more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

Unpacking boxes

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Capulalpam de Méndez is one of a small but growing number of Mexican towns that have succeeded in kicking mining companies off their lands. Many activists have tried to understand their success, where so many others have failed, and while varied, the answer usually has something to do with ‘community.’ This doesn’t translate very well into either a ‘best practice,’ or a ‘scalable strategy,’ but does hold some critical thinking points for those of us trying to make some part of the world a little bit better than it is.

Procession from Capulalpam. Creative Commons 3.0.

Procession from Capulalpam. Creative Commons 3.0.

Jen and I woke-up before 7am on Saturday, met up with our friend Yeyo and took a series of overcrowded forms of public transportation to the cold and rainy village of Capulalpam, in the Sierra Juárez mountains.

We joined a couple dozen others in the town’s church, heard some prayers, burned some incense, and headed off, picking up others as we walked from the cathedral, to the dirt road that led out of town on a steep incline. We were young and old, grandparents, toddlers and plenty in-between, walking through a mountainous forest, en route to a meeting point where our procession would connect with similar gatherings from two neighbouring towns.

These three villages were celebrating the 3rd anniversary of their collective decision to issue a 100 year moratorium on any mining projects within their territories. The decisions had been reached using traditional Zapotec assemblies, in which consensus emerges through collective community dialogue. The event was equal parts religious ceremony, political rally, community feast and intergenerational dance. One municipal president rejected the imposition of global capitalism on their traditional way of life and the head of the regional tourism network declared that, “any development that is not sustainable, is not development!”

Prayers were said, food was served, mescal sipped and dances had (the rain had trickled-out by this point and temperature had risen, as the march had descended to a lower plateau). Kids played on a swing set looking out across the mountain range, while friends reconnected with friends and bands from each of the three communities set the mood with different styles of local music. Sometime that afternoon it became crystal clear to me: THIS was why mining companies – with all the financial and political power they wield – had been unable to maintain their operations in this little corner of the world.

In Capulalpam, activism is not the fringe activity of a relative few (which often separates us from many of our own friends and families). It is also not something that exists in a bubble, independent of other important and meaningful activities – activism is simply a part of life. And say what you will about the specifics of this approach, but it has meant that in the face of deeply corrupt state and federal authorities, and a Canadian mining firm bent on sucking the last ounces of gold and silver from the surrounding mountains, the community has won and has no intention of giving in. Instead, they have opted for a mix of eco-tourism, locally bottled water and small-scale building projects, supplemented by the ‘techio,’ an indigenous custom in which all members of the town take on a range of responsibilities for countless public services, for free.

In Capulalpam, resistance is an integrated part of life and something that is as associated with community, celebration, relationships and nature, as it is with the political mobilisations we often associate it with in culturally Northern/ Western countries.

The other end of the spectrum

As far as a spectrum of social change approaches might look, our organisations are basically teetering off the other end of the line, in relation to the scene I’ve just described. Firstly, they are professional – they are deliberately separate from the personal lives, the communities, and the natural world that they are a part of. Secondly, they have taken this separation a step further, compartmentalising their professional notion of social change into so many teams, departments and specialist divisions, discouraging anything that might resemble a holistic and integrated approach to changing the world.

Let’s look at this as two parts: internal change and external change. How could we break down the barriers between those of us who are working within an organisation? And how can we break down the barriers between our organisations, and the world that exists beyond them?

The meeting point. Creative Commons 3.0

The meeting point. Creative Commons 3.0

Now let’s stop looking at this as two parts and acknowledge that the continuum of relationships that are involved in our organisations’ work aren’t really confined to the little boxes we try to pack them into, including the mythical ‘internal/external’ divide. Our organisations (whether we admit it or not), are part of various broader movements for social, political and environmental change.

What do we do that gets in the way of these relationships? What do we do that blocks the energy of people who have a mutual interest in achieving a certain kind of change, from working together, from getting to know each other, from caring about each other?

This is the where ‘more like people’ comes from. Our organisations, as they stand, get in the way of relationships, trust, empathy, communication and more. For example:

Hierarchical decision making reduces trust and responsibility. How could our organisations involve more people in decisions, as the community of Capulalpam does through the assembly process?
Rigid standards of professional behaviour make it near-impossible for people to be themselves, to build trust, to open up to one another beyond the immediate practicalities of their work. How could our work incorporate more than simply ‘the practical tasks’ associated with a campaign or service, and offer a place to socialise, bring families, share stories, really get to know each other, beyond the professional masks we wear?
Teams, departments and job titles keep us from following our passions, our interests and our strengths, forcing us to regularly underperform in fixed roles that don’t bend to the complexity of the situations we’re dealing with, or simple human changes in mood, which might mean we’d be better off doing different work on a given day. How could we drop these divisions and let individual passion and energy dictate the flow of our work?

Capulalpam de Méndez – a community of roughly 1,500 people, have succeeded where so many campaign strategies have failed. It is hard to imagine most of our organisations moving towards a more integrated approach to social change. But I’d like to challenge all of us to find something we can do to unpack the arbitrary and limiting boxes that our work is so often confined to, and see what happens if we cease to be simply staff with job titles, situated somewhere within the pyramidal prisons of organisational charts, and start to become part of a community instead…

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Facilitating organisations?

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

If we seem to know we do better when we aren’t just being told what to do, why do we keep telling each other what to do? Wouldn’t a supportive atmosphere be a more effective way of getting things done? Many of us have seen this work in learning environments, why not learn from it in working environments?

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Image fr/ www.create-learning.com/

A few years ago I was running community training courses fairly regularly. At some stage, I had a realisation that many before me had also had: that people seemed to learn the best when they were doing stuff, not me.

Thus, I began to embrace the art of facilitation: how much can you help a group of people walk down a path they’ve never been, without giving them the directions?  What combinations of well-timed, targeted questions, suggestions and anecdotes, will enable people to learn what you (broadly) want them to learn, in the way that they want to learn it (and ideally remember it)?

Old news

The same debate I was having with myself had been had many times previously and had led to some fairly significant shifts in non-classroom-based learning, as well as numerous alternative school movements.  The move was away from the concept of a single expert, putting lots of information into the heads of their less-qualified pupils, towards one where everyone played a part – not only because we all remember better when we do, but also from a firm belief that we all have something to contribute, given our unique experiences.

Like so many things, some old Chinese folks seemed to have figured this out many centuries before myself, or the countless ‘radicals’ who gradually started to see the problems with traditional training/teaching in the 1960s and ‘70s:

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Several hundred years later, some of us in the West realised they were probably right. Sadly, many of our learning institutions are still clinging to a perceived supremacy of the old ways…

Facilitating organisations?

Yesterday I was reading about some ‘radical’ management ideas… many of which seemed to echo this thinking from the world of education, namely, that people do things better when they are given the chance to do them themselves and that people from all ‘levels’ of an organisation have contributions to make at all levels of that organisation… (if ‘levels’ are even an appropriate form of organisation in their own right…)

Theorists, consultants, and yes, even managers themselves, from Henry Mintzberg, to Frances Westley, to Ricardo Semler, have for decades been saying things like:

“We have this obsession with ‘leadership’. It’s maybe intended to empower people, but its effect is to disempower them. By focusing on the individual, even in the context of others, leadership can undermine a service of community… When [former IBM CEO Gerstner] heard of the initiative [to get the company into E-business, from a programmer], he encouraged it. That’s all. Instead of setting the direction, he supported the direction setting of others… What should be gone is this magic bullet of the individual as the solution to the world’s problems. We are the solution to the world’s problems, you and me, all of us, working in concert.” [Leadership and Communityship, Henry Mintzberg, Financial Times, October 23 2006]

“When social innovations take flight… the innovators are influencing their context while their context is influencing them in an endless to and fro. Decisions are made, actions are taken but it is not always clear how they came about. There is a wonderful sense of collective ownership: all who are involved feel this is their project, their cause, their time to change the world. [Getting to maybe: How the world is changed, Frances Westley et al, Vintage Canada, 2006]

“Most of our programmes are based on the notion of giving employees control over their own lives. In a word, we hire adults, and then we treat them like adults… Outside the factory, workers are men and women who elect governments, serve in the army, lead community projects, raise and educate families… but the moment they walk into the factory, the company transforms them into adolescents. They have to wear badges and name tags, arrive at a certain time, stand in line to punch the clock…” [Managing without Managers, Ricardo Semler, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1989]

‘Is facilitation the new management?’

Trendy buzzword headlines aside, I can’t help but notice an emerging pattern here towards a more facilitatory approach…

What if, instead of managing organisations, we facilitated them?

While, as others suggested when I put this idea on Twitter yesterday, I’m not keen to create new jargon, I do think ‘facilitation’ provides an understanding of getting things done in group dynamics that is fundamentally different from most of that which we have dubbed ‘management’ in recent centuries.

But rather than provide more quotes from my endless reading into the geeky world that is management philosophy, in the spirit of this post, I’d be keen to hear yours;

Is the facilitation/management distinction a useful or counterproductive one?

  • Have you been involved in something you might describe as facilitation in a workplace?
  • Did you feel there was practical value in this approach?
  • Did it create unexpected problems for anyone involved in the process?
  • How would you aim to convince someone who practiced ‘traditional management’, that there was a better alternative in facilitation (whether calling it that or not)?
  • Anything else you might have thought of while reading this?

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NAVCA, jargon and a good move towards more human institutions

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

This morning, I was glad to see that NAVCA – one of the English voluntary sector’s national representative bodies – had declared on their homepage that “to help us explain the work of our members and the difference they make, NAVCA is changing the language we use,” abandoning a handful of specific terms that mean very little to anyone who doesn’t work in a national voluntary sector umbrella body, or specific parts of government.
BritVolSecjargon

A simple, but important message

This is a declaration that likely received little interest from most who have come across it – who cares if NAVCA is no longer referring to ‘Local Infrastructure Organisations’ (sometimes woefully abbreviated to ‘LIOs’), or ‘the third sector’? (Please let me know if you think I need to write a ‘what’s so wrong with jargon?’ prequel post…).

It is unlikely to be an announcement that receives a lot of attention, but is an important one, nonetheless.

We’ve known the problem exists for some time now…

For years, staff in (mostly) large voluntary organisations, have regularly discussed the problems of ‘jargon’ in the sector; namely how it tends to confuse and exclude, more often than it actually allows us to articulate an idea more clearly and succinctly than we could with more regular language. It seems to come up at nearly every conference and workshop involving national and larger local and regional organisations, and within countless internal organising meetings at these same organisations, yet, if anything, both the quantity and frequency of the use of jargon, seems to be ever-increasing.

Why is this? If there is recognition of the problem (namely, that the people we are trying to reach and support are unlikely to know what we are talking about), than why don’t the organisations that perpetuate its usage, just stop using it?

NAVCA are starting to do just that. There are still countless bits and pieces of meaningless English (beyond the handful that NAVCA have found are ‘no longer fit-for-purpose’), that seem to find themselves scattered throughout the sector’s internal and external reports, press releases and promotional materials, but this is still an important first step.

A little more action…

Until now, many of the largest membership organisations in the sector, have ‘talked-the-talk’ about the evils of complex ‘in-crowd’ language in a sector that is meant to be all about people, but have often continued to accentuate the problems and divisions raised by continuing to use phrases and acronyms like ‘hard-to-reach groups,’ ‘CENs’, ‘regional infrastructure consortia’ and ‘BAMER’ without explanation.

Subconscious jargon

Having found myself uttering these terms myself during my time in larger organisations, I can understand how perpetuating the language becomes subconscious. As a former colleague told me, who asked a friend to proof-read a document for its readability and was encouraged to change several phrases in it, “I thought everybody knew what that meant! I don’t even realise when I’m using jargon anymore!”

And though it was a significant realisation for this colleague, many of the people we worked with, and many of those who worked in other organisations like ours, were unlikely to have ever even questioned the terms and phrases that so many people find so utterly baffling.

So NAVCA’s move is a very much welcome one, to say the least; it is the first time (I have been aware) that an organisation of that size has taken concrete steps towards making their work more universally accessible, and though there is still much work to do to make many large voluntary organisations more welcoming to a wider range of people, this shows us that if there is a will, there is indeed a way to make change happen.

Ask your mates…

My colleague’s example is one I have often shared with people in organisations who struggle with recognising when they are in fact using jargon. The test is usually a simple one: get a few people in your life who know as little as possible about the work you do, but that you can trust to give you honest feedback, to proofread public documents before you make them public. Though not a silver-bullet, people who exist outside of our immediate circles can be much better sounding-boards for this kind of feedback, than those embroiled in the same language we become so used to in our day jobs.

Jargon is one of a range of ways that institutions become ‘less human’, and thus less-accessible to people not used to dealing with them. Changing the ways we speak and write can be an important step in changing the kinds of people our services, events and campaigns can reach and involve. Congratulations to NAVCA for sticking their collective neck-out and taking a stand against the overuse of jargon which so often separates people and institutions that exist to serve them.

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