This blog is a part one of two (not that anyone’s counting), picking apart the issues with the ways we (over-)use stats and figures in the voluntary sector and beyond. It’s for anyone who ‘doesn’t believe it until they see the numbers’. Part one focuses on what I see as the false correlation between ‘numbers’ and ‘evidence’ and how this conflation undermines trust and creates less-than-honest results. The second will look at the dehumanising effects of using numbers as descriptors, rankings or value measures of people, relationships and social change.
The problem with numbers is not numbers, per se; it’s where they fall in our order-of-operations.
Too often we see them as an end point – the holy grail of research, evaluation, analysis, planning – rather than a step along the journey of better understanding. When numbers become the end game, the pressure to manipulate their journey, fiddling, adjusting and otherwise reconfiguring them is immense. And as much as we might like to pretend they represent an infallible scientific rigour, those of us who’ve ever filled a funder’s monitoring form know that even a figure calculated to the Nth decimal place still has significant room for interpretive flexibility, when you need it to.
Number as replacement for trust
No method of compliance can effectively replace the kind of accountability that mutual trust provides in relationships. The work created in attempts to do so is immense. Numbers have traditionally been seen as an alternative when trust doesn’t exist, providing a way of measuring whether someone has done what they said they would. Or so we tell ourselves.
Unfortunately, as this became the norm for contracts, evaluations, grant monitoring and organisational audits, we have taken the assumption of dishonesty that underpins the push for numbers, and trumped it… with more dishonesty!
And this dishonesty appears wherever we have imposed what David Boyle calls ‘The Tyranny of Numbers’. When voluntary organisations need to hit targets to maintain their funding, they double-count beneficiaries and shift budget lines; when government needs to justify ideology-driven service cuts to the public, they pick and choose the statistics that will help them to do so, ignoring those that don’t; when FTSE CEOs want to receive bigger bonuses, they hide liabilities and inflate profits to produce short-term gains in stock prices… They create numbers that succeed only in hiding the truth and most of the time we have no practical way of telling the difference!
In doing so, each of these examples create long-term problems in their wake; organisations and funders fail to adequately learn from both success and failure; governments are not held to account on ideologically-driven decisions; companies suffer when the bubbles so many questionable bonuses have been built upon, invariably burst…
Across the sectors
So these practices occur, with more and less altruistic intent, across all types of institutions. And it is impossible to effectively gage their true prevalence, as when they are fiddled they look (at least superficially) pretty much the same as when they are honest, and thus there is no simple and reliable way of checking if people are fiddling the system, without digging considerably deeper, by which point it may be too late to affect change.
Headline figures are underpinned by statistics, which have consolidated totals beneath them, and tallies and raw data from sample surveys still lower down in the process. Most of us don’t see, or are unable to understand these numbers on top of numbers, making it impossible (within most of our means) to effectively refute them. Yet they justify most of the decisions affecting our lives and the lives of those we support.
In the sea of numbers we may cross paths with on any given day, distinguishing between the ‘authentic’, the ‘questionable’ and the ‘wrong’ is an unfeasible task. One of my favourite recent finds, via Henry Mintzberg, looks at the creation of statistics which justified British World War II aircraft expenditure:
“As Eli Devons (1950:Ch. 7) described in his fascinating account of planning for British aircraft production during World War II, ‘despite the arbitrary assumptions made’ in the collection of some data, ‘once a figure was put forward… it soon become accepted as the “agreed figure”, since no one was able by rational argument to demonstrate that it was wrong… And once the figures were called “statistics”, they acquired the authority and sanctity of Holy Writ’ (155).” [Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, The Free Press, 1994]
For another example of the futility of finding meaningful numbers, think of the London demonstration against the War in Iraq in February 2003. It seems fair to assume biases coming from both sides, as police declared the march at 750,000, while Stop The War organisers claimed 2,000,000. Even in counting a single tally, the most important variable, evidently, is who is doing the counting. And while one could of course argue that an objectively ‘correct’ number exists, who is in a position to ‘prove’ that theirs is it? So in practice, the numbers from both sides mean very little beyond ‘a considerable number of people don’t want this war’; a conclusion any casual observer of the event could likely have made, avoiding the unnecessary ambiguity numbers added to the situation.
Newspapers on top of newspapers
One response to these pitfalls is to produce new numbers which serve to either validate or disprove the old ones. In doing so, we are placing new newspapers over the old newspapers that we used to cover up the spot where the dog peed in the corner. The pee is still there, but we don’t have to acknowledge it anymore.
…And the new layer seems effective for a period, but then the damp begins to soak through and the stench begins to sneak around the edges, as we find yet more resourceful ways to manipulate the new system and achieve the numbers we wanted in the first place. The examples of this approach are endless: crimes get regrouped, ‘impact’ redefined, local boundaries redrawn, titles reclassified, and we’re back to square one, with little idea of what we have done, whether or not it has actually worked and how it compares with what we did before.
Trusting relationships don’t produce this kind of effect, but requiring numbers to achieve accountability comes from a mistrusting place, and thus the behaviour that follows is likely to reinforce this insinuation. What if Stop The War Coalition had shown the images from February 15th and let people judge for themselves the importance of the day, rather than try to quantify the historic mobilisation?
My inclination (perhaps unsurprisingly to regular readers) is to place our focus on building trusting relationships, rather than trust in numbers. This is of course a mammoth task, to frame it conservatively, yet one which I feel is at the core of better and more meaningful learning, accountability and understanding. Raising trust invariably raises questions of power, but without venturing into such depths, our results will invariably be shallow ones.
How can trust change the dynamics between those with more and those with less power in the world of social change?
In communities groups I’ve worked with, when you ask the question ‘how do you know you’ve made a difference?’ it is common to hear from those most in tune to local issues: ‘We just know – we can tell’.
The professional voluntary sector tends to scoff at this response for the whole range of obvious reasons you might expect; namely that it’s ‘not evidence-based’ (see: ‘Show me the numbers’).
But often within this seemingly simple response, can be a series of profound truths, whose detail and subtlety is not easily translated into the worlds of reporting. It’s often a series of small changes, anecdotes, stories; the things you notice when you know the ins-and-outs of a community, its strengths and its problems, like the back of your hand. These anecdotes create a broader ‘feeling’ which may well serve as a more effective gage than any metrics ever can, of the shifts taking place in an area.
So funders, lead partner organisations, councils, universities: why don’t we ask the people involved in local efforts how they know what kind of impact they’ve made and how they would choose to show us? Why don’t we also ask them what they’ve learned during the process?
And the bold part? We accept what they tell us.
When we ask for numbers, we undermine the judgments of those who do the work. If we give them the chance, without the pressure to produce figures (not stopping them if they feel numbers do help to tell their story), we may find that we have encouraged a more honest understanding of the issues.
This approach shifts the power dynamics by offering trust; giving them the chance to provide a narrative that makes sense within their experience, rather than the frameworks we have created for our own convenience or preference. Those who are trusted are more likely to be trust-worthy. When people you fund, research, support or evaluate are trust-worthy, you’re more likely to hear the important stuff from them, rather than a finely-tuned propaganda piece, invariably filled with the kinds of selective numbers which succeed only in giving us the false impression of knowing what’s going on.
The follow-up will focus on the more value-driven argument against a number-centric approach; how numbers can dehumanise those involved or affected by our work, undermining our core missions and principles in the process.
I met Paul Story in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival last week. Paul is an author of fiction. I admittedly don’t read much fiction (Kurt Vonnegut aside), but when I met him, he was handing out hard copies of his novel ‘Dreamwords’, having dubbed them ‘The Honesty Edition’. Here’s how he describes ‘The Honesty Edition’ on his website:
“I ask people to help themselves to a physical copy of Dreamwords Book One on trust. They should pay only if they wish to see the rest of the series published. Book Two is complete but it needs to find its readers before it is able to survive. By trusting people to be honest I hope that future fans of the series will father the next book by paying for the one they have just read. Furthermore, honest readers who do not respond to the story are honour bound to find someone else who agrees to the honesty deal. This way, and with luck, each copy will have a chance to find its own champion. In an ideal world, I only want those people who enjoy the book to pay for it.”
Sounds a bit naive, doesn’t it? Giving people you’ve never met the product of your labour, on the trust that they will send you some money, some time down the road? Traditional economics and much old school psychology would both likely toss the idea before giving it a chance to breathe. Paul Story ignored them, maxed out a credit card and printed 10,000 copies to give out on the streets of Scotland.
“There are no tracking chips in the spine, no check-out tills nearby, no security cameras or guards monitoring the display and no legal documents to sign. The Honesty Edition has been designed so that the reader is free from any pressure to pay beyond their own sense of honour. My bet is that most people are trustworthy and that enough will enjoy the story to make this crazy idea work.”
Bias declared: I loved the idea from the moment I read the sign Paul had set himself up with in Edinburgh. That said, when he outlined some of the early outcomes, I was still very impressed:
He has made more on the books he’s distributed so far (from the money people have sent him online), than he would have if he’d sold them in stores;
The 1st thousand distributed copies of ‘Book One’ of the series have (I believe) gone ½ way to paying for costs of the entire run;
If he is paid the suggested £7.99 for less than ½ of the total 10,000 copies, it will subsidise the costs of both Book One and Book Two. Anything more pays his rent.
Dreamwords Book One
I see Paul Story’s ‘Honesty Edition’ as a ‘Post-Web’ experiment – taking the ideas underpinning the ways we’ve come to use the internet (to share, discuss and work together for mutual benefit on a mass-scale) and bringing them back into the ‘real world’ again.
Paul has trusted each of us who have taken a copy of the book to be both its funders and distributors – much as countless independent bands have done online in recent years – but primarily through people we are in human (rather than exclusively web-based) contact with. The internet will play some role in its potential success (it’s how payments are sent, people may Tweet/blog about it, etc), but this will be secondary to directly passing the book along to someone you think will appreciate it.
Much like how Shinobi Ninja, Steve Lawson and countless other musicians use Twitter and other social platforms, Paul Story lets the fan do his marketing, promotion and distribution, based-on the sense of value they/we get from his work. What’s most interesting to me is his structured experiment to see if the same behaviours will carry-over at a comparable scale in the non-online world…
The key lesson I’ve taken from ‘The Honesty Edition’ is that even in the seemingly impersonal and self-motivated context of business transactions, trust works! As James Surowiecki, looking at the growth of successful Quaker-run businesses in eighteenth-and-nineteenth century Britain highlights, “as Quaker prosperity grew, people drew a connection between that prosperity, and the sect’s reputation for reliability and trustworthiness” [The Wisdom of Crowds, p. 119].
“when we design systems that assume bad faith from the participants, and whose main purpose is to defend against that nasty behaviour, we often foster the very behaviour we’re trying to deter. People will push and push the limits of the formal rules, search for every available loophole, and look for ways to game the system when the defenders aren’t watching. By contrast, a structure of rules that assumes good faith can actually encourage that behaviour.”
In another recent piece, Pink writes: “Like any valuable relationship, the ones we have in business hinge on trust. And trust depends on openness, respect and humanity.”
What are voluntary sector organisations doing about trust?
So what have leading voluntary organisations and non-profits done with these ideas? My experiences have found very little, as many of us have clung to the traditional idiom that trust is at-best a naive guiding principle, and have structured our organisations accordingly.
Has your organisation bucked-the-trend? The voluntary sector should be leading the charge in this shift, but I’ve yet to see evidence that this is the case…
We assume the need to be ‘professional’ in the voluntary sector, but are our concepts of professionalism outdated, unfulfilling and ultimately unproductive in achieving the impacts we are here to achieve? Instead of a ‘professionalism’ that wedges a gap between who we really are and the role we play at work, what would enable us to ‘take off our masks’ and build work places that are ‘More Like People’?
“You must learn to always be professional. Never lose your temper, never cry, never get impatient, never get upset, never show your weakness. If you are caving under pressure, run to the bathroom. …by being emotional, you are making yourself a liability. No one wants to keep people who are flakey or break under pressure. The corporate world wants people of steel.”
This may be a somewhat extreme example, but the essence of this excerpt can be found in countless watered-down versions by Googling the phrase: “how to be professional at work”. Even in the voluntary and community sectors, we are increasingly used to a singular definition of professionalism, one that may have felt initially alien to us, but which we‘ve become increasingly accustomed to during our working lives. Unfortunately, the old rules of thumb around how one should behave in a working environment often have significant negative repercussions, fostering tension between colleagues and erecting barriers between the ‘professionals’ and those an organisation exists to support.
Tips on ‘professionalism’ from corporate consultants and bloggers often include:
How to dress (‘business casual’, ‘formal’)
How to speak (Queen’s English)
Dining and drinking etiquette (table manners, ‘who pays’)
I recently heard Jon Rouse, Chief Executive of Croydon Council describe these kinds of ‘tips’ as the basis of ‘the Cult of Professionalism’. This ‘cult’, he said, is guided by an incredibly narrow set of mostly unspoken norms, which strip away some of the core principles that make us human; traits like empathy, emotion, individualism and opinion. While becoming ‘professional’, we separate ourselves from the vast majority of other people in the world, behaving – and often thinking (while at work, at least) – in ways that seem unimaginable and often highly suspect, to people who exist outside of this constructed reality. But unlike the cults of Scientology or Freemasonry, membership in the Cult of Professionalism is often fluid – a membership which many of us will pass in-and-out of at different times in our working lives, rather than committing to permanently.
Essentially though, this model of ‘professionalism’ pushes those who accept it to compartmentalise their lives (to varying degrees), to fit its rigid criteria. ‘From nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, I am a ‘professional’. During evenings and weekends, I might be a new father, a scout leader, a revolutionary Marxist, an alcoholic, a BNP member, a choir leader, a beekeeper…’.
Some of these roles, we might say, are clearly best left outside of the workplace. However, like a pressure cooker, if we try to create false partitions between parts of our lives for too long, they will eventually boil-over into one-another. For example:
Closeted racism may slip into hiring practices;
Problems in a personal relationship may start to taint interactions with colleagues;
Nights spent awake with a crying baby may make it harder to focus on work.
Or more positively:
Previous experience in a gang may give new insights into staff motivation and management;
Being a parent of teenagers may provide an awareness of the attitudes of younger staff;
A mate might be able to help with a piece of work that the team has been stuck on for some time…
So I would argue that ‘siloing’ ourselves (‘the professional’ and ‘everything else in our lives’) is neither sustainable, nor desirable. The loss of basic human characteristics that so often occurs when we allow only a limited piece of ourselves to show over a significant period of time can limit or damage the relationships we are able to build in our working lives. And whether in the corporate world, or that of palliative care, good relationships are increasingly recognised as crucial to (relative) success in the workplace.
But such things only happen in the corporate world!
Though the Cult tends to be most associated with the civil service and the financial sector, one does not have to look far to see the growing prevalence of corporate influence in civil society organisations. Whether as ‘value for money’ audits (as opposed to value for impact), public contract culture (‘we’ve got to compete with bids by private companies’), or Social Return on Investment (and its attempts to convert human stories into cash sums), there are many examples of the values which have traditionally underpinned our sector, being subtly undermined by more bottom-line-orientated approaches.
As may have been expected, the cultures associated with those practices in the private sector have gradually begun to foment themselves in the working cultures of various larger voluntary organisations. This is clearly more immediately problematic when staff are engaging with victims of abuse or ex-offenders, than if they are simply trading stocks in the City. Impersonal and sterile policies against ‘hugging’, ‘personal relationships in the workplace’ and a range of other basically human activities, send a clear message that the ‘professionalism’ an employer desires, is one which checks many of your personal characteristics at the door; not all that far from the quotation I begun the blog with…
So what do we do about it?
This is not an easy one and I don’t pretend to have clear answers, as our entrenched attitudes are not easily re-shaped. That said I have a couple of ideas that might be worth thinking about if you’ve experienced some of these issues in your organisation.
Push the professional comfort zone Most of us would find it much harder to be ‘professional’ (in the narrowest sense) if our regular working environment was radically changed. Jon Rouse at Croydon Council implemented such a change via direct interactions between senior council officers and local people who had felt hurt or oppressed by the council services they had received. This was not to necessarily validate every negative experience as a fair indictment of the council, but to give people who rarely saw the frontline impacts of their decisions, a first-hand glimpse into what it would have felt like to have a child taken into care, or to be unable to visit a loved-one while they were in the hospital. The officers were not there to defend the choices made by the council, only to better understand the feelings of those on the other end of those choices – encouraging a sense of empathy with their experiences. Rouse described the process as intensely emotional for many, but one which shifted the perspectives of many of those from the council who were involved, helping them to better appreciate the difficulties social services could unwittingly create in people’s lives, and how these might be mitigated from the policy level. It’s hard to maintain a narrowly professional persona, when confronted directly with firsthand human suffering, especially if there’s even a minute possibility that something you did or didn’t do, may have played some role in allowing that suffering to happen.
Trust staff’ judgment – don’t always try to regulate it I just read an advice piece in Third Sector on dealing with staff who are in relationships together. It was based on the premise that something bad would probably happen as a result of a romantic relationship and that a policy for such matters was needed… Wait! A policy? To prevent heartbreak? To tell staff not to let their heartbreak show at work? To tell them not to have personal feelings for colleagues at all? There’s no question that there can sometimes be messy elements to workplace relationships, but nothing you can regulate will prevent these from occurring. With that said, most of the time they don’t, but our responses often assume the worst before having reason to do so. Why not congratulate them on their happiness and address any issues individually, if they do happen to become issues?
This ties into some fairly key ideas of human institutions, challenging the assumption of the worst (‘left unregulated, people will do wrong’) that often underpins organisational planning efforts and policies. Regulation should be a last-resort, rather than a knee-jerk response to organisational dilemmas. Humans are remarkable when it comes to addressing issues as they arise!
Make yourself a bit vulnerable I have only gut-instinct and a limited mix of personal and professional experiences on which to base this, but feel strongly that ‘conscious vulnerability’ is an important step to breaking-through the ‘Cult of Professionalism’.
As we’re rarely used to expressing anything resembling emotion in the workplace, this is a difficult challenge for most of us, especially as working relationships can be subtly competitive, or even adversarial. In this context, becoming consciously vulnerable can feel like a death sentence, however, it may be the olive branch that begins to shift a working culture towards something more genuinely mutually beneficial. There’s no guarantee of success, and a bad experience may not be an easy one, but without risk, we omit the possibility of change…
Conscious vulnerability breeds trust, through the implicit acknowledgment that you have given someone the opportunity to hurt you, on the assumption they won’t. So if you ask for the help of someone of a lower rank, but with particularly relevant experience, or admit that a decision you made was a mistake, it may start to change the ways people relate to you and to each other. By modelling little changes and demonstrating trust in those you work with, it may very well encourage others to follow suit.
When we cut-off our own emotions (conforming to the spoken-and-unspoken expectations of the Cult), we often simultaneously limit our ability to empathise with the emotions of others. Empathy is another key idea in my human institutions work, and one that Jeremy Rifkin talks about in the context of “re-thinking our institutions in society to prepare the groundwork for an empathic civilisation”. A bit abstract, I know, but an important bit of grounding for some of the bigger picture changes that our collective behaviours can gradually start to shape…
“Push the professional comfort zone,
Trust staff judgement,
Make yourself a bit vulnerable”
Have you broken free of the Cult?
As mentioned earlier, membership in the Cult of Professionalism is far from all-encompassing and elicits different commitment from each of us at different times. Very few people bring the Cult into every aspect of their lives, as we would immediately find it limiting to our ability to form meaningful relationships and get any real sense of satisfaction from the world. But many of us, understandably, take on bits of it, as it suits us, when we are in a working environment where it is the norm. Sometimes it’s easier to refer a member or client to a policy, rather than unpick the details of their concern; sometimes admitting we don’t know something might seem to jeopardise our job or reputation; sometimes the issues we face in voluntary and community sector can feel too difficult to acknowledge our own feelings about…
So I’d really like to hear about when you have:
Been able to model an alternative
Bucked the office trend and acted in a way that truly expressed empathy with either your colleagues or those your organisation exists to serve
Openly admitted your weaknesses to those you work with
Refused to use a new bit of in-crowd jargon
Given honest (if unpopular) opinions to managers
Allowed yourself to ‘just be yourself’ at work
As this blog is very much ‘thinking-in-progress’, I’m keen to hear people’s views on this. Collectively, we might be able to develop some alternatives to this debilitating notion of what it means to be a professional…
As voluntary sector jargon goes, one of the most thoroughly-integrated tidbits of recent years must be the phrase that spawned its own New Labour quango: capacity building.
Through all of the criticisms Capacitybuilders (the quango) has faced, there has been some very good work they have supported (along with, I would argue, a significant share of waste). Before setting-up Concrete Solutions, I worked for CB funding at two different organisations, whose interpretations of the phrase varied considerably from one-another. As there are some indications that CB may be on the ConDem chopping block since the election, I felt it might be worth starting a bit of debate around the term, its value and some alternative ways of approaching it.
The problem with ‘capacity building’
My problem with the phrase is two-fold; firstly, I think a system that assumes deficits (the NEED to have capacity built) in those it exists to serve, will often miss out on the many assets those people or organisations may already have on offer, and could share more-widely, if given the chance.
Secondly (and maybe more fundamentally), is that the direction the capacity building agenda has tended to flow, follows some fairly traditional assumptions regarding money, power and what it means to be good at what you do.
…Let me put that in slightly less-abstract terms: organisations who DO the capacity building have, almost without exception, more money, stronger links to government and more uniform structures and processes than those whose capacity is built. The implicit assumption here is that those who have succeeded by these traditional measures provide the model that the (broadly speaking) poorer, less-connected with power and more chaotic community groups should follow, if they to want to ‘succeed’.
So let’s unpick success a bit. If you are a small youth organisation in Hackney working to support young people to leave gangs, is success getting to meet the Prime Minister, securing a multi-million pound government contract, creating spinoff projects across the country? Maybe, maybe not… it may be that with just a little bit of money, some support from the right local leaders and your team’s commitment, you are able to make a huge difference in the lives of young people that live around you. Focussing more widely than that may pull you from applying your skills and experience where they are most relevant and most needed. The capacity building model often assumes that:
1. Growth is inherently good; and that growth means conforming to established institutional protocols;
2. Reciprocally, those established institutional protocols are good, because they facilitate organisational growth.
‘Bigger is Better’?
Though the ever-crude ‘bigger is better’ approach is rarely promoted in relation to community groups, its ethos is still ever-present in the assumption that bigger organisations should be ‘teaching’ smaller ones how to operate more like them. I don’t want this to come-off as a blanket indictment of larger organisations, but given the dominance of the more institutional approach, feel a counterbalance may be useful.
So what makes big organisations ‘better’, if they are to be the templates smaller organisations should have their capacity built in the image of? Well, they are (often) good at fundraising, HR processes, finance, marketing, evaluation (maybe not evaluation)… but something often gets lost as organisations have their capacities in each of these areas developed by the experts. I’ve often heard this loss referred to as that of the organisation’s ‘soul’, but maybe less-melodramatically, could be seen as a loss of the organisation’s ability to see complex social problems through a complex lens, when their internal perspective has been confined by the often-inflexible systems they have been encouraged to build into the fabric of their organisation. (Read this for a differentiation between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ systems).
The complicated systems of multi-year planning cycles, pre-determined organisational outcomes and number-based evaluation, don’t themselves have the capacity to shift fast enough to accommodate the ever-changing complex situations so many community groups face on a day-to-day basis. What makes the best community groups effective is often their ability to understand the many complex forces at play in their area and constantly make ad-hoc adjustments based-on ever-changing scenarios. This flexibility is often made possible through less emphasis on planning and more on doing (and then doing differently, as often as is needed).
So what does this have to do with capacity building?
Effective capacity building can’t be a one-way process (as tends to be the case with the current model) – there must be an openness from larger organisations – traditionally those who ‘build capacity’ – to learn from the methods of those they are used to telling how things should be done. The rhetoric of this is often hollowly embraced, but must be taken-on (when appropriate) without the knee-jerk response of ‘that only works because they are small – it would never apply to us’.
Formality and structure can be very useful at times, but can also be hugely limiting when applied as a default way of organising people around social issues. If Capacitybuilders (the quango) want to survive the current and upcoming cuts, they might do well to look at some of the ways they could shift their approach to create honest learning spaces that would benefit both bigger and smaller groups, without assuming an inherent authority of one over the other. Such an approach might even fit nicely into the still-cloudy ‘Big Society’ agenda and save a funding body well-placed to facilitate some much-needed co-learning across the voluntary and community sectors…
I was recently invited by Graham Allcott of ThinkProductive, to record a conversation about some of the human institutions ideas I’ve been kicking around. If you get past my moderately frantic body language (does anyone else get this excited about management structures???), I think we managed to pull out some good ideas on where bureaucracy comes from (even in the most well-meaning public and voluntary organisations) and what we can each do in our workplaces to find alternative ways of getting things done.
If you’re interested in finding-out more about the human institutions concepts, we’re running a workshop in London on July 22nd (Pay What You Can/ Pay What You Think It’s Worth) and we’d love to have you along! Click the yellow button below to sign-up:
‘Human institutions’ are groups that have come together in significant numbers for a common social purpose and maintained a collective focus on the human relationships (within and beyond their limits) that have helped them to flourish. Most of the institutions we know – whether in the public, private or voluntary sectors – seem to have buried these relationships under an array of forms, policies, chains-of-command, jargon and other often-counter-productive formalities, claiming such structures are needed to enable growth. Too many have lost track of the ways people – unmitigated by institutions – interact amongst each other, inadvertently pushing away those less-familiar or comfortable with such structures and preventing new ideas from emerging within their ranks.
Some, however, have managed to strike the delicate balance between growth (financial, geographic-reach and otherwise) and the combined value, passion and diversity of the people that make them up.
This blog is an ongoing attempt to capture some of the recurring themes which seem to be at the core of organisations that have been able to maintain their human element, while still expanding their staff, their income or their remit.
Through the contributions of all and any who are concerned with ensuring the institutions affecting our lives are innovative, adaptable and inclusive, this document will expand on the basis of your feedback and get regularly re-posted in its latest incarnations, gradually taking on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’…
Here are the first 5 traits of a human institution I’ve chosen to highlight:
A rule is only as useful as the willingness that exists to break it, when needed. Sadly, this sentiment is often lost in organisations. The tendency to standardise everything – often benevolently, in the name of equal opportunities and fairness – creates a system that seems to prevent anyone having any advantages over anyone else, but which ends-up excluding people on the basis of its rigidity and the inevitable diversity of potential users’ circumstances.
Though rules are invariably created for good reasons, they all have their limitations. Human institutions recognise these limitations and ensure their staff are empowered to have significant flexibility to adapt to peoples’ circumstances as needed, even if that sometimes means cutting against standard protocols.
2. Mutual trust-based accountability
Accountability is far too often a one-way process that is tied to existing power-dynamics (between funders and funded groups; managers and staff, etc) which seem to assume the worst of the people told to prove their worth. Micromanagement attempts to prevent any method someone could imagine to cheat a system. As more regulations are imposed, people’s ability to work/deliver objectives is hindered by the time spent justifying how their time is spent. So they find alternative (sometimes less-ethical means) of satisfying those imposing these regulations… and no one wins.
Alternatively, being trusted gives people a strong sense of ownership and responsibility over a situation. As does a power shift that allows those traditionally held to account, to also hold their counterparts to account simultaneously. In strong human relationships (the kind that provide the greatest results, in both personal and professional settings), accountability is both trust-based and mutual. In human institutions this is also the case.
Linked to the concept of ‘trust’, is that of autonomy. The assumed practice of hierarchical management structures makes it far more difficult in most organisations for people to pursue creative and new ideas. Though a balance must be struck to achieve organisational objectives, rarely is the space given for staff to work autonomously, towards the organisation’s broader aims, but along a newly-emerging path.
Like with trust, those who feel they have room to determine their direction, often give more than those who have their direction pre-determined by someone with superior rank. Broad organisational objectives give staff more space to work to their strengths, than narrowly-defined outputs and outcomes which too often ignore the involved individuals’ passions and abilities.
4. Experiential diversity
Diversity is important from more than an equal opportunities perspective, and applies to organisations beyond the more-easily measurable differences of race, gender, religion, etc. Having an experientially diverse staff and volunteer team (of individuals who have taken different paths to ending up at your organisation) is crucial to a human institution in two other significant ways:
1) To give newcomers approaching the organisations from the outside, the sense that both people like them and a range of different people are welcome and accepted;
2) To provide a greater range of opinions and internal debate, than a group of people who have had very similar experiences in life tend to, encouraging new ways of working.
As James Surowiecki explains in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, even if a minority opinion in a group proves incorrect, “the confrontation with a dissenting view, logically enough, forces the majority to interrogate its own positions more thoroughly.” This has in itself, been found to improve decision making processes in human institutions.
5. Plain communications
The language we use to communicate and promote our work has huge consequences for the people who take it in. Many organisations seem all-too-keen to create new words and phrases and see if they can push them into circulation, without recognising that each additional piece of jargon can serve to push away someone not already ‘in the know’. Human institutions realise that effectively communicating messages and ideas is more about simplicity, than it is about complexity.
If you’re interested in discovering what you can do to create a human institution in your workplace or organisation, register for our new 1/2-day workshop in London, ‘Seeds to Grow a Human Institution’!
We’re really excited to announce our first public workshop, picking apart the ‘human institutions’ concept and how you can apply it to your work within your organisations!
You can read more about the event, register and share the link on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks (and we’d be grateful if you did!) by scrolling down in the EventBrite box below this text.