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helping organisations to be more like people

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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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Does your organisation need a social media policy?

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

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








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Ha Ha: An experiment in self-organised social impact

Last Thursday I took part in an experiment. The idea was this: What is the greatest social impact that a group of relative strangers on the internet can commit to creating over the next week, with only 1 hour together and $10 each in the pot?

Harvest chard
Harvest chard

I have my friend David Pinto to thank for inviting me to take part in his latest brainchild. I was one of about a dozen who attended the 2nd ‘Ha-Ha’ (Happening Hangout), with little idea what to expect, beyond the slight chaos integral to getting something previously unimagined off the ground.

This was a hack version of what the process could be with proper technical development: a live-streamed Google Hangout of the hosts of the event, alongside a Quora question that everyone involved could post one answer to, but edit freely and comment on the answers posted by others, voting for the answers they liked best.

While messy due to most of the participants’ technological teething period at the start of the hour, the process worked. Not in a ‘my mind has been completely blown’ kinda way, but it worked, in that we reached agreement and had a clear sense of what was needed to take the idea forward.

After an hour, a bunch of people who (mostly) didn’t know each other before the process began, had agreed to donate the full sum of money contributed to Harvest Brighton-Hove, a community food project that helps people grow and source food that is local to the area. Someone (Lesley) volunteered to deliver the funds in person, and to use our combined social networks to promote the work Harvest does in Brighton & Hove (thus, one of the reasons for this blog).

During that hour, there was considerable debate about whether donation of money actually qualified as ‘action,’ about the advantages and disadvantages of being an international group, with a (very) limited budget, about what actually constituted social impact…

None of these questions, however, prevented the group finding enough common ground to do something. Which is inspiring, but also definitely left me with further questions.

My inclination, while a cool experiment, was that this would be a far more effective process of enabling self-organising, if the group began from a higher level of agreement; i.e. – not total strangers without an agreement about even a slightly more specific goal.

I often advocate the opposite – less unity, more autonomy – but this process highlights the importance of *a bit* of agreement. It’s certainly a balancing act, but as much as unity can be oppressive, a minimal baseline helps to unleash our creative potential together.

I’d like to see David’s Ha-Has put to use in an office, but open to those beyond the paid staff group, such as supporters/ members/ activists, who broadly believe in the organisation’s aims, but are not as restricted to voice radical ideas, as staff often can be.

Harvest 'The Big Dig' eventI’m also interested in seeing what could happen if the financial element was de-emphasised, encouraging a range of non-economic transactions to take place and forcing a more creative approach out of necessity.

While Occupy camps and countless indigenous communities have demonstrated that consensus can work in far larger groups than many had previously believed, there is more opportunity to build trust and empathy with those you are deciding with, when you have a) a chance to meet in person, and b) something that already provides a broad basis of unity.

The 3rd of 4 initial Ha-Has will be happening on Thursday (September 19th), 8pm BST, should you be interested in chucking in ten bucks and taking part. I definitely think it is an experiment worth pursuing. Whether it grows into something bigger each week, or whether it splinters off into a range of self-organised groups, there is learning to be had there, in terms of what groups of people can achieve together without the top-down coercion of management structures.

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WE DID IT! (and a weird idea for getting you your books)

What an amazing month! You crowd-funded the book! And then some! Plus, I’ve got a funny idea for ‘more like people’ distribution, that I’d like to hear your thoughts on…

Publishing, without the publishers

Anarchists in the Boadrdoom book cover by Steve Lafler

Anarchists in the Boadrdoom book cover by Steve Lafler

While you may well know my reluctance to place too much faith in numbers, here are a few from the ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom’ crowd-funding campaign that tell at least part of the story:

  • $8,340 pledged (surpassing the goal of $7,700)
  • 161 donors (73 whom I’ve never met before)
  • 1,154 shares of the campaign page (on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms)
  • 7 blogs by others about the campaign (see bottom)
  • 8 blogs by me on others’ websites promoting the campaign (see bottom)

I am so thankful to all of you who have made this happen!

It’s the first major validation that a) these ideas are important and haven’t been sufficiently explored yet, and b) the book doesn’t need an institution/publisher to be a success.

Both of these validations are really exciting to me and seem to put us in a great place to start moving towards ‘more like people’ organisations together.

Special thanks are due to Lorna Prescott and Paul Barasi – two of the firmest believers in the importance of what this book represents.

Both of them went so far above-and-beyond what I could ever have asked of either of them, spreading the word on the campaign, that I can’t begin to offer the kind of thanks they deserve. They kept me going during the slow middle weeks of the campaign. (Lorna also did a nice Storify (see below) of her involvement, as part of capturing the story of her day, when the campaign tipped past the goal).

‘more like people’ distribution

So here’s the wacky idea I thought of last night, when I was pondering the logistics of sending out a few hundred copies of the print book, to people around the world.

Shipping to, say, Wellington, New Zealand, is not cheap. Particularly when you’re sending lots of smaller packages. But at least 9  people in Wellington have ordered copies of the book.

What if I sent one big package to one of those nine people (based on someone volunteering to receive the lot) and left them to arrange details with the others for local distribution? (Please don’t tell me you’d be worried that they would steal the extra copies…)

Maybe this could be as simple as ‘Here’s my address, drop by whenever you have a chance,’ but maybe the person I’m shipping to decides to hold court in a cafe or pub for a few hours one evening and encourages everyone else who ordered the book to come along, pick-up their copy/copies and have a chat?

They’ve already got something in common to talk about, maybe something interesting could emerge?

…It also reduces the individual costs each person has to pay for shipping.

Of course some people will prefer the simplicity of a book delivered to their front doors – which I can of course also do – but thought the potential benefits of bringing together a group of people who may-or-may-not already know each other, or each other’s shared interests in new ways of organising ourselves, shouldn’t be passed up!

Maybe they never see each other again, but maybe they learn something, they meet someone of interest, they find someone to talk to next time they’re struggling away with their own bureaucracy…

What do you think? It’ll still be a few months before we’ve edited the manuscript, done the layout and had the hard copies printed, but it would be great to get your thoughts on this idea, and see if you’d be keen to meet others in your city who are also exploring this stuff, and if you’d be willing to coordinate with others in your city, to get them their books, one way or another.

Thanks again! You’ve been amazing and I look forward to all of you being a part of the emergent process that will follow!

Liam

Here’s the blogs I’ve written:

And those others have written:

And here’s Lorna’s good day (the third good thing has to do with the book)

 

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Book preview: Micro-managing the Arab Spring

Below is the first published snippet of ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ The crowd-funding campaign for the book will launch this Friday on StartSomeGood.com. Join the email list for updates.

Arab Spring fire, Collin David Anderson, used under Creative Commons

'Does anyone have the authority to sign-off on this?' (Collin David Anderson, used under Creative Commons)

Imagine the first strategy meeting amongst an imaginary coalition of NGOs involved in ‘strategising’ for the delivery of the ‘Arab Spring 2011’ program. Probably in about April 2002:

“Our vision is: ‘A series of mostly peaceful revolts across the Middle East and North Africa in the spring of 2011, overthrowing longstanding dictatorships and kicking-off a process of bottom-up democratisation throughout the region.’”

“Great. What are our targets gonna be? Have we identified strategic partners in each of the countries? What will we accept as a ‘democratic’ victory? Do we have a system of risk management? How will we measure the impact?…”

If they had somehow managed what we now know was achieved by less strategic or coordinated means, think for a minute how the follow-up meetings might have gone:

“Do we have a figure on ‘total persons liberated’ yet?”

“What if that figure goes up after the funding period is over? Think we could fudge it a bit to boost the numbers?”

“We’re probably gonna want to avoid mentioning too much about Syria in the final report… Bahrain too.”

“We’ll have to talk about Libya, but is there a way we can avoid giving NATO too much credit on that one? If we make it look like they were the critical success factor, they’ll get all the funding in the next round.”

“Can we reshape the vision statement to reflect Tunisia and Egypt more strongly? If we were aiming to liberate the whole region and only two dictators were ousted, it’ll be easy to say the programme was a failure. What if we said it was something about ‘supporting peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt’? Then we can credit the other stuff as unexpected fringe benefits of our interventions… maybe we can build the next funding app around some of the other countries that have been ‘prepared’ for future peaceful revolutions?…”

There were of course many organisations that played roles within the various uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, but there was no organisation that could effectively or meaningfully take credit for what took place in any single country, let alone the entire region.

Organisations (clearly structured institutions) have, throughout history played important roles in countless social movements (looser, larger, emergent and wholly autonomous masses of people), yet have repeatedly failed to understand the differences between the two forms.

The organising principles which underpin organisations and movements are almost diametrically opposed to one another, even if from the outside (and generally through the condensed lens of history) their aims and beliefs appear perfectly aligned.

An organisation in a movement is too often like the friend-of-a-friend at a high school house party who hasn’t grasped the etiquette of the group they’ve stumbled into. They do inappropriate things, hit on people they should know not to hit on, say things they shouldn’t say… and ultimately end up too drunk for their own good, being looked after by some sympathetic stranger who wants to keep them from getting beat-up or seriously damaging the furniture.

…Maybe that last bit pushed the metaphor a bit, but anyone who has participated in a movement without their organisational hat on knows the tension that emerges when an institution tries to impose hierarchy on something for which there are simultaneously no leaders and an ever-changing plethora of leaders coming-and-going, depending on the specifics of the situation.

This tension might be sparked by unannounced organisational recruitment drives at broader movement events or actions. It might be in the domination of organising meetings with particular agendas and aims. It could be the prevalence of a particular organisational face in media coverage or publicity, taking disproportionate credit for something which has in fact been a much broader effort.

This is not to say that people who work for organisations cannot bring just as much value, resource and experience to a movement as any of the rest of us, but that too often this requires their aims as individual activists to trump their aims as employees of an institution.

The desires to build brand recognition, to secure funding, to promote awareness of a particular agenda or individual name are practically speaking at odds with actually working towards a better world. They distract from the tasks at hand. We began by explaining them to ourselves as ‘necessary evils’ in the world of organising, until they gradually assumed a considerable bulk of our work. The tail is wagging the dog.

We have put the ‘cart before the horse’ when the structures created to help achieve change, become the institution’s primary reasons for being. Over time, almost without fail those ‘helpful’ structures end up practically at odds with the change they were meant to support – often at the point of engagement between the organisation itself, and the bigger movement that it is a part of.

Our organisations need to be more sensitive to their environments, and accept that we are guests in broader movements for change, rather than the stars of the show, as so much organisational campaigning, publicity and fundraising efforts have pushed us to try to be over the years.

Becoming aware of the ways our organisational hats might be at odds with the aims of a movement, is a critical step towards making a positive difference in this emergent world. If we want to be meaningful and constructive contributors, we need to understand the principles that help movements to thrive, even if they seem immediately at odds with the principles that have driven our organisations for so long.

As you read this, there are countless emergent social movements that could benefit from the people, experience and resources that our organisations have within their walls. Finding ways to work constructively – rather than antagonistically – with these looser networks will be a defining distinction of established organisations that remain important in the movements of the not-so-distant future.

But doing so means learning to take on some of the qualities of these looser networks…

_________

This was taken from Chapter 3: ‘The myth of hierarchical necessity and what we can do for ourselves.’ To read more, this book will need to be crowd-funded. Join the email list, ‘like’ the Facebook page, or sign-up to the Facebook crowd-funding event, to make sure you get the updates when the campaign goes live on Friday! Big advance thank you hugs for helping to make this possible! 🙂

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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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More Like People Action Week! (#MoreLikePeopleWeek)

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

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

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

Twitterfall, Qatar

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

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

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

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

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

There are a few ideas further down, but basically…

What you do is up to you!

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

And when you do it, let the world know!

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

More Like People – what’s that about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liam (@hackofalltrades)

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Writing #MoreLikePeople/ Practicing-what-I-preach

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what have I done?

Writing social media into the book

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

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

Crowdsource everything!

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

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

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

So I wrote it.

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

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

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

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

So I dropped it.

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

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

Debate everything!

Twitter’s also good for floating quotes and hypotheses.

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

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

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

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

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

Find circles of helpful ‘editors’

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

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

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

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

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

Think about your own working habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s it so far…

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

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

8 comments

‘Sharing, Long Tails, and Organisations that Look Like Social Movements’

Today I did a webinar for the London Campaigns Forum. The theme is ‘sharing’… but more accurately, the theme is ‘how can our organisations learn to operate more like the social movements we have seen springing up all around us?’

The talk is about 20 minutes, a bit long by internet standards, but would be keen to continue the debate on here, if people are interested.

Cheers,

Liam

 

…And the (much longer-seeming) text of it, for those who prefer to read 🙂

 

Sharing vs Distributing

Let’s talk about sharing… you know, that thing you do on the internet? With pictures of kittens and videos of kittens and stories about… kittens?

Oh, and actions to change the world! Those ones that other campaigners work very hard to ensure pop up in your Facebook or Twitter feeds at least a few times a day?

In which case, is this still sharing, or have we moved into the realms of distribution?

To distribute, as a verb, is a centralised, concerted effort to push something specific out to the masses, from a particular source, for a particular reason. Much as a distribution centre supplies many individual stores with a product to sell… Or as those stores go on to sell their customers those same products, within their locale.

Sharing, on the other hand, is a characteristic of networks – any number of people, acting independently, to connect any number of different things they value, with people they know who might also value them, no strings attached. Like you would lend a friend a book you’ve read, or tell them about an event you’re going to, because you think they’ll also enjoy it.

While often similar in effect at a certain scale, in that lots of people receive something – the ideas and motivations that underpin each of these actions are very different from one another. If our organisations want to share, there are a few more fundamental shifts they might have to make first.

When people share things, we derive some kind of immeasurable value from doing so. Knowing we’ve filled a gap, giving others the chance to experience something we’ve appreciated, or offered someone something new feels good. Others appreciate the effort we’ve made in doing so, everybody wins.

But is this what our organisations tend to do?

Maybe, maybe not.

‘Agendas’ and trust

Because organisations have ‘an agenda’ beyond ‘the share’.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At some level the agenda is as simple as ‘create good in the world’, but as all of us who’ve spent any time in organisations know, there are a lot of secondary aims that we often end of placing before the ‘change the world’ stuff. Build the mailing list, converting donors in to activists, demonstrating value to funders, etc.
We have lots of reasons why we do these things, but that’s not really the point.

Here’s why.

Hate speech, porn and credit card scams aside, the internet is built on trust.

Trust is built in a number of ways.

In an organisational sense, we associate it with terms like ‘brand loyalty’ and ‘credibility’, which are important in certain contexts, but the kind of trust that the internet is built on is something else.

It’s more like the trust that exists between friends that says: “I know you wouldn’t intentionally suggest I click a link to something you didn’t really believe that I, personally, should click.”

It’s the kind of trust that comes from believing the person offering you something has nothing to gain except the satisfaction of knowing that whatever they’re offering you has improved your life in some small way, even if that’s a matter of giving you an opportunity to do something good. There is definitely flexibility within this, in that those you call your friends can push this definition from time-to-time, without it ruining your friendship, but it’s definitely a fine balance to be struck.

And it is also a point where our organisations often run afoul of the internet, in the same way so many corporations do: people sense the bigger agenda, whatever it may be. It is not the ‘gifting culture’ that has been prevalent in most of our major religions and countless indigenous communities for millennia, and which has made a public resurgence via the social web in recent years.

For better or worse, our organisations have agendas; the strategies upon which we expect change will occur. So when we say we’re sharing, it doesn’t always feel that way to those on the receiving end.

But this isn’t an inevitability working for social change. In fact, we’re living at a time when the alternatives are all around us.

Organisations and movements

Lately I’ve been writing about the differences between organisations and movements, and why the things that help one thrive, are as likely to be anathema to the other. Two kinds of groups, working towards the same ultimate goals, but organised to do so in almost diametrically different ways.

Movements are self-directed – people joining-up around something that is immediately relevant to them, with of a feeling of shared purpose and the freedom to pursue that purpose in whatever ways they feel inspired to do so.
Alternatively, organisations are hierarchical – people following steps set out by a relative few, to achieve something that is (hopefully) in all of their best interests, on the time scales that the organisation decides.

And the types of environments that nurture each of these forms are rarely the same. At the most core level, organisations have always liked to be in control, whereas movements thrive on individual autonomy. These differences can be challenging ones to reconcile.

What can we be offering the broader movement?

And when it comes to a cause that you really care about, would you prefer to be told how you can contribute to it, or have only the limits of your own imagination to determine how you will be a part of something bigger than yourself?
While we can often offer a few cookie-cutter volunteer or ‘take action’ opportunities, we don’t currently have the organisational will to allow everyone access to everything they would need, to be completely free in how their support our issues.

…So if we can’t open our structures up enough to let people come to us, take what they need, and make something happen with it, we’re left with distributing an opportunity. ‘Here’s your opportunity, take it or… take it – it’s all we’ve got on offer!’

Whereas people can show up at an Occupy camp and run a workshop, cook some food, paint a banner or organise a march, if we shared that much control with the people surrounding our organisations, we’d probably fall apart. While it might be uncomfortable to think about it this way, the organisation is the membrane that keeps resources away from the movement and world beyond it.

How do our organisations currently compare?

Meanwhile, movements are increasingly providing both stronger democracy and accountability than our own social change organisations, and also remaining flexible enough to allow people to be a part of them, in whatever ways they chose to be.

Are we at risk of our organisations becoming the homes of those who ‘kinda, sorta care about the issues’, while the more active activists are primarily making their voices heard elsewhere?

…UK tax justice and cuts activists moving with the latest UKuncut action?

…Canadian civil liberties activists starting or joining a local Casserole (pots-and-pans) protest?

…Mexican students organising massive #YoSoy132 actions without student organisations or political parties involved, much like their British counterparts did over the EMA cuts in 2010?

While there have always been ultra-committed activists who’ve organised themselves outside of the big organisations related to their causes, more-and-more of us are able to be a part of something meaningful and collective, outside of organisations and without having to start something new from scratch. The barriers to entry for wide-ranging, independent activism have never been so low.

The activism long tail

Nearly a decade ago, Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson identified the ‘long tail phenomenon’; a concept at play in more-and-more successful businesses in the age of the social web, which describes the shift from generic to niche production and consumption.

Anderson looked at this phenomenon in relation to business models, with companies increasingly selling relatively small amounts of many different products, rather than massive amounts of a few, more generic ones.

Shirky applied the notion to activity in the blogosphere, noting that the vast majority of blog links were distributed across a vast array of blogs, as compared to the proportion that linked to the very most popular ones. Basically, while some blogs will always stand out above the others, the vast majority of blogging activity is actually taking place amongst niche communities, read by a relative few, but collectively comprising the vast majority of blogging action.
Occupy and countless other self-organising movements are creating an activism Long Tail as we speak.

While the relatively few campaigning actions we offer still have greater individual uptake than the self-organised campaign opportunities within non-hierarchical movements, the cumulative involvement of those self-created opportunities seem poised to account for the lion’s share of ‘stuff done for social and environmental causes.’
In other words, our handful of engagement options are the peak, while the infinite involvement possibilities of the grassroots movements are increasingly the long tail, where more-and-more is going on.

So where do we focus our organisational energies?

…If our organisations did become more focused on the less-active activists (at least, as they related to our particular cause), I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a bad thing. I know I’m peripherally active with far more causes, than those I am very active on. I’ll sign a petition, occasionally write an email, very rarely go to an event or action…. But I’m still glad to be a part of them, even if I’m not currently willing to put huge amounts of effort into each of them at the moment.

Those voices – which would otherwise remain quietly isolated – can and should be amplified and respected as a part of our broader push for social change. The cumulative value of sheer numbers is still a political force to be reckoned with on almost any issue.

This route would allow us to essentially keep doing more of what we’re doing; to tweak, to amend, but to broadly stick with the approaches we developed when media was a one-way broadcast channel.

But it’s not our only possible path.

As best I can tell, our organisations have a few combinations of three main paths they can choose to walk, when it comes to campaigning in the 21st Century:

1) ‘Clicktivism’ and its offline variants – enabling and consolidating the voices of those who ‘kinda care’ about what we do and would be unlikely to engage with the issue proactively without these kinds of specific in-roads.

2) Network support for the stuff that people are doing on their own; linking and connecting wherever relevant activism is taking place, and offering specific, relevant organisational resources, contacts and information to help people organise themselves, even if they are doing so in ways we can’t quite get away with.

3) Opening-up shop for people to do whatever they choose for ‘the cause’. Confronting our fear of loss of control, what if we swung open the gates and made our primary work welcoming committed activists through our literal and online doors, helping them make themselves at home, and giving them the run of the yard to make change happen, but with our resources?

The last choice is clearly the most radical and would involve the most fundamental changes; charity status, boards of directors, staffing, would all need to be re-imagined. But to put it into context, it’s not that different to some of the reimagining that has been and is being required of newspapers, record labels, and ad firms as of late, as the internet increasingly cuts out the need for a middleman.

An organisation without walls…

…So humour me for a minute and imagine that the metaphorical walls of your organisations were torn to the ground. You can keep your jobs, but they’re about to get pretty different.

  • For one, there might be a whole lot of new people there. They might be using desks, holding meetings, building campaign props, working on unrelated projects which have a loose connection to your organisation’s campaigns. But they are as welcome there as you are – from the scruffy hippies, to the business people, they are all parts of the movement that your organisation is lucky enough to call home. There will still need to be collective efforts made to reach out to those who wouldn’t naturally walk in through an open door, but an open door would be a positive step to widening the demographics of those involved in our work.
  • For two, those people might be able to make proposals on how money is spent. Perhaps there’s a democratic forum where a range of activists make these kinds of decisions? Participatory budgeting is working for local governments around the world, why not for us? The resources are for the cause, and ‘movements’ don’t have strategic direction to worry about, in the same way our organisation used to. They pay attention to what’s going on around them and continually respond, based on the circumstances.
  • For three, the organisational logo, brand, and name might become open-source, available to anyone who cares enough about the cause to want to use them. ‘X’ org might start popping-up in all kinds of places it never used to, but you can always just defer to whoever was responsible for what was put out there, if people’s actions for your cause should come back to haunt you… Plus, activists usually do things for the right reasons; if we don’t have this much trust in how people would use our brand, we might have deeper problems to address. But that’s the stuff for another talk altogether…

Now these are just a few random examples of what might change. If we open-up what we’ve got and trust people who care enough about our issues to get constructively involved, I suspect they will do the kinds of amazing things we’ve seen them doing with the social movements beyond our walls.

This is sharing: opening our doors and saying ‘we trust you enough to take what you need’.

If that was that a bit much…

The second option is considerably less out-there, but would still involve a fair bit of re-thinking and re-prioritising. While some of our organisations have tried to position ourselves as ‘hubs’ – i.e. – right in the middle of networked activism – we might be better-off if we went for the more realistic role of ‘cross-pollinators’. What if we re-envisaged ourselves as the people who helped connect activists and moved resources, information, and maybe even funding around a network, as it was needed at a particular moment?

We would stop issuing press releases, stop speaking to the media, stop building the capacity of activists, and start buzzing around our movements, sharing a bit of value from A) and a bit of value from B), with C), or putting out a call whenever a request came our way, to allow others to step up and have their voices heard. We would make every effort to slip into the background and help ensure other people were front and centre, other actions amplified and other campaigners connected directly with one-another. We wouldn’t feel responsible for every little thing that happened in the organisation’s name, any more than we would feel responsible for everything that happens in the name of our cause, more widely, today.

Outsourcing radicalism: Is this a possible stepping stone?

Now, as I’ve been preparing this talk, an interesting action appeared on my radar from London – you might have seen it.
Move Your Money – a campaign encouraging customers to close their accounts with the high street banks and transfer their funds to somewhere more ethical – shut down a Westminster Barclays, as Bob Diamond, the bank’s disgraced and recently ex-CEO was speaking to a Treasury Select Committee about his banks interest rate fixing practices.

Now in a period of occupations and encampments around London, this isn’t that noteworthy… except when you look at the people – or more notably – the organisations, that back Move Your Money.

…The Co-operative Bank, NUS, the New Economics Foundation, among others. All good, established organisations, but not the kind you’d expect to associate with non-violent direct action!

Knowing people personally within each of those organisations, at one level, I’m not totally surprised. But knowing a bit more about each of the organisations themselves, I’m stunned to find their names even hidden in the background of this MYM action.

But maybe they are opening up another possibility? An in-between step from the top-down organisations of the past, to the looser networks of the future?

By part-funding a separate company, are they relieving some of the fears of their own funders or stakeholders, freeing them up to use organisational resources for something they couldn’t do on their own, or with their logos plastered all over?

I’m not sure, but it seems to me that there is an experiment going on to see how these organisations can adopt both some of the radicalism and more of the networked self-organisation that have been a part of the kinds of campaign successes that are coming from outside of our organisations more-and-more regularly.

Getting past the risks

I’m sure we could talk all day about the risks associated with these new approaches; all the potential media faux pas, the attempts to explain things to funders, the very real possibility that we couldn’t control how our cause was advanced… but my feeling is we could spend even longer addressing that which is at risk if we don’t start to shift how we work in some pretty major ways. Namely, the risks of stagnation, and even potentially irrelevance.

Sharing is one sign of the ways our world is changing, but broadly speaking, our organisations are not.

What can you open-up to offer the widest range of opportunities possible for campaigners to take action for your cause? In geek-speak, what is the ‘source-code’ of your campaign, and what would happen if you made it public, like so much of the open and free software communities have been doing since the 80s, and which offers some very different models of how we relate to our work?

If we want to keep distributing things, I’m sure there will continue to be a role there, but if we want to really share what we do, let’s start to find the parts of our respective organisations we can open-up to make it possible.

Thank you for all your time – for putting up with me talking this much, and for the conversation that I’m sure we’re about to have.

Also big thanks to a few people who helped me out a lot while I was preparing this talk – Paul Barasi, Veena Vasista, David Pinto and Adam Ramsay.

If we don’t all get a chance to say hello now, I hope we can connect on the internet later!

2 comments

Writing about self-organisation in Oaxaca

en 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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