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helping organisations to be more like people

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‘Occupy Sandy operationalised Occupy Wall Street’

This summer I met two activists in New York City who had helped spearhead Occupy Sandy, a self-organised disaster relief effort that emerged from the Occupy Wall Street networks after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC. I wrote this piece for rabble.ca, but wanted to share the two interviews in their whole, because they were so damn good. Below is the audio and transcript of my interview with Michael Premo. Stay tuned for the 2nd interview, with Tammy Shapiro.

michael premo

Michael Premo of Occupy Sandy

Normally when I interview activists or staff from organisations and movements about something they’ve been involved with, I end up adding a ‘meta-narrative’ explaining how their story fits into a range of wider trends I am exploring. With Michael Premo, a film maker and housing justice advocate who helped kick-off a self-organised disaster relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I didn’t have to add a word.

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How things kicked-off

Occupy Sandy started the day of the storm. So there was a couple efforts happening. The sort of person-to-person effort that was occurring, was myself, a friend, Diego, Laura Schlomo, a couple other people, just headed out after the storm, to just check on people, to see what was what and what was happening and who was doing what. At the same time as our friends, Bobby and Brie, were driving out to the Rockaways and some of the neighbourhoods, Breezy Point, that were on fire. And I had a relationship with a group in Red Hook, called the Red Hook Initiative. And I just literally called them cold on the phone to see if anyone would answer the phone at their office, as we were driving down into Red Hook. I talked to them and I said, ‘Look, we want to help you help your community in any way that we can. What we can provide is the potential to be able to amplify your needs throughout our networks, so that you can identify what you need and we can support you getting what your need and support you until you’re at a point where you’re up and running and back in your normal functioning. And that became the first site of Occupy Sandy, which was in Red Hook. And then we sort of set out with that explicit intention to be able to support community-led rebuilding hubs throughout the city and we called those sites hubs.

And throughout the city we just went kinda door-to-door, and were talking to people who owned store fronts or had churches, saying ‘Hey, how can we help support you, and compliment the resources you’re getting through your networks, so that we can really work together?’

At the same time there was this sort of like emergence of people who wanted to help, and trying to figure out how to help. And so what happened was this network of little drop-off sites emerged in people’s lobbies, on their street corners where people were like, ‘well I didn’t get hit, but I have a front porch. If people want to drop of stuff on my porch or in my building, you can drop off stuff and then we’ll figure out how to bring it out to the areas.’There was one story of one girl who volunteered to do that and her neighbours got up in arms, she had no idea, her whole hallway was filled with goods that you couldn’t even get in and out of the hallway, so, people had to kinda scramble to get all that stuff into two or three carloads.

The transition to longer-term support

There was a group of folks within Occupy Sandy who understood that there are really multiple disasters; there’s the initial disaster and then there’s the long-term disaster that happens after the sorta volunteers leave, after the cameras leave, that is deeply related to the failures and ongoing crisis of capitalism as a system. And so we wanted to set up our initial, our goal was to set up the initial house with the stated and implicit intention to be able to have community-led rebuilding, so that when we got to that point when we were transitioning away from immediate relief, and into a sort of longer-term recovery and rebuilding and redevelopment phases, there would be some type of infrastructure, some type of support network, to be able to support for that long haul.So in about, I would say between December and March, the efforts started to transition from the immediate relief, to the sort of longer-term recovery.

What was the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy?

So there’s this theory, there’s this school of thought called ‘complex sciences.’ In those, one of those ideas is network theory and there’s another theory is called ‘emergence.’ Some people have written that in order to support the emergence of social movements, it’s necessary to develop a community of practice, right? Shared values, shared principles, that has a sort of like, cohesion and language and way of working, that will kind of support the further emergence of sort of, positive activity and positive action, right? So Occupy Wall Street in a lot of ways was sort of the seeds that helped create a community of practice. And what happened with Occupy Sandy is in a lot of ways we operationalized some of the more abstract ideas that were floating around Occupy Wall Street. So what I mean by that is sort of lateral, horizontal sort of approaches to, sort of, problem solving, as well as analysis, right? So if you could free up those systems of being able to sort of analyse a problem, being able to, like, strategize a problem, and being able to, like, implement those strategies, and open that up to a lateral or horizontal structure, so that you’re really supporting creativity, innovation from your community, to be able to like, really problem solve in a dynamic way, that speaks to and represents the inclinations and desires of multiple segments of your society, or of your community. It really creates the conditions to really have a robust, and really dope solution, right? And so with Occupy Wall Street, it created a cadre of people that sorta had worked together, had a working relationship, had a degree of sorta like a community around how and what they wanted to see in the world. So when Occupy Sandy hit what happened was those kind of tendencies and ideas were able to be turned into like, robust, sophisticated operation. In terms of Occupy Wall Street, I think there’s been three phases.

There’s the initial phase, which is the 53 days of the physical occupation. Then there was the second phase, which I think includes things like Occupy Homes and StrikeDebt, which sort of stretched over the year. And then you had Occupy Sandy, which really put into practice some of these goals and ideas, right?

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My new book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ available in paperback and epub now.

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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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Helping me write the back of the book

Covers and titles are very important, but once you’ve convinced someone to pick your book off the shelf, you need to have something compelling on the back that will hopefully make them believe this is a book that will make their life better in some way. So instead of just writing what I’d like to read on the back of a book, I’d like to know from you what 150 or so words you think should be on the back of Anarchists in the Boardroom. I’ve put one option below and would appreciate any feedback as to the right words to help make you want this book. Thanks!

Change how we organise. Change the world.

Social change is changing – but are our social change organisations keeping up?

Our Industrial Era structures and the ‘professionalism’ so many began to adopt in the 1980s have not lived up to their promise, actually doing considerable harm to the passion and purpose that has traditionally driven our efforts to make the world a fairer and more just place for all.

Meanwhile, the organising approaches found on social media and in recent social movements are proving better suited for the emergent realities of the 21st Century, and more closely aligned with the values our NGOs, charities, trade unions and voluntary organisations have long espoused.

This book is a journey through worker-run factories, Occupy encampments, a spattering of non-violent direct actions and even a few forward-thinking companies, to make the case for helping our organisations ‘to be more like people,’ brushing away our ‘professional’ assumptions and organising as we do when we don’t have a job description or a business plan telling us how to change the world.

Feel free to add any variations to the comments section below.

Thanks for your help!

Liam

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WE DID IT! (and a weird idea for getting you your books)

What an amazing month! You crowd-funded the book! And then some! Plus, I’ve got a funny idea for ‘more like people’ distribution, that I’d like to hear your thoughts on…

Publishing, without the publishers

Anarchists in the Boadrdoom book cover by Steve Lafler

Anarchists in the Boadrdoom book cover by Steve Lafler

While you may well know my reluctance to place too much faith in numbers, here are a few from the ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom’ crowd-funding campaign that tell at least part of the story:

  • $8,340 pledged (surpassing the goal of $7,700)
  • 161 donors (73 whom I’ve never met before)
  • 1,154 shares of the campaign page (on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms)
  • 7 blogs by others about the campaign (see bottom)
  • 8 blogs by me on others’ websites promoting the campaign (see bottom)

I am so thankful to all of you who have made this happen!

It’s the first major validation that a) these ideas are important and haven’t been sufficiently explored yet, and b) the book doesn’t need an institution/publisher to be a success.

Both of these validations are really exciting to me and seem to put us in a great place to start moving towards ‘more like people’ organisations together.

Special thanks are due to Lorna Prescott and Paul Barasi – two of the firmest believers in the importance of what this book represents.

Both of them went so far above-and-beyond what I could ever have asked of either of them, spreading the word on the campaign, that I can’t begin to offer the kind of thanks they deserve. They kept me going during the slow middle weeks of the campaign. (Lorna also did a nice Storify (see below) of her involvement, as part of capturing the story of her day, when the campaign tipped past the goal).

‘more like people’ distribution

So here’s the wacky idea I thought of last night, when I was pondering the logistics of sending out a few hundred copies of the print book, to people around the world.

Shipping to, say, Wellington, New Zealand, is not cheap. Particularly when you’re sending lots of smaller packages. But at least 9  people in Wellington have ordered copies of the book.

What if I sent one big package to one of those nine people (based on someone volunteering to receive the lot) and left them to arrange details with the others for local distribution? (Please don’t tell me you’d be worried that they would steal the extra copies…)

Maybe this could be as simple as ‘Here’s my address, drop by whenever you have a chance,’ but maybe the person I’m shipping to decides to hold court in a cafe or pub for a few hours one evening and encourages everyone else who ordered the book to come along, pick-up their copy/copies and have a chat?

They’ve already got something in common to talk about, maybe something interesting could emerge?

…It also reduces the individual costs each person has to pay for shipping.

Of course some people will prefer the simplicity of a book delivered to their front doors – which I can of course also do – but thought the potential benefits of bringing together a group of people who may-or-may-not already know each other, or each other’s shared interests in new ways of organising ourselves, shouldn’t be passed up!

Maybe they never see each other again, but maybe they learn something, they meet someone of interest, they find someone to talk to next time they’re struggling away with their own bureaucracy…

What do you think? It’ll still be a few months before we’ve edited the manuscript, done the layout and had the hard copies printed, but it would be great to get your thoughts on this idea, and see if you’d be keen to meet others in your city who are also exploring this stuff, and if you’d be willing to coordinate with others in your city, to get them their books, one way or another.

Thanks again! You’ve been amazing and I look forward to all of you being a part of the emergent process that will follow!

Liam

Here’s the blogs I’ve written:

And those others have written:

And here’s Lorna’s good day (the third good thing has to do with the book)

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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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The divisiveness of unity

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

‘We are the 99%’

Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam

Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam

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

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

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

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

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

Encouraging emergence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘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

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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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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.