more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

It’s time for the non-profit trade press to go Onion!

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Someone suggested to me today that their charity had been unwilling to adopt more democratic, participatory, transparent organising structures, in significant part due to the perceived ‘reputational risk’ associated with doing so. Without pointing at that organisation, more than any other, this is my Third Sector-goes-Onion response to the idea that a more democratic structure could be seen as a reputational risk. It is the ongoing story that doesn’t make sector press ‘news’ each day.

“Charity maintains undemocratic Industrial-era management in 2013!”

Welcome to the Aid Assembly Line! (CC synapticism on Flickr)

Welcome to the Aid Factory! (CC synapticism on Flickr)

Today, a leaked report from AidHope International, one of the world’s biggest development charities, revealed that the organisation employed a management structure designed in the late 1700s to maximise the number of pins that a pin factory could produce.

In a confidential document entitled, ‘The Way Forward: Relearning the Lessons of Taylorism,’ the organisation describes its approach as “a blueprint for treating a group of passionate people as cogs in a poverty and corruption-ending machine. And then replicating that machine wherever we can get funding to do so.”

Their management structure centralises decisions with those furthest from the ground, offers minimal opportunity for those affected by the organisation’s work to have their voices heard, and crushes anything in the way of creative or innovative thinking, though endless sign-off processes. The practices used by AidHope – which advocates for more transparent, participatory and democratic forms of government in Africa – is based on a few key principles:

1) Only those furthest from the action are qualified to make decisions that affect it,
2) Solutions can be copy-and-pasted from any situation to any other situation that seems kinda the same,
3) White men just seem better than anyone else at all the stuff that pays really well…

Under ‘The Way Forward’ document, lower-level managers were made to feel just a little bit more important than the people they managed. However, they were also made to feel deeply insecure about their position, because of the assumption they were meant to know everything that each of the people they manage know, and work on directly.

The document suggests that managers should pass blame down to their most junior employees, while credit for their subordinates’ work should be hoarded, until their own manager becomes aware of it and decides to take it for themselves.

Decades after such methods began to be discredited in management circles, AidHope has clung to them, drawing fierce criticism from key stakeholders for the seeming hypocrisy of its dated and deeply undemocratic internal practices.

John Eggleton, a Departmental Oversight Controller at the Office for Aid Transparency, expressed shock at the revelation, stating, “It is deeply regrettable that AidHope have brought their good name into disgrace, by demonstrating such a massive gulf between what they tell others to do and what they do themselves.” When asked what he felt could repair the damage done to the organisation’s reputation, Eggleton said his salary grade did not give him clearance to offer solutions, only to feign outrage on behalf of his superiors.

Similarly, when David Luffbottom, Chief Executive of fellow aid organisation, CrossHelp, was asked about the AidHope International situation, he was equally indignant; “Clearly, AidHope haven’t been doing a very good job – I mean, there’s no way anyone who might ever consider leaking a document of this magnitude should have even known it existed!”

Meanwhile, at AidHope, the press team scrambled to prepare a response, telling this reporter that the charity would have an official statement prepared by early next week, once the appropriate directors (one of whom was on annual leave until Monday) had signed-off on it.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one AidHope senior manager disclosed that the organisation’s board had “thought about changing, but came to the conclusion that no one else within or around the organisation would do things as well as they did.”

Making reference to some of the alternatives to the management structures employed by his organisation, the manager said: “I once heard a senior colleague refer to participatory budgeting, or flat management structures, or consensus-based decision making at a reception at the [House of] Lords, but he was seriously sauced at the time and was probably just taking the piss to get a laugh out of the Peer who was hosting us.”

“Ultimately,” explained the insider, “we realised how hard it would be to justify our own jobs if we began to practice anything that might resemble real democracy, and so decided to just keep doing what we’d always done. Just like everyone else.”

_______________________

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 buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.







1 comment

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.

Add a comment

How NOT to Tweet a Good Cause

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

This is a work-in-progress promotional piece that I thought I’d post for feedback as much as anything. Thinking of making PDF brochures out of an illustrated version, but would love to hear how your less-Twitter-friendly colleagues respond, should you feel inclined to print a copy and share it around your office? Does it just piss people off, or does it start a useful conversation? Thanks! Liam

1. Tweets should always be written in a cold, sterile and impersonal manner.

 

Liam will tell you how NOT to Tweet for a good cause!

Liam will tell you how NOT to Tweet for a good cause! Sketch by Dave Schokking.

Think of them as 140 character press releases, or a text from a doctor’s surgery reminding you of a colonoscopy appointment. This avoids any notion by followers that there are real people with personalities operating your account (which could be disastrous for your reputation!). Better still, add applications that will ‘auto-Tweet’ generic updates about everything else you do online; this helps avoid any temptation by staff or followers to converse via Twitter, violating the organisation’s professional mystique.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

2. Don’t follow anyone!*

This tells the world that you are important and thus not interested in anyone else’s opinions or experiences. If you do choose to follow any other accounts, make sure it is only a few and that they are all a) newspapers, b) other organisations, and c) selectively chosen celebrities. This reinforces the appropriate power dynamic, telling ‘regular people’ who follow you that you are unconcerned with them or their interests (beyond you).

*If your organisation’s name or profile bio includes terms like ‘participation’, ‘engagement’, or ‘inclusion’, it is especially crucial that you follow this rule to the letter, so people don’t falsely assume you’re interested in talking with them.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

3. ‘Auto-DM’ all your new followers.

When someone follows you, don’t follow them back (as above), but add an application to your account that will send them automatic, impersonal Direct Messages (DMs or private messages) feigning thanks, which they will be unable to reply to (because you don’t follow them). Again, this establishes the clear power dynamic you’re looking for; they are listening, you are not.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

4. Only ever Tweet your own materials and information.

Other info or links related to your subject matter must be ignored, and if possible, actively discredited, as they represent competition in the never-ending battle for potential supporters’ mind space, time and attention.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

5. You must maintain an image of absolute perfection!

Never Tweet anything that might give your followers the impression your organisation is anything less-than-perfect. Asking questions is an absolute ‘no’, unless they are rhetorical and you provide the answer within the Tweet, or the link it contains (to your own website only, obviously). Questions declare a less-than-complete knowledge of the world and such an admission will destroy your followers’ faith in your expertise and support for your work and your cause.

Related to this, you should also never send a Tweet without carrying-out a thorough the cost-benefit analysis of doing so. This helps to ensure you do not say something inappropriate, which you might later feel demonstrates an incomplete knowledge of the subject. It is advisable to stay quiet about major events in the world, until an in-depth policy has been written and published. Several days after the fact you will be able to Tweet the most expert opinion on the matter at hand.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

6. Twitter is for junior staff to do and senior managers to sign-off.

Put your organisation’s sole Twitter account into the hands of a single, low-ranking staff member, with minimal decision making power in the organisation, and tell them exactly what they can and can’t Tweet.

You may want to develop an appropriate sign-off policy that can precede the sending of all organisational Tweets. At the same time, it is critical that you ban all other staff from Tweeting, as multiple accounts will be harder for you to control. If you cannot manage a complete ban on usage, tell staff they must separate themselves from the organisation via a disclaimer (such as ‘these are my views and my organisation does not tolerate them, but still keeps me around’) and install a web-page blocker preventing unauthorised staff from accessing the Twitter website on work time.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

7. Never reply or make conversation with followers, unless they are celebrities or senior politicians.

Some Twitter users think they are ‘having a massive conversation’. They are wrong. In the interests of your professional integrity (as your comms assistant might say inappropriate things, if not given a script), it is imperative that you do not engage with the Twitter population in anything resembling off-the-cuff banter. In the event of attempting to lobby a famous actor or Cabinet minister on your cause, Tweets should be written in advance by the most senior member of staff available, with potential follow-up Tweets for all possible responses. This said, they may still treat you as ‘regular people’(i.e. – those not worthy of their time) and as such, ignore you…

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

How do you stack up? If you received more than 1 on any of the measures above, you should probably give Liam at more like people a ring (07775732383), an email (liam@morelikepeople.org), or even a Tweet (@hackofalltrades).

3 comments

Numbers don’t lie… but they may ignore our most important truths (Part 1)

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

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]

15/02/03 LondonFor 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?

Building trust

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.

The challenge

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.

1 comment

Experiential diversity: A new way of understanding equality in the voluntary sector

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

‘Diversity’ and ‘equality’ are popular buzzwords in the voluntary sector, but how often do we think about what they really mean? Maybe if we were to have an open discussion about difference – in all its more and less obvious forms – we would be in a better place to answer the questions they raise?

_______________________________________________________________________

di•ver•si•ty

[dih-vur-si-tee, dahy-]
–noun, plural -ties.
1. the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness.
2. variety; multiformity.
3. a point of difference.

Photo by Christopher Edwards, Creative Commons

There are innumerable pieces of legislations around the world that exist to balance historical and present-day discrimination. These have, I believe, been created with the best of intent – honest attempts to right wrongs that have existed for generations and still hide in the crevices of our institutions and the subconscious of our minds.

But many of my colleagues – often those who would check more boxes than I do on an equalities monitoring form – feel that the current approach may intend to encourage diversity, but in fact creates a smokescreen for a more subtle and insidious form of discrimination.

As one colleague – a black man from a housing estate in Southeast London, working in a national charity put it – ‘I went to university to learn to be white’.

Or as another colleague who recently finished a report on race equality in the private sector found, many of the non-white senior managers interviewed admittedly described themselves as culturally ‘white.’

Diversity?

So while there has been a semi-successful trend towards more visibly integrated workplaces, there is still an issue with homogeneity; people who check boxes, but who have either:

a) Lived very similar lives to those who represent the professional status quo (which is still broadly white, middle class, university educated), or
b) Have adopted or adapted to the culture of the professional status-quo, to be ‘allowed’ into that world.

In either case, the result is the same: many workplaces are less diverse than their monitoring forms might suggest. They still hire exclusively ‘professionals’, and what we understand as ‘professional’ is far too closely linked with what we generally see to be white, male and middle-to-upper-middle class. Thus many of our voluntary and non-profit organisations are missing out on the vast potential energy, creativity, perspective and insight that people who have taken a different path than we have, could offer our work and the people we support. They may even have a lot more in common with the people we support than we do, the value of which should not be overlooked. If our organisations want to tap into the diverse potential that exists outside of our ‘professional’ cultures, we can’t just hire people who don’t look, but still very much act as we do.

That said, I don’t want to minimise the importance of the shift that has occurred – that an Asian woman or a young gay man are more able to get into the professional workforce than they were a few decades ago, is of course a terrific victory on many fronts.

However, if that Asian woman or that gay man must either be born into economic privilege, or learn to give-up significant elements of their own culture to be accepted, then, in my opinion, this represents a pretty significant short-coming of the current approach.

The Marxist argument

Point a) above essentially follows a traditional Marxist class argument and while valuable, has been rehashed many times before by others more qualified than I. I would only add that our institutions (on the whole) selectively include people from non-dominant communities, who still fit most of the economic (and, often correspondingly, cultural) criteria typically associated with the dominant community. Which raises questions about the kind of diversity that is (or isn’t) being fostered in many professional workplaces. We can handle the differences of skin colour, sexual orientation, and religion better than we used to, but when it comes to interacting with people who DO THINGS differently from us, we come up with a range of excuses for why they ‘aren’t right for the job’.

Or is it more complex…?

Point b), however, raises a less-unpicked argument; that the ‘DNA’ of the current professional paradigm (across the sectors), is still very much the DNA of a privileged, white, straight, male reality, and that those from outside this reality who rise through its ranks must adopt (to varying degrees) that dominant culture in order to do so.

Basically, our idea of ‘professionalism’ is not something we can honestly describe as culture-neutral.

The opposition

When I’ve posed this hypothesis to others, the negative responses tend to fall into one of two categories:

1) The DNA of the professional world is simply the most effective and appropriate for getting things done, and is not an issue of values or methods associated with any particular group.

2) While the professional ‘DNA’ may be reflective of a dominant community, there are too many non-dominant communities to shift it, so it makes most sense to maintain the current way of working.

‘It’s the best’

The first argument I simply can’t believe; there is too strong a correlation in a) western countries and b) in other parts of the world following periods of imperialism or top-down globalisation, to assume that the structure and modes of working are not associated with a particular dominant group. The ‘Efficiency Drive’ which justifies a vast array of negative practices across the sectors, does not appear to have emerged from, or grown naturally in many other cultures (beyond a traditionally European-descended ‘elite’), without economic or political coercion. The argument that it is simply ‘the best’ verges on discriminatory against the cultures that don’t automatically adopt its methods.

‘There are too many alternatives’

The second argument I usually counter with a less binary option: we need to actively encourage (as some workplaces do) a range of people from non-dominant groups to take more active roles in shaping workplace cultures, in their own images (rather than allowing the workplace cultures to force a shape on them, by default). A workplace culture does not have to be one homogenous entity, but can actually itself adopt elements of the range of influences it allows itself to open up to.

While different understandings of ‘professionalism’, working relationships, hospitality, non-verbal communication and countless other assumed subtleties may not immediately mesh with one another, I feel this is a challenge we are capable of starting to address in the 21st Century. We need to have the discussions about the assumptions our organisations subconsciously impose, within and beyond their walls. We need to acknowledge alternatives, learn from other communities, countries, our own personal lives even, and see how we could involve, say, potluck lunches, events with families of staff, changes to how we hold meetings, design office plans and how decisions get made…

Outreach

There’s also the question of the external image our organisations present. While our traditional definitions of workplace diversity may help foster some sense that our organisations are really ‘for everyone’, this is unlikely to last if those we’ve hired who check boxes on a form are still worlds removed from the experiences of the young people, ex-offenders, refugees or others we may try to support. This is not to say that everyone who works for an organisation should be from its client group, but that this can create a sense of shared experience which tends to make people more comfortable engaging with otherwise seemingly-foreign institutions.

Think of the number of times you’ve walked by an African barber shop, a gay bar, a mosque, a Polish convenience store, and never even thought of going in because the people hanging around were so far separated from your own experience of the world. Maybe this is something you’ve never even noticed, because the idea of walking into such a place is so radical it doesn’t even cross your mind at such moments?

When you’re part of a dominant culture it can be easy to forget that we create these same sentiments amongst others; that when a bunch of us who look, talk and act in similar ways work together, our work may well take on associations of difference to those who do not feel a part of that world. Then add to this difference the power dynamics still so often associated with a dominant group and you’ve got a pretty off-putting combination. If we want to be inclusive to those outside of our organisations, as well as those inside, we need to think about what we mean by diversity and equality. Any real attempts to address inequality must address the less visible issues of difference that continue to drive unspoken wedges between us.

Mixing it up…

How can we bring pieces of Ghana, Vauxhall, Pakistan, Peckham, Poland and Dagenham into our workplaces, without subsuming them in a still broadly Oxfordian establishment (which I feel most of us not of that ilk must conform to ourselves, even if it’s a more subtle shift)? I know that making a list from the aforementioned place names and putting them on a form with check boxes beside them is not the way to do it. It is not simply about including more people in the established protocols of the day, it is also about ensuring people can be included without having to take on the traits of those they have never shared true equality with. It’s about the system changing for the people, not simply the other way around. If the systems aren’t changing, what kind of diversity are we trying to foster? Is this a manifestation of true equality, or does it just allow us to see enough difference to stop asking the uncomfortable questions about power that we might not want to admit still need asking?

3 comments

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?

_____________________________________________________________________

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?

4 comments

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!

20 comments

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.