more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

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Unpacking boxes

Capulalpam de Méndez is one of a small but growing number of Mexican towns that have succeeded in kicking mining companies off their lands. Many activists have tried to understand their success, where so many others have failed, and while varied, the answer usually has something to do with ‘community.’ This doesn’t translate very well into either a ‘best practice,’ or a ‘scalable strategy,’ but does hold some critical thinking points for those of us trying to make some part of the world a little bit better than it is.

Procession from Capulalpam. Creative Commons 3.0.

Procession from Capulalpam. Creative Commons 3.0.

Jen and I woke-up before 7am on Saturday, met up with our friend Yeyo and took a series of overcrowded forms of public transportation to the cold and rainy village of Capulalpam, in the Sierra Juárez mountains.

We joined a couple dozen others in the town’s church, heard some prayers, burned some incense, and headed off, picking up others as we walked from the cathedral, to the dirt road that led out of town on a steep incline. We were young and old, grandparents, toddlers and plenty in-between, walking through a mountainous forest, en route to a meeting point where our procession would connect with similar gatherings from two neighbouring towns.

These three villages were celebrating the 3rd anniversary of their collective decision to issue a 100 year moratorium on any mining projects within their territories. The decisions had been reached using traditional Zapotec assemblies, in which consensus emerges through collective community dialogue. The event was equal parts religious ceremony, political rally, community feast and intergenerational dance. One municipal president rejected the imposition of global capitalism on their traditional way of life and the head of the regional tourism network declared that, “any development that is not sustainable, is not development!”

Prayers were said, food was served, mescal sipped and dances had (the rain had trickled-out by this point and temperature had risen, as the march had descended to a lower plateau). Kids played on a swing set looking out across the mountain range, while friends reconnected with friends and bands from each of the three communities set the mood with different styles of local music. Sometime that afternoon it became crystal clear to me: THIS was why mining companies – with all the financial and political power they wield – had been unable to maintain their operations in this little corner of the world.

In Capulalpam, activism is not the fringe activity of a relative few (which often separates us from many of our own friends and families). It is also not something that exists in a bubble, independent of other important and meaningful activities – activism is simply a part of life. And say what you will about the specifics of this approach, but it has meant that in the face of deeply corrupt state and federal authorities, and a Canadian mining firm bent on sucking the last ounces of gold and silver from the surrounding mountains, the community has won and has no intention of giving in. Instead, they have opted for a mix of eco-tourism, locally bottled water and small-scale building projects, supplemented by the ‘techio,’ an indigenous custom in which all members of the town take on a range of responsibilities for countless public services, for free.

In Capulalpam, resistance is an integrated part of life and something that is as associated with community, celebration, relationships and nature, as it is with the political mobilisations we often associate it with in culturally Northern/ Western countries.

The other end of the spectrum

As far as a spectrum of social change approaches might look, our organisations are basically teetering off the other end of the line, in relation to the scene I’ve just described. Firstly, they are professional – they are deliberately separate from the personal lives, the communities, and the natural world that they are a part of. Secondly, they have taken this separation a step further, compartmentalising their professional notion of social change into so many teams, departments and specialist divisions, discouraging anything that might resemble a holistic and integrated approach to changing the world.

Let’s look at this as two parts: internal change and external change. How could we break down the barriers between those of us who are working within an organisation? And how can we break down the barriers between our organisations, and the world that exists beyond them?

The meeting point. Creative Commons 3.0

The meeting point. Creative Commons 3.0

Now let’s stop looking at this as two parts and acknowledge that the continuum of relationships that are involved in our organisations’ work aren’t really confined to the little boxes we try to pack them into, including the mythical ‘internal/external’ divide. Our organisations (whether we admit it or not), are part of various broader movements for social, political and environmental change.

What do we do that gets in the way of these relationships? What do we do that blocks the energy of people who have a mutual interest in achieving a certain kind of change, from working together, from getting to know each other, from caring about each other?

This is the where ‘more like people’ comes from. Our organisations, as they stand, get in the way of relationships, trust, empathy, communication and more. For example:

Hierarchical decision making reduces trust and responsibility. How could our organisations involve more people in decisions, as the community of Capulalpam does through the assembly process?
Rigid standards of professional behaviour make it near-impossible for people to be themselves, to build trust, to open up to one another beyond the immediate practicalities of their work. How could our work incorporate more than simply ‘the practical tasks’ associated with a campaign or service, and offer a place to socialise, bring families, share stories, really get to know each other, beyond the professional masks we wear?
Teams, departments and job titles keep us from following our passions, our interests and our strengths, forcing us to regularly underperform in fixed roles that don’t bend to the complexity of the situations we’re dealing with, or simple human changes in mood, which might mean we’d be better off doing different work on a given day. How could we drop these divisions and let individual passion and energy dictate the flow of our work?

Capulalpam de Méndez – a community of roughly 1,500 people, have succeeded where so many campaign strategies have failed. It is hard to imagine most of our organisations moving towards a more integrated approach to social change. But I’d like to challenge all of us to find something we can do to unpack the arbitrary and limiting boxes that our work is so often confined to, and see what happens if we cease to be simply staff with job titles, situated somewhere within the pyramidal prisons of organisational charts, and start to become part of a community instead…

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Bosses shouldn’t be afraid of being tougher on misguided consultants

I got pretty worked-up when I read Gill Taylor’s recent piece in Third Sector, arguing that managers ‘treat staff too nicely.’  But when I calmed down, I realised that Taylor’s analysis makes perfect sense within a few of our organisations’ most widespread, but ultimately incorrect, assumptions about people and management. If we believe the worst of our fellow colleagues, it really is time we got tougher on them!

Gill Taylor

Gill Taylor, via Third Sector

Ultimately, there is a negative view of humanity at play here – people need to be controlled to avoid bad things happening. But there’s more to it. Here are three issues that underpin Taylor’s thinking:

1. The relationship between more and less senior staff is like the relationship between a parent and a young child.
While I could pick apart the issues with applying these attitudes to parenting, think of the traditional model: ‘I know best, listen to me, you’ll be alright, kid!’
This is the first assumption that Taylor – and most of our organisations – go wrong on. Management is one skill-set; counselling those who’ve experienced abuse, or running training courses, or working with youth on the street are others. Management is not ‘superior’ to other forms of work, even if our organisations have built this assumption into their structures, taking people out of jobs they do well, and making them become managers as their only hope of career progression.
If managers are superior to others, the patronising attitude outlined above makes perfect sense. This is what leads Taylor to say things like, “Treating staff too nicely isn’t necessarily good for them,” which can only conjure memories of a 1950s doctor telling a new mother ‘if you give them too much love, they’ll become spoilt!’

2. Problems are questions of fault, and the fault always trickles down the organisational ladder
When someone acts out, when an event doesn’t go to plan, when conflicts erupt at the office, organisational culture tends to scapegoat someone as ‘the cause’ of whatever bad thing happened. Rather than really try to understand the nuance of why an event failed (Were there other events on the same day? Were there unexpected cancellations? Did we know who we were pitching it to?), or why someone hasn’t been doing their job (Were they being adequately supported? Do they have issues outside of the office that are affecting their work? Are they being bullied?), many organisations find it far easier to nail someone with the blame. The last question that most organisations seem prepared to ask about troublesome employees, is ‘why did several of us think this person should be hired?’ Managers are the reason every employee is in an organisation, so perhaps asking themselves what made the person seem employable and how they could support the qualities that led to their hire, might be a good place to start when problems arise.

3. Compliance creates accountability
If we believe points 1 and 2, compliance (or ‘getting tough’) seems like a natural response. As a manager, you are superior to your staff and when something goes wrong, it is clearly that member of staff’s fault, therefore, how can you force them into being better employees?
But like a building built on a foundation of quicksand, this third assumption also crumbles under its own weight.
Compliance offers us the allusion of accountability, but trusting people and supporting them when they need it usually gives us the real thing.
Compliance measures that try to force people to prove they’re not screwing the organisation over (like so many sign-off processes and staff evaluations), often create barriers to meaningful contribution, and encourage the very behaviour they aim to avoid.
But if we assume that people who work in social change organisations want to do the right thing, the vast majority of the time, we might find that they do it. We can address the exceptions when they arise, rather than creating structures that assume the worst of all our staff, as so many policies imply, just by existing.

Ultimately, Gill Taylor and the many who continue the tradition started by an American Industrialist of the same last name (Fredrick Winslow, for the record), have a lot to answer for. Their assumptions and ‘solutions’ are what have made our organisations so much less like people, creating hostile, adversarial relationships, where they wouldn’t otherwise be.

While my gut response is reflected in my flip on the original article’s title, I hope that through conversation and experience, consultants like Taylor can see the error of their ways and try starting their work from an assumption of human decency.

But failing that, let’s stop giving them our business or the space to promote themselves, shall we?

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The way Dan Pallotta thinks about charity is dead wrong

I’ve noticed Dan Pallotta’s ‘The way we think about charity is dead wrong’ TED talk seems to be spreading around the internet quite quickly. The title grabbed me, but the content couldn’t be more off. So I thought I’d weigh in with an alternative perspective.

Firstly, where I agree with him: many of the ways our charities work, stifle innovation.

Definitely. But his approach is to turn the charitable sector into an extension of the free market. Even with an opening in which he acknowledges that human stories can’t be monitized, he goes on to prescribe market solutions for the rest of what the non-profit world should be doing. ‘Philanthropy is the market for Love,’ he tells us, hinting at the lens he views the world through early on in the talk.

But there is no ‘market for Love,’ and markets are not where the solution lies, in my opinion. Two of his specific arguments truly irk me:

1) That more talented people go into higher paying jobs, and thus are put off working in the non-profit sectors

2) That change is best achieved by massive organisations addressing massive social issues.

Mo’ money, mo’ talent?

Just look at the most highly paid jobs in a market economy and how many of them have even a minimal social value? Conversely, how many of them have a sum negative impact on the world? The financial sector (in the broadest terms), attracts those who are primarily interested in making money – to the detriment of all else.

I don’t believe that ‘the most talented people’ the world has to offer are the ones who have laid-off so many workers in the name of ‘staying competitive,’ or who have decided that wars and climate change are simply the ‘costs of doing business.’  These actions require a certain kind of deliberate ignorance, which is not a trait civil society organisations need. Quite the opposite!

As charities begin to reinforce the market logic that you should spend your time making as much money as you possibly can for yourself, it will only reinforce the many social and environmental side-effects that such an attitude has in an unchecked free market.

The motivations that often get people working in a charity or NGO, such as passion for and commitment to a cause, or a better world, more generally, are at odds with this. They see life’s goals as more pluralistic than simply ‘get as much as you can for yourself.’ That attitude is killing our species, our societies and the planet we all call home. Infinite growth, whether for an individual bank account, or a global economy, cannot be maintained on a planet of finite resources. It is the problem.

We need different ways of understanding value and success.

Further, the kinds of university programmes Pallotta describes as producing ‘the best talent’ still seem to churn out private sector MBAs who exchange everything in the world, for short-term profits, and who have been at the core of countless broader scandals and crises. Our ‘Ivy League’ institutions are indeed part of the problem. Some may come out with their moral compass reasonably intact, but the vast majority learn to run a kind of ‘efficient’ organisation that can only see budget lines, at the cost of anything that can’t be measured in money.

Dan Pink has written extensively about costs of trying to link money and motivation, and argued convincingly that intrinsic motivation (like passion for your work) is far stronger than extrinsic motivation (like a bonus, or a high salary). When our systems cater to the latter, lots of bad things start to happen, encouraging a range of ‘gaming’ tactics, in which dishonesty becomes the norm, and the true objectives are sidelined for the short-term targets with personal self-interest attached. Basically, these kinds of motivations (Pink calls them ‘if-then’ motivators) pit self-interest against collective interest, encouraging people to act selfishly, rather than trying to align ‘what is best for me’ and ‘what is best for us.’

Bigger is better?

There’s another idea that ‘bigger organisations are more efficient, and thus more equipped to address big social ills, than smaller ones.’

But this doesn’t hold much water, either.

Big organisations seem far better at producing quantitative results, at the cost of qualitative ones. And to the point where the ‘quality’ can actually be a sum negative impact (rather than just ‘not as good as it could be’ one). Stories abound of big NGOs that have ended up doing more harm than good, as their disconnect from the on-the-ground realities of so many of their own projects, means that for all their ‘efficiency savings,’ they were actually doing the wrong thing in the first place!

Billions and billions in governmental and philanthropic funds are channelled into the sphere of aid and international development each year, but many of the problems keep getting worse. We mean well, but for all our best intents, most of those costly, large scale efforts aren’t achieving what they are meant to.

When it comes to complex social change, context and relationships really are everything. Just because something worked well in one time and place, doesn’t mean it will easily be carried over to another. ‘Scaling up’ – a notion at the core of so many large programmes – is a doomed idea, as tantalising as it can be. Organisations which try to replicate one solution, in another place, often miss the critical non-replicable factors of individual relationships and nuanced context that were at the core of any initial successes.

Alternatively, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have advocated ‘scaling across’ – a more grassroots process, in which smaller, local projects can share ideas directly with one another, spreading value where it is needed, without imposing it as a blueprint to be followed to the letter.

‘Scaling up’ comes from the kind of managerialism still taught in many of the institutions Pallotta advocates non-profits get their execs from. It is the notion that distant, well-paid ‘experts’ know better than people who are experiencing an issue themselves, how best to address that issue.

The hubris of this long-standing belief is staggering, and is at the core of why many smaller, local efforts, often do better work than larger organisations – even when appearing ‘inefficient’: people understand their own situations better than anyone else.

If you knock down those two pillars of Pallotta’s talk, I think the rest crumbles with it. What he advocates is more of the same ‘NGOs should be more like the private sector’ approach that has been advocated – and often applied, at considerable cost – to the world of social change organisations for decades.

I say no. ‘More like people’ isn’t afraid to learn things from a range of places, but the lessons Pallotta advocates specifically undermine the sense of humanity that we need more of. If we want to make more of a difference through our organisations, let’s not rely on MBAs, devoid of any ethical grounding, or large scale development projects that have no way of really knowing what’s going on at street level. We don’t have to be puritanical, as Pallotta suggests, to avoid adopting the greed that creates so many of the social ills our organisations work against. We just need to stay in touch with the values that motivate us to create change in the world.

Like what you’ve read? Help publish my book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ and pre-order it now!

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‘Are you really calling your book ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom’?!?!?!’

The title of my book isn’t for everyone. But it’s important. If references to ‘anarchism’ make you uncomfortable, please let me explain  the book a little better…

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

The initial response to this crowd-funding campaign has been amazing! As I write this, $4,670 has been pledged by 82 different contributors! I’m amazed! We’re almost 2/3 of the way there already!

But something has already come up a few times that I feel the need to address.

It’s the title. Yes, it’s bold. I knew that it wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I also felt it was important for what I hope this book will be able to be.

Let me explain.

A fair few of the ideas in ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom’ have been scattered around a range of forward-thinking management publications before. Some of them are great books! Others, pretty dull ones with some good ideas buried in the rough.

But the vast majority have one thing in common: they were made for managers.

Nothing wrong with that in itself, except that it leaves most people in an organisation out of the conversation about how things get done. Which is a problem when the many individual books are seen as part of a broader trend, alienating most of those affected by their ideas.

I associate this with two main factors:

  • A condescending attitude to those who don’t manage being unfit or uninterested in organising;
  • A sense that all power in an organisation rests with management.

I don’t believe either of these statements.

I wrote this book because I know there are countless people within social change organisations all over the world, who are interested in how we organise ourselves for good. I’ve been meeting them in my workshops and on the internet for several years now. Many of these people often do feel powerless to affect change, but don’t have to be.

I come from the train of thought that says complex systems – like any organisation – don’t change because of top-down directives. Executive decrees can be a part of the transition to something better, but often, even with the best of intentions, end up reinforcing the hierarchies they are trying to break-down.

I also believe, from experience, that people can do amazing things, when there isn’t someone there telling them what to do and how to do it.

These two ideas are deeply troubling to some in the traditional world of management – far more so than my choice of title! They challenge the field’s very reason for being!

But here’s my theory:

The radicals, who feel the most stifled and most unable to express themselves in their organisations will be the first to connect with this book. Some will be managers, many will not be. They are the ones who are mostly supporting the campaign right now.

When they get the book, I hope it will resonate and inspire them.

I also hope they’ll share it, as one friend put it after reading an early draft chapter, ‘like contraband in a prison.’

It will move around, hand-to-hand and Tweet-to-Tweet, from those who’ve been inspired by its messages, to those who they think will be inspired by them.

Through this kind of word-of-mouth endorsement, the title will become far less relevant. Someone you know, who knows you and your beliefs about organisations suggested this book to you. It doesn’t matter what it’s called – you felt their enthusiasm for it and want to explore, even if the title seems a bit out there for your tastes.

…and that’s as far as my theory goes. After that, who knows? Hopefully the conversations it sparks will help people find their own ways to help their own organisations to be more like people. Hopefully it will encourage them to share those experiences (as well as the challenges raised) with others who are doing the same (that’s what morelikepeople.com will be for).

But at first, this book really is for the radicals. They/we need it!

If the title puts you off – as it initially did my mom – focus on the ideas you’ve read about thus far that you do relate to. If you like them enough, help someone you know get past their own kneejerk responses to anarchism by explaining it to them in terms you think they will understand. My mom did this for several of her friends involved in social justice organising efforts, some of whom excitedly contributed, once they’d had her version of what the book is about. She ‘translated’ it for them.

The video below – a conversation with David Graeber, former Yale prof and philosophical lynchpin of the Occupy movement – might help you to do so.

Just because anarchism has developed a bad public reputation, doesn’t mean its ideas should be dismissed. I often describe ‘more like people’ as ‘anarchism for your organisation,’ in the sense that it places the highest faith in people to do amazing things, if they have passion and are not boxed in by constraining structures and beliefs telling them what to do. Not such terrible stuff, is it?

So if the title is bugging you, I ask you to ask yourself ‘why?’ If you’re concerned about what others will think, maybe you could play a role in breaking down their particular prejudices, in ways that only those we know and trust are able to?

Otherwise, I’m left trying to write a book for everyone, which almost inevitably means, ‘a book for no one.’ Maybe we could meet half-way and you could do some ‘translation’ for those who don’t speak quite the same language, but still want to understand the message?

You can still pledge to help the book get published

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change how we organise. change the world. (PS – we can start crowd-funding the book now)

…The title is why I’ve written Anarchists in the Boardroom and have started the crowd-funding campaign to have it published today. In the last 12 or so years of varying combinations of activism and organisational development work, I really believe this to be true. The old ways are holding us back, limiting our collective potential to create change in the world and driving wedges between people who should be working together for something better. If we change how we do what we do, our time, effort and energy may go infinitely further than the old hierarchies could ever have imagined…

The ends do not justify the means. In the name of this slogan, many injustices have been spawned, from large scale atrocities, to out-of-touch campaigns and services, no longer serving those they began operating in the names of.

Dehumanising management systems and practices – even when they are well-intentioned – exemplify ‘ends-justify-the-means’ thinking every day, sucking the life out of the people who should be most committed to their organisations’ work.

The essence of management, as we know it, lies in the belief that ‘if we don’t tell others what to do, they’ll probably get it wrong.’ But it’s this belief that is wrong, yet most of our organisational structures are built upon it.

If we truly believe in equality, we need to organise ourselves with a clear sense of equality, ensuring that all of those involved have an equal voice in shaping what we do.

If we truly believe in human potential, we need to give it the space to reveal itself, not boxing it into a pre-set job title, or measurable outcome, but allowing it to find its own path to greatness.

If we truly believe in accountability, we need to be transparent in all that we do, making sure our work leaves nothing to be ashamed of, rather than simply trying to hide away the parts of it that might embarrass us.

There is no reason why we should have to undermine the things we believe in, in order to make the world a better place. Quite the opposite! In fact, doing so is usually a good indication that we won’t get where we think we’re going.

The adoption of industrial organising models has not brought the promise to social change organisations that it did for the manufacturing process. The kinds of social transformation most of us want to see are not made on assembly lines, but emerge through the countless autonomous actions of those who care, living their values in every stage of the change process, bringing about something new through their many individual choices to do things differently.

But I believe there is a path from the institutions of yesterday, to the unknown organising patterns of tomorrow. I’ve chosen to look to social media and new social movements for hope, but I’m sure others will find it in other unexpected sources of inspiration.

I’ve written this book as my first significant contribution to what will be a varied, messy, and unpredictable process of collective change, from professionalism to humanity; hierarchy to network; control to trust.

There’s no reason the same principles that can change our organisations can’t also change our world. Think of your organisation as one-of-many test grounds for something much bigger.

When we let go of our obsessive attempts to control complex groups of people (whether organisations, or societies), we open up new possibilities and human potentials in every realm.

But like the transition I describe, this book will not be published just because I want it to be. Others will have to want it to, if it is going to get beyond my laptop.

…Which is why today is the start of the crowd-funding campaign on StartSomeGood.com to publish ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom.’ You can visit the campaign page here to pledge, or read a snippet from the book if you’re still looking to be convinced.

Pledge for a book, pledge for a bit of my time, pledge for a few copies for the office and use them to spark discussions amongst colleagues as to how you can all start living your values in the ways you work to bring about a bit of good in the world each day…

And if you’re not in a position to pledge right now, feel free to share it with anyone else you think would be interested in reading the book.

I am deeply appreciative for whatever you can do to help make this happen and wherever we take the conversations from here!

Hugs,

Liam

Pledge now!

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Book preview: Micro-managing the Arab Spring

Below is the first published snippet of ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ The crowd-funding campaign for the book will launch this Friday on StartSomeGood.com. Join the email list for updates.

Arab Spring fire, Collin David Anderson, used under Creative Commons

‘Does anyone have the authority to sign-off on this?’ (Collin David Anderson, used under Creative Commons)

Imagine the first strategy meeting amongst an imaginary coalition of NGOs involved in ‘strategising’ for the delivery of the ‘Arab Spring 2011’ program. Probably in about April 2002:

“Our vision is: ‘A series of mostly peaceful revolts across the Middle East and North Africa in the spring of 2011, overthrowing longstanding dictatorships and kicking-off a process of bottom-up democratisation throughout the region.’”

“Great. What are our targets gonna be? Have we identified strategic partners in each of the countries? What will we accept as a ‘democratic’ victory? Do we have a system of risk management? How will we measure the impact?…”

If they had somehow managed what we now know was achieved by less strategic or coordinated means, think for a minute how the follow-up meetings might have gone:

“Do we have a figure on ‘total persons liberated’ yet?”

“What if that figure goes up after the funding period is over? Think we could fudge it a bit to boost the numbers?”

“We’re probably gonna want to avoid mentioning too much about Syria in the final report… Bahrain too.”

“We’ll have to talk about Libya, but is there a way we can avoid giving NATO too much credit on that one? If we make it look like they were the critical success factor, they’ll get all the funding in the next round.”

“Can we reshape the vision statement to reflect Tunisia and Egypt more strongly? If we were aiming to liberate the whole region and only two dictators were ousted, it’ll be easy to say the programme was a failure. What if we said it was something about ‘supporting peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt’? Then we can credit the other stuff as unexpected fringe benefits of our interventions… maybe we can build the next funding app around some of the other countries that have been ‘prepared’ for future peaceful revolutions?…”

There were of course many organisations that played roles within the various uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, but there was no organisation that could effectively or meaningfully take credit for what took place in any single country, let alone the entire region.

Organisations (clearly structured institutions) have, throughout history played important roles in countless social movements (looser, larger, emergent and wholly autonomous masses of people), yet have repeatedly failed to understand the differences between the two forms.

The organising principles which underpin organisations and movements are almost diametrically opposed to one another, even if from the outside (and generally through the condensed lens of history) their aims and beliefs appear perfectly aligned.

An organisation in a movement is too often like the friend-of-a-friend at a high school house party who hasn’t grasped the etiquette of the group they’ve stumbled into. They do inappropriate things, hit on people they should know not to hit on, say things they shouldn’t say… and ultimately end up too drunk for their own good, being looked after by some sympathetic stranger who wants to keep them from getting beat-up or seriously damaging the furniture.

…Maybe that last bit pushed the metaphor a bit, but anyone who has participated in a movement without their organisational hat on knows the tension that emerges when an institution tries to impose hierarchy on something for which there are simultaneously no leaders and an ever-changing plethora of leaders coming-and-going, depending on the specifics of the situation.

This tension might be sparked by unannounced organisational recruitment drives at broader movement events or actions. It might be in the domination of organising meetings with particular agendas and aims. It could be the prevalence of a particular organisational face in media coverage or publicity, taking disproportionate credit for something which has in fact been a much broader effort.

This is not to say that people who work for organisations cannot bring just as much value, resource and experience to a movement as any of the rest of us, but that too often this requires their aims as individual activists to trump their aims as employees of an institution.

The desires to build brand recognition, to secure funding, to promote awareness of a particular agenda or individual name are practically speaking at odds with actually working towards a better world. They distract from the tasks at hand. We began by explaining them to ourselves as ‘necessary evils’ in the world of organising, until they gradually assumed a considerable bulk of our work. The tail is wagging the dog.

We have put the ‘cart before the horse’ when the structures created to help achieve change, become the institution’s primary reasons for being. Over time, almost without fail those ‘helpful’ structures end up practically at odds with the change they were meant to support – often at the point of engagement between the organisation itself, and the bigger movement that it is a part of.

Our organisations need to be more sensitive to their environments, and accept that we are guests in broader movements for change, rather than the stars of the show, as so much organisational campaigning, publicity and fundraising efforts have pushed us to try to be over the years.

Becoming aware of the ways our organisational hats might be at odds with the aims of a movement, is a critical step towards making a positive difference in this emergent world. If we want to be meaningful and constructive contributors, we need to understand the principles that help movements to thrive, even if they seem immediately at odds with the principles that have driven our organisations for so long.

As you read this, there are countless emergent social movements that could benefit from the people, experience and resources that our organisations have within their walls. Finding ways to work constructively – rather than antagonistically – with these looser networks will be a defining distinction of established organisations that remain important in the movements of the not-so-distant future.

But doing so means learning to take on some of the qualities of these looser networks…

_________

This was taken from Chapter 3: ‘The myth of hierarchical necessity and what we can do for ourselves.’ To read more, this book will need to be crowd-funded. Join the email list, ‘like’ the Facebook page, or sign-up to the Facebook crowd-funding event, to make sure you get the updates when the campaign goes live on Friday! Big advance thank you hugs for helping to make this possible! 🙂

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Scaling back our assumptions about scale: Why ‘bigger’ often means ‘worse’

A pretty, but unrelated picture from Tulum, Mexico by Jen Wilton

A pretty, but unrelated picture from Tulum, Mexico by Jen Wilton

It’s easy to equate ‘significance’ with ‘scale.’ In brief, ‘more is better… or at least, more relevant.’ The news perpetuates this, deeming something ‘newsworthy’ based on the numbers of people or the amount of geography affected, but we also reflect this in what we choose to give credence to on social media and in our lives, more generally. In government, we look to policy, far more than we look to local examples. In organisations, we look to executive decrees, far more than we do to what the person across the office is doing differently at their desk… But in doing so, we may be missing much of the really important stuff.

Relying on scale to determine significance can give the impression that the world is full of mostly bad news. Bad things can happen at a scale that good things very rarely do. A war, an oil spill, a hurricane – the impacts are huge, via almost any lens we choose to view them. But the really good stories don’t often happen in a way that affects such large numbers, all at once (and when they do, we probably have reason to be suspicious – think of the 1st Obama win, and how few of the hopes of millions were realised?).

But there’s a core issue here: We only take things seriously if they are BIG.

Think of all the small scale stories you’ve heard of really amazingly positive examples of one thing or another in the world. It may have been an ignorant idiot who posted a derogatory picture of a Sikh woman he saw with facial hair, but saw the error of his ways. Or the story of the Mexican city that governed itself for 6 months without elected leaders or police. Or the European cities that removed all traffic regulation and reduced accidents and improved traffic flow.

You probably know the kinds of stories I’m talking about. They make you feel good, but then you likely dismiss them and often forget about them soon after. The train of thought often goes: ‘that’s cool! …but so what? There are bigger problems in the world, these individual examples won’t really change anything.’

But good things are often far more subjective than bad things. We don’t all agree that the same things are necessarily ‘good.’ No one wants an oil spill, or a war to hit them. What we do want is far more varied, meaning that a great example in one place won’t necessarily be a great example in another place. Or trying to ‘apply’ a great example across a wide range of people and situations (like so much government policy, or organisational strategy), rarely works because the same approach will be received differently, from one place or community, to the next. (Read ‘Walk Out Walk On’ for an excellent explanation of ‘scaling up’ vs. ‘scaling across’).

What if we could see each of these small scale examples of the kind of world we want to live in, as reminders of the possibilities that exist all around us? They won’t look the same where we are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer a sense of hope, inspiration and possibility for us to create our own positive examples in the spaces we’ve got.

One of the biggest challenges we face, is our inability to imagine possibilities that are not part of our current realities. Because we haven’t experienced it, it seems impossible.

For the last eight months I’ve lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, a city that did just what I described above, governing itself for 6 months, without any semblance of government structure. With no police, its crime rates dropped to record lows. It only came to an end when the federal government launched a campaign of terror, just before Christmas in 2006, re-asserting control and dismantling the systems that local people had created to organise their lives together. Until then, self-organised systems were ensuring a kind of participatory democracy – while still often a messy experiment – that few of us have ever known.

But it was possible. Lack of government does not necessarily mean ‘chaos’ – people can come together and achieve amazing things without imposed bureaucracies. It may seem inconsequential to many, but it demonstrates potential, where many of us would previously have seen only a pipedream.

What about the story I also mentioned above about the guy who posted a picture making fun of a Sikh woman with facial hair. While his act was callous and ignorant, he was able to see the error of his ways. When the woman confronted him online, not with offence or anger, but with compassion, explaining why she had chosen not to remove her facial hair, as part of her spiritual practice, he was able to shift at a level many of us think of as impossible.

She did not respond with anger and defensiveness as so many of us would. He was not as permanently ‘bad’ and unable to learn, as many of us would have assumed of someone taking such a stupid and offensive action. If she can find compassion for him, and he can change, they demonstrates another often unimagined ‘proof of concept’ for the rest of us to take on.

Or what about Bohmte, Germany, where the city decided to get rid of all their traffic regulations? Traffic flow improved and accidents dropped considerably.

We often assume the worst of others, but when we are forced to really take responsibility for our own actions, and think of others in the practical choices we makes (like whether to drive or stop), we can create more effective and well-ordered systems that work for everyone.

‘It would never work here,’ many have said of this story. At some level they’re right. We can’t cut-and-paste our solutions across differences and expect the same results. But it did work there (and actually has in several other bold cities around Europe, where the EU has supported its ongoing implementation, because it has been so successful). The possibility this offers for changing how we choose to organise ourselves is immense.

Large scale systems are far too complex to often be radically changed overnight by a single event, so if we rely on scale to tell us what’s worth paying attention to, ‘good news’ will never be able to compete with a few really big horrible stories.

How many revolutions, as moments of great hope, have truly gone on to offer the kinds of change that people had expected of them?

If we can change the world, our countries, or our organisations for the better, it won’t be the result of one attempt to do so. It will be the result of many actions, almost invariably spread out over vast time and space, in which people make the choices to affect whatever is in their scope to affect, gradually connecting with others who are doing the same.

When we dismiss small scale examples of positive change, in practice, we dismiss any real possibility of positive change, at all.

What we, as a planet, want and need, cannot be captured by any single change. While a bomb or a flood will invariably be bad news for everyone affected by them, we can’t say the same of the far more subjective notion of positive change. There is no ‘good bomb’ that will spread positive effects in the ways war spreads bad ones. We’ve got to figure out what we really want for ourselves and in conversations with those that surround, and take action to make these things possible where we are.

And conversations don’t make headlines, but they are often the places where good things start to happen. I’m doing my best to give even the smallest examples of a better world the significance they deserve. If they can inspire me to see a new possibility, they can do the same for others. And who knows where they might take us? It might change the world, though we’d probably only notice retrospectively…

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To self-publish, or not to self-publish? That is the question…

At least, that’s the question dominating my thoughts in recent days. While seemingly a logistical decision that I shouldn’t be wasting any of your time with, it raises a few deeper questions I’m hoping some of you might be able to help with.

Taking a risky experiment

Can a book be 'new media'? I think so...

Can a book be ‘new media’? I think so…

My premise for this book – based on hundreds of conversations over several years, is that there are heaps of folks working in voluntary/ NGO/ non-profit settings, who have both deeply troubling stories about how many of our organisations are being run (ethically and practically), and have some gut instincts about how these things could be done differently.

Very, very few of these people have ever read a book related to management or organising practices, likely because they either seem tediously boring, or because they don’t feel they offer any prospects for change in the position they are in (whether they are administrators, or Chief Execs).

I want this book to become the beginning of an experiment, where a wider range of people, in all parts of various organisations can start talking about, thinking about, and most importantly, trying out, new ways of working for social change. I’ve done my best to make it interesting (significantly story-based), and to emphasise the potential for anyone within an organisation to bring about different kinds of change.

I hope Anarchists in the Boardroom can be ‘a management book for people who don’t read management books.’

But clearly from a publishers perspective, what I’m suggesting is deeply naive, and hugely financially risky, if it’s not targeted at their existing demographics of ‘people who read management books.’ After all, when you put a heap of money into something like a book, you need to be able to sell it!

To which I say, it may well be naive and risky, but I think it’s a worthwhile naive risk to take, given how few of the people affected by crappy, dehumanising organisational management practices, are actively involved in the conversations to change them.

Same message, different presentation and the question of niche audiences

I’d guess that maybe a quarter of the ideas in this book are ‘new’ – in that I haven’t come across them elsewhere before.

The vast majority of the content is repackaged, re-framed and re-purposed from an array of other sources and places, ranging from relationship guidance literature, to non-violent direct action tactics.

But since these ideas are not necessarily ‘new’ – i.e. – they have been published before in a range of places, I’ve had a pretty lukewarm response from initial conversations with publishers around them.

Yet one of the beauties of the internet, is the ability to re-frame ideas in a thousand different ways, none with massive resonance, but each reaching a different audience that would not connect with them otherwise. In my mind, management literature (in the broadest sense) has aimed to appeal to those who are interested enough in organisational structures to read a whole book on it. Which makes perfect sense for a business. Meanwhile, those who are simply asking questions like ‘why does the boss make so much more money than me?,’ or ‘how could we involve a wider range of people in our decision making processes?,’ or ‘why do so many decent people treat each other so badly at the office?’ don’t have a place to have those conversations.

So on the one hand, I’m looking at a potentially very small niche of ‘people interested in management, who don’t read management books, but will read this one because it doesn’t look like a management book,’ and on the other, I feel there is potential for a far wider audience than most management books tend to garner, given how common these questions are in so many social change organisations.

But given that even this niche demographic – let alone the much wider one – are not proven audiences in the publishing world, backing this book would be a massive risk, financially and reputationally.

And to be honest, scale is not what matters most to me, while it has to be for a publisher. If this book can connect w/ a small number of people, in a meaningful way, and help to articulate and legitimise their experiences, while inspiring them to experiment with new kinds of organisation, in whatever ways they can, I will be happy.

…If I can get some work off the back of it, with those who want to explore the ideas with me a bit more , that would of course also be great 😉

The pressure to write a ‘how to’ guide

Another piece of feedback coming from publishers is to turn the book into a ‘How To’ guide. But for those who’ve read my blogs before, you’ll likely see my issues with this.

I’ve been told that a How To guide is ‘what the market wants’ from this kind of book, but I feel strongly that our reliance on and expectation for cookie-cutter solutions is one of the places we’ve gone totally wrong, organisationally, and why most of the ‘solutions’ to questions of organisational change tend to leave more problems in their wake.

Context and relationships are everything – a good idea is useless if it doesn’t keep them at its core.

Thus, my writing approach has been to tell stories, highlight key principles, and trust that the readers will be able to find ways of picking and choosing the relevant ideas, and figuring out their own practicalities, for their own situations.

This may be overly stubborn on my part, but to write a book of prescriptive change would be antithetical to the ideas I want to get across.

Trying to align the process with the messages

There’s also the question of publishing in a way that fits with the ‘more like people’ values I’m advocating. Can it be ‘shared’ rather than ‘distributed’? Can I make it available for a voluntary donation, and still cover costs? Can I blur the lines between what is actually published, and where people take the ideas after they read it, through a less-hierarchical online platform connected with the book?

I’d like to find out, though I don’t think a lot of publishers would be that keen to take these chances with me.

But if you think otherwise, I’m still open to possibilities 🙂

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The Story of ‘More Like People Action Week’

Question: How long do you think it took Paul and Liam to plan the first ever ‘More Like People Action Week’? Answer: A few hours on the Sunday evening before it started.

Lorna Prescott's (@dosticen's) pic fr/ a living room work meeting she had during #MoreLikePeopleWeek

Lorna Prescott’s (@dosticen’s) pic fr/ a living room work meeting she had during #MoreLikePeopleWeek

So the first everMore Like People Action Week has come to an end!

What began as a random Tweet from @PaulBarasi last Sunday afternoon, managed to become something significantly more in the course of just a few days.

There were blogs about the week in the Guardian Social Enterprise Network and CivilSociety.org.uk.

There were over 300 hundred Tweets from over 70 people, expressing their support and sharing their ideas and actions for making their organisations ‘more like people.’ (See some of the Storify highlights further down).

There were several blog comments sharing success stories more widely, as well as links to resource and ideas that people felt were relevant to the ‘more like people’ themes…

Now I won’t pretend that this week has changed the world in any major ways, but it’s definitely done something to demonstrate the potential of some of the principles it is about.

Paul and I, with an ocean and a six-hour time zone spread between us, working entirely via Twitter, a few emails and 2 Skype calls, with nothing to back us but our own enthusiasm and that of the people who got involved, helped the ‘more like people’ ideas find their ways onto the UK national media radar, and into the consciousness of far more people than had previously known about it.

Beyond a few targeted Tweets to people we felt would be specifically interested, there was no top-down communication, not even an email list, to get things rolling. We just put it out there, approached some editors, and shared our own experiences and ideas around.

Sidestep the steps that aren’t working for you!

Has your organisation ever planned an awareness-raising or action-focused day or week around the theme of your work? Did it take more than a few hours to plan it? I’m guessing the answer is ‘yes.’ I’m also guessing that you’re not alone.

One of the big frustrations Paul and I have often had with so many organisations, is their inability to get things done, particularly within a reasonable length of time. The endless processes that inevitably need so many levels of approval make it very hard to organise anything in a timeframe that allows individual passion and energy to still play a part.

And though we might often feel we need to follow these processes, the truth is, there is always unmediated space to make things happen. Just because you could write a proposal, ask for approval, redraft the proposal, secure some budget, and allocate roles, doesn’t mean you always have to!

If this last week was about anything, I hope it was about showing that you don’t need HR or Senior Management (not that either can’t play positive roles!) to make our workplaces better than they are. There are always things we can start to improve, and you never know what kind of ripple effect they might have if we give them the chance. Individual change can encourage other individual changes. Gradually, more people acting differently can shift cultures, systems, organisations… But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – the point is we have more power than we often realise, so why not try exercising it more?

What next?

Obviously we’ve played our hand for a ‘More Like People Action Week’ for the foreseeable future, but these ideas can travel much further than they have since last Monday. So don’t let this random allocation of time stop you from helping your own organisation to be more like people, whenever you feel so inclined!

Maybe you could start your own ‘More Like People Action Week’ at your office? It wouldn’t have to take more than an email on Monday morning with some encouragement for people to share their contributions more widely, on Twitter, or a blog.

Strategy? Let it happen. Budget? No need. Approval? What for? ‘More like people’ should feel infinitely easier than the processes we’ve become so used to in so many of our organisations. I can’t think of a good reason why an employer would be against it, but if they somehow were, I can see even less reason why you’d feel the need to ask for their permission to do it. Think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate some initiative for improving the organisation, at no additional cost to those higher up!

But maybe you just want to practice it yourself, thinking of something you can do a bit differently to make your office a more human place to be? If so, feel free to comment about it on this blog, or Tweet about it using the #MoreLikePeople hashtag on Twitter, so others can be inspired or can try your action out themselves…

The next steps are up to you!

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‘Sharing, Long Tails, and Organisations that Look Like Social Movements’

Today I did a webinar for the London Campaigns Forum. The theme is ‘sharing’… but more accurately, the theme is ‘how can our organisations learn to operate more like the social movements we have seen springing up all around us?’

The talk is about 20 minutes, a bit long by internet standards, but would be keen to continue the debate on here, if people are interested.

Cheers,

Liam

…And the (much longer-seeming) text of it, for those who prefer to read 🙂

Sharing vs Distributing

Let’s talk about sharing… you know, that thing you do on the internet? With pictures of kittens and videos of kittens and stories about… kittens?

Oh, and actions to change the world! Those ones that other campaigners work very hard to ensure pop up in your Facebook or Twitter feeds at least a few times a day?

In which case, is this still sharing, or have we moved into the realms of distribution?

To distribute, as a verb, is a centralised, concerted effort to push something specific out to the masses, from a particular source, for a particular reason. Much as a distribution centre supplies many individual stores with a product to sell… Or as those stores go on to sell their customers those same products, within their locale.

Sharing, on the other hand, is a characteristic of networks – any number of people, acting independently, to connect any number of different things they value, with people they know who might also value them, no strings attached. Like you would lend a friend a book you’ve read, or tell them about an event you’re going to, because you think they’ll also enjoy it.

While often similar in effect at a certain scale, in that lots of people receive something – the ideas and motivations that underpin each of these actions are very different from one another. If our organisations want to share, there are a few more fundamental shifts they might have to make first.

When people share things, we derive some kind of immeasurable value from doing so. Knowing we’ve filled a gap, giving others the chance to experience something we’ve appreciated, or offered someone something new feels good. Others appreciate the effort we’ve made in doing so, everybody wins.

But is this what our organisations tend to do?

Maybe, maybe not.

‘Agendas’ and trust

Because organisations have ‘an agenda’ beyond ‘the share’.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At some level the agenda is as simple as ‘create good in the world’, but as all of us who’ve spent any time in organisations know, there are a lot of secondary aims that we often end of placing before the ‘change the world’ stuff. Build the mailing list, converting donors in to activists, demonstrating value to funders, etc.
We have lots of reasons why we do these things, but that’s not really the point.

Here’s why.

Hate speech, porn and credit card scams aside, the internet is built on trust.

Trust is built in a number of ways.

In an organisational sense, we associate it with terms like ‘brand loyalty’ and ‘credibility’, which are important in certain contexts, but the kind of trust that the internet is built on is something else.

It’s more like the trust that exists between friends that says: “I know you wouldn’t intentionally suggest I click a link to something you didn’t really believe that I, personally, should click.”

It’s the kind of trust that comes from believing the person offering you something has nothing to gain except the satisfaction of knowing that whatever they’re offering you has improved your life in some small way, even if that’s a matter of giving you an opportunity to do something good. There is definitely flexibility within this, in that those you call your friends can push this definition from time-to-time, without it ruining your friendship, but it’s definitely a fine balance to be struck.

And it is also a point where our organisations often run afoul of the internet, in the same way so many corporations do: people sense the bigger agenda, whatever it may be. It is not the ‘gifting culture’ that has been prevalent in most of our major religions and countless indigenous communities for millennia, and which has made a public resurgence via the social web in recent years.

For better or worse, our organisations have agendas; the strategies upon which we expect change will occur. So when we say we’re sharing, it doesn’t always feel that way to those on the receiving end.

But this isn’t an inevitability working for social change. In fact, we’re living at a time when the alternatives are all around us.

Organisations and movements

Lately I’ve been writing about the differences between organisations and movements, and why the things that help one thrive, are as likely to be anathema to the other. Two kinds of groups, working towards the same ultimate goals, but organised to do so in almost diametrically different ways.

Movements are self-directed – people joining-up around something that is immediately relevant to them, with of a feeling of shared purpose and the freedom to pursue that purpose in whatever ways they feel inspired to do so.
Alternatively, organisations are hierarchical – people following steps set out by a relative few, to achieve something that is (hopefully) in all of their best interests, on the time scales that the organisation decides.

And the types of environments that nurture each of these forms are rarely the same. At the most core level, organisations have always liked to be in control, whereas movements thrive on individual autonomy. These differences can be challenging ones to reconcile.

What can we be offering the broader movement?

And when it comes to a cause that you really care about, would you prefer to be told how you can contribute to it, or have only the limits of your own imagination to determine how you will be a part of something bigger than yourself?
While we can often offer a few cookie-cutter volunteer or ‘take action’ opportunities, we don’t currently have the organisational will to allow everyone access to everything they would need, to be completely free in how their support our issues.

…So if we can’t open our structures up enough to let people come to us, take what they need, and make something happen with it, we’re left with distributing an opportunity. ‘Here’s your opportunity, take it or… take it – it’s all we’ve got on offer!’

Whereas people can show up at an Occupy camp and run a workshop, cook some food, paint a banner or organise a march, if we shared that much control with the people surrounding our organisations, we’d probably fall apart. While it might be uncomfortable to think about it this way, the organisation is the membrane that keeps resources away from the movement and world beyond it.

How do our organisations currently compare?

Meanwhile, movements are increasingly providing both stronger democracy and accountability than our own social change organisations, and also remaining flexible enough to allow people to be a part of them, in whatever ways they chose to be.

Are we at risk of our organisations becoming the homes of those who ‘kinda, sorta care about the issues’, while the more active activists are primarily making their voices heard elsewhere?

…UK tax justice and cuts activists moving with the latest UKuncut action?

…Canadian civil liberties activists starting or joining a local Casserole (pots-and-pans) protest?

…Mexican students organising massive #YoSoy132 actions without student organisations or political parties involved, much like their British counterparts did over the EMA cuts in 2010?

While there have always been ultra-committed activists who’ve organised themselves outside of the big organisations related to their causes, more-and-more of us are able to be a part of something meaningful and collective, outside of organisations and without having to start something new from scratch. The barriers to entry for wide-ranging, independent activism have never been so low.

The activism long tail

Nearly a decade ago, Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson identified the ‘long tail phenomenon’; a concept at play in more-and-more successful businesses in the age of the social web, which describes the shift from generic to niche production and consumption.

Anderson looked at this phenomenon in relation to business models, with companies increasingly selling relatively small amounts of many different products, rather than massive amounts of a few, more generic ones.

Shirky applied the notion to activity in the blogosphere, noting that the vast majority of blog links were distributed across a vast array of blogs, as compared to the proportion that linked to the very most popular ones. Basically, while some blogs will always stand out above the others, the vast majority of blogging activity is actually taking place amongst niche communities, read by a relative few, but collectively comprising the vast majority of blogging action.
Occupy and countless other self-organising movements are creating an activism Long Tail as we speak.

While the relatively few campaigning actions we offer still have greater individual uptake than the self-organised campaign opportunities within non-hierarchical movements, the cumulative involvement of those self-created opportunities seem poised to account for the lion’s share of ‘stuff done for social and environmental causes.’
In other words, our handful of engagement options are the peak, while the infinite involvement possibilities of the grassroots movements are increasingly the long tail, where more-and-more is going on.

So where do we focus our organisational energies?

…If our organisations did become more focused on the less-active activists (at least, as they related to our particular cause), I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a bad thing. I know I’m peripherally active with far more causes, than those I am very active on. I’ll sign a petition, occasionally write an email, very rarely go to an event or action…. But I’m still glad to be a part of them, even if I’m not currently willing to put huge amounts of effort into each of them at the moment.

Those voices – which would otherwise remain quietly isolated – can and should be amplified and respected as a part of our broader push for social change. The cumulative value of sheer numbers is still a political force to be reckoned with on almost any issue.

This route would allow us to essentially keep doing more of what we’re doing; to tweak, to amend, but to broadly stick with the approaches we developed when media was a one-way broadcast channel.

But it’s not our only possible path.

As best I can tell, our organisations have a few combinations of three main paths they can choose to walk, when it comes to campaigning in the 21st Century:

1) ‘Clicktivism’ and its offline variants – enabling and consolidating the voices of those who ‘kinda care’ about what we do and would be unlikely to engage with the issue proactively without these kinds of specific in-roads.

2) Network support for the stuff that people are doing on their own; linking and connecting wherever relevant activism is taking place, and offering specific, relevant organisational resources, contacts and information to help people organise themselves, even if they are doing so in ways we can’t quite get away with.

3) Opening-up shop for people to do whatever they choose for ‘the cause’. Confronting our fear of loss of control, what if we swung open the gates and made our primary work welcoming committed activists through our literal and online doors, helping them make themselves at home, and giving them the run of the yard to make change happen, but with our resources?

The last choice is clearly the most radical and would involve the most fundamental changes; charity status, boards of directors, staffing, would all need to be re-imagined. But to put it into context, it’s not that different to some of the reimagining that has been and is being required of newspapers, record labels, and ad firms as of late, as the internet increasingly cuts out the need for a middleman.

An organisation without walls…

…So humour me for a minute and imagine that the metaphorical walls of your organisations were torn to the ground. You can keep your jobs, but they’re about to get pretty different.

  • For one, there might be a whole lot of new people there. They might be using desks, holding meetings, building campaign props, working on unrelated projects which have a loose connection to your organisation’s campaigns. But they are as welcome there as you are – from the scruffy hippies, to the business people, they are all parts of the movement that your organisation is lucky enough to call home. There will still need to be collective efforts made to reach out to those who wouldn’t naturally walk in through an open door, but an open door would be a positive step to widening the demographics of those involved in our work.
  • For two, those people might be able to make proposals on how money is spent. Perhaps there’s a democratic forum where a range of activists make these kinds of decisions? Participatory budgeting is working for local governments around the world, why not for us? The resources are for the cause, and ‘movements’ don’t have strategic direction to worry about, in the same way our organisation used to. They pay attention to what’s going on around them and continually respond, based on the circumstances.
  • For three, the organisational logo, brand, and name might become open-source, available to anyone who cares enough about the cause to want to use them. ‘X’ org might start popping-up in all kinds of places it never used to, but you can always just defer to whoever was responsible for what was put out there, if people’s actions for your cause should come back to haunt you… Plus, activists usually do things for the right reasons; if we don’t have this much trust in how people would use our brand, we might have deeper problems to address. But that’s the stuff for another talk altogether…

Now these are just a few random examples of what might change. If we open-up what we’ve got and trust people who care enough about our issues to get constructively involved, I suspect they will do the kinds of amazing things we’ve seen them doing with the social movements beyond our walls.

This is sharing: opening our doors and saying ‘we trust you enough to take what you need’.

If that was that a bit much…

The second option is considerably less out-there, but would still involve a fair bit of re-thinking and re-prioritising. While some of our organisations have tried to position ourselves as ‘hubs’ – i.e. – right in the middle of networked activism – we might be better-off if we went for the more realistic role of ‘cross-pollinators’. What if we re-envisaged ourselves as the people who helped connect activists and moved resources, information, and maybe even funding around a network, as it was needed at a particular moment?

We would stop issuing press releases, stop speaking to the media, stop building the capacity of activists, and start buzzing around our movements, sharing a bit of value from A) and a bit of value from B), with C), or putting out a call whenever a request came our way, to allow others to step up and have their voices heard. We would make every effort to slip into the background and help ensure other people were front and centre, other actions amplified and other campaigners connected directly with one-another. We wouldn’t feel responsible for every little thing that happened in the organisation’s name, any more than we would feel responsible for everything that happens in the name of our cause, more widely, today.

Outsourcing radicalism: Is this a possible stepping stone?

Now, as I’ve been preparing this talk, an interesting action appeared on my radar from London – you might have seen it.
Move Your Money – a campaign encouraging customers to close their accounts with the high street banks and transfer their funds to somewhere more ethical – shut down a Westminster Barclays, as Bob Diamond, the bank’s disgraced and recently ex-CEO was speaking to a Treasury Select Committee about his banks interest rate fixing practices.

Now in a period of occupations and encampments around London, this isn’t that noteworthy… except when you look at the people – or more notably – the organisations, that back Move Your Money.

…The Co-operative Bank, NUS, the New Economics Foundation, among others. All good, established organisations, but not the kind you’d expect to associate with non-violent direct action!

Knowing people personally within each of those organisations, at one level, I’m not totally surprised. But knowing a bit more about each of the organisations themselves, I’m stunned to find their names even hidden in the background of this MYM action.

But maybe they are opening up another possibility? An in-between step from the top-down organisations of the past, to the looser networks of the future?

By part-funding a separate company, are they relieving some of the fears of their own funders or stakeholders, freeing them up to use organisational resources for something they couldn’t do on their own, or with their logos plastered all over?

I’m not sure, but it seems to me that there is an experiment going on to see how these organisations can adopt both some of the radicalism and more of the networked self-organisation that have been a part of the kinds of campaign successes that are coming from outside of our organisations more-and-more regularly.

Getting past the risks

I’m sure we could talk all day about the risks associated with these new approaches; all the potential media faux pas, the attempts to explain things to funders, the very real possibility that we couldn’t control how our cause was advanced… but my feeling is we could spend even longer addressing that which is at risk if we don’t start to shift how we work in some pretty major ways. Namely, the risks of stagnation, and even potentially irrelevance.

Sharing is one sign of the ways our world is changing, but broadly speaking, our organisations are not.

What can you open-up to offer the widest range of opportunities possible for campaigners to take action for your cause? In geek-speak, what is the ‘source-code’ of your campaign, and what would happen if you made it public, like so much of the open and free software communities have been doing since the 80s, and which offers some very different models of how we relate to our work?

If we want to keep distributing things, I’m sure there will continue to be a role there, but if we want to really share what we do, let’s start to find the parts of our respective organisations we can open-up to make it possible.

Thank you for all your time – for putting up with me talking this much, and for the conversation that I’m sure we’re about to have.

Also big thanks to a few people who helped me out a lot while I was preparing this talk – Paul Barasi, Veena Vasista, David Pinto and Adam Ramsay.

If we don’t all get a chance to say hello now, I hope we can connect on the internet later!

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