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The divisiveness of unity

Causes of all stripes have long-rallied others under the banners of ‘unity’ – united we stand, unified voices, etc. But I’m increasingly unconvinced that unity is something we should aspire towards. Worse, our attempts to create it, both in organisations and in movements, might be undermining the very most basic common ground we already share. Instead, could ‘diversity’ be the key to a range of our aims and struggles?

‘We are the 99%’

Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam

Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam

‘We are the 99%’: The Occupy slogan the world has come to know since a group of frustrated and inspired citizens set-up camp in Zuccotti Park in September 2011 and sparked a global movement.

The slogan has been cause for much criticism by both progressives and the mainstream establishment. ‘It’s too vague,’ they clamber. ‘What do they actually want?’ they ask, condescendingly.

But these sources of criticism may also be the movement’s greatest strength; they leave plenty of room for literally millions of people to assign their own meaning, within an incredibly basic ideological framework that simply says, ‘I want the world to work for the vast majority, not a tiny minority.’

After that, it’s up to each inspired individual to choose what we/they choose to do.

I call this (as of today, at least) ‘baseline unity, practical diversity.’

Encouraging emergence

The result with Occupy is well-documented. People found their own ways to make the movement their own. At times these approaches and actions absolutely contradicted one another, but they also managed to change public discourse on issues many traditional organisations have been struggling against for decades. (Not to mention all the specific Occupy-related projects and campaigns that quietly emerged from the broader movement, tackling everything from internet monopoly to legal definitions of corporate personhood, disaster relief to toxic debt).

The ‘unity’ at the core of Occupy really didn’t extend beyond a slogan. It was diversity that made it what it has been able to be.

The emergent efforts of countless autonomous individuals, with only this basic sense of common ground, unleashed a kind of collective power the world has rarely seen.

In complexity science, emergence refers to the unpredictable and ever-changing results of countless interdependent variables in a system, acting and interacting autonomously. What at first appears as chaos, gradually takes on a coherent order, as each actor becomes aligned with the others, creating something that no individual could have seen coming.

Schools of fish, flocks of birds, and… what do you call a group of ants, walking in a line, all carrying things way bigger than them? Yeah, that. All emergent phenomena. A couple very basic rules, the rest is up to each individual, and voila! You have a remarkably well-ordered system, without the hierarchy or imposition of a singular ‘right way!’

Margaret Wheatley writes extensively about emergence in her first book, ‘Leadership and the New Science.’ I can’t recommend it enough!

So the lesson of emergence, is that to create well-ordered, effective systems, there must be freedom for everyone within the system to find their own best ways of working towards a simple, shared goal.

Yet for countless years the mantra of so many organisations and movements has been based on the idea that ‘we must have unity if we are going to be successful.’

But unity is inherently singular. People are too varied a species to happily give up our autonomy for something we don’t absolutely believe in, as any ‘basis of unity’ will require, when it involves two or more people.

Organisational reliance on far-more unity than most of us are willing to commit to (because of its cost to our own autonomy), means that we end up giving far less of our energy and potential to our work than we might in a less-controlled environment.

What if passionate support for our mission statements was our only requirements of staff and volunteers? What if it was up to them to figure out the rest? What if we accepted that people within our organisations might not all agree with each other, and let them find their own best ways of advancing the cause, connecting with colleagues or others beyond the organisation, when it made sense to do so?

The disclaimer I put out after many blogs like this one (the ones with especially ‘wacky’ ideas), is this: please don’t tell me why ‘this would never work,’ instead, I ask you to ask yourself (and each other, if you feel like commenting), ‘what could make this work?

…And if you haven’t noticed over the last two weeks, I’ve been crowd-funding a book I wrote. You can join nearly 100 others in getting it published on StartSomeGood.com, if you want to help it see the light of day by ordering your copy now.


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Posted in campaigning and diversity and flexibility and leadership + management and power and social change and Uncategorized.

3 comments

3 Replies

  1. Hi Liam
    NHS – Building and aligning energy for change v2 Feb 13.pdf http://www.changemodel.nhs.uk/pg/cv_content/content/view/44699/network?cview=all&cindex=0
    makes some points relevant to your post – i.e. related to an approach where agreement on vision enables more “energy” and autonomy

  2. Thanks Pam! I’ve downloaded it and will give it a look! 🙂
    Cheers,
    Liam


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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.