the world. So when Occupy Sandy hit what happened was those kind of tendencies and ideas were able to be turned into like, robust, sophisticated operation. In terms of Occupy Wall Street, I think there’s been three phases.

There’s the initial phase, which is the 53 days of the physical occupation. Then there was the second phase, which I think includes things like Occupy Homes and StrikeDebt, which sort of stretched over the year. And then you had Occupy Sandy, which really put into practice some of these goals and ideas, right?

______________________________________________________________________

My new book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ available in paperback and epub now.

1 comment

Unpacking boxes

Capulalpam de Méndez is one of a small but growing number of Mexican towns that have succeeded in kicking mining companies off their lands. Many activists have tried to understand their success, where so many others have failed, and while varied, the answer usually has something to do with ‘community.’ This doesn’t translate very well into either a ‘best practice,’ or a ‘scalable strategy,’ but does hold some critical thinking points for those of us trying to make some part of the world a little bit better than it is.

Procession from Capulalpam. Creative Commons 3.0.

Procession from Capulalpam. Creative Commons 3.0.

Jen and I woke-up before 7am on Saturday, met up with our friend Yeyo and took a series of overcrowded forms of public transportation to the cold and rainy village of Capulalpam, in the Sierra Juárez mountains.

We joined a couple dozen others in the town’s church, heard some prayers, burned some incense, and headed off, picking up others as we walked from the cathedral, to the dirt road that led out of town on a steep incline. We were young and old, grandparents, toddlers and plenty in-between, walking through a mountainous forest, en route to a meeting point where our procession would connect with similar gatherings from two neighbouring towns.

These three villages were celebrating the 3rd anniversary of their collective decision to issue a 100 year moratorium on any mining projects within their territories. The decisions had been reached using traditional Zapotec assemblies, in which consensus emerges through collective community dialogue. The event was equal parts religious ceremony, political rally, community feast and intergenerational dance. One municipal president rejected the imposition of global capitalism on their traditional way of life and the head of the regional tourism network declared that, “any development that is not sustainable, is not development!”

Prayers were said, food was served, mescal sipped and dances had (the rain had trickled-out by this point and temperature had risen, as the march had descended to a lower plateau). Kids played on a swing set looking out across the mountain range, while friends reconnected with friends and bands from each of the three communities set the mood with different styles of local music. Sometime that afternoon it became crystal clear to me: THIS was why mining companies – with all the financial and political power they wield – had been unable to maintain their operations in this little corner of the world.

In Capulalpam, activism is not the fringe activity of a relative few (which often separates us from many of our own friends and families). It is also not something that exists in a bubble, independent of other important and meaningful activities – activism is simply a part of life. And say what you will about the specifics of this approach, but it has meant that in the face of deeply corrupt state and federal authorities, and a Canadian mining firm bent on sucking the last ounces of gold and silver from the surrounding mountains, the community has won and has no intention of giving in. Instead, they have opted for a mix of eco-tourism, locally bottled water and small-scale building projects, supplemented by the ‘techio,’ an indigenous custom in which all members of the town take on a range of responsibilities for countless public services, for free.

In Capulalpam, resistance is an integrated part of life and something that is as associated with community, celebration, relationships and nature, as it is with the political mobilisations we often associate it with in culturally Northern/ Western countries.

The other end of the spectrum

As far as a spectrum of social change approaches might look, our organisations are basically teetering off the other end of the line, in relation to the scene I’ve just described. Firstly, they are professional – they are deliberately separate from the personal lives, the communities, and the natural world that they are a part of. Secondly, they have taken this separation a step further, compartmentalising their professional notion of social change into so many teams, departments and specialist divisions, discouraging anything that might resemble a holistic and integrated approach to changing the world.

Let’s look at this as two parts: internal change and external change. How could we break down the barriers between those of us who are working within an organisation? And how can we break down the barriers between our organisations, and the world that exists beyond them?

The meeting point. Creative Commons 3.0

The meeting point. Creative Commons 3.0

Now let’s stop looking at this as two parts and acknowledge that the continuum of relationships that are involved in our organisations’ work aren’t really confined to the little boxes we try to pack them into, including the mythical ‘internal/external’ divide. Our organisations (whether we admit it or not), are part of various broader movements for social, political and environmental change.

What do we do that gets in the way of these relationships? What do we do that blocks the energy of people who have a mutual interest in achieving a certain kind of change, from working together, from getting to know each other, from caring about each other?

This is the where ‘more like people’ comes from. Our organisations, as they stand, get in the way of relationships, trust, empathy, communication and more. For example:

Hierarchical decision making reduces trust and responsibility. How could our organisations involve more people in decisions, as the community of Capulalpam does through the assembly process?
Rigid standards of professional behaviour make it near-impossible for people to be themselves, to build trust, to open up to one another beyond the immediate practicalities of their work. How could our work incorporate more than simply ‘the practical tasks’ associated with a campaign or service, and offer a place to socialise, bring families, share stories, really get to know each other, beyond the professional masks we wear?
Teams, departments and job titles keep us from following our passions, our interests and our strengths, forcing us to regularly underperform in fixed roles that don’t bend to the complexity of the situations we’re dealing with, or simple human changes in mood, which might mean we’d be better off doing different work on a given day. How could we drop these divisions and let individual passion and energy dictate the flow of our work?

Capulalpam de Méndez – a community of roughly 1,500 people, have succeeded where so many campaign strategies have failed. It is hard to imagine most of our organisations moving towards a more integrated approach to social change. But I’d like to challenge all of us to find something we can do to unpack the arbitrary and limiting boxes that our work is so often confined to, and see what happens if we cease to be simply staff with job titles, situated somewhere within the pyramidal prisons of organisational charts, and start to become part of a community instead…

5 comments

The divisiveness of unity

Causes of all stripes have long-rallied others under the banners of ‘unity’ – united we stand, unified voices, etc. But I’m increasingly unconvinced that unity is something we should aspire towards. Worse, our attempts to create it, both in organisations and in movements, might be undermining the very most basic common ground we already share. Instead, could ‘diversity’ be the key to a range of our aims and struggles?

‘We are the 99%’

Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam

Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam

‘We are the 99%’: The Occupy slogan the world has come to know since a group of frustrated and inspired citizens set-up camp in Zuccotti Park in September 2011 and sparked a global movement.

The slogan has been cause for much criticism by both progressives and the mainstream establishment. ‘It’s too vague,’ they clamber. ‘What do they actually want?’ they ask, condescendingly.

But these sources of criticism may also be the movement’s greatest strength; they leave plenty of room for literally millions of people to assign their own meaning, within an incredibly basic ideological framework that simply says, ‘I want the world to work for the vast majority, not a tiny minority.’

After that, it’s up to each inspired individual to choose what we/they choose to do.

I call this (as of today, at least) ‘baseline unity, practical diversity.’

Encouraging emergence

The result with Occupy is well-documented. People found their own ways to make the movement their own. At times these approaches and actions absolutely contradicted one another, but they also managed to change public discourse on issues many traditional organisations have been struggling against for decades. (Not to mention all the specific Occupy-related projects and campaigns that quietly emerged from the broader movement, tackling everything from internet monopoly to legal definitions of corporate personhood, disaster relief to toxic debt).

The ‘unity’ at the core of Occupy really didn’t extend beyond a slogan. It was diversity that made it what it has been able to be.

The emergent efforts of countless autonomous individuals, with only this basic sense of common ground, unleashed a kind of collective power the world has rarely seen.

In complexity science, emergence refers to the unpredictable and ever-changing results of countless interdependent variables in a system, acting and interacting autonomously. What at first appears as chaos, gradually takes on a coherent order, as each actor becomes aligned with the others, creating something that no individual could have seen coming.

Schools of fish, flocks of birds, and… what do you call a group of ants, walking in a line, all carrying things way bigger than them? Yeah, that. All emergent phenomena. A couple very basic rules, the rest is up to each individual, and voila! You have a remarkably well-ordered system, without the hierarchy or imposition of a singular ‘right way!’

Margaret Wheatley writes extensively about emergence in her first book, ‘Leadership and the New Science.’ I can’t recommend it enough!

So the lesson of emergence, is that to create well-ordered, effective systems, there must be freedom for everyone within the system to find their own best ways of working towards a simple, shared goal.

Yet for countless years the mantra of so many organisations and movements has been based on the idea that ‘we must have unity if we are going to be successful.’

But unity is inherently singular. People are too varied a species to happily give up our autonomy for something we don’t absolutely believe in, as any ‘basis of unity’ will require, when it involves two or more people.

Organisational reliance on far-more unity than most of us are willing to commit to (because of its cost to our own autonomy), means that we end up giving far less of our energy and potential to our work than we might in a less-controlled environment.

What if passionate support for our mission statements was our only requirements of staff and volunteers? What if it was up to them to figure out the rest? What if we accepted that people within our organisations might not all agree with each other, and let them find their own best ways of advancing the cause, connecting with colleagues or others beyond the organisation, when it made sense to do so?

The disclaimer I put out after many blogs like this one (the ones with especially ‘wacky’ ideas), is this: please don’t tell me why ‘this would never work,’ instead, I ask you to ask yourself (and each other, if you feel like commenting), ‘what could make this work?

…And if you haven’t noticed over the last two weeks, I’ve been crowd-funding a book I wrote. You can join nearly 100 others in getting it published on StartSomeGood.com, if you want to help it see the light of day by ordering your copy now.

3 comments

Off to a flying start! (And ‘The Art of Asking’)

So in 4 days you did something I wouldn’t have imagined possible: you brought us more than ½ way to the total budget needed to get ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom’ published!

more like people

By arranging these 3 words like this on the spine of the book, we can pretend we're a real publisher!

As I write this, there is $4,285 pledged (by 70 different people), of a total goal of $7,700. And we’ve got 27 days to go in the campaign still!

This is amazing and is testament to the messages this book is trying to emphasise; we don’t need institutions to make great things happen. A little bit of technology, and the self-aligning efforts and support of lots of those who care, is all we need to turn important ideas into realities!

But I have to be honest as well – about 75% of the pledges have come from those of you who are already pretty close to me and whom I’ve been engaging with around these ideas over the last few years.

This is a great endorsement of all of your ability to put your money where your mouth is (literally), but also means that the success thus far is the result of the existing ‘more like people’ networks… which may struggle to get us all the way to the total budget on their own.

Which means we need to spread the word!

Special thanks to Lorna Prescott, Lloyd Davis and David Robbins for their massively kind blogs about the book, and to Deborah Frieze, David Pinto, Arié Moyal, Maddie Grant, Casper Ter Kuile, Derek Oakley, Damon Van Der Linde, Billy Moose, Peter Wanless, Aerin Dunford, John Sargent, Adam Sargant, Ian Hicks, Maurice McLeod, Thomas Wragg,  Ben Powrie, Nishma Doshi, Paul Barasi, Juliette Daigre, Steve Lawson, Daryl Green, Doug Shaw, Naomi Klein, Philippa de Boissiere, Pamela MacLean and Tim Gee (and several others I’m sorry to have forgotten in the rush to post this), for so actively spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter.

Each time you do this, you reach a heap of folks who don’t yet know about this book, some of whom (you’ll know better than I) might want to help get it published.

So here’s my next big ask (and I feel a lot more comfortable with ‘asking,’ having just watched this *amazing* TEDtalk by Amanda Palmer, embedded below):

Please ask people you know (on the internet or at the office or the pub), who are exploring any of the questions about the future of organisations and social change, if they might be able to support the campaign to get this book published.

I don’t want to belittle the support all of you have already given. It has been a truly harrowing few days, personally and for what it represents in terms of a real hunger for change in our organisations! But I also want to make sure this book is the best it can be, which will mean making sure some of the people out there who still don’t know about the little campaign we’re all in the middle of right now, can help us to bring about a range of radical new (and not so new) changes in the worlds of organisation and social change.

So bring it up at the office! Tweet a link to someone you’ve seen Tweeting about similar ideas! Talk about it at the pub, after work! Write a blog about why you think this book is important! Send an email to a few select people you know, telling why you’ve chosen to support the campaign!

Also – if you happen to know any editors or bloggers at well-read, popular blogs that touch on these themes, an introduction would also go a long way, as I’ll happily do a post for a website that wants to help spread the word (and do have a couple of good big ones coming up)!

Whatever you do from here, I’m incredibly grateful and also massively excited! We’ve come a long way, very quickly, and I’m sure we’ll get where we need to go, if we can all find our own best ways of making it happen!

Massive hug to all of you!

Liam

PS – here’s that link again 😉 http://startsomegood.com/Venture/more_like_people/Campaigns/Show/anarchists_in_the_boardroom

PPS – I hope you all know that I’m always happy to be asked to do things, too! If I can’t, I’ll tell you, but don’t hesitate to ask if there is anything I can help you with 🙂

Add a comment

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.