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The divisiveness of unity

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

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.’

Encouraging emergence

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.

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#DannyDyerDonate: A flop film, the web + £400 for charity

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

A quick timeline:

#DannyDyerDonate Just Giving Page

7/6/10, 4:00pm – I’m ‘on Twitter’; I notice a Tweet from @VictoriaPeckham, that said a remarkably low 24 people went to see Danny Dyer’s new film, Pimp, during its entire opening weekend; £205 was grossed. The blog points out that Dyer was last in the news when his advice column in Zoo lads’ mag had caused fury, after he recommended a reader cut an ex-girlfriend’s face, so ‘no one would want her’.

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, 4:20pm – In about 10 minutes, I’d set-up a JustGiving page for #DannyDyerDonate, giving money to Solace Women’s Aid. I sent the following Tweet: “Danny Dyer’s ‘PIMP’ film made £205; can we raise more for the women he ‘jokes’ of abusing? http://bit.ly/aK91xw #DannyDyerDonate”

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.

Emergence
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…

Distributed effort
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
When @andyvglnt 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.

What @andyvglnt, 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…

In the mean time, if you haven’t and are able, please chip-in or help share the #DannyDyerDonate page and help Solace Women’s Aid make a difference in the lives of the women who have been victims of the domestic violence normalised by Danny Dyer’s ‘jokes’.

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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.