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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!!!

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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.

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Open is a gateway drug @ Open for Change 2013

Last month I did a talk at the Open for Change conference in Amsterdam. It was called ‘Open is a gateway drug.’ (You’ll have to watch it to find out what it is a gateway to, though). It was a great event and I reckon there were at least a few more self-identifying anarchists in the crowd by the end of it. Here’s the video.

“Open” is a gateway drug – Liam Barrington-Bush – ODC13 from Open for Change on Vimeo.

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.

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No, I won’t shut up about privilege! …Will you?

Disclaimer: As I write this, I am livid. I’m sick and tired of seeing my friends experience the costs of other friends’ inability to challenge our own privileged status in our organisations. And no, I won’t stop shouting about it!

White people: Available in positions of power everywhere!

White people: still pretty shit at recognising our own privilege. [CC Boston Public Library]

Before I begin, I’d like to suggest reading Sue’s ‘Open Letter to the Movement,’ Nishma’s ‘Inclusive movement: A call to action,’ Guppi’s ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs,’ and if you want to really delve deeper, Andrea Smith’s piece on ‘The Problem with Privilege.’

…Think of this as one angry person of traditional privilege’s open letter to all of the people who also hold traditional privilege in environmental and social justice organisations.

We all hold privilege in particular situations, but some of us experience it as the norm, rather than the exception in our lives. We are usually, but not exclusively, white, male, straight and at least semi-affluent. And whether we pay attention to it or not, traditional power structures have been built in our image.

I use the verb ‘hold’ quite deliberately in relation to privilege. I increasingly feel it is less passive an action than I used to think. Traditional privilege is held by those who’ve always had it, by continuing to pursue the status quo, as others are excluded and silenced by it. When we aren’t actively challenging privilege, we may well be perpetuating it, regardless of what other worthy work our organisations are doing.

Very few unions, NGOs, voluntary or non-profit organisations I work with have bucked this trend.

Discrimination: Still going strong

We’ve had information about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. available to us for a long time now. We’ve seen lunch counter sit-ins and riots, and declared ourselves to be friends of those who have struggled – and often given their lives – to create a world that treats them as human beings.

Most of us will acknowledge many of the ways that discrimination still takes place in the world: police violence, pay gaps, media portrayals…

But there are plenty of ways we still don’t acknowledge discrimination.

  • Do we acknowledge the ways that only posting our new jobs on job websites frequented primarily by others with considerable privilege is likely to mean we continue to look like the same organisation we have since the 1950s?
  • Do we know how much more difficult it is for someone who has grown up in a home that speaks another language, or even dialect, to feel comfortable enough to claim ‘excellent written and spoken English’ when they see it as a constant requirement in all our job descriptions?
  • Do we look at the ways that the dismissal of visceral, spiritual, traditional forms of knowledge that are core to so many other cultures, can make it far harder for others to feel comfortable in meetings, or working relationships more widely?
  • Do we ask ourselves how it might feel to attend yet another panel filled with white men, given yet another space to tell a wider audience what various white men have to say about a topic?

While it’s not to say there aren’t specific – and at times valid – reasons for each of the above, continuing to assume that their occasional validity makes them universally ok, means we are constantly closing and dead-bolting our doors to others who should be free to help shape the organisations and movements we are a part of.

Maybe some people with less in the way of traditional privilege really won’t want to engage, preferring to create alternative spaces that work for their communities. But even if this is the case, there is a level of responsibility on those of us who hold traditional privileges to make sure that is not the only option on the table.

As a white male, I won’t pretend I understand all of the ways in which lots of people struggle with discrimination in work places. But I’m also doing my best to accept what I’m being told about so many other peoples’ experiences of organisational cultures, rather than trying to judge them through my own lenses. When one story after another corroborate very similar feelings of dismissal and exclusion in social change organisations, I have to assume that I’ve got it wrong, and that my lack of understanding is the result of a blind spot afforded by so many layers of privilege I bring into my work.

I know that several of my good friends have become deeply depressed, and even suicidal, in large part due to their inability to be heard or have their concerns addressed within the largely white, patriarchal structure of our organisations.

Too often, when they have reached this point, their issues have been dismissed as unrelated mental health issues, absolving the people and organisations’ of any culpability for what has happened, de-legitimising peoples’ own perspectives on their lived experiences.

This is why I’m so angry. These stories are avoidable, if we actually took on the realities of the harm we are causing our friends, and to the causes that are losing their efforts and perspectives, each day.

From intellectual to visceral change

My gradual process of accepting the judgements of others about their experiences of our organisations, comes from a visceral acknowledgement of the issues, not just an intellectual one.

One way that organisation’s perpetuate certain demographics and dynamics is through the notion of professionalism that tries to keep everything work-related within the realm of intellect. This is European Enlightenment thinking (which feels incredibly foreign in much of the world), dominating our organisations. Many other cultures see more visceral, emotional understandings, to be just as important as one’s intellectual, rational point of view.

The empathy we need to find is not going to be found via intellectual understanding of someone else’s struggles, but through a visceral sense of empathy and human connection, and a clear sense that what they are experiencing is fundamentally wrong. When we try to relegate these conversations to the intellectual, we can easily make the rational case for why we continue to do what we’ve always done. When we feel some sense of connection with what someone else is feeling though, it’s far harder to ‘mansplain’ (or ‘whitesplain’) it away.

Privilege as wallpaper

I’ve written before, as have others, about the invisible nature of privilege when you have it; that the same things that exclude some, make others feel at home (or at least not too far from it).

But when we feel at home, we often de-prioritise the need for change. Everything else comes to be more immediately important, even when we intellectually recognise that all is not right.

Every time we de-prioritise asking the questions about making our organisations truly welcoming places for people who haven’t had very similar life experiences to our own, we reinforce our power and privilege. Privilege is making the choice to continue to inflict hardship on others, because doing so is easier than digging into a realm of very difficult questions, about ourselves, about our organisations, about the ways we relate to one another and on whose terms. Privilege is also simply being ‘too busy’ to open this can of worms. Without much effort, I can choose to put privilege on the backburner again and again, but that doesn’t give someone experiencing its flipside the ability to stop experiencing it until ‘other things settle down a bit.’

Is privilege our priority? No.

Addressing this stuff is HARD. But not nearly as hard as it is to be on the receiving end of it, day after day. That’s why all of us, when we find ourselves in positions of privilege, need to push it to the forefront – shout about it wherever we can.

Maybe a starting point for those who haven’t begun to make an effort in this area, is to acknowledge – even to ourselves – that it is not as high a priority as we claim it is.

If we acknowledge that, how do we feel about that acknowledgement? Are we comfortable with knowing that when we choose not to prioritise looking at the individual and institutional forms of oppression we are a part of, we are assuming they are less-important than the wider social and environmental justice aims of our organisations? We are accepting the depression and the resentment of people we consider our friends as an acceptable cost of our work?

I’ll leave that with each of you to answer for yourselves. It’s not that any of us can change all the ways that privilege affects people’s lives, but we can be more conscious of it, along with the many ways we benefit in different situations. We can also change specific parts of our work or our behaviours to open up new spaces for others to be able to shape some of these critical conversations.

But here’s the simplest starting point, highlighted by Guppi in her ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs‘ post: listen to what others are telling us and don’t try to explain it away. If we can’t do that, we won’t be part of any solution.

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Chapter 4 of Anarchists in the Boardroom delves into the questions of power and privilege in social change organisations. Feel free to order a copy.

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Talking Anarchists in the Boardroom w/ David Wilcox

Today I sat down with David Wilcox, one of the UK voluntary sector social media and network thinking veterans… and he interviewed me about the book! You can see more of David’s work at http://socialreporter.com/, but here’s the interview we did today:

You can also get your copy of Anarchists in the Boardroom here.

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Talking privilege amongst progressives

My good friend Sue posted this open letter today, challenging the progressive/ green/ social justice movement she has lived and breathed for years, to look at the ways it had made her life as a brown woman more difficult than it should have been. Progressive people still discriminate, despite our best intentions. Sue is on stress leave because of it. Those of us who’ve been privileged enough to be able to walk into groups and organisations that are built largely in our image have  a responsibility to understand how we may be inadvertently closing doors to many of the people who should be front-and-centre of the kinds of change we are promoting. Thank you to Sue for putting this out there for the rest of us. I hope it can help to open up some much needed dialogue.

_______________

Dearest Movement

Being a women of colour in the uk movement/non-profit sector is incredibly difficult. I am on day one of stress leave that I had to fight hard for – I worked hard to realise it was not my own failing as a professional and it was ok to admit that I needed time out and that my body, soul and spirit had reached it’s limit. I totally love the movement, but I was no longer sure if the movement loved me. My PTSD has partly been brought on by an insane amount of direct action over the past few years, but for me that was not the main cause – my working life has been to stand with community, I love nothing more than a beautiful, cheeky action. It was the invisible power dynamics and homogenity of personality types in the spaces we work that doesn’t always leave room for people who have different dispositions, mental health needs, who question campaigns and priorities, come from a different political analysis or for me as women of colour to have a real seat at the table, that did me in.

The homogeneity in our movement is systemic and and it’s shocking as it comes from groups that often consider themselves the most progressive and working from a social justice background. I have a lot of respect and love for a lot of the people, orgs and groups that make up the various segments of our movement but they have become toxic spaces for people of colour to operate. I know I am taking a risk writing this – some people will feel hurt, I might be risking professional relationships, but the reason why I work in a non-hierarchical anarchist setting is so that I can keep my truth fresh.

I am at my last stand and it is time for allies to stand up and to begin to seriously change these dynamics. I don’t just mean a few workshops or putting in a wheelchair ramp (those things are AWESOME but you don’t tack diversity on) this is deep deep work to really take a stand. I don’t know exactly what that work will look like – and I give props to everyone who has begun it – I can walk with you on the way, but you are going to have to do this work, and not just if everything else gets done…but front and centre…if we truly want to hold the values of anti-oppression, equality and justice in your groups.

Having just come back from Global Power Shift it was this lesson that hit me hardest – we have the data, we know how to lobby mp’s we can shut down power stations, but do we relate and support our movements and especially those that don’t look and think like us. If we do not build a strong, beautiful diverse movement all of our elaborate and clever campaigns are for nothing.

I had internalised all race, power and privilege dynamics around me I thought I just didn’t know how to play nice, maybe I didn’t know how to do my job I’ve spent years doing, thought maybe I was too angry and questioned my own mental wellness. But after a week with global organizers in our conversations between our meetings and sessions I heard my story over and over and over…the light bulb went on…

Our community who operates in these environmental and social justice spaces need to know that those people closest to you – who might not look like you are struggling – to do the jobs we love and to keep a livelihood, to have a voice, to stand in our power, you are pushing us out of the spaces where we most need to be, to make sure you are connected to the people you are supposed to be fighting for, so that you yourselves don’t keep replicating those same systems that we say we are trying to fight. I know that this is not reserved to just race or gender, it moves across class, gender identities and sexuality, and I stand with you.

I’m close to giving up everyday, but it’s my love for the communities who are fighting, the world’s diverse communities who hold the deep analysis, solutions and stories that will wake us up and need to be heard at this time of climate change that keep me from packing it all in. So, I’m taking a bit of risk with my truth for the young generation of activists and social justice workers that often keep quiet on this because they don’t want to lose their jobs or become unpopular in our organizing spaces. I say this with deepest love for all the work that everyone does and in hopes that this will bring us closer to the society and vision that you are all working tirelessly for.

In answer to your question Nishma, this is may be the norm, but it’s not right and I can’t wait for us to Shake It Up!

Love,

Sue
x

For an inspiring incredible read on Indigenous views of feminism, decolonization and extraction read here! http://thefeministwire.com/2013/06/indigenous-feminisms-walia/

This note is in response to a blog by Nishma Doshi
http://www.nishmadoshi.net/2013/i-was-fired-because-i-gave-off-negative-vibes/

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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…

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Bosses shouldn’t be afraid of being tougher on misguided consultants

I got pretty worked-up when I read Gill Taylor’s recent piece in Third Sector, arguing that managers ‘treat staff too nicely.’  But when I calmed down, I realised that Taylor’s analysis makes perfect sense within a few of our organisations’ most widespread, but ultimately incorrect, assumptions about people and management. If we believe the worst of our fellow colleagues, it really is time we got tougher on them!

Gill Taylor

Gill Taylor, via Third Sector

Ultimately, there is a negative view of humanity at play here – people need to be controlled to avoid bad things happening. But there’s more to it. Here are three issues that underpin Taylor’s thinking:

1. The relationship between more and less senior staff is like the relationship between a parent and a young child.
While I could pick apart the issues with applying these attitudes to parenting, think of the traditional model: ‘I know best, listen to me, you’ll be alright, kid!’
This is the first assumption that Taylor – and most of our organisations – go wrong on. Management is one skill-set; counselling those who’ve experienced abuse, or running training courses, or working with youth on the street are others. Management is not ‘superior’ to other forms of work, even if our organisations have built this assumption into their structures, taking people out of jobs they do well, and making them become managers as their only hope of career progression.
If managers are superior to others, the patronising attitude outlined above makes perfect sense. This is what leads Taylor to say things like, “Treating staff too nicely isn’t necessarily good for them,” which can only conjure memories of a 1950s doctor telling a new mother ‘if you give them too much love, they’ll become spoilt!’

2. Problems are questions of fault, and the fault always trickles down the organisational ladder
When someone acts out, when an event doesn’t go to plan, when conflicts erupt at the office, organisational culture tends to scapegoat someone as ‘the cause’ of whatever bad thing happened. Rather than really try to understand the nuance of why an event failed (Were there other events on the same day? Were there unexpected cancellations? Did we know who we were pitching it to?), or why someone hasn’t been doing their job (Were they being adequately supported? Do they have issues outside of the office that are affecting their work? Are they being bullied?), many organisations find it far easier to nail someone with the blame. The last question that most organisations seem prepared to ask about troublesome employees, is ‘why did several of us think this person should be hired?’ Managers are the reason every employee is in an organisation, so perhaps asking themselves what made the person seem employable and how they could support the qualities that led to their hire, might be a good place to start when problems arise.

3. Compliance creates accountability
If we believe points 1 and 2, compliance (or ‘getting tough’) seems like a natural response. As a manager, you are superior to your staff and when something goes wrong, it is clearly that member of staff’s fault, therefore, how can you force them into being better employees?
But like a building built on a foundation of quicksand, this third assumption also crumbles under its own weight.
Compliance offers us the allusion of accountability, but trusting people and supporting them when they need it usually gives us the real thing.
Compliance measures that try to force people to prove they’re not screwing the organisation over (like so many sign-off processes and staff evaluations), often create barriers to meaningful contribution, and encourage the very behaviour they aim to avoid.
But if we assume that people who work in social change organisations want to do the right thing, the vast majority of the time, we might find that they do it. We can address the exceptions when they arise, rather than creating structures that assume the worst of all our staff, as so many policies imply, just by existing.

Ultimately, Gill Taylor and the many who continue the tradition started by an American Industrialist of the same last name (Fredrick Winslow, for the record), have a lot to answer for. Their assumptions and ‘solutions’ are what have made our organisations so much less like people, creating hostile, adversarial relationships, where they wouldn’t otherwise be.

While my gut response is reflected in my flip on the original article’s title, I hope that through conversation and experience, consultants like Taylor can see the error of their ways and try starting their work from an assumption of human decency.

But failing that, let’s stop giving them our business or the space to promote themselves, shall we?

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The way Dan Pallotta thinks about charity is dead wrong

I’ve noticed Dan Pallotta’s ‘The way we think about charity is dead wrong’ TED talk seems to be spreading around the internet quite quickly. The title grabbed me, but the content couldn’t be more off. So I thought I’d weigh in with an alternative perspective.

Firstly, where I agree with him: many of the ways our charities work, stifle innovation.

Definitely. But his approach is to turn the charitable sector into an extension of the free market. Even with an opening in which he acknowledges that human stories can’t be monitized, he goes on to prescribe market solutions for the rest of what the non-profit world should be doing. ‘Philanthropy is the market for Love,’ he tells us, hinting at the lens he views the world through early on in the talk.

But there is no ‘market for Love,’ and markets are not where the solution lies, in my opinion. Two of his specific arguments truly irk me:

1) That more talented people go into higher paying jobs, and thus are put off working in the non-profit sectors

2) That change is best achieved by massive organisations addressing massive social issues.

Mo’ money, mo’ talent?

Just look at the most highly paid jobs in a market economy and how many of them have even a minimal social value? Conversely, how many of them have a sum negative impact on the world? The financial sector (in the broadest terms), attracts those who are primarily interested in making money – to the detriment of all else.

I don’t believe that ‘the most talented people’ the world has to offer are the ones who have laid-off so many workers in the name of ‘staying competitive,’ or who have decided that wars and climate change are simply the ‘costs of doing business.’  These actions require a certain kind of deliberate ignorance, which is not a trait civil society organisations need. Quite the opposite!

As charities begin to reinforce the market logic that you should spend your time making as much money as you possibly can for yourself, it will only reinforce the many social and environmental side-effects that such an attitude has in an unchecked free market.

The motivations that often get people working in a charity or NGO, such as passion for and commitment to a cause, or a better world, more generally, are at odds with this. They see life’s goals as more pluralistic than simply ‘get as much as you can for yourself.’ That attitude is killing our species, our societies and the planet we all call home. Infinite growth, whether for an individual bank account, or a global economy, cannot be maintained on a planet of finite resources. It is the problem.

We need different ways of understanding value and success.

Further, the kinds of university programmes Pallotta describes as producing ‘the best talent’ still seem to churn out private sector MBAs who exchange everything in the world, for short-term profits, and who have been at the core of countless broader scandals and crises. Our ‘Ivy League’ institutions are indeed part of the problem. Some may come out with their moral compass reasonably intact, but the vast majority learn to run a kind of ‘efficient’ organisation that can only see budget lines, at the cost of anything that can’t be measured in money.

Dan Pink has written extensively about costs of trying to link money and motivation, and argued convincingly that intrinsic motivation (like passion for your work) is far stronger than extrinsic motivation (like a bonus, or a high salary). When our systems cater to the latter, lots of bad things start to happen, encouraging a range of ‘gaming’ tactics, in which dishonesty becomes the norm, and the true objectives are sidelined for the short-term targets with personal self-interest attached. Basically, these kinds of motivations (Pink calls them ‘if-then’ motivators) pit self-interest against collective interest, encouraging people to act selfishly, rather than trying to align ‘what is best for me’ and ‘what is best for us.’

Bigger is better?

There’s another idea that ‘bigger organisations are more efficient, and thus more equipped to address big social ills, than smaller ones.’

But this doesn’t hold much water, either.

Big organisations seem far better at producing quantitative results, at the cost of qualitative ones. And to the point where the ‘quality’ can actually be a sum negative impact (rather than just ‘not as good as it could be’ one). Stories abound of big NGOs that have ended up doing more harm than good, as their disconnect from the on-the-ground realities of so many of their own projects, means that for all their ‘efficiency savings,’ they were actually doing the wrong thing in the first place!

Billions and billions in governmental and philanthropic funds are channelled into the sphere of aid and international development each year, but many of the problems keep getting worse. We mean well, but for all our best intents, most of those costly, large scale efforts aren’t achieving what they are meant to.

When it comes to complex social change, context and relationships really are everything. Just because something worked well in one time and place, doesn’t mean it will easily be carried over to another. ‘Scaling up’ – a notion at the core of so many large programmes – is a doomed idea, as tantalising as it can be. Organisations which try to replicate one solution, in another place, often miss the critical non-replicable factors of individual relationships and nuanced context that were at the core of any initial successes.

Alternatively, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have advocated ‘scaling across’ – a more grassroots process, in which smaller, local projects can share ideas directly with one another, spreading value where it is needed, without imposing it as a blueprint to be followed to the letter.

‘Scaling up’ comes from the kind of managerialism still taught in many of the institutions Pallotta advocates non-profits get their execs from. It is the notion that distant, well-paid ‘experts’ know better than people who are experiencing an issue themselves, how best to address that issue.

The hubris of this long-standing belief is staggering, and is at the core of why many smaller, local efforts, often do better work than larger organisations – even when appearing ‘inefficient’: people understand their own situations better than anyone else.

If you knock down those two pillars of Pallotta’s talk, I think the rest crumbles with it. What he advocates is more of the same ‘NGOs should be more like the private sector’ approach that has been advocated – and often applied, at considerable cost – to the world of social change organisations for decades.

I say no. ‘More like people’ isn’t afraid to learn things from a range of places, but the lessons Pallotta advocates specifically undermine the sense of humanity that we need more of. If we want to make more of a difference through our organisations, let’s not rely on MBAs, devoid of any ethical grounding, or large scale development projects that have no way of really knowing what’s going on at street level. We don’t have to be puritanical, as Pallotta suggests, to avoid adopting the greed that creates so many of the social ills our organisations work against. We just need to stay in touch with the values that motivate us to create change in the world.

Like what you’ve read? Help publish my book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ and pre-order it now!

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change how we organise. change the world. (PS – we can start crowd-funding the book now)

…The title is why I’ve written Anarchists in the Boardroom and have started the crowd-funding campaign to have it published today. In the last 12 or so years of varying combinations of activism and organisational development work, I really believe this to be true. The old ways are holding us back, limiting our collective potential to create change in the world and driving wedges between people who should be working together for something better. If we change how we do what we do, our time, effort and energy may go infinitely further than the old hierarchies could ever have imagined…

The ends do not justify the means. In the name of this slogan, many injustices have been spawned, from large scale atrocities, to out-of-touch campaigns and services, no longer serving those they began operating in the names of.

Dehumanising management systems and practices – even when they are well-intentioned – exemplify ‘ends-justify-the-means’ thinking every day, sucking the life out of the people who should be most committed to their organisations’ work.

The essence of management, as we know it, lies in the belief that ‘if we don’t tell others what to do, they’ll probably get it wrong.’ But it’s this belief that is wrong, yet most of our organisational structures are built upon it.

If we truly believe in equality, we need to organise ourselves with a clear sense of equality, ensuring that all of those involved have an equal voice in shaping what we do.

If we truly believe in human potential, we need to give it the space to reveal itself, not boxing it into a pre-set job title, or measurable outcome, but allowing it to find its own path to greatness.

If we truly believe in accountability, we need to be transparent in all that we do, making sure our work leaves nothing to be ashamed of, rather than simply trying to hide away the parts of it that might embarrass us.

There is no reason why we should have to undermine the things we believe in, in order to make the world a better place. Quite the opposite! In fact, doing so is usually a good indication that we won’t get where we think we’re going.

The adoption of industrial organising models has not brought the promise to social change organisations that it did for the manufacturing process. The kinds of social transformation most of us want to see are not made on assembly lines, but emerge through the countless autonomous actions of those who care, living their values in every stage of the change process, bringing about something new through their many individual choices to do things differently.

But I believe there is a path from the institutions of yesterday, to the unknown organising patterns of tomorrow. I’ve chosen to look to social media and new social movements for hope, but I’m sure others will find it in other unexpected sources of inspiration.

I’ve written this book as my first significant contribution to what will be a varied, messy, and unpredictable process of collective change, from professionalism to humanity; hierarchy to network; control to trust.

There’s no reason the same principles that can change our organisations can’t also change our world. Think of your organisation as one-of-many test grounds for something much bigger.

When we let go of our obsessive attempts to control complex groups of people (whether organisations, or societies), we open up new possibilities and human potentials in every realm.

But like the transition I describe, this book will not be published just because I want it to be. Others will have to want it to, if it is going to get beyond my laptop.

…Which is why today is the start of the crowd-funding campaign on StartSomeGood.com to publish ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom.’ You can visit the campaign page here to pledge, or read a snippet from the book if you’re still looking to be convinced.

Pledge for a book, pledge for a bit of my time, pledge for a few copies for the office and use them to spark discussions amongst colleagues as to how you can all start living your values in the ways you work to bring about a bit of good in the world each day…

And if you’re not in a position to pledge right now, feel free to share it with anyone else you think would be interested in reading the book.

I am deeply appreciative for whatever you can do to help make this happen and wherever we take the conversations from here!

Hugs,

Liam

Pledge now!

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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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