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Ha Ha: An experiment in self-organised social impact

Monday, September 16th, 2013

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

Harvest chard
Harvest chard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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