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The Stuff You Can’t (usefully) Write About…

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Western culture has a secret: there is much in the world that simply doesn’t translate well into written form. Yet we have no shortage of examples (particularly in the voluntary and care sectors) which still attempt to take something impossibly nuanced and complex, and turn it into a static document. Are we telling ourselves a massive lie by pretending such writing is effective communication? And what can we learn from cultures less dependent on text for sharing ideas?

Beaver Lake Cree pow wow 2011. Photo: Pete Speller.

Beaver Lake Cree pow wow 2011. Photo: Pete Speller.

I’ve been helping a friend proof a document he’s written. The document is 18 pages on good relationships between people and organisations. He does it much better than most would. But I’m still left with a strong sense of something having been lost in the process. Can a good relationship be captured on a piece of paper in the first place? Or, like a range of other human experiences, does it need to be ‘learned by doing’, or at least through a more holistic communication of the ideas involved?

What shouldn’t we write as much about?

Relationships are one example of ‘things we don’t do justice via the written word’, but there are many more we continue to confine to a format totally inappropriate to their characteristics… like the difference between writing about happiness, describing happiness in conversation, and being happy yourself; much gets lost in the translation from one-to-the-other. In frontline service organisations, the examples of this can be almost farcical, if they weren’t also so tragic… self-care guides for social workers, for example, cannot begin to make sense of days-on-end spent working with people in their worst moments of crisis, who often hate you by default. The invariable oversimplification of complex issues, the inability to know how emotionally-equipped different social workers are for the stresses of the job, and how different people will respond to those stresses, often make these kinds of guides and policies interesting pieces of theory, with little real world application. Something other than a document is needed to serve this crucial function, for example, on site counselling services that can address all of these differences, as required.

A few criteria for thinking about complex concepts or ideas that might not be best conveyed in writing:

  • Emotion – even our best poets can rarely capture a feeling in terms that can resemble the experience itself. Yet emotion is central to humanity, and a key piece of any people-centred service or organisation, so we need other ways of conveying it.
  • Nuance – two seemingly contradictory ideas can often both be true. Especially when it comes to individual perception. A programme can be legitimately life-changing and devastating to two of its recipients, depending on their expectations and needs. Writing doesn’t often capture non-binaries especially well.
  • Change – like our relationships, people are always changing, thus something written may be quickly made irrelevant by a new revelation or an unexpected influence. Unlike speech, text is static and doesn’t adapt nearly as freely to subtle shifts. However the conversational web is starting to allow greater versatility to published words.

There are alternatives!

Western culture has kept the imperfection of written words secret for so long, in part by not talking about other cultures that don’t subscribe to it.

Most first nations communities in North America, (one of which I had the pleasure of working quite closely with this summer), share their cultures, values, lessons and histories orally, to this day. Storytelling culture has been dismissed by Westerners since initial contact with indigenous peoples in the early colonial period. It’s imprecise, it’s subjective, it changes, it is easily lost… all legitimate critiques, but none of which acknowledge what it does do, that perhaps a written culture lacks… if oral histories can capture the feelings of an experience, at the expense of detailed fact, is that necessarily a loss for those receiving them? We assume when it happens the other way around (feelings or deeper experiential understanding lost for factual accuracy) that this is okay… and even beneficial to western objectivism. But what have we really learned then? More facts, but with nothing to ground them in our lived experience of the world…

What works better when we say it, than when we write it?

For several years I’ve had a strong bias towards interactive, facilitated learning and communications methods. (Blogging, with its ongoing opportunity for commentary and discussion, is the closest thing I’ve found in the written world so far.) I like to facilitate, but I also find that I pick-up ideas and understanding more effectively when I’m in a discussion, than when I’m reading.

We tell ourselves that we ‘know’ something once we’ve read about it, but do we? Can we really understand deep, emotional, experiential concepts, simply by ingesting a series of symbols on a page or screen? For decades countless studies have told us that at least 90% of person-to-person communication is non-verbal – it’s not in the words we say, but how we say them, what our body language and facial expressions are conveying, etc. Thus the well-known shortcomings of trying to address complex problems – or even tell a subtle joke – over email or text message. When we relegate ourselves to text, we are hampering 90% of our ability to convey our message to others.

Which can be fine for some things (shopping lists, for example), but can be nothing short of devastating with more sensitive, nuanced, or emotive subjects.

When an indigenous elder tells a story of their community’s history after a peace pipe ceremony, the point of the story is not simply to convey the facts (these are often adapted to make sense in different times and contexts) but to convey the feelings, sentiments, lessons and values that have been core to that community for many generations. When you experience this kind of storytelling for the first time, it’s hard to understand why we have come to rely so absolutely on text books to pass-along our histories; it’s immediately clear that there is so much the text books are leaving out! Sometimes some of the most important lessons we could be taking from our pasts!

For me, hearing about the Canadian residential school experience this summer, from a range of people who had been forced into them at a young age, gave me an understanding of both the hideous reality of that Canadian experience, as well as of the current dynamics between indigenous and settler cultures in Canada. Nothing I read in school growing up in Toronto had given me that understanding. Nothing even came close to it…

Why writing doesn’t always do what it says it will…

I’ve noticed a few things that seem to limit the possibilities of written communication and learning:

  • Inability to filter complex information, based on context – A book or a policy document can’t adapt itself to suit all possible scenarios or readers, and to include information to address all possible scenarios or readers is an impossible task. A person with a breadth of knowledge on a subject can (and does) make judgments as to the importance of sharing different information, in different situations, with different people (like the adaptive nature of indigenous oral histories).
  • Static nature of text – Once it’s there, it’s there, though the online world – wikis as a prime example – are shifting this into less-absolute terms (and offer amazing opportunities). Still, a written document mostly exists as a snapshot of thinking and knowledge of a particular moment in time, from a particular perspective.
  • Lacks 90% of human communication – Without intonation, expression and body language, it is practically impossible to meaningfully capture some of the critical factors involved in complex dynamics (as those listed previously)….

But we keep writing; policy documents, training guides, text books… (blogs like this, even?) all with the hope that these static reams of paper will help others learn things that they didn’t know before about complex, ever-changing scenarios and ideas.

So should we draw a line?

Should we say that if you’re training a new staff member at a social care organisation in working with patient who has recently begun suffering serious memory loss (for a particularly sensitive, but non-life threatening example), ‘good practice’ might be better learned via talking with other staff and watching them in action – even with particular different patients – rather than reading about it in a guide?

I’ve commented before on ‘relationship policies’ at workplaces (‘you cannot be in a personal relationship with someone else who works for the organisation’) as one of the worst examples of trying to codify a highly-nuanced emotional issue, into a standard document. Some relationships will get messy and create workplace problems, many will not, but attempts to legislate against them will only breed resentment and deceit. Address the individual issue, as is needed, with the individuals involved, rather than trying to create a template applicable to all workplace relationships. Save the paper.

I suggest keeping the three bullet points at the top in mind (emotion, nuance, change) when deciding whether or not another document is needed in your organisation. While writing can be seen as a shortcut to sharing necessary information with a large number of people, we should be clear about what kinds of information it can and can’t be effective at disseminating. Are we creating a false economy by not investing the initial time and effort into having more individual conversations about subjects that won’t get across effectively through generic text? Is the large scale of mass written communication in itself a false economy, with our efforts better spent mobilising a smaller number of people though more individual means, than a large number more generically? (That’s a blog in its own right… and it’s half written… stay tuned!)

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Celebrating Failure

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

We may not celebrate our successes particularly well in the voluntary and community sectors, but maybe that’s because we’ve stopped believing them? Perhaps if we spent more time actively admitting what’s gone wrong, as the ground-breaking new website, encourages, we would feel more inclined to celebrate when things really do go well?


There have been many recurring themes in my time in the voluntary and community sectors. One of these has been the repeated mantra of ‘we are terrible as celebrating our successes!’

On some level, I’ve always agreed with this – for those of us slugging away in often thankless jobs ‘doing good’ in the world, a party, a pat on the back, or some other affirmation of our value is important and shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

However, I’d also like to unpick this one a bit; maybe we fail to celebrate our successes because we declare that everything we do in this sector is ‘successful’? And maybe, when we do so, we stop believing it? And when we stop believing it, maybe we don’t want to make a big deal of each and every supposed success, because doing so would highlight the reality that we’ve been distorting our own narrative, supposedly for funders and donors for so long?

‘Doomed to succeed’

My colleague Titus Alexander once described our sector as ‘doomed to succeed’ – that as soon as our organisations are given money to do something, we are expected to not only achieve, but pass with flying colours, one hundred percent of the time.

And as our income usually hinges on doing so, invariably, we find ways of showing that we do; sometimes this means ‘double-counting’, sometimes cherry-picking ‘easy-win’ beneficiaries, sometimes highlighting one or two of those we’ve supported as being more representative than they really are… whatever it is, we’ve got our ways of making sure whatever we do ‘succeeds’ – at least on paper.

The dangers here are ones I’ve discussed in several blogs before, but primary among them is the impact this has on our ability to learn from our mistakes – namely because we often pretend they aren’t there, or we gloss over them with a selectively told story of what we did working – and working entirely.

The problem is, if we were to read a random selection of most of our organisations’ annual reports, evaluations or publicity documents, we would get the impression that nothing we’ve ever done had not gone perfectly to plan.

Which is basically impossible. But some combination of real and perceived funder/donor pressure tends to keep us from acknowledging this impossibility, allowing us to continue living a whole series of stretched, distorted or otherwise manipulated truths in our working lives.

The research on the importance of mistakes, trial-and-error and learning from things that don’t work is extensive and the conclusions are fairly clear: if you’re afraid of either making or acknowledging your mistakes, you will never do anything new or groundbreaking.

Admitting Failure?

With all of this in mind, my jaw dropped when I read Monday’s Guardian story on Canadian NGO, Engineers Without Borders’ decision to publish a ‘Failure Report’, and launch a website for the international development/aid sector more broadly called, It reads:

“By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.

Conversely, by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success.” –

The site also invites other development/aid orgs around the world to submit their own failures, the idea being that an easily searchable and sharable ‘failure bank’ will emerge, providing a user-generated resource for those looking to, say, implement a change management project in Burkina Faso.

Admitting failure everywhere else in life

At this point I add the critical disclaimer that I’m not just picking on non-profit organisations; the inclination to deny our mistakes and failures is much more widespread than that. We teach it to our kids in schools, our governments do it almost pathologically and the pressures in the private sector to push profit margins all create a similar distorting effect.

Some recent online conversations have got me involved in creating – a site based on the same principles as, but applying to our personal lives (work, relationships, families, etc).

We’re also thinking about a similar forum and blog for non-profit/voluntary causes more widely, allowing an honest discussion of things that haven’t worked, to help all of us get closer to those that might.

Do let us know if you’re interested in contributing, are doing something similar, or know of something along these lines that already exists…

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Playing with Possibility: Divergent thinking in classrooms and workplaces

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Is much of what we think of as ‘learning’ actually making us *less* able to solve the problems we face? Are our classrooms and institutions helping us to see the world simply as it is, rather than encouraging us to envision it as it could be? If so, what does this mean and what are the alternatives for voluntary organisations looking to break new ground on their issue or cause?

Sir Ken Robinson quote

Sir Ken Robinson, in his RSA talk on ‘Changing education paradigms’, describes the notion of ‘divergent thinking’ as “the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question.”

It’s not the same thing as creativity, but it’s a critical piece of it.

It’s also where new ideas come from.

A classic test of one’s divergent thinking would be to ask ‘what can you do with a paperclip?’ Some people – the most gifted of divergent thinkers – can list hundreds of potential functions. Most of us will come up with considerably less than that. The point is to see a range of possibilities in everything, rather than simply the fixed title, value or purpose which has been established by others before.

Divergent thinking in the classroom

In the late-1960s George Land carried-out an experiment to test the divergent thinking abilities of the same 1,600 school kids between ages 3 and 5, 8 and 10 and finally 13 and 15.

Initially, 98% of the group ranked as ‘divergent thinking geniuses’. By age ten only 30% of the same group of students qualified to such a level. By age fifteen, only 10% of the kids were thinking at a ‘genius’ level of divergence.

If the same results came up ranking a more traditionally accepted measure of intelligence or ability in schools (IQ, as the obvious example), a major inquest would be in order; heads would have to roll!

But blame aside, the lesson appears clear: the way we ‘educate’ kids in public education systems is very good at encouraging a particular type of rote learning and linear thinking – memorisation, multiple choice selection, repetition – but completely devastating in its understanding (let alone nurturing) of innovation and creativity.

Clearly, certain teachers will find ways around this via their personal approach in the classroom, but broadly speaking, the ways we teach and encourage our children to learn, discourage experimentation, mistake-making and thus the trial-and-error process through which groundbreaking notions so often emerge. After all, it took Thomas Edison over 10,000 attempts to create the first light bulb, but rarely are all those ‘failures’ cited as critical to his eventual breakthrough…

Schools and industrialisation

Robinson firmly roots public education in the industrial workforce and the linear assembly line approach to production that dominated the last century. Basically, our schools teach us to fit nicely into predetermined spots along a conveyer belt, but rarely encourage us to question the value of the conveyer belt, the alternatives that may exist to it, or other ways we might get things done together.

Mass public education – from national curricula, to standardised testing – narrows our sense of possibility by grading us on our ability to – in an ideal world – achieve the same results as everyone else.

It’s not just schools

But similar phenomena emerge in most workplaces, expecting employees to ‘fill a job description’ or ‘hit targets’, rather than to figure out how they’d like to solve the problem their job is meant to address, or to see how they might be able to uniquely contribute to achieving their organisation or company’s aims.

As we settle-in to new jobs, our sense of ‘what could be’ is whittled-down until it fits the pre-existing collective experience of ‘what has been’ (for those that have come before us). The sense of organisational possibility is too-often based wholly on its past experience, inherently limiting its future potential to a repetition of that which it has done before, regardless of its effectiveness. Relatively rarely is this trend bucked and a totally new idea (which, by virtue of being new, often seems crazy, or otherwise impossible) given the full opportunity and support to grow, stumble, adjust and take root.

And considerable language has been developed around this process.

  • ‘We have to manage expectations’
  • ‘Let’s be realistic now’
  • ‘We’ve gotta be practical about this…’
  • ‘You’d better get used to it – it’s how we do things here!’

So even when a manager suggests ‘blue skies thinking’ or ‘an innovation brainstorm’, it is confined by the culture the session exists within; one afraid of the possibility of failure, but as a result, also of real success.

When our work relates to social problems that are literally costing lives the longer they continue, new ideas are truly a necessity of our jobs and not a peripheral extra we’d like to make room for if we can find the time. If we are not innovating, we are ensuring longer-term consequences of our issue will be worse than they otherwise need to be.

Trusting newbies

When people first start at an organisation, they often bring valuable insights – through exactly their lack of experience in the organisation’s ways of working – which can be of great benefit if there is the wisdom to recognise it.

Robert I. Sutton, in ‘Weird Ideas That Work’ recommends ‘hiring slow learners of the organisational code’ – people who ruffle feathers, challenge assumptions and don’t accept things as they are.

The very notion of an ‘induction’ often undermines this type of organisational learning, putting immediate pressure on new workers to conform and ignore the insights or intuitions they may have gained from previous experience, or simply from having a fresher perspective than those who have been embedded in an organisation’s culture for longer.

The message for new employees is clear: ‘our way or the high way’ or ‘learn the ropes or hit the showers’. And in turn, the relative divergent thinking of the new employee is usually lost, as it so often is in school children, the longer they spend in the classroom, with its risk-adverse culture and attempts to achieve ‘standards’, rather than diversity, in test results, but also, invariably, thinking patterns.

Never lose your sense of possibility; without it your options are invariably limited!

Linear thinking is very important. But it is not the gold standard we have given it. New ideas, by their very nature, do not emerge from purely linear thinking patterns. Those who invent best-selling products, solve intractable social problems or make critical scientific breakthroughs have not been simply following the path laid out by others before them. They are the ones who experiment, mess-up, try something crazy, try it again, learn from the process, but most importantly, see possibilities that others have yet to see.

As our sense of possibility narrows – whether as a result of time spent in schools or workplaces – so too does our reality. If we felt there was no possible way we could cook dinner (and couldn’t pay someone to do it for us), we would starve. If we felt we were completely unable to make our own bed, we wouldn’t try. If we thought we could never end Apartheid, attain women’s suffrage or create a National Health Service, we would place our efforts elsewhere. How about reigning in the financial industry, ending unjust wars or stopping domestic violence?

As is the underpinning theme of Frances Westley’s ‘Getting to Maybe’, social change occurs only after we’ve begun to see the ‘impossible’ as a distant possibility – as a ‘maybe’. To do so, requires us to see the world divergently – not as most others currently do, even if this may prove unpopular at first. People have accomplished an infinite range of achievements that had previously been considered ‘impossible’; it was only when someone decided they weren’t that changes begun to happen.

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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.