more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

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Give trust, get accountability

In the last post, Paul Barasi took the recent government move towards ‘Payment by Results’ funding to task. Today we introduce a radical alternative means of achieving funding accountability: Trust!

Kittens: Better than 'Payment by Results'

Kittens: Better than ‘Payment by Results’

‘Payment by Results’ is the UK government’s latest attempt to achieve greater accountability with how public money is spent. Or so they say.

In practice, they’ve decided to apply it only to certain questionable public services, but as Paul pointed out the other week, the Olympics, Trident, and recent wars will not be held to the same standards of ‘we pay you when you have delivered what you said you would.’

David Boyle’s powerful paper against the approach, demonstrates that it poses the very same problems as ‘target-based funding,’ encouraging ‘gaming’ of the system to the detriment of all involved. You lose honesty, you lose learning, and you lose the accountability the whole system was created for.

We’ve long used numbers as a replacement for trust – ‘you said you would do ‘x’ but how can I know you did it?’ By measuring it!

Which is kinda ok for some tasks, but in many others – let’s say you’re trying to measure ‘improved wellbeing’ – there is an infinite number of ways you can fiddle the definitions to make sure your counting ‘succeeds.’

But beyond this, even if the definitions were fixed (presumably by government, but by anyone, really) they would immediately fall afoul of the first rule of complexity: things change. Therefore, as Paul wrote in relation to women feeling safer walking around their council estate in at night, fixed aims – whether as ‘targets’ or ‘results’ – will fail to take into account many of the most important impacts of a project, because they weren’t specifically what the funding was meant to achieve. And thus their value is lost on the funding systems that help enable them.

Learning to trust each other again

So what’s the alternative? You can never sew up all the loopholes and opportunities to ‘game’ a system to someone’s advantage, so let’s go back to the drawing board and give ‘trust’ the opportunity to reclaim the space ‘numbers’ stole from it, way back when…

We don’t usually associate trust and money, but a lot of people have begun experimenting with the combination lately, as the shortcomings of compliance-based accountability are gradually becoming clear. Here are a few anecdotes:

In 2010 I met Paul Story in Edinburgh – an author who had maxed-out his credit card printing 10,000 copies of his novel, Dreamwords: The Honesty Edition. His business model? Give the books to people, in the streets, in bookstores, at events, with a request to a) pay for the book online if they liked it, or b) pass it along to someone they think might enjoy it, asking them to pay for it if they liked it. Two years on he’s just published part two of his series…

Also in 2010, Toronto Star journalist Jim Rankin gave five prepaid credit cards worth $50-$75 to five different homeless people, encouraging them to get what they needed. Two were returned to him, partly used; one was never used or returned; one was stolen; and one was partially used, but never returned. For the people with maybe the most reason to exploit Rankin’s generosity, these seem like pretty good results. Imagine the costs that could be saved by adapting certain elements of organisational homelessness service provision along similar lines?

The other day I discovered Mgnetic Music, who pride themselves on a business model for independent musicians that means not having to “sue your fans to make money from your music!” Their approach? Let people download your music and pay for it if they want to. If they like it, they might pay you. If they don’t pay, you still have a new fan who will likely support and promote you in other ways. If they don’t like it, they won’t pay and wouldn’t have otherwise. Let them make the choice – it’s a lot less hassle for you, as a musician!

Now these are small and far from perfect examples, but our current systems can only pretend to be working by digging their heads deeper into the sands of compliance measures that simply allow abuses to be more thoroughly hidden in endless numbers.

Trust-based funding?

A while back, Paul Barasi, Veena Vasista and I started exploring ‘Trust-based funding.’ While it never got past an initial conversation with a funder and another with a law firm working on public sector commissioning processes, we began to imagine it what it might look like at the different stages of the grant process:

‘What we want to support’ (Guidance)

  • Providing very loose definitions, perhaps starting from a ‘these are the things we definitely DO NOT want to fund’ perspective to weed-out those who are absolutely unqualified, without boxing those who might be qualified into terms they don’t fit

‘What you want to achieve’ (Application)

  • Jointly-developing means of demonstrating impact, to give funded groups a real sense of ownership over the process and a sense of responsibility to themselves, as well as those funding them
  • Not creating any direct relationship between what is stated initially and what is expected later, leaving room for changes and on-the-ground learning, as the most effective projects tend to do, but often have to hide from those funding them

‘What you are delivering’ (Delivery)

  • Recognising that funders and recipients are working towards the same goals and must hold each other to account throughout the process, helping create a relationship in which ‘funding’ and ‘delivery’ are seen as two equal parts of a joint-process, where both parties can constructively challenge each other, without retribution
  • Trusting people who have been through an appropriate application process to do what they say they will with the money they are given, offering support and connections, rather than oversight and one-way accountability

‘What we have achieved together’ (Evaluation)

  • Emphasising the qualitative impact of services, shifting the inclination from ‘box-ticking’ and ‘target-chasing’ by both parties
  • Assuming that recipients will spend their money appropriately, and asking them to provide the story of their work in whatever ways they feel best conveys its full breadth
  • Weighting valuable, but unexpected/unplanned outcomes on par with predetermined ones

We also added a further stage:

‘How those we support are better prepared for the future’ (Potential)

  • Ensuring that at the end of the funding period, recipients are better placed to continue doing good work, viewing the process as developmental, rather than simply about the fixed funding period

Putting it to work

What’s above is barely a skeleton of an approach, but no matter how much work we put into it, someone putting it into practice is going to have to stick their neck out if it is going to get a fair hearing.

Paul, Veena and I have put forward an idea, with a tiny bit of meat on the bones, but now we’d like to turn it over to you.
In this spirit of the guidance stage above, what we DON’T want is simply highlighting the things that could go wrong. These are largely no-brainers. The trust approach accepts that ‘things inevitably go wrong’ in any system, and with that in mind it is not worth perpetually trying to mitigate against them, by dragging down all the honest people to a ‘lowest common denominator’ compliance model.

So here’s the question for you:

What would make the idea we’ve outlined above BETTER than it currently is?

Looking forward to seeing where you might take this…

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The Story of ‘More Like People Action Week’

Question: How long do you think it took Paul and Liam to plan the first ever ‘More Like People Action Week’? Answer: A few hours on the Sunday evening before it started.

Lorna Prescott's (@dosticen's) pic fr/ a living room work meeting she had during #MoreLikePeopleWeek

Lorna Prescott’s (@dosticen’s) pic fr/ a living room work meeting she had during #MoreLikePeopleWeek

So the first everMore Like People Action Week has come to an end!

What began as a random Tweet from @PaulBarasi last Sunday afternoon, managed to become something significantly more in the course of just a few days.

There were blogs about the week in the Guardian Social Enterprise Network and CivilSociety.org.uk.

There were over 300 hundred Tweets from over 70 people, expressing their support and sharing their ideas and actions for making their organisations ‘more like people.’ (See some of the Storify highlights further down).

There were several blog comments sharing success stories more widely, as well as links to resource and ideas that people felt were relevant to the ‘more like people’ themes…

Now I won’t pretend that this week has changed the world in any major ways, but it’s definitely done something to demonstrate the potential of some of the principles it is about.

Paul and I, with an ocean and a six-hour time zone spread between us, working entirely via Twitter, a few emails and 2 Skype calls, with nothing to back us but our own enthusiasm and that of the people who got involved, helped the ‘more like people’ ideas find their ways onto the UK national media radar, and into the consciousness of far more people than had previously known about it.

Beyond a few targeted Tweets to people we felt would be specifically interested, there was no top-down communication, not even an email list, to get things rolling. We just put it out there, approached some editors, and shared our own experiences and ideas around.

Sidestep the steps that aren’t working for you!

Has your organisation ever planned an awareness-raising or action-focused day or week around the theme of your work? Did it take more than a few hours to plan it? I’m guessing the answer is ‘yes.’ I’m also guessing that you’re not alone.

One of the big frustrations Paul and I have often had with so many organisations, is their inability to get things done, particularly within a reasonable length of time. The endless processes that inevitably need so many levels of approval make it very hard to organise anything in a timeframe that allows individual passion and energy to still play a part.

And though we might often feel we need to follow these processes, the truth is, there is always unmediated space to make things happen. Just because you could write a proposal, ask for approval, redraft the proposal, secure some budget, and allocate roles, doesn’t mean you always have to!

If this last week was about anything, I hope it was about showing that you don’t need HR or Senior Management (not that either can’t play positive roles!) to make our workplaces better than they are. There are always things we can start to improve, and you never know what kind of ripple effect they might have if we give them the chance. Individual change can encourage other individual changes. Gradually, more people acting differently can shift cultures, systems, organisations… But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – the point is we have more power than we often realise, so why not try exercising it more?

What next?

Obviously we’ve played our hand for a ‘More Like People Action Week’ for the foreseeable future, but these ideas can travel much further than they have since last Monday. So don’t let this random allocation of time stop you from helping your own organisation to be more like people, whenever you feel so inclined!

Maybe you could start your own ‘More Like People Action Week’ at your office? It wouldn’t have to take more than an email on Monday morning with some encouragement for people to share their contributions more widely, on Twitter, or a blog.

Strategy? Let it happen. Budget? No need. Approval? What for? ‘More like people’ should feel infinitely easier than the processes we’ve become so used to in so many of our organisations. I can’t think of a good reason why an employer would be against it, but if they somehow were, I can see even less reason why you’d feel the need to ask for their permission to do it. Think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate some initiative for improving the organisation, at no additional cost to those higher up!

But maybe you just want to practice it yourself, thinking of something you can do a bit differently to make your office a more human place to be? If so, feel free to comment about it on this blog, or Tweet about it using the #MoreLikePeople hashtag on Twitter, so others can be inspired or can try your action out themselves…

The next steps are up to you!

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More Like People Action Week! (#MoreLikePeopleWeek)

August 20-24 is ‘More Like People Action Week’. Your chance to find something you can do to make your organisation a bit ‘more like people’ and share it with the world. Nothing is too small. Change happens when we start anywhere, follow it everywhere!’

Today I got a simple Twitter message with a great idea from my friend and colleague Paul Barasi (@PaulBarasi). It read:

“Mon-Fri is #MoreLikePeople #ActionWeek. Individuals do 1 small thing 2 make their org more human.”

Twitterfall, Qatar

Can you set up a TwitterFall at an event to broaden participation?

…And with that, the first ever ‘More Like People Action Week’ was born!

So whether you’re staff, manager or director, working nationally or locally, in a public, voluntary or private sector organisation, why not start the week by thinking:

“What would my organisation look like if it became More Like People?”

“What can I do now to help make it more human?”

There are a few ideas further down, but basically…

What you do is up to you!

You might scrap a policy, change how you act in a certain context or relationship, involve more people in more decisions, try altering the way you do a particular piece of work… you might just ask more people you work with what they’d like to do, and let everyone give it a shot!

And when you do it, let the world know!

If you Tweet about your action using the #MoreLikePeopleWeek hashtag, anyone else can see what you’ve done and might get inspired to try it themselves. If you’re not on Twitter, feel free to add it as a comment at the bottom of this post, for all to see and learn from…

More Like People – what’s that about?

‘More like people’ is about learning to do things in our organisations, more like we’d do them at the pub, in our living rooms, at the park, around a kitchen table… It’s about:

  • Dropping the systems, attitudes, behaviours, and structures of the ‘professional’ world, and reconnecting with a more natural way of organising that predates any of our bureaucracies.
  • Improving working cultures by bringing the values, personalities, strengths and abilities of the people in our organisation to the forefront.
  • Closing the gap between the mask we wear at work and who we really are, because we’re at our best when we’re being ourselves.

‘More like people’ might apply to your own behaviours, maybe listening more closely to someone you’ve had trouble communicating with, choosing to hold a meeting in the park, or a pub, involving more people with valuable opinions when you make decisions…

‘More like people’ might apply to organisational structures or policies, which could mean getting rid of meeting agendas and letting them flow as people raise what they need to, crowd-sourcing decisions across the office, or via Twitter amongst a wider range of people involved in your work, letting staff make up their own job titles, or write joint job descriptions together as a team, making organisational learning public, so others people and organisations can learn from it…

These are just a few ideas to get you started. The point is, you’ll know better than Paul or I will what ‘more like people’ means in your context… but if you try it and share it, someone else might be able to try it out at their office too!

Have fun! (If it’s not fun, think about what might make it that way…)

Liam (@hackofalltrades)

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Writing #MoreLikePeople/ Practicing-what-I-preach

As I approach the half-way point in Draft 1 of Anarchists in the Boardroom, I wanted to reflect on the various ways I was experimenting with applying the ideas of this book to the writing processes, and to my own working habits in the process…

‘How would I write a book, ‘more like people’’ I asked myself?

NZ sunset

I thought you’d like a picture. Here’s one I took in NZ…

The simple answer was of course, ‘I could write it in any number of different ways, just like people would!’

…Which is fundamentally true. This book is not about outlining one-size-fits-all solutions. It makes a lot of suggestions, and highlights the principles that underpin them, but it doesn’t say ‘This is what more like people means, full stop!’

But since writing this book is my current working life, I figured it was important for me to be playing around with what the principles meant for me, during this project.

So what have I done?

Writing social media into the book

Rather than pretend the meta-level of ‘people discussing the themes of the book’ is separate from the book itself, I’ve included a section in Chapter 1 about continuing an online conversation while it is being read. It talks about the #morelikepeople hashtag, and the upcoming website URL, and encourages people to find others who are reading it, to share insights and things that parts of the book make them think about.

I’ve also included the Twitter handles of the people I mention in the book who have them, immediately after their names, so readers can reach out and connect with them directly when they are reading about their ideas or their stories.
If I can pull the book away from being ‘the central hub’ for these ideas, but can still use it to help connect people, I feel like it’ll be a positive step towards making the things I’m writing about happen.

Crowdsource everything!

Well, not everything, but I’ve been keen to ask a lot of questions on Twitter and Facebook throughout the process. These questions have included:

  • What of the following subjects are you interested for me to write about today, and why?
  • Do you know any good resources about [blank]?
  • Who would like to read the chapter I just wrote about [blank]?

The 1st time I asked which chapter folks were keen to read, there was a strong response for Chapter 7, which relates to hip-hop culture and innovation.

So I wrote it.

Having the extra boost of knowing that I was writing about something (more specific than the book itself), that interested people was a good motivator and helped get me over the hump of starting a new chapter.

When I asked for resources about ‘professional culture’, an old activist friend from my teenage years suggested a book by Jeff Schmidt that has ended up playing a significant part in Chapter 2.

Don’t get stuck to a certain approach if it’s not working

After the success of asking people what they wanted me to write about the first time, I tried it again… but when Twitter decided I should write Chapter 9, I realised that I wasn’t really in the right headspace to write Chapter 9…

So I dropped it.

Trying to write about something I didn’t have the energy for that day was a lost cause, so I did a bit of introspection and decided I wanted to get into Chapter 2 instead.

I followed the energy. In my experience of writing – or basically any more creative or non-linear endeavour – if you have any choice in the matter at all, always work with what you’re excited about in the moment. It will inevitably come out much better than whatever else you could have been doing with less enthusiasm in that time.

Debate everything!

Twitter’s also good for floating quotes and hypotheses.

A Re-Tweet or three, or a couple of ‘Favorites’ is often a good indication you might be on to something.

Silence might imply letting it drop, or trying again later, as there’s always a luck-of-the-draw aspect to Twitter…

You might also end-up starting an argument with someone who will either help you sharpen your thesis a little, or make you re-evaluate it a bit…

The ever-argumentative @kidecono (previously @andyvglnt, who I also have done some less-adversarial stuff with in the past) is usually good to bash big ideas around with. His opening salvos are often along the lines of ‘bollocks!’ or, on a more diplomatic day, ‘That’s a logical fallacy.’ Most recently, we threw around the respective values of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ world views… It all got a bit ‘meta’ at some stage, but he definitely pushed me to avoid becoming too one-sided in my approach.

This is really valuable during a writing project, where you’re inevitably fixed at a desk, mostly alone, for hours and days on end. Being challenged is a great gift, when it is done constructively.

Find circles of helpful ‘editors’

In the same line, I’ve been gradually sourcing a list of people – some of whom are people I’ve interviewed or quoted, others people who’ve shown an interest – to offer critical feedback on draft chapters.  Sometimes they are broadly supporters, at other times they’re people I have disagreements with.

I email each Chapter to a handful of them, and see who gets back to me.

If one or two reply with some detailed thoughts, the chapter inevitably improves. If more do, it’s that much better. Diverse opinions help to fill a writer’s personal gaps.

The folks who had replied on Twitter with interest in Chapter 9, for example, are part of the circle who I will ask to feedback on Chapter 9, when it’s ready… so even though I didn’t take their suggestions on at the time, I’ve kept them in the loop and I’m sure, if they have a chance to reply, it will help the book to be better than it was…

I’ve also had my wonderfully helpful friend and colleague Paul, Tweeting me a constant array of both relevant links and quotes, as well as feedback as he reads the draft chapters… which has sometimes sparked conversations with others, as it’s all happening publicly…

Think about your own working habits

I’ve always known I’m not much of a morning person. Even when I wake up early, it’s unlikely I’ll be in anything like peak shape before about lunch time. Yet, each day in the writing process, with an intense discipline, I was at my desk by 9am!

Eventually I realised that, while I was at my desk, I wasn’t accomplishing very much for the first few hours there… After lunch, things would usually pick up, and I’d happily write, with minimal break, til 8 or 9 or 10 or…

This meant that various bits of things – household stuff, nice times with Jen, leaving the house for any reason at all (!!!!) – often slipped off the agenda for the day…

Retrospectively, with no boss here to tell me otherwise, this seems like a no-brainer, but like so many ingrained habits, it took me a while to figure out that ‘I don’t need to write in the mornings!’

The ‘internalised boss’ had been telling me otherwise. There was no practical reason for it, but I was doing it anyway. In the guise of ‘self-discipline,’ I was conforming to the very systems I was writing about alternatives to… [insert ironic comment here]

Today I started to push myself on this. I slept a bit later, did some exercise, made a good breakfast, then got into emails and other miscellaneous bits of work, before sinking my teeth into the book…

It’ll take some practice to fight off the vaguely workaholic notions I sometimes seem disposed to, but when I do, I feel better, and when I feel better, I write better words…

So that’s it so far…

I’m not sure if this is too specific and self-employment-relevant to be useful to folks in organisations, or if you might draw some parallels from it, but I felt it was worth putting out there!

In the spirit of the post, the book, and the values I’m trying to live in the world, let me know if you’ve got any other ideas about how I could apply the approaches of this book to the writing process!

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Organisational culture: It doesn’t shape itself

Leadership and the new scienceMargaret Wheatley, in ‘Leadership and the new science’, writes about ‘fields’, as they apply to organisational culture.

In science, fields are the in-between forces that are only visible through their impact. Gravity, for example, cannot be seen or measured, yet we experience its manifestations throughout our lives.

Wheatley applies the same thinking to organisational culture; it affects us, it shapes our experiences and our behaviours, but we can’t easily put a finger on what it is, beyond being confident that it definitely exists.

Reading Wheatley’s framing of culture left me thinking; while we might not be able to see or touch gravity, we have found ways to shift it through technology, and we know it is different in different settings. By extending the metaphor, what does this mean for the ‘field’ of workplace culture?

Here is a starting point; what do you think?

You are sitting at your desk. Your colleague two desks away is being served an uncalled-for quantity of verbal abuse by their manager.

It’s uncomfortable. This discomfort is creating, undermining, or reinforcing your understanding of your workplace culture, depending on your experiences there before the incident.

The  next day the same thing happens again. Your perceptions this time are either reinforced, or further undermined.

The kicker? Your behaviour is now most likely being shaped by what you have experienced. You might be a little less open, a little more defensive, slightly less comfortable with the time you spend at the office…

And today you are also sitting beside a new colleague. This is the first time they have played witness to the bullying dynamic, but not only do they see the bully-bullied pair, but also anyone else in the office not standing up for the one being treated unfairly.

This shapes their perception of the situation, as it did yours, which in turn shapes how they engage with their new workplace.

Their perception may well be that much worse than yours, because they have not only witnessed the toxic act of workplace bullying, but also the failure of their new colleagues to say anything against what had happened.

Through each of these experiences, a field is emerging; it is a field of mistrust, guardedness, pragmatic calculation, formed on the basis of both the acts of the manager and corresponding thoughts and reactions of others, which have a strong tendency to reinforce one another, if not consciously challenged.

Protecting ourselves… at the organisation’s expense

While your (or my) response to the initial bullying makes perfect sense at the level of protecting oneself, it also plays to reinforce the field that is taking shape around us. When we ignore or avoid, we are in fact complimenting and reinforcing the negative dynamic through our complicity. In failing to constructively support our colleague, we complicity contribute to the further deterioration of the field that is our organisation’s culture.

But enough of the bad stuff!

So what would the alternative look like? What can we do to shift the field of ‘organisational culture’, to create a workplace where people are happy, enjoy their time together and create good things in the process?

In my experience, it starts with being conscious of ourselves. If we agree that both our perceptions and our actions play a role in shaping the culture around us, what could we do to move it in a positive direction?

The challenge, of course, at the individual level then, is how we can become more aware of our own influences on the field of organisational culture, to help shift it in a way that improves everyone’s (including our own) experience.

Projections and Perceptions

projection perception loopIn the example above, I described how the bullying manager was projecting certain behaviours into the organisational culture field, and how we, as onlookers in the office were both perceiving them, and then acting differently as a result of them. We’ll call this the ‘Projection-Perception Loop’; the system through which behaviour is enacted by one person, interpreted by the second person, and then (often) re-enacted by the second person, creating a cycle that can be either good or bad.

So what happens if we shift our input?

What if we were more aware of the ways we responded when people treated us or others like crap at the office? What if, instead of retreating, or attacking back, we simply started to engage differently?

In destructive situations, we often revert to the old ‘fight or flight’, ‘silence or violence’ dichotomy, but can we be conscious in those moments and find a less destructive ‘third way’? Can we focus on the positive relationships that are there at the office, the elements we enjoy more, rather than giving more attention to the parts of the organisational culture field that we don’t like? Can we improve trust amongst our colleagues by sharing more openly with them, making ourselves a bit vulnerable?

Accepting some responsibility… and thus some credit?

There’s nothing easy about this level of change; it usually involves re-evaluating some very deep gut responses to situations we don’t feel any responsibility for creating.

But if we acknowledge that we have played some small role in making the environment as toxic as we have experienced it can be, can we also take credit for acting differently and thus not perpetuating the cycle again?

Like the old parenting mantra reiterated through generations to the fighting young boys who both claim that the other ‘started it!’, ‘it’s not about who started it, but who finishes it.’

  • What steps can we take or have you taken to break a bad cycle that has helped grow a destructive organisational culture?
  • Have you experienced destructive cycles in any other relationships in your life that you’ve been able to shift the patterns around?
  • What are some of the defining traits when you have experienced a positive ‘field’ of organisational culture?

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Anarchists in the boardroom

Are our organisations hearing the lessons of the Occupy movement? If we want to be more human, there’s definitely a thing or two they could be teaching us… [ADDITION: if you’re looking for my book that I ended up re-using this title for, you can find it here.]

Humanize coverI’m reading ‘Humanize: Why people-centric organisations succeed in a social world’. So far it’s excellent! Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant have written the closest thing to a ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ manifesto that I’ve seen. Their understanding of the deeply de-humanising traits of our institutions, as well as the alternatives that social media is beginning to model is spot on! As a bit (lot?) of a management geek, it excites me as much as any book has since the heavily-referenced (by me) ‘Getting to Maybe: How the world is changed’

But it is also misses something. (Every book does – no subject can ever be addressed in its entirety in a single publication.)

The book starts from the radical premise that our rigid, hierarchical organisational structures are unequipped to face the challenges of an increasingly networked world, across all sectors and types of organisations, and that social media is beginning to model alternative, more human ways of getting things done. Ace.

But here’s another step beyond: what if the ways of organising that traditional organisations are learning from social media have been practiced in some circles for many decades before? And what if those who have been practicing them have done so in a world so foreign to management theorists, as to almost not exist?

Introducing, anarchy…

I would argue (maybe unsurprisingly, as I’m writing a book on the theme) that the systems of social media are simply the ‘systems’ of anarchism (or perhaps more succinctly, grassroots activism), scaled-up. Decentralised, non-hierarchical, autonomous, processes of making decisions and getting things done, have been at the core of the current Occupy movement, but also its predecessors in the climate justice and anti-globalisation movements (and many movements before them, too).

This is why these movements have been able to take social media in stride and run with it, while most traditional organisations have superficially embraced new technologies, but actively fought tooth-and-nail against them in most of their practical manifestations.

While some of the initial shock may have worn off, think, from a traditional organisational perspective, how ludicrous the idea that nearly 1000 cities around the world would feature activists encampments in their economic centres, diametrically opposed to the predominant activities taking place in those same places?

Yet, somehow, it has happened.

Tens of thousands of people are being communally fed and sheltered, while carving-out the early etchings of a political alternative to an unsustainable status quo, without any of the management systems we might have thought essential to such an operation… Surely, there’s something managers could take away from this?

Why activists ‘get’ social media

Occupy, like several movements before it in the last decade, are ahead of the curve when it comes to social media, because it comes so naturally to people who have never believed in hierarchy, silos, traditional notions of expertise, or strategic planning. Anarchists skipped that couple century-blip we seem to be at the tail-end of, of ‘humans thinking they can turn a bunch of other humans into a well-oiled machine’.

We are the 99%One of the key messages I’ve taken from my time with these movements has been the value of ‘undefined engagement’ – giving people the chance to get involved in something they truly believe in, in whatever ways they choose to (social media has clear parallels). This is likely to be a massive challenge for traditional organisations – particularly those that exist primarily to make money. But perhaps one of the truly revolutionary lessons that Occupy can bring to the world of business, is that if we want to harness the potential of people, making money will not (on its own) be the way to do it. Purpose is critical, as is an increasing level of autonomy…

So while I absolutely commend Jamie and Maddie’s work on Humanize, I also challenge it to go a step further: learn from the hippies, learn from the anarchists, learn from the folks out on the streets of New York, London, Oakland and so many other cities, who are ‘doing’ Humanize, and have been since before there was social media to put it into the spotlight.

Flipping our notions of ‘expertise’

The world of management has for decades looked down its nose at activists, even when they have achieved massive change in the world, whether ending wars or apartheid, or winning voting or civil rights for all. In doing so, a lot of important learning has been largely ignored.

Maybe it’s time that view was turned around and the organisations that are increasingly struggling to maintain themselves on yesterday’s systems, swallowed their pride and asked a scruffy anarchist what they should be doing differently in the boardroom?

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The Stuff You Can’t (usefully) Write About…

Western culture has a secret: there is much in the world that simply doesn’t translate well into written form. Yet we have no shortage of examples (particularly in the voluntary and care sectors) which still attempt to take something impossibly nuanced and complex, and turn it into a static document. Are we telling ourselves a massive lie by pretending such writing is effective communication? And what can we learn from cultures less dependent on text for sharing ideas?

Beaver Lake Cree pow wow 2011. Photo: Pete Speller.

Beaver Lake Cree pow wow 2011. Photo: Pete Speller.

I’ve been helping a friend proof a document he’s written. The document is 18 pages on good relationships between people and organisations. He does it much better than most would. But I’m still left with a strong sense of something having been lost in the process. Can a good relationship be captured on a piece of paper in the first place? Or, like a range of other human experiences, does it need to be ‘learned by doing’, or at least through a more holistic communication of the ideas involved?

What shouldn’t we write as much about?

Relationships are one example of ‘things we don’t do justice via the written word’, but there are many more we continue to confine to a format totally inappropriate to their characteristics… like the difference between writing about happiness, describing happiness in conversation, and being happy yourself; much gets lost in the translation from one-to-the-other. In frontline service organisations, the examples of this can be almost farcical, if they weren’t also so tragic… self-care guides for social workers, for example, cannot begin to make sense of days-on-end spent working with people in their worst moments of crisis, who often hate you by default. The invariable oversimplification of complex issues, the inability to know how emotionally-equipped different social workers are for the stresses of the job, and how different people will respond to those stresses, often make these kinds of guides and policies interesting pieces of theory, with little real world application. Something other than a document is needed to serve this crucial function, for example, on site counselling services that can address all of these differences, as required.

A few criteria for thinking about complex concepts or ideas that might not be best conveyed in writing:

  • Emotion – even our best poets can rarely capture a feeling in terms that can resemble the experience itself. Yet emotion is central to humanity, and a key piece of any people-centred service or organisation, so we need other ways of conveying it.
  • Nuance – two seemingly contradictory ideas can often both be true. Especially when it comes to individual perception. A programme can be legitimately life-changing and devastating to two of its recipients, depending on their expectations and needs. Writing doesn’t often capture non-binaries especially well.
  • Change – like our relationships, people are always changing, thus something written may be quickly made irrelevant by a new revelation or an unexpected influence. Unlike speech, text is static and doesn’t adapt nearly as freely to subtle shifts. However the conversational web is starting to allow greater versatility to published words.

There are alternatives!

Western culture has kept the imperfection of written words secret for so long, in part by not talking about other cultures that don’t subscribe to it.

Most first nations communities in North America, (one of which I had the pleasure of working quite closely with this summer), share their cultures, values, lessons and histories orally, to this day. Storytelling culture has been dismissed by Westerners since initial contact with indigenous peoples in the early colonial period. It’s imprecise, it’s subjective, it changes, it is easily lost… all legitimate critiques, but none of which acknowledge what it does do, that perhaps a written culture lacks… if oral histories can capture the feelings of an experience, at the expense of detailed fact, is that necessarily a loss for those receiving them? We assume when it happens the other way around (feelings or deeper experiential understanding lost for factual accuracy) that this is okay… and even beneficial to western objectivism. But what have we really learned then? More facts, but with nothing to ground them in our lived experience of the world…

What works better when we say it, than when we write it?

For several years I’ve had a strong bias towards interactive, facilitated learning and communications methods. (Blogging, with its ongoing opportunity for commentary and discussion, is the closest thing I’ve found in the written world so far.) I like to facilitate, but I also find that I pick-up ideas and understanding more effectively when I’m in a discussion, than when I’m reading.

We tell ourselves that we ‘know’ something once we’ve read about it, but do we? Can we really understand deep, emotional, experiential concepts, simply by ingesting a series of symbols on a page or screen? For decades countless studies have told us that at least 90% of person-to-person communication is non-verbal – it’s not in the words we say, but how we say them, what our body language and facial expressions are conveying, etc. Thus the well-known shortcomings of trying to address complex problems – or even tell a subtle joke – over email or text message. When we relegate ourselves to text, we are hampering 90% of our ability to convey our message to others.

Which can be fine for some things (shopping lists, for example), but can be nothing short of devastating with more sensitive, nuanced, or emotive subjects.

When an indigenous elder tells a story of their community’s history after a peace pipe ceremony, the point of the story is not simply to convey the facts (these are often adapted to make sense in different times and contexts) but to convey the feelings, sentiments, lessons and values that have been core to that community for many generations. When you experience this kind of storytelling for the first time, it’s hard to understand why we have come to rely so absolutely on text books to pass-along our histories; it’s immediately clear that there is so much the text books are leaving out! Sometimes some of the most important lessons we could be taking from our pasts!

For me, hearing about the Canadian residential school experience this summer, from a range of people who had been forced into them at a young age, gave me an understanding of both the hideous reality of that Canadian experience, as well as of the current dynamics between indigenous and settler cultures in Canada. Nothing I read in school growing up in Toronto had given me that understanding. Nothing even came close to it…

Why writing doesn’t always do what it says it will…

I’ve noticed a few things that seem to limit the possibilities of written communication and learning:

  • Inability to filter complex information, based on context – A book or a policy document can’t adapt itself to suit all possible scenarios or readers, and to include information to address all possible scenarios or readers is an impossible task. A person with a breadth of knowledge on a subject can (and does) make judgments as to the importance of sharing different information, in different situations, with different people (like the adaptive nature of indigenous oral histories).
  • Static nature of text – Once it’s there, it’s there, though the online world – wikis as a prime example – are shifting this into less-absolute terms (and offer amazing opportunities). Still, a written document mostly exists as a snapshot of thinking and knowledge of a particular moment in time, from a particular perspective.
  • Lacks 90% of human communication – Without intonation, expression and body language, it is practically impossible to meaningfully capture some of the critical factors involved in complex dynamics (as those listed previously)….

But we keep writing; policy documents, training guides, text books… (blogs like this, even?) all with the hope that these static reams of paper will help others learn things that they didn’t know before about complex, ever-changing scenarios and ideas.

So should we draw a line?

Should we say that if you’re training a new staff member at a social care organisation in working with patient who has recently begun suffering serious memory loss (for a particularly sensitive, but non-life threatening example), ‘good practice’ might be better learned via talking with other staff and watching them in action – even with particular different patients – rather than reading about it in a guide?

I’ve commented before on ‘relationship policies’ at workplaces (‘you cannot be in a personal relationship with someone else who works for the organisation’) as one of the worst examples of trying to codify a highly-nuanced emotional issue, into a standard document. Some relationships will get messy and create workplace problems, many will not, but attempts to legislate against them will only breed resentment and deceit. Address the individual issue, as is needed, with the individuals involved, rather than trying to create a template applicable to all workplace relationships. Save the paper.

I suggest keeping the three bullet points at the top in mind (emotion, nuance, change) when deciding whether or not another document is needed in your organisation. While writing can be seen as a shortcut to sharing necessary information with a large number of people, we should be clear about what kinds of information it can and can’t be effective at disseminating. Are we creating a false economy by not investing the initial time and effort into having more individual conversations about subjects that won’t get across effectively through generic text? Is the large scale of mass written communication in itself a false economy, with our efforts better spent mobilising a smaller number of people though more individual means, than a large number more generically? (That’s a blog in its own right… and it’s half written… stay tuned!)

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When we ignore difference, bad things happen… Some thoughts on the London riots

If we want to prevent such hardships as the current UK riots from happening again, we’ll need to understand and appreciate how the different life experiences of people who have done things we would never condone, may have shaped their recent decisions…

The Pembury Estate, Hackney

The Pembury Estate, Hackney

It’s hard to comprehend how greatly our respective lived experiences can lead us to differ so drastically from one another; how they can create underpinning beliefs in us that seem as insane to someone else, as they are fundamental to who we are.

At the start of the latest recession, I was in a car with a fairly conservative uncle and inadvertently made reference to greed in the financial sector nearly causing the collapse of the global economy. He exploded and told me that greed made the world go ‘round, and that all of the work I do (campaigning, charity, etc) could only exist (i.e. – be funded) through the results of that greed.

I was a bit shocked by the logic of this response. Greed so clearly seemed like what was wrong with the global economy, and yet my uncle seemed to fully believe it to be a virtue! I didn’t know where to start, so we stayed mostly quiet for the rest of the car ride…

He and I have lived very different lives, in a number of ways. Without addressing the details, there’s a point at which this difference must be accepted; not as a way of justifying his views (I still think they’re fundamentally wrong), but as a way of trying to explain them and engage with them.

Fast forward to East London, 2011

The view from the flat, Tuesday morning

A view from the flat, Tuesday morning

Sitting in my adopted home of London, in the 4th floor Hackney flat I share with my wife, I can still see smoke billowing up on the horizon to the north east of us. It’s less than it was yesterday, but the city is still burning, after 3+ days of rioting.

A combination of fear and not knowing what I could possibly be doing to help, have mostly kept me at home (baring an initial foray to Hackney’s own ground zero on Monday evening and the #RiotCleanUp activities there the next morning).

As I’ve been sitting here, reading and Tweeting, I’ve been shocked – as I know many others I’m in touch with have – as to the hatred that has emerged from the woodworks in the face of this mass unrest.

People who I’ve generally considered progressive and open-minded, have resorted to calls for ‘shoot on sight’ orders against looters, rounding up of immigrants and sterilisation of benefit claimants.

I’ve found this deeply disheartening. More so even than the actions on the streets, as the pre-planned hostility in what they are suggesting. seems to go above and beyond any cruelty the rioters have managed to achieve.

Someone Tweeted “Nothing like a good riot to find out which of your mates are racist, and/or just a bit thick.” That’s a simple truth, but there’s more here…

Why?

Rather than dwell on this, I’ve been trying my best to think about what has brought these responses out in people. Clearly, many of us feel scared, worried, threatened. But one of the recurrent themes I’m coming across is, how hard, from a perspective of someone not in the middle of the violence, it can be to ‘make sense’ of smashing and burning one’s own neighbourhood, or looting new shoes or TVs in response to a police murder.

Hannah Nicklin has written beautifully on this subject, so I won’t dwell on specific possible motivations, but am interested in how reluctant so many of us are to acknowledge that the people burning cars in recent days, while sharing a city with us, have probably lived incomparably different lives to our own.

‘Comfort’ and ‘Struggle’

Here are a few assumptions of difference that my time on the streets of Hackney this week, and some of my youth work background more broadly, have highlighted for me. I’ve (very) crudely classified two broad mindsets as ‘comfort’ (generally experiencing that you can get what you want, if you work hard enough) and ‘struggle’ (experiencing that hard work will most often lead to disappointment and rejection), to represent where I think the crux of difference lies. It’s basically a measure of ‘how much faith you have in the systems around you to work for you, not against you’.

There are all kinds of racial, class, gender and other differences that get caught up in this binary (really, we are all a some combination of both columns), but there is lived experience which, while by no means absolute, often separates those whose bandana-covered faces we’ve seen so much of on the news, from much of the rest of the country.

Comfort

Struggle

“The police are here to protect us and should be supported.” “The police humiliate, oppress and hurt us and shouldn’t be trusted.”
“When you have a problem, there is always an appropriate person (or people) through which it can and should be raised and addressed.” “When you have an issue, you will probably never get listened to and your opinion means nothing to people who make decisions anyway.”
“If you want something, work hard, and you will get it.” “If you want something, you’ll have to find a backdoor way of getting it, or live without it.”
“Everyone has a fair chance at work and education in Britain, if they try hard enough.” “Almost everyone around me is unemployed, without education and on benefits, working low-wage jobs they hate, or doing something illegal to get by.”

The knee-jerk response to this oversimplified distinction would be to say ‘those in the right-hand column are simply wrong’, but would this change countless British peoples’ life experiences and corresponding beliefs? Like with so many things, perception is reality, and in practice, feeling powerless is exactly the same as being powerless. If your lived experience leads you to believe one thing, but someone else tells you it’s wrong because they haven’t experienced it, are you going to belief that your experience has indeed been wrong? Or that this other person is wrong about you?

‘I need this to succeed.’

I think of a friend, who had emerged from a struggling youth in a Northwest London gang and gone on to set-up a small local youth charity, telling me, “I need this to succeed; there’s no one I grew up with who’s been able to do anything like this, and so all the youths today see is a generation above them who are out on the road. They need to see this possibility can be real for them.”

Think about this for a minute. I’m going to guess that this is not the same experience most of the people reading this blog had growing up; the experience that ‘no one from my neighbourhood gets a job or sets up their own business. No one.’ What about: ‘everyone in my group of friends gets stop-and-searched and humiliated by the police. All the time.’?

Or as a youth involved in recent Hackney rioting put it:

“There’s two worlds in this borough. More and more middle classes are coming and we’re being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it’s the West End, we can’t afford the rents. We’re the outcasts, we’re not wanted any more… There’s nothing for us.”

Would this change your understandings of the world at all?

#RiotCleanUp in Hackney, Tuesday morning

#RiotCleanUp in Hackney, Tuesday morning

Like I said, Hannah Nicklin gets into the depths of this much better than I, but I think what’s critical here is to realise and understand how different life is for a lot of people, even if it’s hard to acknowledge that their struggles are happening in our own backyards, with some degree of our ongoing complicity.

When we acknowledge others’ experiences as real – however different from our own – we give ourselves space to address shared concerns together (like safety on the streets, whether from police or gangs). If we can’t acknowledge the realities that might have made some of the recent actions feel acceptable to some, we’re almost certainly doomed to reinforce those realities, and invariably too, the actions they’ve spawned. Alternatively, people and government can start to think seriously about differences in this city and country, if we want to get to a better place, following all of our recent experiences of hurt and fear…

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Acknowledging Knowledge’s Different Roots

Scientific method – the process of establishing ‘proof’ by attaining the same results in multiple controlled experiments which came to prominence during the Scientific Revolution – has brought us many things. Countless critical gains have been made, but in the process of assuming that a rational process of deduction is always the best way of ‘knowing’ something, we may have undermined some of our most critical human instincts and understandings. But what is the alternative?

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If last week’s Twitter response to this notion was any indication, I might ruffle a few feathers with this blog. Contextually, I’m coming from a few days working on a project on a First Nations’ reservation in Northern Alberta.

Beaver Lake, Alberta

Beaver Lake, Alberta

This is a community with relatively little in the way of formal education, but a vast amount of a different kind of knowledge, passed down through generations, emerging from a close connection to the land they have lived on and with for so long. Sometimes described as wisdom, it’s something we’ve often lost – and actively discredited – in the modern Western world, particularly within our formal institutions.

The Twitter debate began with my observation that much of what the scientific community has been recommending in regards to climate change in recent years (or perhaps decades), was deeply embedded in the cultural practices of many First Nations communities, hundreds and thousands of years ago. The basic principle of ‘respect Mother Earth’ – and more specifically ‘make decisions with the impact they will have on the next seven generations in mind’ – has underpinned many of these communities’ practices since long before colonialism. They didn’t know about carbon footprints, embedded emissions or even climate change itself, but they knew that it wasn’t a good idea to pillage nature and natural resources. When Europeans arrived, they were warned by their hosts about overhunting buffalo, damming rivers, clear-cutting trees; all without the scientific knowledge we have today that tells us all these things are problematic.

Science eventually came to the same conclusions that the Cree, Haida, Ojibway and others had millennia previously. Unfortunately, during the time it took science to figure out what Indigenous peoples already knew, we basically destroyed the planet.

I’m not saying science doesn’t come up with the right answers, only that there is always a considerable lag between when people start to study a phenomena (whether climate change or organisational change) and when it figures out what many have already known long before hand.

Art and health

What about the impact of art and creativity on peoples’ health and wellbeing,  Artists have for ages seen and promoted a positive relationship between the two, yet only in recent years has the evidence base reached a place where schools, government funds, or health strategies have begun to recognise it, party politics aside. Even still, it is mostly marginalised as a ‘luxury’ or a ‘frill’, in comparison to the ‘important’ subjects or disciplines of maths, science, business. Arts practitioners will know all too well the impacts this has had across societies, but without the evidence of that impact, it can feel like a lost cause.

Learning about learning

…Or notions of learning? Chinese proverbs dating back a fair ways told us ‘Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand’. Yet schools and universities in the Western world have been absolutely wed to the notion of the lecture as central to all formal education. Again, as the evidence base has gradually developed, and shown that lecturing is generally one of the poorest methods of facilitating learning, our institutions are very slowly beginning to play catch-up, but still thousands of years after the Chinese philosophers had this one figured out. (This article fails to get into differences of learning styles, but highlights the shortcomings of the sacred institution of lecturing quite well).

In the office

At a much more mundane level, I think of an old job. When I started, I quickly realised that, at only a few quick skims of a database, we provided almost no support to organisations that weren’t large, London-based, national organisations; a tiny percentage of those we could have been helping. I raised this, and was told I needed to ‘demonstrate the need’; I said ‘scan the database for two minutes’. This wouldn’t suffice.

I spent the following month categorising every organisation in a 1,600 entry database, by their size, their location and their reach. Eventually this told me, depending on classification, at least 85% of those we supported came from a pool of less than 2% of potential beneficiaries… which is what I’d said a month earlier. By the time this was written into an acceptable report, we’d lost 2 months of my work, in pursuit of an ‘evidence-base’ which added little or nothing to my initial observation.

There was nothing especially remarkable about my observation, except my belief that it was trustworthy in its own right (a position I’m sure most of us have found ourselves in at one time or another). When you consider my salary and overhead costs, this meant several thousand pounds was spent to ‘know’ what I already knew.

‘Proof’

So whether artists, First Nations communities or ancient Chinese philosophers, the knowledge held by all three was widely available to the scientific methodologists since long before the near-universal western adoption of the scientific method during the Scientific Revolution. Yet, in each case, scientific rationalism dismissed or actively discredited each of the above as ‘superstitious’, ‘unsubstantiated’, or ‘without methodological rigour’… until they eventually drew the same conclusions themselves!

The problem was, in the respective mean times, people created potentially irreversible climate change, health and wellbeing were collectively sacrificed, and learning has been a rote drill, instilling a hatred of education in countless millions for several centuries.

What are we missing right now?

I’ve mentioned a few examples where science has (eventually) caught up with earlier forms of knowledge. What current questions do previous kinds of ‘knowing’ provide answers to that science still completely ignores or discredits? Quantum physics has begun to identify a level of connectivity between all forms of life (with wide-ranging implications), that has previously only been captured by notions of ‘oneness’ found in many religions and spiritualities (without getting into that kettle of worms!). Much of what the world of post-Enlightenment rationalism has previously determined to be true or false, has gradually been seen to be otherwise. Yet, while science is clearly adaptive (it’s fundamental strength), we cling to its current state of progress at any given time, as if it represents an absolute, rather than a step towards greater understanding. The same experiment, carried-out a hundred years apart, will invariably reveal different things, as technology – but more importantly perception – change during that time.

Acknowledging different kinds of knowledge

If you were asked how you knew the world was round, and how you knew your mother loved you, you would probably approach each question very differently. I’m sure you’d agree, the lack of scientific rigour in your second answer would in no way diminish your knowledge of your mother’s love; it would probably still be something you know more than you know that the world is round (as this is still an abstraction in most of our minds, very few of us having seen the Earth in its entirety, firsthand!).

These are extreme examples, but they have to be, as there are so few places where our culture still accepts the merits of knowledge grounded in experience, feeling and intuition.

How about if I asked how you know how safe or unsafe you are in your neighbourhood? Would you produce a list of ward rankings on violent or petty crime? If so, would it be in relation to your city? Your country? The rest of the world? Other places you’d lived? Or would you explain how you feel when you walk down the street at night?

This isn’t a binary choice…

As I said at the start, this is not to discredit the innumerable gains that the principles of the scientific method have offered the world – these are well-known and documented – but instead to highlight the things this method has missed (or ignored) – even when the answers have been right under its nose. The costs of doing so have also been vast.

While we obviously don’t want to throw away the scientific rationalism that has created so many critical breakthroughs in so many fields, we also don’t want to continue to doom ourselves to repeat its omissions, late acknowledgments and incomplete narratives on the world we live in.

When do we trust non-scientific knowledge?

I don’t know where exactly we draw a line, but I do know that it has currently ended-up much too far in one direction, undermining some of our most significant knowledge in the process.

So maybe we start with our own attitudes; we acknowledge that there is fundamental knowledge that we all hold, that may, at times, be greater than the scientific knowledge we have available to us at the moment. Once we have made this acknowledgement, hopefully it will open the door to discussions around more specifics as they arise. At this point, our kneejerk response is to collectively discredit anything that has not undergone a very particular process of examination. By acknowledging that some of our most important knowledge has undergone no such process, maybe we can begin to relearn the potential of intuition, instinct, experience and feeling to help us make better decisions, address issues in a more timely way, and appreciate the ideas of people and cultures less-wed to the scientific method?

*Question: does this piece fit the ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ theme of our work, or should this have gone elsewhere? I’m aware that the direct implications for organisations are pretty abstract, but thought it was worth discussing here, nonetheless… any ideas on what these ideas mean for voluntary, community and non-profit organisations?

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Celebrating Failure

We may not celebrate our successes particularly well in the voluntary and community sectors, but maybe that’s because we’ve stopped believing them? Perhaps if we spent more time actively admitting what’s gone wrong, as the ground-breaking new website, AdmittingFailure.com encourages, we would feel more inclined to celebrate when things really do go well?

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There have been many recurring themes in my time in the voluntary and community sectors. One of these has been the repeated mantra of ‘we are terrible as celebrating our successes!’

On some level, I’ve always agreed with this – for those of us slugging away in often thankless jobs ‘doing good’ in the world, a party, a pat on the back, or some other affirmation of our value is important and shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

However, I’d also like to unpick this one a bit; maybe we fail to celebrate our successes because we declare that everything we do in this sector is ‘successful’? And maybe, when we do so, we stop believing it? And when we stop believing it, maybe we don’t want to make a big deal of each and every supposed success, because doing so would highlight the reality that we’ve been distorting our own narrative, supposedly for funders and donors for so long?

‘Doomed to succeed’

My colleague Titus Alexander once described our sector as ‘doomed to succeed’ – that as soon as our organisations are given money to do something, we are expected to not only achieve, but pass with flying colours, one hundred percent of the time.

And as our income usually hinges on doing so, invariably, we find ways of showing that we do; sometimes this means ‘double-counting’, sometimes cherry-picking ‘easy-win’ beneficiaries, sometimes highlighting one or two of those we’ve supported as being more representative than they really are… whatever it is, we’ve got our ways of making sure whatever we do ‘succeeds’ – at least on paper.

The dangers here are ones I’ve discussed in several blogs before, but primary among them is the impact this has on our ability to learn from our mistakes – namely because we often pretend they aren’t there, or we gloss over them with a selectively told story of what we did working – and working entirely.

The problem is, if we were to read a random selection of most of our organisations’ annual reports, evaluations or publicity documents, we would get the impression that nothing we’ve ever done had not gone perfectly to plan.

Which is basically impossible. But some combination of real and perceived funder/donor pressure tends to keep us from acknowledging this impossibility, allowing us to continue living a whole series of stretched, distorted or otherwise manipulated truths in our working lives.

The research on the importance of mistakes, trial-and-error and learning from things that don’t work is extensive and the conclusions are fairly clear: if you’re afraid of either making or acknowledging your mistakes, you will never do anything new or groundbreaking.

Admitting Failure?

With all of this in mind, my jaw dropped when I read Monday’s Guardian story on Canadian NGO, Engineers Without Borders’ decision to publish a ‘Failure Report’, and launch a website for the international development/aid sector more broadly called, AdmittingFailure.com. It reads:

“By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.

Conversely, by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success.” – AdmittingFailure.com

The site also invites other development/aid orgs around the world to submit their own failures, the idea being that an easily searchable and sharable ‘failure bank’ will emerge, providing a user-generated resource for those looking to, say, implement a change management project in Burkina Faso.

Admitting failure everywhere else in life

At this point I add the critical disclaimer that I’m not just picking on non-profit organisations; the inclination to deny our mistakes and failures is much more widespread than that. We teach it to our kids in schools, our governments do it almost pathologically and the pressures in the private sector to push profit margins all create a similar distorting effect.

Some recent online conversations have got me involved in creating WeScrewedUp.com – a site based on the same principles as AdmittingFailure.com, but applying to our personal lives (work, relationships, families, etc).

We’re also thinking about a similar forum and blog for non-profit/voluntary causes more widely, allowing an honest discussion of things that haven’t worked, to help all of us get closer to those that might.

Do let us know if you’re interested in contributing, are doing something similar, or know of something along these lines that already exists…

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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.

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