more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Following this year’s eCampaigning Forum in Oxford, I find myself revisiting a perennial ECF question: social media policies. I’ve developed a simple flowchart tool to help your organisation decide if a social media policy is indeed right for you.

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Jokes aside, I stand by this little doodle, in all its simplicity.

Like concepts of accountability and order more generally, the idea that social media ‘best practice’ is the result of some people telling everyone else what they can and can’t do is absurd and elitist… and is the kind of organisational behaviour that discourages actual ownership and responsibility amongst those doing the work, creating the very problems it tries to mitigate against.

What I tend to propose as an alternative, is simply having regular conversations amongst the responsible adults the organisation has hired, for whom social media will be a part of their jobs. You can all raise the thorny issues that the internet will inevitably throw in all of your collective faces, and work together to figure out what the best ways of handling these things are.

When the context shifts and a new thorny issue arises, whoever is facing it should be able to deal with it at the time. Then you can use it as an reason to revisit the discussion, acknowledging that you hadn’t predicted whatever has come up, but can work together once again to adapt the shared understanding of how to handle challenges.

The underpinning point here is that most organisational social media policies are based on a premise of mistrust – that staff will mess things up if given half-a-chance to do so. If this is truly the case, social media is not your problem – your hiring and/or management practices are.

When we have the chance to shape a process together, we both bring new perspectives into the fold and tend to feel more invested in whatever decisions or directions emerge. Collective process improves our sense of agency, responsibility and pride in our work.

So, like with so many organisational policies, skip the document, have the conversation. It may be the first step to unleashing some of the latent online potential our organisational structures have been restraining for so long!

I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.








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Give trust, get accountability

Monday, October 8th, 2012

In the last post, Paul Barasi took the recent government move towards ‘Payment by Results’ funding to task. Today we introduce a radical alternative means of achieving funding accountability: Trust!

Kittens: Better than 'Payment by Results'

Kittens: Better than 'Payment by Results'

‘Payment by Results’ is the UK government’s latest attempt to achieve greater accountability with how public money is spent. Or so they say.

In practice, they’ve decided to apply it only to certain questionable public services, but as Paul pointed out the other week, the Olympics, Trident, and recent wars will not be held to the same standards of ‘we pay you when you have delivered what you said you would.’

David Boyle’s powerful paper against the approach, demonstrates that it poses the very same problems as ‘target-based funding,’ encouraging ‘gaming’ of the system to the detriment of all involved. You lose honesty, you lose learning, and you lose the accountability the whole system was created for.

We’ve long used numbers as a replacement for trust – ‘you said you would do ‘x’ but how can I know you did it?’ By measuring it!

Which is kinda ok for some tasks, but in many others – let’s say you’re trying to measure ‘improved wellbeing’ – there is an infinite number of ways you can fiddle the definitions to make sure your counting ‘succeeds.’

But beyond this, even if the definitions were fixed (presumably by government, but by anyone, really) they would immediately fall afoul of the first rule of complexity: things change. Therefore, as Paul wrote in relation to women feeling safer walking around their council estate in at night, fixed aims – whether as ‘targets’ or ‘results’ – will fail to take into account many of the most important impacts of a project, because they weren’t specifically what the funding was meant to achieve. And thus their value is lost on the funding systems that help enable them.

Learning to trust each other again

So what’s the alternative? You can never sew up all the loopholes and opportunities to ‘game’ a system to someone’s advantage, so let’s go back to the drawing board and give ‘trust’ the opportunity to reclaim the space ‘numbers’ stole from it, way back when…

We don’t usually associate trust and money, but a lot of people have begun experimenting with the combination lately, as the shortcomings of compliance-based accountability are gradually becoming clear. Here are a few anecdotes:

In 2010 I met Paul Story in Edinburgh – an author who had maxed-out his credit card printing 10,000 copies of his novel, Dreamwords: The Honesty Edition. His business model? Give the books to people, in the streets, in bookstores, at events, with a request to a) pay for the book online if they liked it, or b) pass it along to someone they think might enjoy it, asking them to pay for it if they liked it. Two years on he’s just published part two of his series…

Also in 2010, Toronto Star journalist Jim Rankin gave five prepaid credit cards worth $50-$75 to five different homeless people, encouraging them to get what they needed. Two were returned to him, partly used; one was never used or returned; one was stolen; and one was partially used, but never returned. For the people with maybe the most reason to exploit Rankin’s generosity, these seem like pretty good results. Imagine the costs that could be saved by adapting certain elements of organisational homelessness service provision along similar lines?

The other day I discovered Mgnetic Music, who pride themselves on a business model for independent musicians that means not having to “sue your fans to make money from your music!” Their approach? Let people download your music and pay for it if they want to. If they like it, they might pay you. If they don’t pay, you still have a new fan who will likely support and promote you in other ways. If they don’t like it, they won’t pay and wouldn’t have otherwise. Let them make the choice – it’s a lot less hassle for you, as a musician!

Now these are small and far from perfect examples, but our current systems can only pretend to be working by digging their heads deeper into the sands of compliance measures that simply allow abuses to be more thoroughly hidden in endless numbers.

Trust-based funding?

A while back, Paul Barasi, Veena Vasista and I started exploring ‘Trust-based funding.’ While it never got past an initial conversation with a funder and another with a law firm working on public sector commissioning processes, we began to imagine it what it might look like at the different stages of the grant process:

‘What we want to support’ (Guidance)

  • Providing very loose definitions, perhaps starting from a ‘these are the things we definitely DO NOT want to fund’ perspective to weed-out those who are absolutely unqualified, without boxing those who might be qualified into terms they don’t fit

‘What you want to achieve’ (Application)

  • Jointly-developing means of demonstrating impact, to give funded groups a real sense of ownership over the process and a sense of responsibility to themselves, as well as those funding them
  • Not creating any direct relationship between what is stated initially and what is expected later, leaving room for changes and on-the-ground learning, as the most effective projects tend to do, but often have to hide from those funding them

‘What you are delivering’ (Delivery)

  • Recognising that funders and recipients are working towards the same goals and must hold each other to account throughout the process, helping create a relationship in which ‘funding’ and ‘delivery’ are seen as two equal parts of a joint-process, where both parties can constructively challenge each other, without retribution
  • Trusting people who have been through an appropriate application process to do what they say they will with the money they are given, offering support and connections, rather than oversight and one-way accountability

‘What we have achieved together’ (Evaluation)

  • Emphasising the qualitative impact of services, shifting the inclination from ‘box-ticking’ and ‘target-chasing’ by both parties
  • Assuming that recipients will spend their money appropriately, and asking them to provide the story of their work in whatever ways they feel best conveys its full breadth
  • Weighting valuable, but unexpected/unplanned outcomes on par with predetermined ones

We also added a further stage:

‘How those we support are better prepared for the future’ (Potential)

  • Ensuring that at the end of the funding period, recipients are better placed to continue doing good work, viewing the process as developmental, rather than simply about the fixed funding period

Putting it to work

What’s above is barely a skeleton of an approach, but no matter how much work we put into it, someone putting it into practice is going to have to stick their neck out if it is going to get a fair hearing.

Paul, Veena and I have put forward an idea, with a tiny bit of meat on the bones, but now we’d like to turn it over to you.
In this spirit of the guidance stage above, what we DON’T want is simply highlighting the things that could go wrong. These are largely no-brainers. The trust approach accepts that ‘things inevitably go wrong’ in any system, and with that in mind it is not worth perpetually trying to mitigate against them, by dragging down all the honest people to a ‘lowest common denominator’ compliance model.

So here’s the question for you:

What would make the idea we’ve outlined above BETTER than it currently is?

Looking forward to seeing where you might take this…

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Bonzo Funding: Payment by Results

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Paul Barasi spent eleven years developing the Compact – an agreement between government and the voluntary sector to help both sides work better together. But recent government plans to bring back ‘payment-by-results’ funding for services are about as far from a ‘more like people’ approach as you can get. Paul takes their hypocrisy to task in his first Concrete Solutions blog.

Raiders of the Lost Compact

Paul Barasi

Paul Barasi

The Compact was first conceived in a chat on a train between local activists and MPs and led to the 1998 agreement for ‘Getting It Right Together’ between the Voluntary Sector and Government. It eventually graduated to a more holistic ‘Compact Way of Working,’ yet could be buried to government officials singing ‘Never Mind the Cash Flow, we’ve got Payment By Results.’

Around five years ago, many local partnership relationships peaked with the emergence of ‘a Compact way of working.’ This approach transcended a Ten Commandments-style written declaration. It was about far more than just following the rules. It meant living the shared values like treating partners fairly; working together from the start on issues affecting the voluntary sector; and above all, trust.

Fast forward to the Coalition Compact and we can still hear such hits as “Social action over state control and top-down Government-set targets,” “Shifting power away from the centre,” “Equal treatment across sectors,” “Proportionate Risks” and that chart-topper: “Payment in Advance”. But recently the tune has changed; instead we are hearing “Retrospective payment” which will reward Efficiency through professional top down control and take us back to a More Like Paper approach.

But will the voluntary sector be able to match government professionals in delivering pre-set results on time and within budget?

And why should the voluntary sector have to play by one set of rules, when the lion’s share of government spending seems to have none of the same stipulations attached?

Games with results

The London Olympics taxpayers’ subsidy rocketed tenfold from £1bn – with results measured by what: 29 UK gold medals for £10bn? Number of unethical sponsors or school playing fields sold? Who decides success? Imagine if the voluntary sector tried to play by these rules!

Wars with inhuman results

Afghan and Iraqi wars were a snip for the UK at just £20bn. Who’d know they’d be no weapons of mass destruction – as if the 2m demonstrators, dismissed as misguided by Blair, had been any advance indication. Who bothered to define what success would look like: maybe keeping the human cost of liberation down below 300,000 civilian deaths. Who pays for failure?

Subs and planes

Or the hopelessly misnamed “Astute” nuclear submarine: just £1bn over budget and delivered 4 years late. That makes the £100m cost of the May 2012 U-turn on picking Navy fighter jets hardly worth mentioning.

(OK, our subs won’t know where they are without US navigation satellites nor could these launch the leased Trident ‘independent’ nukes without the Yanks, but hopefully the jets will be able to do u-turns and somersaults in mid-air before more of our cash disappears into thin air.)

Rewarding Government efficiency?

The Home Office could get paid on the basis of how many Brits are extradited to the US or how many decades this takes or how much it spends on legal costs to do it, or not to do it?

It’s not just officials getting bonuses instead of the sack, but would anyone trust either of these government departments to do their weekly shopping?

Thatcherite Retrials

The crude payment by results regime that government wants to impose seems a throw-back pre-dating even the 1990s. Back then the Department of Health was experimenting with Outcomes Funding for alcohol counselling which valued not just the number who achieved total salvation but the progress people made along the way. After all those battles over sustainability, not funding on the cheap (rebranded more for less), full cost recovery, unfair claw back, down-pricing contracts, is government returning to rip-offs like a supermarket displaying one price and charging another?

What counts in the community?

I remember one housing estate project which achieved the wonderful result of women no longer being afraid to go out after dark. It didn’t count, as government hadn’t included this as a pre-set target. I recall a street theatre group destroyed by funders making it not just perform but have performance targets, and board meetings, too. Or take a project for young volunteers who cleaned up the environment: they made lots of new friends, were more likely to volunteer again, and acquired skills and confidence to do new things – what a result!

Saying goodbye by shaking the crap off our feet

The dehumanising organisational culture of the Civil Service can’t even compare with the traditional voluntary sector, let alone new grassroots social movements, in terms of its understanding of what kinds of systems will help people to realise their potential and make change happen. Trust-based funding is the right way forward (more on this model to come). This way, funders accept an element of risk, knowing projects will fail, and trusting the intentions of those doing the work to do it with the right intentions and define their impacts in the ways they feel are most appropriate. Payment-by-results is a backward step and if government funding can’t pass the More Like People test, the voluntary sector should walk out, walk on.

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Five reasons – in no particular order – why hierarchy sucks

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

While writing a piece for the book on just this subject, I realised I’d never put all the things I don’t like about hierarchy in one clear place… nor seen it done succinctly elsewhere. So here’s my non-comprehensive polemic on why I think hierarchy is about the worst default setting we could pick for our organisations…

Chichen Itza
FACT: Organisations that build pyramids are less resilient than their counterparts

Few concepts are as ingrained in our institutions as that of hierarchy. We assume that someone will have final say, that we always report to someone, that someone should be earning more than someone else…

But when it comes down to it, hierarchy doesn’t sit that well with the core values of most progressive people, even if we practice it in countless settings on a day-to-day basis.

I don’t think we need to accept it as a ‘necessary evil’, undermining our lived visions of the world any more. But that’s what the book’s about. Here’s why hierarchy sucks:

It assumes the worst of people, and thus is likely to foster the worst in them

From the basic premise of having to ‘start at the bottom and work your way up’, hierarchy doesn’t give any of us the credit to be able to do the amazing things that people constantly demonstrate the ability to do, irrespective of where they might fall on an organisational chart.

More practically though, hierarchy denies us the autonomy to use our judgment and figure things out in our own ways.

Formalising accountability – especially when it only flows in one direction – breaks down trust, because it assumes we won’t be honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

If we can’t be honest with each other, this is what we need to look at understanding, rather than creating structures that make it harder to develop a shared sense of collective accountability for what we do.

It creates power dynamics that foster dishonesty and poor information sharing/coordination/learning

By centralising power and control, you distribute the desire for power and control. When power and control are more evenly shared, there is less reason for most people to want more of it.

Everyone needs to make themselves look better than someone else, if they want to progress their career, improve their income, etc. The hierarchy pits individual interest, against the shared/collective interest, which can’t be a good thing for any organisation that hopes to have some kind of future.

It expects its leaders to be superheroes

It elevates individuals to positions in which the unattainable is expected of them. Because their job title is ‘x’, they are expected to do ‘y’… A promotion to ‘w’ means they are expected to do ‘y+1’… which makes sense… until it doesn’t.

Many argue that the people in leadership positions of massive multinational institutions can in no meaningful way know enough about their organisation to justify the difference between their salaries and the salaries of those below them. The rises follow a linear progression, but have no grounding in practical reality. At a certain stage ‘y+1’ becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back, surpassing human ability, or the number of hours in a day, and becoming inherently unachievable. But we pretend this isn’t the case, and all the ‘failed’ leaders have failed due to their own shortcomings, not something inherent to our expectations of them.

It pretends we live in a linear and controllable world that only exists as a Fordian fantasy, wasting heaps of time

Strategic planning suggests that if you get the correct executives in an expensive enough room for an extended period of time, you will be able to predict the future.

Important people (according to the hierarchy) spend a great deal of time together in organisations, writing documents which declare, in spite of everything outside their walls: ‘A will lead to B will lead to C’.

Additionally, they write further documents to detail how others will ensure that A will lead to B will lead to C.

And then something unexpected happens – as it invariably does – and all their hard work is at best swept aside, and at worse, followed to a T, in spite of a radically changed reality.

When reality strikes, it should make crystal clear that those in the institution who are receiving the largest proportionate amount of its resources, do not have a crystal ball than can plan for any eventuality. By nature of having been elevated to a certain plateau, these individuals have not achieved a superhuman ability to understand all the parts of a complex system.

It denies the centrality of context, assuming that the best decisions can be made from outside the contexts they will be applied in

If we think the best decisions can be made by the people furthest away from their application, we’ve got another thing coming…

The theory that enough information will ‘trickle-up’, from-street-to-suite, to give those who have never experienced the situations they are making decisions for, enough understanding to do a good job, is basically nuts and is not remotely grounded in the experiences of the real world, from sector-to-sector.

Given what we know about how information moves through hierarchical systems (see the first two points), we can’t really believe such systems provide the stuff of good decision making, can we?

Good decisions must be grounded in the realities they will apply to. This is also why ‘scaling up’ of good local ideas almost never works; context is everything, and replacing particular situations and relationships with others and expecting the results to be the same, only makes sense if you are far enough from the ground, for the critical details to have become invisible.

…What have I missed? What is unfair generalisation? What am I misattributing blame for?

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Acknowledging Knowledge’s Different Roots

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Scientific method – the process of establishing ‘proof’ by attaining the same results in multiple controlled experiments which came to prominence during the Scientific Revolution – has brought us many things. Countless critical gains have been made, but in the process of assuming that a rational process of deduction is always the best way of ‘knowing’ something, we may have undermined some of our most critical human instincts and understandings. But what is the alternative?

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If last week’s Twitter response to this notion was any indication, I might ruffle a few feathers with this blog. Contextually, I’m coming from a few days working on a project on a First Nations’ reservation in Northern Alberta.

Beaver Lake, Alberta

Beaver Lake, Alberta

This is a community with relatively little in the way of formal education, but a vast amount of a different kind of knowledge, passed down through generations, emerging from a close connection to the land they have lived on and with for so long. Sometimes described as wisdom, it’s something we’ve often lost – and actively discredited – in the modern Western world, particularly within our formal institutions.

The Twitter debate began with my observation that much of what the scientific community has been recommending in regards to climate change in recent years (or perhaps decades), was deeply embedded in the cultural practices of many First Nations communities, hundreds and thousands of years ago. The basic principle of ‘respect Mother Earth’ – and more specifically ‘make decisions with the impact they will have on the next seven generations in mind’ – has underpinned many of these communities’ practices since long before colonialism. They didn’t know about carbon footprints, embedded emissions or even climate change itself, but they knew that it wasn’t a good idea to pillage nature and natural resources. When Europeans arrived, they were warned by their hosts about overhunting buffalo, damming rivers, clear-cutting trees; all without the scientific knowledge we have today that tells us all these things are problematic.

Science eventually came to the same conclusions that the Cree, Haida, Ojibway and others had millennia previously. Unfortunately, during the time it took science to figure out what Indigenous peoples already knew, we basically destroyed the planet.

I’m not saying science doesn’t come up with the right answers, only that there is always a considerable lag between when people start to study a phenomena (whether climate change or organisational change) and when it figures out what many have already known long before hand.

Art and health

What about the impact of art and creativity on peoples’ health and wellbeing,  Artists have for ages seen and promoted a positive relationship between the two, yet only in recent years has the evidence base reached a place where schools, government funds, or health strategies have begun to recognise it, party politics aside. Even still, it is mostly marginalised as a ‘luxury’ or a ‘frill’, in comparison to the ‘important’ subjects or disciplines of maths, science, business. Arts practitioners will know all too well the impacts this has had across societies, but without the evidence of that impact, it can feel like a lost cause.

Learning about learning

…Or notions of learning? Chinese proverbs dating back a fair ways told us ‘Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand’. Yet schools and universities in the Western world have been absolutely wed to the notion of the lecture as central to all formal education. Again, as the evidence base has gradually developed, and shown that lecturing is generally one of the poorest methods of facilitating learning, our institutions are very slowly beginning to play catch-up, but still thousands of years after the Chinese philosophers had this one figured out. (This article fails to get into differences of learning styles, but highlights the shortcomings of the sacred institution of lecturing quite well).

In the office

At a much more mundane level, I think of an old job. When I started, I quickly realised that, at only a few quick skims of a database, we provided almost no support to organisations that weren’t large, London-based, national organisations; a tiny percentage of those we could have been helping. I raised this, and was told I needed to ‘demonstrate the need’; I said ‘scan the database for two minutes’. This wouldn’t suffice.

I spent the following month categorising every organisation in a 1,600 entry database, by their size, their location and their reach. Eventually this told me, depending on classification, at least 85% of those we supported came from a pool of less than 2% of potential beneficiaries… which is what I’d said a month earlier. By the time this was written into an acceptable report, we’d lost 2 months of my work, in pursuit of an ‘evidence-base’ which added little or nothing to my initial observation.

There was nothing especially remarkable about my observation, except my belief that it was trustworthy in its own right (a position I’m sure most of us have found ourselves in at one time or another). When you consider my salary and overhead costs, this meant several thousand pounds was spent to ‘know’ what I already knew.

‘Proof’

So whether artists, First Nations communities or ancient Chinese philosophers, the knowledge held by all three was widely available to the scientific methodologists since long before the near-universal western adoption of the scientific method during the Scientific Revolution. Yet, in each case, scientific rationalism dismissed or actively discredited each of the above as ‘superstitious’, ‘unsubstantiated’, or ‘without methodological rigour’… until they eventually drew the same conclusions themselves!

The problem was, in the respective mean times, people created potentially irreversible climate change, health and wellbeing were collectively sacrificed, and learning has been a rote drill, instilling a hatred of education in countless millions for several centuries.

What are we missing right now?

I’ve mentioned a few examples where science has (eventually) caught up with earlier forms of knowledge. What current questions do previous kinds of ‘knowing’ provide answers to that science still completely ignores or discredits? Quantum physics has begun to identify a level of connectivity between all forms of life (with wide-ranging implications), that has previously only been captured by notions of ‘oneness’ found in many religions and spiritualities (without getting into that kettle of worms!). Much of what the world of post-Enlightenment rationalism has previously determined to be true or false, has gradually been seen to be otherwise. Yet, while science is clearly adaptive (it’s fundamental strength), we cling to its current state of progress at any given time, as if it represents an absolute, rather than a step towards greater understanding. The same experiment, carried-out a hundred years apart, will invariably reveal different things, as technology – but more importantly perception – change during that time.

Acknowledging different kinds of knowledge

If you were asked how you knew the world was round, and how you knew your mother loved you, you would probably approach each question very differently. I’m sure you’d agree, the lack of scientific rigour in your second answer would in no way diminish your knowledge of your mother’s love; it would probably still be something you know more than you know that the world is round (as this is still an abstraction in most of our minds, very few of us having seen the Earth in its entirety, firsthand!).

These are extreme examples, but they have to be, as there are so few places where our culture still accepts the merits of knowledge grounded in experience, feeling and intuition.

How about if I asked how you know how safe or unsafe you are in your neighbourhood? Would you produce a list of ward rankings on violent or petty crime? If so, would it be in relation to your city? Your country? The rest of the world? Other places you’d lived? Or would you explain how you feel when you walk down the street at night?

This isn’t a binary choice…

As I said at the start, this is not to discredit the innumerable gains that the principles of the scientific method have offered the world – these are well-known and documented – but instead to highlight the things this method has missed (or ignored) – even when the answers have been right under its nose. The costs of doing so have also been vast.

While we obviously don’t want to throw away the scientific rationalism that has created so many critical breakthroughs in so many fields, we also don’t want to continue to doom ourselves to repeat its omissions, late acknowledgments and incomplete narratives on the world we live in.

When do we trust non-scientific knowledge?

I don’t know where exactly we draw a line, but I do know that it has currently ended-up much too far in one direction, undermining some of our most significant knowledge in the process.

So maybe we start with our own attitudes; we acknowledge that there is fundamental knowledge that we all hold, that may, at times, be greater than the scientific knowledge we have available to us at the moment. Once we have made this acknowledgement, hopefully it will open the door to discussions around more specifics as they arise. At this point, our kneejerk response is to collectively discredit anything that has not undergone a very particular process of examination. By acknowledging that some of our most important knowledge has undergone no such process, maybe we can begin to relearn the potential of intuition, instinct, experience and feeling to help us make better decisions, address issues in a more timely way, and appreciate the ideas of people and cultures less-wed to the scientific method?

*Question: does this piece fit the ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ theme of our work, or should this have gone elsewhere? I’m aware that the direct implications for organisations are pretty abstract, but thought it was worth discussing here, nonetheless… any ideas on what these ideas mean for voluntary, community and non-profit organisations?

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Facilitating organisations?

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

If we seem to know we do better when we aren’t just being told what to do, why do we keep telling each other what to do? Wouldn’t a supportive atmosphere be a more effective way of getting things done? Many of us have seen this work in learning environments, why not learn from it in working environments?

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Image fr/ www.create-learning.com/

A few years ago I was running community training courses fairly regularly. At some stage, I had a realisation that many before me had also had: that people seemed to learn the best when they were doing stuff, not me.

Thus, I began to embrace the art of facilitation: how much can you help a group of people walk down a path they’ve never been, without giving them the directions?  What combinations of well-timed, targeted questions, suggestions and anecdotes, will enable people to learn what you (broadly) want them to learn, in the way that they want to learn it (and ideally remember it)?

Old news

The same debate I was having with myself had been had many times previously and had led to some fairly significant shifts in non-classroom-based learning, as well as numerous alternative school movements.  The move was away from the concept of a single expert, putting lots of information into the heads of their less-qualified pupils, towards one where everyone played a part – not only because we all remember better when we do, but also from a firm belief that we all have something to contribute, given our unique experiences.

Like so many things, some old Chinese folks seemed to have figured this out many centuries before myself, or the countless ‘radicals’ who gradually started to see the problems with traditional training/teaching in the 1960s and ‘70s:

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Several hundred years later, some of us in the West realised they were probably right. Sadly, many of our learning institutions are still clinging to a perceived supremacy of the old ways…

Facilitating organisations?

Yesterday I was reading about some ‘radical’ management ideas… many of which seemed to echo this thinking from the world of education, namely, that people do things better when they are given the chance to do them themselves and that people from all ‘levels’ of an organisation have contributions to make at all levels of that organisation… (if ‘levels’ are even an appropriate form of organisation in their own right…)

Theorists, consultants, and yes, even managers themselves, from Henry Mintzberg, to Frances Westley, to Ricardo Semler, have for decades been saying things like:

“We have this obsession with ‘leadership’. It’s maybe intended to empower people, but its effect is to disempower them. By focusing on the individual, even in the context of others, leadership can undermine a service of community… When [former IBM CEO Gerstner] heard of the initiative [to get the company into E-business, from a programmer], he encouraged it. That’s all. Instead of setting the direction, he supported the direction setting of others… What should be gone is this magic bullet of the individual as the solution to the world’s problems. We are the solution to the world’s problems, you and me, all of us, working in concert.” [Leadership and Communityship, Henry Mintzberg, Financial Times, October 23 2006]

“When social innovations take flight… the innovators are influencing their context while their context is influencing them in an endless to and fro. Decisions are made, actions are taken but it is not always clear how they came about. There is a wonderful sense of collective ownership: all who are involved feel this is their project, their cause, their time to change the world. [Getting to maybe: How the world is changed, Frances Westley et al, Vintage Canada, 2006]

“Most of our programmes are based on the notion of giving employees control over their own lives. In a word, we hire adults, and then we treat them like adults… Outside the factory, workers are men and women who elect governments, serve in the army, lead community projects, raise and educate families… but the moment they walk into the factory, the company transforms them into adolescents. They have to wear badges and name tags, arrive at a certain time, stand in line to punch the clock…” [Managing without Managers, Ricardo Semler, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1989]

‘Is facilitation the new management?’

Trendy buzzword headlines aside, I can’t help but notice an emerging pattern here towards a more facilitatory approach…

What if, instead of managing organisations, we facilitated them?

While, as others suggested when I put this idea on Twitter yesterday, I’m not keen to create new jargon, I do think ‘facilitation’ provides an understanding of getting things done in group dynamics that is fundamentally different from most of that which we have dubbed ‘management’ in recent centuries.

But rather than provide more quotes from my endless reading into the geeky world that is management philosophy, in the spirit of this post, I’d be keen to hear yours;

Is the facilitation/management distinction a useful or counterproductive one?

  • Have you been involved in something you might describe as facilitation in a workplace?
  • Did you feel there was practical value in this approach?
  • Did it create unexpected problems for anyone involved in the process?
  • How would you aim to convince someone who practiced ‘traditional management’, that there was a better alternative in facilitation (whether calling it that or not)?
  • Anything else you might have thought of while reading this?

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The Possibility of Trust

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

We write-off good ideas when they seem too far removed from our current realities.  Unable to immediately comprehend the practicalities of such drastic shifts, we categorise the good idea as ‘impossible’ – and discredit it. But if we don’t start to challenge the seemingly impossible problems we face in the world, how will we ever move beyond them?  On this note, what if trust was realised in every aspect of the voluntary sector?
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'Trust me' by SFview on FlickrFollowing on from my blog on Paul Story and ‘The Honesty Edition’, there were loads of comments, Tweets and real-world conversations that made me want to follow-up on the idea of applying ‘trust’ to a range of voluntary sector activities/processes.  Namely, in relation to funding, people said things to the effect of: “a funding relationship will never be trusting, because there’s money involved”.  This drew me to one of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite books: “Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed”:

“Change—surprising and sometimes radical change—does happen.  The world does turn on its head every once in a while. And what seemed almost impossible looking forward seems almost inevitable look back.” (Getting to Maybe, viii)

With this quote in mind, please indulge in the possibly Utopic fantasy which follows.

The Trusting Place

Once upon a time, there was a distinct space that existed between the greedy hedonism of the private sector, and the soulless bureaucracy of government. This space was known as ‘the trusting place’ and was built-on an entirely different set of values than those of its counterparts; a place where trust was at the core of how and why people did what they did…

…I’ll skip the fairy tale hyperbole…  But let’s think for a minute about what some of our sector’s relationships might look like if they were based on trust (rather than a range of contractual compliance measures)… All I ask is that rather than going to the knee-jerk ‘that won’t work because…’ response, take a minute to think about how much better than the realities you are used to dealing with, these options would be.  If we can collectively acknowledge that there could be significant gains made (reaching new people, improving staff morale, discovering new social solutions, etc) from placing a higher premium on trust in our work, *maybe* then we can start to get passed some of the obstacles that have kept it from happening thus far…

Staff

  • What if managers and the staff they managed got to hold each other accountable on a range of mutually-agreed aims and objectives, rather than this process-happening in one-direction?
  • What if we felt we could admit our mistakes, shortcomings and poor judgment calls to those above and below us, without fear of some kind of retribution, backstabbing or disciplinary?
  • What if we only addressed problems as they arose, with the people involved, rather than filling reams of paper with ‘what to do in case of worst-case scenario’ policies?

Funders

  • What if funders and organisations saw themselves as partners, aiming to openly learn from their respective experiences and achieve social change together?
  • What if organisations were supported to trial some new ideas before throwing all of their efforts into one approach, helping learn what really works before deeply investing?
  • What if funders and trustees supported innovation and the kinds of (often risky) practices that foster it, rather than requiring a predetermined outcome and stressing heavy-handed accountability messages?

Volunteers

  • What if people who wanted to help a good cause could just show up and be put to work?
  • What if organisations encouraged volunteers to take-on high-level roles or define their own roles, rather than simply offering a ‘one-size-fits-all’ voluntary position?
  • What if volunteers made collective decisions on the issues that affect them, rather than having them imposed by management or trustees?

This is clearly a polemic piece…

Some larger voluntary organisations have broken through some of these barriers effectively, and many have not.  My instinct is that if a big organisation (and their relevant funders) could put this whole picture into action, the gains would be truly immense.

Anyone agree?

If you do, let’s not get hung up on ‘why it will never happen’, and start thinking about ‘what steps are needed to make it a real possibility’!

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Trust works for business, why not for charity?

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Paul Story in Edinburgh

Paul Story in Edinburgh

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.

Post-Web?

Dreamwords cover

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…

Trust works

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].

Dan Pink summarises a similar theme from Clay Shirky’s latest book, Cognitive Surplus, demonstrating the issues with creating untrusting structures in our workplaces, businesses and elsewhere in society:

“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…

I’m hoping you can prove me wrong!

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The Growing Anatomy of a Human Institution v0.1

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

growing human institutions‘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:

1. Flexibility
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.

3. Autonomy
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’!
Register for Seeds to Grow a Human Institution in London, United Kingdom  on Eventbrite

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Measuring water with a ruler

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Significant numbers of voluntary organisations and think-tanks have been singing from government’s hymn sheet in recent years, demanding that civil society organisations prove  their value for the funding they receive by submitting to constantly more rigorous methods of monitoring and evaluation.  The chorus has become so loud that it is increasingly difficult for those who challenge its dominant orthodoxy to be heard, even when it is apparent that these methods are often equivalent to trying to measure the water in the ocean with a ruler.

Before going further, I want to stress that I think accountability in civil society is good; I think that most of the methods we use for supposedly achieving it, however, are not.

My latest thinking on this comes from a brief piece in Third Sector and an editorial in the Guardian about a YouGov/New Philanthropy Capital survey that suggests significant support for a ‘grading system’ for charities, to demonstrate how effective a particular organisation has been in achieving its aims.

Let’s put independence from the state and overall drops in sector-income aside for a moment and look at some of the ways accountability is currently seen by most funding bodies – governmental and non-governmental alike – in predicting what said grading system might look like…

The problem with grant funding accountability

First, let’s look at funding applications as the first institutional process of evaluating an organisation.  We need to acknowledge that the text of a funding application is a ‘theory of change’ – we (as applicants) believe if we deliver a, b and c (measurables), we will achieve x, y and z (social outcomes).  There is no way to know (beyond a well-educated guess) that delivering a series of events, interventions, support sessions, or other outputs, will definitively lead to the change we say it will.  There is nothing wrong with acknowledging this uncertainty, but standard funding formulas suggest we (as organisations) claim to know our actions will create pre-determined impacts, even if this is only a possibility.  This is the fundamentally flawed premise on which most funding accountability is based: it treats complex human and social problems as complicated ones with both fixed variables and predictable answers.

“According to …Glouberman and …Zimmerman, systems can be understood as being simple, complicated, complex. Simple problems… may encompass some basic issues of technique and terminology, but once these are mastered, following the “recipe” carries with it a very high assurance of success. Complicated problems, like sending a rocket to the moon, are different. Their complicated nature is often related not only to the scale of a problem…, but also to issues of coordination or specialised expertise. However, rockets are similar to each other and because of this following one success there can be a relatively high degree of certainty of outcome repetition. In contrast complex systems are based on relationships, and their properties of self-organisation, interconnectedness and evolution. Research into complex systems demonstrates that they cannot be understood solely by simple or complicated approaches to evidence, policy, planning and management. The metaphor that Glouberman and Zimmerman use for complex systems is like raising a child. Formulae have limited application. Raising one child provides experience but no assurance of success with the next. Expertise can contribute but is neither necessary nor sufficient to assure success. Every child is unique and must be understood as an individual. A number of interventions can be expected to fail as a matter of course. Uncertainty of the outcome remains. You cannot separate the parts from the whole.”

…But if we ignore for a minute that it is impossible to apply recipe-modelled approaches to complex social change, let’s look at the next stage of the process: the tenuous correlation between outputs and impact.  Most funders will suggest that once the deliverables of our funding have been determined (x events, x hours of support, x people served, etc.), that achieving those deliverables equates to success (or not achieving them equates to the failure).  This may not reflect the bigger picture.  Some funders will be more flexible in determining the actual relationship between output and outcome, but there is still often worry on the part of a funded organisation that they will lose the money they need to keep delivering, if the numbers don’t add up.  And as everyone who has worked under such pressures knows, if your work is dependent on making numbers add-up, you’ll make sure those numbers add up!  This may mean ‘double-counting’ events which are funded by other funders, it may mean counting different parts of a service accessed by the same person as different outputs… we have plenty of creative ways of doing these things, and really, who can blame us?  If the money we need to keep doing something with positive social value is contingent on forms that don’t reflect that value, what would be the greater crime: some loosely-adjusted paperwork, or a vital service shut-down due to an overly-rigid system?

How much flexibility is needed?

Let’s look at a concrete example: if you receive a grant to deliver counselling services to 150 children who are victims of bullying in one-year, you will have a fixed number of hours you can dedicate to each child.  However, you may find that a particular group of children have higher needs, meaning that the scope and ongoing nature of their problems will require considerably more effort than your team have allotted them.  Now some funders will recognise the need for flexibility in such a situation, but this is usually a question of how many degrees they are willing to shift.  The qualitative impact of supporting 50 kids through a particularly difficult time may be far more socially valuable than providing basic support for the full-150 pre-determined total.  And for a child in a difficult scenario, 3 hours of support for every hour provided to a less-vulnerable child would not be an unexpected ratio.  Yet, from many funders’ perspectives, this is still a 67% margin of error, and likely inexcusable from a traditional ‘accountability’ perspective.

The cynics of my cynicism might say: “well, this organisation just needs to quantify the additional impact of the 3:1 support ratio provided to the most vulnerable children served, and it will justify their reduced output.”  But think about the complexity of measuring such an impact – the differences that inevitably exist between different children’s developmental progress, the amount of at-home support experienced by some but not others, any other additional circumstances that might make some children’s experiences of bullying more traumatic… Not to mention the additional time that would need to be spent by staff attempting to collect the data that would rationalise this reallocation of funds, and how that would likely be pulling them away from delivering services they were funded to deliver in the first place.

…And if grant funding is not difficult enough, target-based government contracting methods just accentuate all of the worst aspects of this process, expecting, almost without exception, numbers to be achieved, on the dubious premise that ‘numbers = impact’.

The bigger risk…

The bigger risk, from my perspective, lies in the almost inherent bias of asking organisations to provide certain types of information as evidence of their impact, that are clearly more-accessible to larger charities, with dedicated research staff and knowledge of public data retrieval, than they are to the vast majority of voluntary and community groups who will be held to the same measures.

As has always been the case, there will be organisations whose greatest skills are in manipulating data, writing in an appropriate style and knowing how to speak to the right power-brokers.  These groups will invariably rank well in a system that plays to all of these strengths, regardless of their actual quality of work.  If a charity grading system is implemented in the ways it seems likely it would be, it will not be grading effectiveness, but, like so many other practiced measures of social value, will actually be measuring an organisation’s ability to effectively handle paperwork and bureaucracy.

My radical concept for improved accountability? Trust.

Too much of what goes on in the name of accountability is an ongoing assumption of organisational guilt, until innocence can be determined by those making the judgment in the first place.  A concept that has been central to historical ideas of accountability – trust – has been all-but-forgotten in the current culture of market-dominated methods of measurement in the social sphere.

What if funders were to take a more personally motivated attempt to ‘get to know’ their recipients?  What if a significant part of the time spent on paperwork, was spent working with grant recipients to find out how they felt they knew they had achieved impact in their work?  What if this meant funders being sent a video of a recent street dance performance, featuring interviews with the participants?  What if it meant an invitation to attend a presentation and board meeting of the organisation in question?  What if it meant direct contact between grant administrators and those who had received services as a result of their funding?

Personal interactions (as opposed to institutional ones, such as form letters and other generic communications) can fundamentally change the dynamics between a funder and those who receive funding.  Just as most of us are more likely to pay back money we have borrowed from a friend on time, than we are if we borrowed it from a credit card company (penalties aside), the likelihood of improved accountability if a relationship is developed between funder and recipient works along similar lines.  Trust is a powerful motivating force; more so even than the ongoing sense of worry that tends to characterise most funding relationships, from the recipient’s perspective.

A mandatory grading system would, by its very nature, violate any notion of trust-based accountability.  If organisations were forced to be graded, just like with our creatively-defined output measures described earlier, many would find (questionable) ways to check the necessary performance indicator boxes, diverting valuable attention away from actually improving their performance.

A voluntary grading system that organisations could opt-in to (with different types of performance indicators reflecting different conceptions of performance), on the other hand, could become a point of pride within the sector – something to aspire to.  Those who undertook it would have chosen to do so, increasing the odds of more honest and holistic measurement, with a more genuine desire to improve (than if they had been simply told by an authority figure that they ‘had to’).

I personally don’t believe there is a need for such a system at this point in time, but hopefully some of the discussions it sparks will begin to shift thinking across the sector of the ways in which we measure performance and gauge accountability more broadly.  If the threat of a heavy-handed imposition of grading is what it takes to realise how far we have allowed and encouraged trust to erode in our sector, than perhaps there is a silver lining to the NPC proposals.  If we are told that ‘trust is not going to cut it with the new government’, perhaps it is the relationship we aim to have with that government which we need to be questioning, before reverting to taking shots at each others’ integrity as organisations.

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