more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

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

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

more like people

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

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

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

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

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

Which means we need to spread the word!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive hug to all of you!

Liam

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

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

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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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Give trust, get accountability

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

Kittens: Better than 'Payment by Results'

Kittens: Better than ‘Payment by Results’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to trust each other again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust-based funding?

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

‘What we want to support’ (Guidance)

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

‘What you want to achieve’ (Application)

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

‘What you are delivering’ (Delivery)

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

‘What we have achieved together’ (Evaluation)

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

We also added a further stage:

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

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

Putting it to work

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

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

So here’s the question for you:

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

Looking forward to seeing where you might take this…

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The Story of ‘More Like People Action Week’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidestep the steps that aren’t working for you!

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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

The next steps are up to you!

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Writing #MoreLikePeople/ Practicing-what-I-preach

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

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

NZ sunset

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

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

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

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

So what have I done?

Writing social media into the book

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

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

Crowdsource everything!

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

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

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

So I wrote it.

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

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

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

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

So I dropped it.

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

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

Debate everything!

Twitter’s also good for floating quotes and hypotheses.

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

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

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

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

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

Find circles of helpful ‘editors’

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

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

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

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

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

Think about your own working habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s it so far…

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

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

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‘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!

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Technology, self-organisation & some dreams for the #Occupy movement…

On my first day hanging around Finsbury Square, the 2nd London manifestation of the #Occupy movement, I met a young guy named James. James handed me a couple folded pieces of paper and asked me to write down why I was there and put it in his carboard box. So I did, having been intending to describe some of my thoughts on the #Occupy movement for the better part of a month. Below is a slightly extended version of the story I gave him…

Guy Fawkes in a suit

Day 2 @ #OccupyLSX. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

I’m here for the possibility of something different. For the first time in my lifetime, I feel like something is emerging – though still a long way from being realised – that has the potential to bring us to a better global situation than the one we’ve been stuck with.

I’m sure its lineage could be traced back through countless forms of social change and human organisation throughout history, but I can see a clear link between #Occupy and the anti-globalisation movement ten years ago, where I first ‘learned’ to be an activist.

In Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa, we were getting to know each other; discovering that not only was there a significant group of us who saw the systemic problems in the world, but that we could be in touch with more-and-more of them via the still relatively crude version of the internet we had going back then.

For a decade, a massively distributed (if still niche) global network has kept a conversation going, percolating in a range of more issue-specific campaigns, but drawing the links between the vast array of social problems we are collectively facing.

…Then social media happened and the scale and quality of the conversation began to shift in ways few of us could have imagined possible. A few things happened in the following years that I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • The discovery, via MoveOn.org, Avaaz.org and a range of other ‘clicktivist’ websites, showed us that not only could we connect with each other on the issues we believe in, we could also demonstrate our shared belief (and crowd-fund that belief!), in only a few seconds, with literally millions of others around the world. But most of it stayed online.
  • The emergence of the environmental direct action movement, captured most effectively (but by no means exclusively) by Climate Camp, began to bring together relatively small, but still big enough to be viable, groups of people to put their bodies on the line (in the tradition of Trident Ploughshares and many others), but also to model the Ghandian notion of ‘being the change you want to see in the world’. Small temporary villages were erected on the sites of some of the UK’s worst climate crimes, and began to model what it might look like for a few hundred people to live more sustainably than we tend to in the West. But they remained a very niche and short-term presence.
  • Then in November 2010, Britain saw unprecedented student protests – over 10,000 in London alone – but remarkably, without the NUS or any other traditional student organisations to back it. Facebook events and Twitter hashtags took the devastating implications of the proposed education cuts, and spread them like wildfire, connecting with a massive section of the student body, without any of the infrastructure that tend to keep these protests within certain (non-threatening) parameters. Like many protests before it, it raised the level of debate on the issues far above where it would have been without them, but it didn’t actually get in the way of the Government’s plans to make education unattainable for the vast majority of young people in Britain.
  • This spring, UKuncut emerged. The direct action of Climate Camp, with the distributed leadership of the student protests coming together, keeping tax dodging corporations from doing business until they paid their fair share of taxes. What took UKuncut a step further, was its ability to practically ‘get in the way’, at a lot of different times, in a lot of different places, essentially regulating (albeit on a small scale) the offending companies that Government has refused to regulate themselves. But it didn’t offer a positive longer-term alternative to corporate tax evasion, beyond better Government regulation.
  • Many won’t like this next piece, but I see this summer’s UK riots as part of the same continuum of ‘leaderless’ events; if as a warning of the destructive potential of mass self-organisation, but also as an expression that those with the least to lose in our society are still involved in the same networked world of the (broadly) middle class activists. Ugly as much of what happened those days was, there was a clear expression of power that came out of a place many least expected it would or could. And the spread and breadth of that was new, spread through handheld technologies, person-to-person, as much as through the media. However, it stayed mostly isolated from ‘the mainstream’ (an issue which needs a lot of unpicking in its own right).

We are the 99%

Day 1 @ St Pauls. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

(To be clear, this is a UK-centric perspective, though you can tie very clear links and inspiration with and from recent liberation movements in the Middle East and workers occupations in Latin America.  As these are not areas I feel especially qualified to write on, I’ve focussed on my local examples.)

All of these stages are still critical at every emerging moment of change; different people are ready to be involved in different ways, and Avaaz, Climate Camp and Facebook-initiated protests are all providing in-roads to newly-aware members of ‘the 99%’. What makes the #Occupy movement feel different to me is how much we are beginning to bring all of them together. And then some.

What we’re starting to see now:

  • Drawing together of these themes – a harder core of activists at forefront (a la Climate Camp), massive informal ‘infrastructure’ of donors, supporters, messengers (a la Avaaz), a direct disruption of the system (a la UKuncut) and a large scale self-organisation via web platforms (captured during the student protests, the summer riots and elsewhere around the world).
  • The beginnings of a more inclusive space, even if it is fraught with tension and is bringing broadly-middle class activists’ relative privilege to the uncomfortable surface. Some of the difficult conversations about difference and discrimination are beginning to be had, as they invariably rear their ugly heads when a bunch of people are living in close quarters together. It will likely be messy, but it’s important that it is happening. I get the impression there has been greater inclusivity amongst particular American occupations thus far, particularly on Wall Street, where people who really never would otherwise cross paths are starting to do so, and are starting to make sense of difference within the group, rather than ignore, or actively dismiss it.

What we haven’t seen yet:

  • The inclusion of or connection with a wider range of communities. I’ve heard several examples from a range of #Occupy cities, of non-white/straight/male/middle-class activists being told they are ‘being divisive’ for highlighting the range of inequalities they have faced, that make their positions very different from those of much of the rest of the 99%. This is something we need to address, and need to have addressed for us by those who are very much more likely to be the victims of police violence, job discrimination, street harassment and a range of other kinds of oppression as this movement grows, if we want to have a movement that truly begins to represent the 99%.
  • The resilience of the movement to sustain and expand itself as a viable ‘alternative to Government’. There are better and worse examples of groups operating independently of an official government, within an existing state. Hizbollah, for example, have at many times been the de facto government in a range of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, offering essential services to those in need. In the 1970s the Black Panther Party began to operate on a similar basis in primarily Black neighbourhoods in California and elsewhere in the US. Hizbollah and the Panthers both represent some of the better and worse elements of the ‘state-within-a-state’ paradigm, but both managed to forge a space outside of that controlled by Government, which could address a range of basic human needs in the process. What excites me about #Occupy, is the potential to create something functionally parallel to Government, without the rigid hierarchy and likelihood of violence associated with the above examples. Perhaps this is the next challenge for the movement?

St Pauls. At Night. With #Occupy.

St Pauls. At Night. With #OccupyLSX. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

I think #Occupy is the first baby steps of a true alternative to the broken system we currently share, emerging with each new occupation and each new practical answer to a basic human need; from toilets, to democratic processes; recycling, to education;  food provision, to communications channels.

I feel that the ‘alternative’ to capitalism that the media keeps patronisingly asking us for, will not be able to be summarised into a single ‘ism’ or sound-bite, but will grow differently in an infinite number of places around the world, connecting with the successes of other ‘occupations’, while remaining independent and distinct from what they have achieved. We really are becoming the change we want to see in the world… so for better and worse, the only thing we can guarantee is that it won’t happen without us.

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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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Acknowledging Knowledge’s Different Roots

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

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

Beaver Lake, Alberta

Beaver Lake, Alberta

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

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

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

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

Art and health

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

Learning about learning

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

In the office

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

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

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

‘Proof’

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

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

What are we missing right now?

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

Acknowledging different kinds of knowledge

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

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

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

This isn’t a binary choice…

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

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

When do we trust non-scientific knowledge?

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

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

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

8 comments

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).

3 comments

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

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