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helping organisations to be more like people

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Facilitating organisations?

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

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Image fr/ www.create-learning.com/

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

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

Old news

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

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

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

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

Facilitating organisations?

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is facilitation the new management?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Growing Anatomy of a Human Institution v0.1

growing human institutions‘Human institutions’ are groups that have come together in significant numbers for a common social purpose and maintained a collective focus on the human relationships (within and beyond their limits) that have helped them to flourish. Most of the institutions we know – whether in the public, private or voluntary sectors – seem to have buried these relationships under an array of forms, policies, chains-of-command, jargon and other often-counter-productive formalities, claiming such structures are needed to enable growth. Too many have lost track of the ways people – unmitigated by institutions – interact amongst each other, inadvertently pushing away those less-familiar or comfortable with such structures and preventing new ideas from emerging within their ranks.

Some, however, have managed to strike the delicate balance between growth (financial, geographic-reach and otherwise) and the combined value, passion and diversity of the people that make them up.

This blog is an ongoing attempt to capture some of the recurring themes which seem to be at the core of organisations that have been able to maintain their human element, while still expanding their staff, their income or their remit.

Through the contributions of all and any who are concerned with ensuring the institutions affecting our lives are innovative, adaptable and inclusive, this document will expand on the basis of your feedback and get regularly re-posted in its latest incarnations, gradually taking on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’…

Here are the first 5 traits of a human institution I’ve chosen to highlight:

1. Flexibility
A rule is only as useful as the willingness that exists to break it, when needed. Sadly, this sentiment is often lost in organisations. The tendency to standardise everything – often benevolently, in the name of equal opportunities and fairness – creates a system that seems to prevent anyone having any advantages over anyone else, but which ends-up excluding people on the basis of its rigidity and the inevitable diversity of potential users’ circumstances.

Though rules are invariably created for good reasons, they all have their limitations. Human institutions recognise these limitations and ensure their staff are empowered to have significant flexibility to adapt to peoples’ circumstances as needed, even if that sometimes means cutting against standard protocols.

2. Mutual trust-based accountability
Accountability is far too often a one-way process that is tied to existing power-dynamics (between funders and funded groups; managers and staff, etc) which seem to assume the worst of the people told to prove their worth. Micromanagement attempts to prevent any method someone could imagine to cheat a system. As more regulations are imposed, people’s ability to work/deliver objectives is hindered by the time spent justifying how their time is spent. So they find alternative (sometimes less-ethical means) of satisfying those imposing these regulations… and no one wins.
Alternatively, being trusted gives people a strong sense of ownership and responsibility over a situation. As does a power shift that allows those traditionally held to account, to also hold their counterparts to account simultaneously. In strong human relationships (the kind that provide the greatest results, in both personal and professional settings), accountability is both trust-based and mutual. In human institutions this is also the case.

3. Autonomy
Linked to the concept of ‘trust’, is that of autonomy. The assumed practice of hierarchical management structures makes it far more difficult in most organisations for people to pursue creative and new ideas. Though a balance must be struck to achieve organisational objectives, rarely is the space given for staff to work autonomously, towards the organisation’s broader aims, but along a newly-emerging path.

Like with trust, those who feel they have room to determine their direction, often give more than those who have their direction pre-determined by someone with superior rank. Broad organisational objectives give staff more space to work to their strengths, than narrowly-defined outputs and outcomes which too often ignore the involved individuals’ passions and abilities.

4. Experiential diversity
Diversity is important from more than an equal opportunities perspective, and applies to organisations beyond the more-easily measurable differences of race, gender, religion, etc. Having an experientially diverse staff and volunteer team (of individuals who have taken different paths to ending up at your organisation) is crucial to a human institution in two other significant ways:

1) To give newcomers approaching the organisations from the outside, the sense that both people like them and a range of different people are welcome and accepted;
2) To provide a greater range of opinions and internal debate, than a group of people who have had very similar experiences in life tend to, encouraging new ways of working.

As James Surowiecki explains in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, even if a minority opinion in a group proves incorrect, “the confrontation with a dissenting view, logically enough, forces the majority to interrogate its own positions more thoroughly.” This has in itself, been found to improve decision making processes in human institutions.

5. Plain communications
The language we use to communicate and promote our work has huge consequences for the people who take it in. Many organisations seem all-too-keen to create new words and phrases and see if they can push them into circulation, without recognising that each additional piece of jargon can serve to push away someone not already ‘in the know’. Human institutions realise that effectively communicating messages and ideas is more about simplicity, than it is about complexity.

If you’re interested in discovering what you can do to create a human institution in your workplace or organisation, register for our new 1/2-day workshop in London, ‘Seeds to Grow a Human Institution’!
Register for Seeds to Grow a Human Institution in London, United Kingdom  on Eventbrite

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NAVCA, jargon and a good move towards more human institutions

This morning, I was glad to see that NAVCA – one of the English voluntary sector’s national representative bodies – had declared on their homepage that “to help us explain the work of our members and the difference they make, NAVCA is changing the language we use,” abandoning a handful of specific terms that mean very little to anyone who doesn’t work in a national voluntary sector umbrella body, or specific parts of government.
BritVolSecjargon

A simple, but important message

This is a declaration that likely received little interest from most who have come across it – who cares if NAVCA is no longer referring to ‘Local Infrastructure Organisations’ (sometimes woefully abbreviated to ‘LIOs’), or ‘the third sector’? (Please let me know if you think I need to write a ‘what’s so wrong with jargon?’ prequel post…).

It is unlikely to be an announcement that receives a lot of attention, but is an important one, nonetheless.

We’ve known the problem exists for some time now…

For years, staff in (mostly) large voluntary organisations, have regularly discussed the problems of ‘jargon’ in the sector; namely how it tends to confuse and exclude, more often than it actually allows us to articulate an idea more clearly and succinctly than we could with more regular language. It seems to come up at nearly every conference and workshop involving national and larger local and regional organisations, and within countless internal organising meetings at these same organisations, yet, if anything, both the quantity and frequency of the use of jargon, seems to be ever-increasing.

Why is this? If there is recognition of the problem (namely, that the people we are trying to reach and support are unlikely to know what we are talking about), than why don’t the organisations that perpetuate its usage, just stop using it?

NAVCA are starting to do just that. There are still countless bits and pieces of meaningless English (beyond the handful that NAVCA have found are ‘no longer fit-for-purpose’), that seem to find themselves scattered throughout the sector’s internal and external reports, press releases and promotional materials, but this is still an important first step.

A little more action…

Until now, many of the largest membership organisations in the sector, have ‘talked-the-talk’ about the evils of complex ‘in-crowd’ language in a sector that is meant to be all about people, but have often continued to accentuate the problems and divisions raised by continuing to use phrases and acronyms like ‘hard-to-reach groups,’ ‘CENs’, ‘regional infrastructure consortia’ and ‘BAMER’ without explanation.

Subconscious jargon

Having found myself uttering these terms myself during my time in larger organisations, I can understand how perpetuating the language becomes subconscious. As a former colleague told me, who asked a friend to proof-read a document for its readability and was encouraged to change several phrases in it, “I thought everybody knew what that meant! I don’t even realise when I’m using jargon anymore!”

And though it was a significant realisation for this colleague, many of the people we worked with, and many of those who worked in other organisations like ours, were unlikely to have ever even questioned the terms and phrases that so many people find so utterly baffling.

So NAVCA’s move is a very much welcome one, to say the least; it is the first time (I have been aware) that an organisation of that size has taken concrete steps towards making their work more universally accessible, and though there is still much work to do to make many large voluntary organisations more welcoming to a wider range of people, this shows us that if there is a will, there is indeed a way to make change happen.

Ask your mates…

My colleague’s example is one I have often shared with people in organisations who struggle with recognising when they are in fact using jargon. The test is usually a simple one: get a few people in your life who know as little as possible about the work you do, but that you can trust to give you honest feedback, to proofread public documents before you make them public. Though not a silver-bullet, people who exist outside of our immediate circles can be much better sounding-boards for this kind of feedback, than those embroiled in the same language we become so used to in our day jobs.

Jargon is one of a range of ways that institutions become ‘less human’, and thus less-accessible to people not used to dealing with them. Changing the ways we speak and write can be an important step in changing the kinds of people our services, events and campaigns can reach and involve. Congratulations to NAVCA for sticking their collective neck-out and taking a stand against the overuse of jargon which so often separates people and institutions that exist to serve them.

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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.

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