Tuesday, May 20th, 2014
Jim Coe has kindly agreed to us re-posting his blog demolishing ‘Theories of Change.’ He has captured the essence of why so many organisational campaign planning efforts – as they are actually practiced – are unable to handle the complexity of the real world. The blog was originally posted at CoeAndKingham.org.uk.
Jim Coe will smash your theory of change
I wouldn’t ideally call it a ‘theory of change’, but I think it can be really helpful to develop – at an organisational level – a shared view of how change happens, the power dynamics at play, and the best ways to intervene.
The absence of this sort of analysis can be problematic for many reasons, to do with what flows into this gap in understanding.
However, it’s at the campaign level, not the organisational one, where ‘theories of change’ are all the rage these days.
And, as a planning process and tool, the approach has some obvious advantages:
It uncovers, and allows for interrogation of, assumptions about how change happens.
The process of developing theories of change can expose vague and unfounded assumptions and help ensure that strategy is anchored around the change you are trying to achieve.
The process of planning can give valuable space to reflect on the bigger picture.
This is true as long as it doesn’t just end up privileging particular groups or opinions and excluding others (which it can easily do, for reasons to do with how power plays out).
It can help create a common understanding.
Theories of change can get everyone on the same page, and help in communicating a common direction.
On the downside, though, I would say that campaign ‘theories of change’ are pretty much nonsense. In that they are based on – and then further encourage – a fundamental misinterpretation of how change happens:
Campaign ‘theories of change’ tend start from the expectation that social change is predictable and that the steps can be plausibly laid out.
In a few cases – to do with the stability of the issue or the context – some sort of formalised forward planning may make sense. And in theory, if not generally in practice, there is scope to continually adapt the ‘theory of change’ as the context evolves.
But even so, the ‘theories of change’ approach seems to be based on over-optimism at best.
In a classic 20 year study for example, political psychologist Philip Tetlock asked nearly 300 experts to make political and policy predictions in their specialist fields, and he then looked back on these predictions and reviewed their accuracy.
He found that the forecasts overall were barely better than a ‘chimp strategy’ [of randomly guessing], and in many cases they were worse.
Tetlock judged the reasons for this poor showing were to do with:
* How change actually happens (and its inherent unpredictability)
* The psychological properties of people making the predictions (we prefer simplicity, are averse to ambiguity, like to believe in a controllable world, etc.)
These factors combined make it unsurprising that predictions about what will happen and what actually does happen can be so far away from each other.
2/ THE SOURCE OF CHANGE
Theories of change – as they are typically applied – help promote a false and solipsistic sense of organisational self-importance.
They are attractive because they fit with our understanding of time, as something that goes forward. We intervene and this has effects that then lead to later outcomes.
This very much encourages a distorted, organisation-centred picture of the nature of change, with everyone else bit part players in it.
But social change is far more likely to be happening in all kinds of directions, driven by all sorts of actors and factors in all sorts of different combinations. Organisations find themselves aiming at moving targets rather than living in a world where everything else revolves around the organisation whose theory of change it is.
And so as an alternative I would suggest a more sensible approach to campaign planning, a ‘balance of forces’ approach, based on:
1. mapping where the power lies in the system
2. setting out the barriers to achieving the desired change (and the favourable factors)
3. identifying in what ways the campaign will intervene to change this balance
The campaign plan would then follow this logic, setting out
* What needs to change and
* Which changes the campaign is focused on helping to achieve, and how
Not in a grand, long-term blueprint sense, but in a ‘let’s do this and then see where we are’ kind of way.
Ongoing planning would then be about iterative course-correcting. Revisiting the analysis of the barriers to change along the way, tracking any progress, or shifts, and adapting strategy as needed.
* Embeds the importance of a robust analysis of power and the dynamics of change
* Focuses on outcomes and the kinds of interventions an organisation can best make to help achieve them
* Helps in shaping a common strategy
* Allows for a more fluid approach, a shift from ‘predict and control’ to ‘assess and react’
And its starting point is a much truer picture of how change actually happens.
Jim’s take on Theory of Change is closely related to the chapter of my book, Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people, on strategy and planning. You can order it here.
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.
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
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…
Monday, March 11th, 2013
Causes of all stripes have long-rallied others under the banners of ‘unity’ – united we stand, unified voices, etc. But I’m increasingly unconvinced that unity is something we should aspire towards. Worse, our attempts to create it, both in organisations and in movements, might be undermining the very most basic common ground we already share. Instead, could ‘diversity’ be the key to a range of our aims and struggles?
‘We are the 99%’
Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam
‘We are the 99%’: The Occupy slogan the world has come to know since a group of frustrated and inspired citizens set-up camp in Zuccotti Park in September 2011 and sparked a global movement.
The slogan has been cause for much criticism by both progressives and the mainstream establishment. ‘It’s too vague,’ they clamber. ‘What do they actually want?’ they ask, condescendingly.
But these sources of criticism may also be the movement’s greatest strength; they leave plenty of room for literally millions of people to assign their own meaning, within an incredibly basic ideological framework that simply says, ‘I want the world to work for the vast majority, not a tiny minority.’
After that, it’s up to each inspired individual to choose what we/they choose to do.
I call this (as of today, at least) ‘baseline unity, practical diversity.’
The result with Occupy is well-documented. People found their own ways to make the movement their own. At times these approaches and actions absolutely contradicted one another, but they also managed to change public discourse on issues many traditional organisations have been struggling against for decades. (Not to mention all the specific Occupy-related projects and campaigns that quietly emerged from the broader movement, tackling everything from internet monopoly to legal definitions of corporate personhood, disaster relief to toxic debt).
The ‘unity’ at the core of Occupy really didn’t extend beyond a slogan. It was diversity that made it what it has been able to be.
The emergent efforts of countless autonomous individuals, with only this basic sense of common ground, unleashed a kind of collective power the world has rarely seen.
In complexity science, emergence refers to the unpredictable and ever-changing results of countless interdependent variables in a system, acting and interacting autonomously. What at first appears as chaos, gradually takes on a coherent order, as each actor becomes aligned with the others, creating something that no individual could have seen coming.
Schools of fish, flocks of birds, and… what do you call a group of ants, walking in a line, all carrying things way bigger than them? Yeah, that. All emergent phenomena. A couple very basic rules, the rest is up to each individual, and voila! You have a remarkably well-ordered system, without the hierarchy or imposition of a singular ‘right way!’
Margaret Wheatley writes extensively about emergence in her first book, ‘Leadership and the New Science.’ I can’t recommend it enough!
So the lesson of emergence, is that to create well-ordered, effective systems, there must be freedom for everyone within the system to find their own best ways of working towards a simple, shared goal.
Yet for countless years the mantra of so many organisations and movements has been based on the idea that ‘we must have unity if we are going to be successful.’
But unity is inherently singular. People are too varied a species to happily give up our autonomy for something we don’t absolutely believe in, as any ‘basis of unity’ will require, when it involves two or more people.
Organisational reliance on far-more unity than most of us are willing to commit to (because of its cost to our own autonomy), means that we end up giving far less of our energy and potential to our work than we might in a less-controlled environment.
What if passionate support for our mission statements was our only requirements of staff and volunteers? What if it was up to them to figure out the rest? What if we accepted that people within our organisations might not all agree with each other, and let them find their own best ways of advancing the cause, connecting with colleagues or others beyond the organisation, when it made sense to do so?
The disclaimer I put out after many blogs like this one (the ones with especially ‘wacky’ ideas), is this: please don’t tell me why ‘this would never work,’ instead, I ask you to ask yourself (and each other, if you feel like commenting), ‘what could make this work?’
…And if you haven’t noticed over the last two weeks, I’ve been crowd-funding a book I wrote. You can join nearly 100 others in getting it published on StartSomeGood.com, if you want to help it see the light of day by ordering your copy now.
Tuesday, October 5th, 2010
Charities that support cuddly animals invariably receive more than their fair share of the public donations pie, given their contributions to society (compared to say, a refugee support group or a rape crisis centre). But is a ‘charity ranking system’ a good way to shift this imbalance? If our giving choices are indeed ‘visceral’ and ‘irrational’, is a measured, rational system likely to change them?
On Wednesday, Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital, spoke at the RSA on ‘The Morality of Charity’, arguing for a charity ranking system to help the public decide which organisations are more worthy of their donations than others. At the core of his speech, he said, were moral judgments on:
- the value of particular causes over others;
- the ability of some organisations to deliver more effectively on those causes than others.
His hope was a system that could divert sparse resources to the most deserving, rather than the most popular causes.
On one level, I can appreciate the sentiment here; those who know me know I often bemoan the vast reserves sitting in the bank accounts of a small number of ultra-large national organisations. However, there seem too many trade-offs associated with the proposal, trade-offs which may deeply undermine public trust in charities, as well as the sector’s broader independence and individual donors’ right to choose.
I’ve purposely avoided the question of practical difficulties, as I feel Sophie Hudson has already summarised the argument, but also because I’m keen to avoid the rhetoric of ‘let’s not do it because it seems ‘impossible’. My approach looks at the risks I see as inherent in making such judgments about the value of the truly vast range of charitable efforts, and the complexity of their contributions to society.
All causes were not created equal…
Martin makes the example of charities that have traditionally delivered services which, retrospectively have been deemed damaging (cigarettes for soldiers, blood letting, etc), as a justification for a ranking system, to discourage money from reaching such groups. However, he didn’t mention the examples of charities which were ‘ahead of their time’ and whose services may not have been formally recognised as critical when they were established, but have since come to be seen as integral in their field. A ranking system, without the benefits of hindsight, would only have current ‘fact’ – that which is already ‘proven’ (versus that which is essentially being trialled by a charity who strongly believes in a new approach), on which a judgment could be passed. This creates an imperative for organisations to stick to established methods, shunning risk and innovation, for fear of lowering their ranking with a yet unproven means of delivery. This seems like a formula for the calcification of a sector, de-incentivised to push beyond established practices, due to concern over lowering their ranking, and thus, their income.
What about politics?
While I would agree that there is an unfair allocation of resources towards ‘sexy’ – and broadly widely agreeable causes, those who are most in need (if I can indeed make such a judgment) are often those least likely to receive public donations. Undercutting this reality, as uncomfortably as it sits with much of the charity world, is politics. People won’t agree on the most deserving causes because their underpinning political beliefs will answer this question differently. Refugees and asylum seekers are often among the most harshly treated groups in the country, yet many will argue against their right to be here at all, let alone to have money to support them.
As long as political divides exist, we will view different charities as differently ‘worthy’, regardless of what information we are given about their value. If we don’t talk about politics, we are unlikely to get very far in this discussion.
Conversely, if we do acknowledge political differences in such a system, it seems we will end up with either rankings that reinforces the political status quo (a dangerous choice, as discriminatory as it is), or a system so watered-down, that only donkeys, cancer and football will qualify for support, as the only causes not (arguably) steeped in political baggage.
Speaking of politics, what about if an organisation is working to influence broader social or governmental forces? Their impacts may be much harder to see than those exclusively delivering services. In many cases, the broader influencing work will be ultimately more important, holding the key to changing a systemic injustice creating the need for services in the first place, but how could this be ranked alongside groups whose efforts are based totally on addressing immediate, visible need?
It’s a complex, complex world…
Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital
We live in a complex world in which an arts charity may be vastly improving the life prospects of cancer patients and a youth football project may be significantly reducing local violent crime. This means that many of the best organisations cannot be categorised according to (as Martin suggests as an option), Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (with food and water as the base, and arts and leisure activities at the peak).
Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t address the complex inter-relationships between work affecting different parts of the pyramid described above. Parallels to the arts or football examples above likely exist in every voluntary or community organisation that doesn’t supply food and water to sub-Saharan African villages, making classification a broadly meaningless activity, which would likely just encourage groups to distort their categorisations to rank more highly than they otherwise might, in the interests of maintaining the impression of public value. Much like currently imposed systems of monitoring and evaluation, groups will find ways to fill in the forms to give themselves preferential results. And this would be a completely understandable thing to do, if you knew your future income was dependent not on your work, per se, but on the perception of your work you were able to create amongst donors or funders.
I feel I mostly addressed this one in May when NPC’s work in this area first came to my attention. Any system which attempts to make a blanket evaluation of the overall effectiveness of different organisations, will inevitably lose the nuance that makes a cattery different from a rape crisis centre, or youth music programme. If the currently established systems of organisational evaluation are anything to go by, they will not begin to capture the full value offered by most charities.
Even on an issue as seemingly straightforward as how money is spent and overhead costs, these lines can be incredibly blurred, depending on the how distinctions are drawn between frontline staff and management, or if fundraising budgets can be justified, based on their cash return, though they might look disproportionate to the objective outsider.
Better allocation of too few resources?
As for this bigger question, I wonder why we are asking it the way we are. Would we try to regulate who people become friends with, because there are some people who don’t have enough friends in their lives, and some who have many? Those with the most friends may be popular, funny, but ultimately, less reliable as friends than some of their less-popular alternatives; but will this stop people from gravitating towards them?
It’s not ideal, but systems are notoriously bad at addressing these things on any scale. Charity is a deeply personal issue for many people and outside information is unlikely to sway someone’s visceral response to an issue they have come to care about.
Further, if we try to do so, we run the (I feel) inevitable risk of:
- alienating or confusing current and future donors who feel judged for the issues they support
- encouraging dishonesty from organisations looking to find ways to boost their ranking
- devaluing the critical work that is done by charities to influence broader systemic change
- reinforcing the status of large charities with specialised staff to address grading requirements
- wasting vast sums of money to cram complex issues into insufficiently complex categorisations
For all of Martin’s reminders that people are not rational in their giving habits (he is a self-confessed donkey sanctuary donor), he seems convinced that a rational system of ranking is what is needed to convince us to give differently. If it is feeling and instinct that drive our current donations, why not look at how feeling and instinct could help to shape new ones, rather than creating a system which tries to undermine these things? Not a challenge any easier than NPC’s, but maybe one with a greater precedent for success?
The sooner we can dispel the institutional myth that you can count, measure and rank complex social efforts, as you would a football league table, or a budget deficit, the sooner we can get on to really understanding the value they do or don’t provide.
Friday, September 24th, 2010
*I originally wrote this piece for FairSay.com in March 2010*
Though people have managed to self-organise throughout human history, we are at a moment where the fusion of this self-organisation, with ever-expanding social technology, is creating spaces that no longer require the type of ‘leadership’ we’ve become so used to… So what does this mean for traditional campaigning organisations?
Image courtesy of Steve Lawson
Do we live in a leaderless world? Obviously not – we don’t have to look far to see how the decisions of bosses and politicians shape much of our everyday lives. Are there places in our world that exist outside of a top-down form of leadership? Yes – people collectively-organise, often to great effect, in many realms of life. And though this has been the case for all of human history – whether in church groups or terror networks – we are at a moment where the fusion of this kind of self-organisation, with ever-expanding social technology, is creating spaces that no longer require the type of ‘leadership’ we’ve become so used to.
For those of you already immersed in this world, the modern-legend that is Trafigura – the story of the PR firm that won an injunction against the reporting of Parliamentary proceedings involving its client, and then had it over-turned by a leak and a spontaneous, 12-hour online uprising in the ‘Twittersphere’ – is likely a familiar one by now. What the Trafigura ‘campaign’ represents though, is more than a ‘good over evil’, or ‘David and Goliath’ kind of victory – it represents a fundamentally different way of achieving social change, than that which most of our organisations will have had any previous experience being a part of.
What’s different about Trafigura?
What’s different about Trafigura, is the absence of a ‘head’; a lead body – usually an organisation, but at least a charismatic individual – who can determine, broadly, the direction through which a likeminded group can move to achieve its aims. The only ‘leader’ of this campaign, was the idea that people have a right to know what happens in Parliament, regardless of the reputational effects that may have on the people or groups involved. And that was it – this idea exploded and very quickly became a trending topic on Twitter, feeding into a range of major blogs, mainstream news stories and, within half-a-day, the repeal of the gag order itself – a campaign victory by any traditional measure. But no single person or group could honestly claim the victory, because what happened was bigger than any of the individual parts.
What does this mean for us?
So what does all this mean for traditional campaigning organisations? Potentially, a lot, though it is still ‘early days’. We can no longer assume that our knowledge, history of voice, or positioning will place us at the centre of mass collective sentiment around our issues or areas of work. On some level, the ‘need’ for a central organising body in a campaign seems – at least superficially – to be less relevant that it has ever been. As so many people can achieve critical mass, without being told to attend a particular event, or sign up to an organisation’s platform, the potential for self-organisation is vast, and can, at times, outweigh the benefits of subscribing to an organisation’s campaign actions. As institutions, it is impossible for us to move as quickly as individuals can, in response to an event or a piece of news. With the connecting power of social media, vast numbers of individual people are able to move very quickly, in roughly the same direction, without a helmsperson to steer the ship.
So are we, as campaigning organisations, on the verge of forced redundancy, in light of this shift towards decentralisation? No… or at least not necessarily.
If, in the coming months and years we are able to adapt to this changing terrain, and accept, that we won’t always be able to ‘lead’ every campaign we want to take on, I think we will find our roles to be ever-more important, as e-campaigning becomes part of more and more peoples’ social media routine. Alternatively, if we cling to the more traditional, command-and-control mechanisms of brand consistency and uniform messaging, people may very well find other ways of getting themselves heard on the issues they care about, that are less-restricting to their personal schedules or ideas of activism.
Practically speaking though, what would campaigning look like in this new environment? The ever-allusive answer is that it could look like a lot of different things, which is another reason it may be harder for some organisations to adapt effectively. It’s much harder to plan for a campaign when you:
- don’t know when it might happen
- don’t know exactly what it’s going to be about, and
- don’t know what contribution you might be making to it.
What to do about it
But luckily we’re not flying totally blind here and there are still things we can do to prepare! The key is in flexibility; if a Trafigura-esque (spontaneous, leaderless) ‘campaign’ emerges within your area of expertise:
Make sure you’ve already got the relevant information available online – reports, stories, interviews – so you can start to link to it and share it around, as soon as the topic appears to be taking off. If people are linking to your information repeatedly, it builds a collective sense of trust that your messages carry some authority in the given area. Trust will make your next steps that much easier.
Figure out who the others are who seem to have some authority on the issues. This may cut against some organisations’ instincts, but promote what they are saying and doing as well, whether via Twitter, a blog, your website, or a Facebook page. Reciprocity is an important tenet of social media culture, and will inevitably benefit your both work and your cause, if you can demonstrate that you’re involvement is bigger than just your organisation.
Lastly, (and maybe most importantly) be prepared to offer whatever makes sense to those in the ‘campaign’ who are most active and vocal. Maybe this means providing a meeting space for activists looking to move their online actions into ‘real world’; maybe this means making an introduction to a relevant politician whom you’ve already built a relationship with; maybe this means setting-up a one-off campaign action for supporters to engage with… your potential types of contributions in such a situation could be endless, but your potential returns could be greater than those of many of our most successful traditional campaigns.
The potential for unprecedented numbers of people to come together to affect change has never been greater; let’s make sure that, though we might not be in the middle of it all, at least we can find ourselves a place where it counts…
Tuesday, June 8th, 2010
A quick timeline:
7/6/10, 4:10pm – I noticed that @andyvglnt
had also picked-up the story, Tweeting “Danny Dyer’s new flick take £205 in 1st weekend? @Diazzzz
and I took more than that for band t-shirts and cupcakes yesterday!” Banter ensues… we decide that more people would choose to support the women Dyer ‘jokes’ about cutting, than would want to see his film. I suggest finding a suitable charity and sending a link to their donate page, @andyvglnt
suggests a page on JustGiving.com
, so we could see “how much more generous people are than Dyer is successful.”
7/6/10, 6:30 – £210 had been made, surpassing the goal and outdoing ‘Pimp’s opening weekend take.
8/6/10, 9:25am – £420 had been raised for Solace Women’s Aid, via 47 separate donors, pitching in between £2 and £100 each.
£420 is hardly going to change the world…
In the scheme of things this sum is not a remarkable total. But there are a few key learning points here for people who want to make change in the world, and for organisations that want to be a part of it.
There is an important idea in Complexity Theory that describes how “patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions
.” The common metaphor is of a flock of birds – there are no ‘leaders’ per se, but there is clearly an aligning of independent efforts that have an effect greater than any of the individual parts – the flock. There have been countless examples of how technology has enabled social ‘flocking’ to occur. What was simply a few combined hours of @andyvglnt
and my time, became something far bigger than either our efforts or our means (we are both pretty poor right now) could have achieved. Which leads to the next point…
In the timelines above, what I failed to mention was that about 2 minutes after I sent the 1st Tweet, I got an important phone call from my sister, who I spent the next 45-minutes speaking with. When I got back to the computer, £95 had been raised. @andyvglnt
had been pushing it during that time, but more than 20 people had also independently chosen to re-share (‘ReTweet’) the initial message and about 10 had already chipped in money. Most people simply shared the link or made a comment. A smaller number of people made a donation. @andyvglnt
and I contributed a couple hours of our afternoon/evening. If you could calculate the total effort, it would likely be a significant sum (given the £420 involved), but was hardly more than a few passing clicks of the mouse, for hundreds of different people.
How communication is changing via technology
Technology was obviously a big enabler in this process, whether as the initial source of information and the distribution platform (Twitter), or as the channel through which funds were received (JustGiving). But what it did was not unique to technology – it amplified and sped-up the natural human urge to share things we find valuable, allowing them to reach far more people than would have ever been possible without it.
The importance of autonomy
and I started sending messages back-and-forth, neither of us could foresee what would happen next – but we went ahead, followed our instincts and, when those instincts happen to match up with those of several hundred others, £420 that would otherwise have stayed in individual bank accounts, made it to Solace Women’s Aid
. There was no ‘fundraising strategy’, there was no plan that extended more than about 5 minutes into the future, there was just effort, and the snowballing effect of effort that gets reflected and multiplied by others. Very few voluntary organisations I have worked with would be in a position to have enabled this to happen, as how many people in professional jobs – even if women’s rights was at the core of their work – would be able to a) pick-up on a trivial bit of knowledge like ‘Pimp
’s dismal opening weekend take, and b) spend the afternoon acting on it, dropping whatever else was on the go?
How I’ve chosen to tie this into my workday
When I talk about ‘human institutions’ (as anyone who has read this blog before knows I often do), I am talking (in part) about organisations that support the potential of those within and around them to grow, and how the benefits of individual personal development can mesh with the development of the institution. This sounds simple enough, but is actually very counter-intuitive to many of the ideas that underlie traditional management know-how.
, myself and a few hundred others did in the course of our afternoons/evenings yesterday demonstrated the microcosmic potential of what can happen when passion goes viral. It’s happening all over the place these days. Organisations that can tap into this kind of passion, are often most successful, regardless of their field.
As Dan Pink outlines in his RSA talk on motivation, how Aussie software company Atlassian (though I don’t often site corporate examples) recognises some element of this (at about 5min40sec): “Once a quarter, on a Thursday afternoon they say to their developers, ‘for the next 24 hours you can work on anything you want… all we ask is that you show the results to the company at the end of that 24 hours.’” The results have been the creation and development of a whole range of new software fixes and products that would never otherwise have emerged.
My suggestion goes a step further…
While a dedicated day-per-quarter has been a successful model for supporting innovation at Atlassian, passion isn’t always something that can be scheduled, and may be sparked by, or may come to influence, a range of other time sensitive outside factors that don’t happen to fall on the given Thursday. In other words, within this model, these are still ‘lost’ opportunities. What would happen if a more flexible approach was taken, giving staff a certain amount of flexible time – maybe it’s a day a quarter, maybe it’s more, maybe it’s less – but that, when the conditions were right, people could feel empowered to run with an idea, while it’s ‘still warm’? The logistics of this would prove challenging for most organisations, depending on individual workloads, but my personal, evidence-free hunch, especially in the voluntary sector, is that most staff would recognise during especially busy periods, where their efforts were most needed.
I will leave it to all of you to pick-apart the detail of this, but believe that it could provide a possible way for those of us who spend our days working for social change, to tap into some of the emergent social forces at play all around us, that we often don’t pick-up on in the course of a busy day at the office…
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