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The Law of Organisational Affluence or ‘Why hotels are more than a waste of money’

‘The more social change organisations decide they need to pay for things, the less good work they do.’

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in...

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in…

Let’s call this ‘The Law of Organisational Affluence,’ and before you write this blanket statement off, let me add the disclaimer that, like all ‘laws,’ it will probably have almost as many exceptions as it does validations.

But indulge me…

Necessity breeds reciprocity

In countless community groups, artist networks and activist collectives, there is so little money going around, that people must find other ways of getting things done, often with the help of others.

Travelling to an event? Can you get a ride with someone?

Staying overnight? Can you crash on someone’s couch?

Need to promote something? Can you see who will add it to their newsletter, website, or put your flyers in their lobby?

Comparatively, in most wealthier organisations, the ease, convenience and predictability of a cash transaction comes to change the nature of these kinds of questions quite a lot.

Travelling to an event? Get a taxi.

Staying overnight? Book a hotel room.

Need to promote something? Pay for ad space.

In each of these later scenarios, the trade-off for ease, convenience, and predictability, is not just a question of the additional money spent – something more is lost when we start to assume that such expenses are a) ‘needed’ and b) the best way to address these needs.

Cash transactions close the door to a more reciprocal kind of give-and-take, and this reciprocity has long been one of the underpinning tenets of the kind of work our organisations do. Without a community and a culture of this kind of reciprocity, it is far easier to lose track of the bigger picture that our work is a part of.

Of course there will be times when any organisation will really need these things, but there is a significant difference between organisational cultures when such expenses are the exception, and when they are the rule.

Slummin’ with students

Working with a small student organisation last year, I travelled a fair bit. This usually meant staying on couches of those hosting me. I also slept on gym floors, in tents, at a couple of youth hostels and multiple scout camp dormitories with this particular organisation. Whatever the students got, that’s what those of us who were paid to be there got as well.

It was basic. Not a luxurious way to work, but hotels were one of many things that were simply not in the budget.

And while this was largely a question of necessity, it had some very positive side-effects. The lines between staff and students in the network were far blurrier than the paid/unpaid divide in most organisations. This made for immeasurably stronger relationships than most of those I’ve experienced in institutions where such delineations are more clearly defined. And stronger relationships usually meant a much higher standard of work getting done (relative to my experiences with wealthier organisations), because people really felt a shared sense of commitment to each other and the actions they were involved in. They also just felt more comfortable together, having had considerably more ‘in-between time’ to get to know each other. And the lack-of-hotels was definitely a part of this.

If I had retreated to lonely hotel rooms after each workshop (as I have with other organisations), it would have been more than just my bed (or sleeping bag) that changed. I would have missed countless hours of important conversations with students – whether about the campaign they were spearheading on campus, or something entirely unrelated going on in their lives. Both helped us work better together, though would have been unlikely to fit into the formally scheduled activities. Avoiding hotels opened the possibilities of the kinds of relationships that rarely emerge when shared time is entirely pre-determined by scheduled activities.

Even if there had been a budget to pay for hotels, doing so would have undermined the work. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that this particular organisation didn’t write these kinds of costs into most of their funding bids.

In times of scarcity, these kinds of interactions are made plentiful by necessity, but when there is more money in the picture, such experiences are often lost.

Necessity breeds reciprocity; reciprocity nurtures stronger relationships; stronger relationships build community; community improves the odds of better work getting done.

‘But!… But!… But!…’

I can hear the arguments – ‘I shouldn’t have to sleep on someone’s couch/ troll through my networks to find a ride/ beg and borrow for the things I need to do my work!’

To which I say, ‘why not?’ Are these really such major sacrifices to make for an important cause? And are they in fact sacrifices, or simply trade-offs? A minimal loss of privacy, for a greater sense of connection with the people who are a part of your work and your cause?

The sense of entitlement that can often sneak into organisational cultures does not just cost money – it costs relationships, and may well affect the quality of work that is or isn’t being done.

But we’ll never know about the potential we are missing if we don’t give it a try.

What can you avoid paying for, next time the choice arises?

What can you stop budgeting for, the next time you’re writing a proposal?

What might you do instead?

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To self-publish, or not to self-publish? That is the question…

At least, that’s the question dominating my thoughts in recent days. While seemingly a logistical decision that I shouldn’t be wasting any of your time with, it raises a few deeper questions I’m hoping some of you might be able to help with.

Taking a risky experiment

Can a book be 'new media'? I think so...

Can a book be ‘new media’? I think so…

My premise for this book – based on hundreds of conversations over several years, is that there are heaps of folks working in voluntary/ NGO/ non-profit settings, who have both deeply troubling stories about how many of our organisations are being run (ethically and practically), and have some gut instincts about how these things could be done differently.

Very, very few of these people have ever read a book related to management or organising practices, likely because they either seem tediously boring, or because they don’t feel they offer any prospects for change in the position they are in (whether they are administrators, or Chief Execs).

I want this book to become the beginning of an experiment, where a wider range of people, in all parts of various organisations can start talking about, thinking about, and most importantly, trying out, new ways of working for social change. I’ve done my best to make it interesting (significantly story-based), and to emphasise the potential for anyone within an organisation to bring about different kinds of change.

I hope Anarchists in the Boardroom can be ‘a management book for people who don’t read management books.’

But clearly from a publishers perspective, what I’m suggesting is deeply naive, and hugely financially risky, if it’s not targeted at their existing demographics of ‘people who read management books.’ After all, when you put a heap of money into something like a book, you need to be able to sell it!

To which I say, it may well be naive and risky, but I think it’s a worthwhile naive risk to take, given how few of the people affected by crappy, dehumanising organisational management practices, are actively involved in the conversations to change them.

Same message, different presentation and the question of niche audiences

I’d guess that maybe a quarter of the ideas in this book are ‘new’ – in that I haven’t come across them elsewhere before.

The vast majority of the content is repackaged, re-framed and re-purposed from an array of other sources and places, ranging from relationship guidance literature, to non-violent direct action tactics.

But since these ideas are not necessarily ‘new’ – i.e. – they have been published before in a range of places, I’ve had a pretty lukewarm response from initial conversations with publishers around them.

Yet one of the beauties of the internet, is the ability to re-frame ideas in a thousand different ways, none with massive resonance, but each reaching a different audience that would not connect with them otherwise. In my mind, management literature (in the broadest sense) has aimed to appeal to those who are interested enough in organisational structures to read a whole book on it. Which makes perfect sense for a business. Meanwhile, those who are simply asking questions like ‘why does the boss make so much more money than me?,’ or ‘how could we involve a wider range of people in our decision making processes?,’ or ‘why do so many decent people treat each other so badly at the office?’ don’t have a place to have those conversations.

So on the one hand, I’m looking at a potentially very small niche of ‘people interested in management, who don’t read management books, but will read this one because it doesn’t look like a management book,’ and on the other, I feel there is potential for a far wider audience than most management books tend to garner, given how common these questions are in so many social change organisations.

But given that even this niche demographic – let alone the much wider one – are not proven audiences in the publishing world, backing this book would be a massive risk, financially and reputationally.

And to be honest, scale is not what matters most to me, while it has to be for a publisher. If this book can connect w/ a small number of people, in a meaningful way, and help to articulate and legitimise their experiences, while inspiring them to experiment with new kinds of organisation, in whatever ways they can, I will be happy.

…If I can get some work off the back of it, with those who want to explore the ideas with me a bit more , that would of course also be great 😉

The pressure to write a ‘how to’ guide

Another piece of feedback coming from publishers is to turn the book into a ‘How To’ guide. But for those who’ve read my blogs before, you’ll likely see my issues with this.

I’ve been told that a How To guide is ‘what the market wants’ from this kind of book, but I feel strongly that our reliance on and expectation for cookie-cutter solutions is one of the places we’ve gone totally wrong, organisationally, and why most of the ‘solutions’ to questions of organisational change tend to leave more problems in their wake.

Context and relationships are everything – a good idea is useless if it doesn’t keep them at its core.

Thus, my writing approach has been to tell stories, highlight key principles, and trust that the readers will be able to find ways of picking and choosing the relevant ideas, and figuring out their own practicalities, for their own situations.

This may be overly stubborn on my part, but to write a book of prescriptive change would be antithetical to the ideas I want to get across.

Trying to align the process with the messages

There’s also the question of publishing in a way that fits with the ‘more like people’ values I’m advocating. Can it be ‘shared’ rather than ‘distributed’? Can I make it available for a voluntary donation, and still cover costs? Can I blur the lines between what is actually published, and where people take the ideas after they read it, through a less-hierarchical online platform connected with the book?

I’d like to find out, though I don’t think a lot of publishers would be that keen to take these chances with me.

But if you think otherwise, I’m still open to possibilities 🙂

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Don’t bank on Payment by Results

…Still frustrated by ‘payment by results’ funding. Even more so when someone from Barclays bank decides to explain to charities how to make it work. Because it won’t, and we need to make that clear. Its costs will be significant, if we let it become the standard for public funding.

Diego Rivera w/ a monkey: better than payment by results

Diego Rivera w/ a monkey: better than payment by results

I’m going to offer David McHattie the benefit of the doubt and assume his recent piece on how charities should prepare for payment by results (PBR) funding was based on a naive pragmatism, rather than a more cynical attempt to make public services run more like the disgraced bank he works for.

There are so many fundamental and damaging problems with the Payment by Results model, that no one article could give them all the space they need. From crowding-out smaller organisations who can’t afford the financial risk, to encouraging exactly the types of ‘gaming’ approaches that target-driven funding has long-fostered, and ignoring the unpredictable complexity of social problems (that most funding regimes are guilty of), PBR is a powder keg for the voluntary sector and anything shy of an outright denouncement can only lend it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

What McHattie has done is offered some seemingly innocuous steps for voluntary organisations to begin adopting the same toxic metric culture that has recently put his own employer into disrepute for fixing interest rates.

…Let me explain.

To start, for all of its claims of being ‘outcome funding,’ PBR is still target funding. But with bonuses attached.

Here’s why:

  • An organisation receives funding based on achieving its outcomes
  • Those outcomes are measured by outputs – ‘x’ number of ‘y’ achieved = outcome
  • The number of outputs deemed to represent the completion of an outcome are set in advance
  • Outputs set in advance, and required to achieve funding, are targets.

With this in mind, all the arguments against target funding continue to apply to this supposedly new system. PBR is no improvement on what has come before. The addition of bonuses – much like at Barclays and the other big banks – will only worsen the effects of older target-based approaches.

The core of what’s wrong with both the old and the new target-driven funding regimes, is what former Bank of England director Charles Goodhart called ‘Goodhart’s Law’; that when numbers are used to control people (whether as bonuses, targets, or standards), they will never offer the improvements or accountability they are meant to. David Boyle of the New Economics Foundation has gone a step further, arguing that such systems create worse results than not having them in place, as a range of dishonest means are inevitably devised by those being judged on their abilities to create particular numbers, to make sure those numbers are created!

If your job is on the line over the number of people who have received work-readiness training, you will find a way to make those numbers add up to what they need to, to keep yourself in a job. The training might get shortened, 1 full-day course might become 2 half-day courses, people might be counted multiple times for what are essentially the same efforts, those who are more difficult to reach will be ignored in favour of the easiest recipients. Whatever the definitions set, you will find ways around them. And so will your organisation.

When this happens, learning opportunities are lost, accountability is destroyed, and those who are meant to be helped become numbers to be gamed.

These problems are also reinforced by a reality many of our organisations struggle to admit: that we live in a world far too complex to be able to say in advance that ‘a’ will lead to ‘b’. Even in broad-brush terms this kind of organisational fortune telling is hit-and-miss, but when it gets taken a step further (‘this many ‘a’ will lead to this many ‘b’), we are truly taking the piss. We are giving ourselves (and those who fund us) false illusions of control over situations that are the emergent results of countless interdependent factors beyond our organisational reach, whether individuals’ family lives, the economy, or the communities they are a part of, to name but a few.

And if we acknowledge that we can only play a partial role in preventing even one former inmate from reoffending (to draw on McHattie’s example), then the rest of the PBR/targets house-of-cards comes crumbling down. The only ways to keep it standing are through luck or dishonesty.

And dishonesty has been a hallmark of similar systems at Barclays and other banks. The impacts that ‘bonus culture’ has had on the financial sector were made clear by the 2008 economic collapse; from the most local level, to the most global, bonuses incentivised not ‘better performance’ but a range of quasi-legal and outright fraudulent activity designed to benefit particular individuals, rather than whole systems.

This is an inevitable result of what Dan Pink describes as if/then’ motivators (‘if you do this, then you get that’). Whether as bonuses for individual bankers reaching sales targets, or bonuses for charities hitting targets supporting former inmates to stay out of prison, the results will be the same: more dishonesty, less accountability. The paperwork might tell us that ‘more is being achieved for less,’ but the on-the-ground reality will tell us otherwise.

Taking charitable advice from a bank is like taking health advice from a fast food chain, and our sector deserves better than to quietly apply the models that have brought so many problems to the rest of the world, to the practicalities of our own critical work.

Going along with PBR might feel like a necessary evil in the interests of those we serve, but we have far too much evidence to the contrary to honestly think that might be the case. This is a system that needs to be scrapped, not ‘navigated.’ The people we exist to serve deserve nothing less.

This is the 3rd in our unexpected series on the issues of Payment by Results funding:

Give Trust, Get Accountability

Bonzo funding: Payment by Results

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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 about self-organisation in Oaxaca

Planton en Oaxaca

Planton (striking teachers’ encampment)

As of this past Tuesday, I am living in Oaxaca, Mexico with my wife, Jen. As much as anything, I’m here to write a book. As it happens though, the ‘here’ is at least as important as the book itself.

For those who’ve followed the blog over the last couple years, the themes I am writing about will be of no surprise. Anarchists in the Boardroom is about how the combination of social media and grassroots social movements are modelling networked, de-centralised forms of self-organisation, that NGO/voluntary/non-profit organisations could (must?) be learning from, if they want to stay relevant and play an active role in making the world a better place in the months and years ahead.

The shortcomings of so many of our organisational systems and structures – across all sectors – have become so glaring as to be farcical, were they not still the accepted standard for getting things done.

My time in London has introduced me to some of the most recent alternatives; the Occupy movement, massive student protestsUKuncut, and the scary-but-all-too-predictable experiences of the London riots… but there is stuff that pre-dates each of the examples of what can happen when we start to organise without organisations.

In recent memory, there is a lineage I have written about before amongst Western protest movements, that links most directly back to the anti-globalisation movement in the early 2000s. Before that are a series of more detached and smaller-scale anarchistic efforts, build on similar principles and values, that go back decades and centuries around countless environmental and social justice causes.

But in parallel to the largely Northern/Western protests that have shadowed our world leaders as they have attempted to sell-off our present and our futures to multinational corporations, there have been sustained movements throughout the Global South demonstrating these alternative ways of organising. Sometimes they have been focused around more localised phenomena, sometimes around the same corporate hegemony that has been at the crux of the more publicised movements in Seattle, Genoa, Quebec City and elsewhere. Regardless, their stories are ones that I knew I needed to better understand.

So my landing in Oaxaca is not entirely coincidental… though I hadn’t fully understood this state’s importance to the things I am writing about, before arriving here.

To pull a brief excerpt from Diana Denham’s introduction to ‘Teaching Rebellion’, a series of reflections from the people’s uprising that took place in Oaxaca in 2006:

“…the movement that surfaced in Oaxaca took over and ran an entire city for six months in June 2006. Government officials fled, police weren’t present to maintain even the semblance of responding to social harm, and many of the government institutions and services that we depend on daily were shut down. Without relying on centralized organisation, neighbourhoods managed everything from public safety (crime rates actually went down dramatically during the course of the six months) to food distribution and transportation. People across the state began to question the established line of western thinking that says communities cannot survive, much less thrive, without the intervention of a separate hierarchy caring for its needs. Oaxaca sent a compelling message to the world in June 2006: The power we need is in our hands.” (p.30)

And beyond this:

“While the APPO [people’s assembly] represented a new and original approach to political organizing in Oaxaca, it also drew from forms of indigenous self-governance, known as usos y costumbres. The APPO, an assembly by name, emphasizes the input of a diverse body of people who discuss issues and make decisions collectively; similarly, in many indigenous communities in Oaxaca, the assembly is the basis for communal governance… It was thousands of individual citizens, centred in the tradition of giving even in times of scarcity, who brought food to the planton [encampment] night after night for so many months, who set up first aid stands at marches, who gave away their blankets to people at the barricades. No political party could have even imagined the collective resources and labor that went into sustaining a social movement of such magnitude.” (p. 77)

Oaxaca from the hills

Oaxaca from the hills

So while I might not have fully appreciated it at the time, I have made a home of a place with a very recent (but also very longstanding) history of modelling some of the ideas that this book is hoping to bring to light as viable alternatives to the command-and-control corporate structures that the non-profit world has actively embraced in the joint causes of ‘professionalism’ and ‘efficiency’ in recent decades.

While I am very aware that references to these kinds of anarchic social movements will not be popular with everyone holding down a comfortable NGO management position, I am also confident that the crisis facing the old way of organising is significant enough to push people who would otherwise dismiss these movements, to look a bit further afield for potential guidance to help adapt to a world that will no longer accept the attempts to control it, that have been at the core of our institutions for so long.

I’m currently trying to strike the balance between improving my Spanish, getting to know the activists that have helped forge this state’s radical history, and actually writing about how this history fits into these bigger picture trends that this book is all about. It’s a lot to do in the next six or so months!

But I couldn’t be in a better place to develop these ideas, and hope that many of you will be a part of the process along the way!

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Social media value by numbers? Try evaluating your marriage that way…

This is a slightly adapted post I made to the (ever-awesome!) eCampaigning Forum email list today, in reply to an email about tools for measuring social media metrics… and why I think it’s about as useful as counting the number of kisses you share with your partner in a given week.

Hey there –

The Kiss

…now evaluate them!

(warning: bit of a rant to follow…)

This may not be exactly the kind of suggestion you’re looking for, but the greatest benefits of social media are rarely the ones you plan for (and thus which can be objectively evaluated against your plans). They may be:

  • A crucial new volunteer emerging from the Twitter woodwork, to make a significant difference for the organisation,
  • Developing a new relationship with someone who might later be able to support the organisation in the future,
  • Receiving pro bono support from an expensive professional who replies to a call for help on your Facebook page,
  • Opening someone in your network up to an aspect of your organisation’s issues they were previously unaware of,
  • An interaction between two people in your network who have never had a chance to engage in dialogue before, around something you shared…

The list could be endless, which is exactly the point – measuring social media primarily by generic metrics will only tell you a minuscule fraction of the value it has provided, in all kinds of unexpected ways.

The judgment on if it is providing ‘value for money’ needs to be made subjectively – do we think this range of anecdotes – often seemingly of minimal significance, when seen on their own, but cumulatively massive and often with a stand-out story or two along the way –  are important enough to keep doing it?

I know that some senior managers and funders who don’t understand social media will focus on the numbers, but we are doing them a disservice to not challenge the logic that underpins these demands.

One of the strongest arguments I’ve used with organisations on this front, is asking a senior manager to provide metrics to justify their face-to-face networking activities;

  • How many networking/schmoozing events have you attended this quarter?
  • How many people have you met at these events?
  • How many people that you have met at these various functions have become ongoing organisational contacts?
  • How many have led to future additional contacts/meetings?
  • How much has the time you spent at these events cost the organisation?

There is an acceptance of the value of networking, even though it is often random, serendipitous and not about specific preconceived outcomes. Social networking needs to be seen in a similar light, if an organisation is going to use it to its potential.

Imagine if a small fraction of everyone in the organisation’s time (not just senior managers) was regularly engaged in the kind of activity that produces the benefits that senior managers know comes from attending a Parliamentary reception, or the launch of a new report?

Some will only worry about what this means for both job titles/descriptions and/or the value of senior management, but others will be excited by the infinite possibilities it offers…

It’s just a thought. I get quite tired of being asked to provide numbers for questions that numbers can’t really answer. Another approach might be to ask whoever wants the data, to evaluate their intimate relationship based on the number of kisses they receive each week… though by the time the figure tells them anything useful, it’ll probably be too late to do anything about it…

Ta from sunny Oaxaca!

Liam

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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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How NOT to Tweet a Good Cause

This is a work-in-progress promotional piece that I thought I’d post for feedback as much as anything. Thinking of making PDF brochures out of an illustrated version, but would love to hear how your less-Twitter-friendly colleagues respond, should you feel inclined to print a copy and share it around your office? Does it just piss people off, or does it start a useful conversation? Thanks! Liam

1. Tweets should always be written in a cold, sterile and impersonal manner.

Liam will tell you how NOT to Tweet for a good cause!

Liam will tell you how NOT to Tweet for a good cause! Sketch by Dave Schokking.

Think of them as 140 character press releases, or a text from a doctor’s surgery reminding you of a colonoscopy appointment. This avoids any notion by followers that there are real people with personalities operating your account (which could be disastrous for your reputation!). Better still, add applications that will ‘auto-Tweet’ generic updates about everything else you do online; this helps avoid any temptation by staff or followers to converse via Twitter, violating the organisation’s professional mystique.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

2. Don’t follow anyone!*

This tells the world that you are important and thus not interested in anyone else’s opinions or experiences. If you do choose to follow any other accounts, make sure it is only a few and that they are all a) newspapers, b) other organisations, and c) selectively chosen celebrities. This reinforces the appropriate power dynamic, telling ‘regular people’ who follow you that you are unconcerned with them or their interests (beyond you).

*If your organisation’s name or profile bio includes terms like ‘participation’, ‘engagement’, or ‘inclusion’, it is especially crucial that you follow this rule to the letter, so people don’t falsely assume you’re interested in talking with them.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

3. ‘Auto-DM’ all your new followers.

When someone follows you, don’t follow them back (as above), but add an application to your account that will send them automatic, impersonal Direct Messages (DMs or private messages) feigning thanks, which they will be unable to reply to (because you don’t follow them). Again, this establishes the clear power dynamic you’re looking for; they are listening, you are not.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

4. Only ever Tweet your own materials and information.

Other info or links related to your subject matter must be ignored, and if possible, actively discredited, as they represent competition in the never-ending battle for potential supporters’ mind space, time and attention.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

5. You must maintain an image of absolute perfection!

Never Tweet anything that might give your followers the impression your organisation is anything less-than-perfect. Asking questions is an absolute ‘no’, unless they are rhetorical and you provide the answer within the Tweet, or the link it contains (to your own website only, obviously). Questions declare a less-than-complete knowledge of the world and such an admission will destroy your followers’ faith in your expertise and support for your work and your cause.

Related to this, you should also never send a Tweet without carrying-out a thorough the cost-benefit analysis of doing so. This helps to ensure you do not say something inappropriate, which you might later feel demonstrates an incomplete knowledge of the subject. It is advisable to stay quiet about major events in the world, until an in-depth policy has been written and published. Several days after the fact you will be able to Tweet the most expert opinion on the matter at hand.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

6. Twitter is for junior staff to do and senior managers to sign-off.

Put your organisation’s sole Twitter account into the hands of a single, low-ranking staff member, with minimal decision making power in the organisation, and tell them exactly what they can and can’t Tweet.

You may want to develop an appropriate sign-off policy that can precede the sending of all organisational Tweets. At the same time, it is critical that you ban all other staff from Tweeting, as multiple accounts will be harder for you to control. If you cannot manage a complete ban on usage, tell staff they must separate themselves from the organisation via a disclaimer (such as ‘these are my views and my organisation does not tolerate them, but still keeps me around’) and install a web-page blocker preventing unauthorised staff from accessing the Twitter website on work time.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

7. Never reply or make conversation with followers, unless they are celebrities or senior politicians.

Some Twitter users think they are ‘having a massive conversation’. They are wrong. In the interests of your professional integrity (as your comms assistant might say inappropriate things, if not given a script), it is imperative that you do not engage with the Twitter population in anything resembling off-the-cuff banter. In the event of attempting to lobby a famous actor or Cabinet minister on your cause, Tweets should be written in advance by the most senior member of staff available, with potential follow-up Tweets for all possible responses. This said, they may still treat you as ‘regular people’(i.e. – those not worthy of their time) and as such, ignore you…

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

How do you stack up? If you received more than 1 on any of the measures above, you should probably give Liam at more like people a ring (07775732383), an email (liam@morelikepeople.org), or even a Tweet (@hackofalltrades).

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‘Human’ is the new ‘professional’ @ ECF2011

I did a presentation at the eCampaigners Forum in Oxford last week called “’human’ is the new ‘professional'”. Despite being the 1st victim of a clown-style horn telling me my 7 minute slot was up, the core notion that ‘professionalism’ prevents our organisations from connecting with the people involved in our causes, seemed to go down pretty well. Yet when we got to discussing the ideas in practice, there was a major push back to the more traditional approach…

Meeting agendas at the pub

Liam @ #ECF2011 by coenwarmerI started with this: “imagine you’re at the pub and a mate pulls out agendas for everyone and says ‘we’ve got 10 minutes to debate yesterday’s footie, 20 minutes for Jim to complain about his family, and 15 minutes to talk about the recession… by the way, who’s going to be minuting this?’”

This was my metaphor for most voluntary organisations’ use of social media; applying the conventions of one space, to the structures of another. Like calling someone and reading them a press release over the phone, it just doesn’t make sense to treat social media as a formal broadcast channel and doing so undermines the impact we can get from it for our respective causes.

I recently decided that social media is (should be?) like the ‘smoke breaks’ of organisational communications. It’s informal, it has a power-levelling impact on those involved, regardless of job title, it is where critical ideas are often exchanged, but is rarely recognised for the important role it plays in decision-making processes or in information distribution/collection.

That one got a solid laugh.

After the talk…

But when we moved from the formal presentations, to an Open Space session on ‘Organisational social media policy’, it felt like my ideas, while good for a laugh, had been quickly thrown away. A few bad experiences, a lot of self-censorship, some fundamental mistrust of staff and a few very legitimate arguments (I felt) around safety of individuals being Tweeted/blogged about, took the conversation back towards the traditionally slow-moving, autocratic, top-down means of communicating that organisations have always used for older media channels.

The natural extension, in my opinion, would be another 30 page document that would take months to produce, get properly read by no one, and create a ‘chill’ amongst staff who choose to err on the side of caution to avoid saying or doing anything online that might not fall within the policy they haven’t read. Ultimately, it is the ‘safe’ approach to social media that looks most ‘unprofessional’, as it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the format in which it has engaged.

Some of the challenges

Having been discussing these issues with people in organisation’s for a little while now, it was not totally surprising to hear many of the concerns people raised at the ECF last week. But I wanted to provide a bit of an alternative story, some of which people brought up in the discussion, others which weren’t really touched on.

“We don’t want people’s personal lives to be confused with their organisational lives.”

My response: When it comes to a cause, whether cancer research, climate justice, human rights or animal welfare, almost everyone thinks of that cause as something personal to them. It’s only this tiny percentage of us who actually get paid to be active, that think of campaigns as ‘professional’ activities. And even amongst those of us ‘professional’ campaigners, we hopefully do our jobs in large part because we are passionate about our issues. If we are, but are not able to share that passion (as it might mean calling a cabinet minister a bastard from their Twitter  account, for example) our organisations are losing a huge part of why they hired us, and what we have to offer the cause. And further, if our organisations want to take advantage of that passion, it can’t be boxed in with ‘acceptable types and levels of public passion’ guidelines – because that’s not how passion works. There is a level of risk acceptance needed here on the part of organisations. My inclination is that allowing your staff the freedom to be as expressive as they want to be online, will lead to much greater gains for your cause, than some occasional moments of public embarrassment will cost it.

“If we can’t control it, how can we make sure it is on-message’?”

My response: In short, you can’t. But even if you did control social media messaging from the top, people would still make mistakes and contradictory statements would still sometimes get published. So instead of asking ‘how can we control it’, why not shift the frame to ‘how can we get the most from it?’ and encourage anyone with the desire to take on Tweeting, blogging, video making, if they have the inclination to do so? After all, we are hired for a reason, and if we are worth the pay, surely we should be trusted to speak out about things we care about? I think it was Jamie Wooley from Greenpeace that brought up the big underlying tension here, by asking the group what they want a social media policy to achieve; is it a matter of controlling messages (and as a result, staff and volunteers), or is it about harnessing the potential power of all stakeholders to increase the impact of your campaigns and awareness of your issues? I have heard many a geeky rumour that Google’s staff social media policy is simply ‘be smart’, which seems to capture the essential balance of freedom and responsibility that is key to any public platform. I see little need to make it more complicated than that, as long as your staff are aware of the specific public information risks related to your work (say, revealing a dissident journalist’s location in a hostile country).

“But what if [insert hypothetical PR disaster here]”

My response: Then handle it as you would any other PR disaster; apologise, explain, move focus back to your cause, etc… I’d argue that the news story of an erroneous Tweet from a household-name NGO is probably not a story that will hold the spotlight for long.  The much bigger PR disasters (the ones that lead to cancelled Direct Debits and angry blogs from former supporters, etc) are the ones where the organisation has undermined its own values. An open social media policy, in which more people are empowered to act for the issues they care about, is not remotely in the same league as say, undermining employees’ rights, paying private sector-scale wages to top brass, or being sponsored by companies that sell guns or tobacco. Just to put the hypothetical situation into perspective for a moment…

Some questions to follow-up with…

When the horn pushed me through my final slides a little faster than planned, I had a few questions I’ve been using as a ‘guiding principles’ in the process of ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ that got rushed through.

How human is your organisation?

1. Practices two-way, conversational communications, inside and outside its walls?

2. Supports autonomous leadership to emerge from all levels?

3. Encourages broad, open, equal involvement in organisational decisions?

4. Trust staff to take risks and try new ways of campaigning (without fear of reprisal)?

So what do you think? Is this a bunch of hippie faff, or are these questions our organisations need to be asking more seriously when we engage in the online world?

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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.