more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

Book preview: Micro-managing the Arab Spring

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

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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You’re the only way this book will see the light of day!

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

No shit. You really are. I’ve opted to self-publish Anarchists in the Boardroom, after some demoralising realisations about the publishing industry, and some inspiring realisations about the potential to live the values of this book through the publishing process. But now that the book is written, it’s up to all of us who want to see it in print to get it published.

Anarchists in the Boardroom cover, by Steve Lafler

Anarchists in the Boardroom cover, by Steve Lafler

Here’s the deal:

In less than two weeks, I’ll be launching a crowd-funding page on StartSomeGood.com. This is like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, but specifically for projects with some kind of social benefit.

We need to raise about $7,600 (£4,700 GBP) over the following month. This will cover the 1st 500 copies of the print book, as well as editing, building a website, designing the cover and a few nifty bits of on-and-offline promo materials. (You can see the budget here, if GoogleDoc spreadsheets are your bag).

The main things will be (initially):

  • A critical mass of keen supporters making immediate pledges when things kick-off, and
  • Those supporters getting the word out to their personal and work networks right away.

This is why this book needs you!

The campaign will need a number of things from those who are interested enough to support it. A few key ones include:

  • Early contributors and early sharers: If you have some cash you can throw into the process, great! If you don’t, but want to spread the word to those you think might, greatl! A well-targeted or well-timed Tweet, Facebook link, or email, can be far more valuable than a cash contribution, so don’t let being broke stop you from getting involved.
  • Bloggers who want to make their own cases for funding the book: I can talk about this stuff all day, but it’s a lot more powerful if you tell the world why you want this book to be published. Drop me a line if there’s anything I can do to help you write a blog to post just after the campaign gets started.
  • Organisational backing: If you work in a non-profit, voluntary sector, social enterprise or campaigning organisation, do you think you could leverage a bit of cash from a ‘professional development’ or ‘continuing staff education’ budget, to commit to 5 or 10 copies of the book for your office? Or to bring me in for a talk, a workshop, or some consultancy, once the book has been circulating amongst staff? A few organisational contributions and endorsements will go a long way towards making this book happen.

But don’t stop at this list! If there’s anything you can think of to support the crowd-funding process, I’m keen to see where you take it! I hope this campaign can be living proof of some of the ideas in the book, showing what can be done when lots of people have the space to support a cause in the ways they feel inspired to, not relying on a traditional institution make it happen.

Let’s do this together!

Liam (liam @ morelikepeople.org / @hackofalltrades / ‘the guy who moderates the comments below’)

PS – what kinds of rewards would you like to see for different levels of contributions?

PPS – Feel free to ‘Like’ the new Facebook page, or join the email list to stay in the loop!

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

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

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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Writing #MoreLikePeople/ Practicing-what-I-preach

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

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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Writing about self-organisation in Oaxaca

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

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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