• Is it okay to talk about power?

    In this work we do, where organizations are delivering services to marginalized populations, and where intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs are trying to bring change, power is a real problem. We all know it and wrestle with it. When the music stops and we are exposed as having it, a near panic sets in. How did we end up with it? How do we pass it on? We become instantly flustered and self-conscious, sensing a challenge to our very legitimacy. Which it is. We confess we need to do better, even if we’re not sure how, though perhaps we do and can sketch out our plans or intentions. And the moment passes. Sort of. Because no matter how often the music stops, we always seem to be holding it.

    In my world of support to adults with intellectual disabilities, this gets even more complicated. People without disabilities are ultimately controlling and managing the affairs of those who have disabilities because those receiving services usually struggle to understand what’s in their own best interests, and what sorts of things/behaviours/conditions will advance it and what will harm it. The more someone in our services understands their own needs and how to meet them, whether immediate or existential, the more organizations are supposed to empower them (I was going to say, “return their power to them,” but many haven’t had much power to begin with). The less understanding there is, the more organizations hold power. It’s more complicated and nuanced than that, but that’s the essence of it.

    It’s why my hackles rise when I hear service providers talk about how persons with disabilities and their families drive their services. I have never seen it. Ever. A sprinkling (or even a majority) of representation among board or association members doesn’t translate into real power. Being survey respondents, focus group participants or advisors is not decision-making, and it pertains to only a fraction of the thousands of decisions that are made daily. If anything, such roles and tools can defend mediocrity more than drive services because “people seem satisfied” and “this is what they choose/want.”

    Decisions that have to do with persons with intellectual disabilities are frequently proxied to others: parents, siblings, front line workers, managers, legal representatives, etc. Even disability rights and empowerment movements, and disability pride, are fundamentally spearheaded by allies without intellectual disabilities. Because these sorts of undertakings require sophisticated political, cultural and linguistic strategies, as well as the ability to plan and resource them. From a civil rights perspective, it’s a surreal dynamic. And precious little discussion of it, which I find equally surreal. Probably because no one likes to talk about the extent of the power they actually wield.

    To make things worse, even were service delivery associations to give up power and control, they may still be on the hook for what happens. They are legally, contractually and ethically responsible for the wellbeing of those they support (and immediate needs get priority over higher-order ones). Letting others decide what is going to happen, while still being accountable for the result, is hard—especially when associations can be sued, censured, or lose funding, and employees can be disciplined and/or dismissed. Layer on top of this the fact that we are dealing with complicated systems that require consistency and predictability, that are required to submerge variability and individuality in order to universalize processes, and the culture of control that emerges permeates everything. Of course, this is a broad stroke analysis, and there are lots of exceptions and deviations, but I think this is generally right. 

    So what to do? 

    First, I think we need a much more sophisticated and practical discourse around power. Both power and freedom are too often regarded solely as ends and not as means. Freedom to do what? Power for what ends? To answer that question we need a moral framework, and I am inclined towards one that posits human self-actualization as that end. Or, in Paulo Freire’s words, “the completion of being.” No one can achieve someone else’s actualization; we must each pursue our own. Without our own power, without the freedom to pursue such an end, we are prevented from achieving it. We are dehumanized. And those who hold onto that power are inhumane.

    But what happens when people face circumstances wherein their freedom and power works against their own completion? When they don’t really comprehend what constitutes self-realization or how to go about achieving it? Or when they are so wounded, or so misused, that they would choose their own ongoing annihilation or desecration? When one’s circumstances are so severe that overcoming them, and self-overcoming, seems impossible? When people are not really free at all, despite the formal ability to act? Is the imperative to ensure that they still have the power and freedom to determine their own path, or is the imperative to intervene—to take away someone’s power and/or to assert our own in order to safeguard a being that is at risk of disintegration? Because we hallow it, even when it does not, or cannot, hallow itself. 

    This is a fraught question, I know, and any answer is brimming with danger.

    That said, I think that sometimes power is legitimate and what is called for is neither social judgment nor tokenistic maneuvers, but a clear ethical framework for how power ought to be applied and when it ought to be ceded. If our work adopted a moral-existential framework which had human fulfillment as the end, and which recognized that people required their own power and freedom as a means toward that end, then we might find grounds for both exercising institutional power and to challenging it. 

    Too often, the way power is wielded is oppressive, dehumanizing and humiliating. Even though it comes with offers of intervention and support, it’s not necessarily constructive. Systems can reduce people to their immediate needs and fail to see them as humans in search of purpose and fulfillment. In endless “helping” mode, organizations may fail to see what others have to offer, and where there is no reciprocity there is dependency and shame. Where interactions are transactional rather than relational, the self is debased (for everyone in those interactions). Depending on the amount of exposure to this sort of thing, people can internalize the way they are seen and treated. As Foucault showed us, when people internalize the gaze of others, when they see themselves as those with power see them, they learn to oppress themselves. 

    I would argue that the problem here is less that these systems have power (they will always have some sort of power), and more about how they are using it and what results from it: are they benefiting or endangering the being of those they support? This is how we would know whether the possession or exercise of power is legitimate or illegitimate. Does it advance being or diminish it? Does it lead to purpose and agency or to stagnation and surrender? Does it expand possibilities or shrink them? 

    Whether or not this sort of position resonates with others, I hope it at least gets us talking more openly and critically about power. It’s the elephant in the room, the poison in the chalice, the hot potato that no one wants to talk about. And I think it’s problematic when there is so much at stake that we can’t openly talk about, and when right-thinking or wrong-thinking seem to be our only options.

  • Finding An Alternative to “Success-Failure” Speak

    Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward (John C. Maxwell)

    Some problems remain problems because of the language we use to frame it. And quite frankly, “failure” sucks.

    Being successful is something we all want in our lives, and failure carries a weight of shame. Sublimating “failure” as “learning” is a conceptual convolution. We’re not wired to think that way. Failure is about inadequacy and culpability—if we really thought it was about learning, it would have more profile in our presentations and conferences. Instead, we skip the “failing” part and jump right to “key learning,” which is to say, what have successful people learned about being successful?

    “Failing forward” is a psychologically discordant word combination. If we experience failure as inadequacy and culpability, then failing forward produces psychological analogues of forgiveness, redemption or overcoming. Learning becomes a remedial outcome rather than a primary one—we’d rather we hadn’t failed, but now that we have, let’s do our best to learn from it and move on. Some of us would rather just put it behind us—try to forget about it or cover it up with future success. It’s usually painful.

    Design methodology and prototyping may prove an exception wherein failure is a “small-f” word that applies more to single occurrences of an iterative series than to the whole series. In such cases, the designer has been conditioned to regard these small failures as logical and practical precursors to creation. But I speculate that even designers may struggle with the “large-F” failure of a series of iterations, when a line of development has to be killed, and wonder whether there were lapses in their insights, intuition, creativity, skills or methods.

    “Fail early and fail often” because no one wants to be responsible for a colossal failure. The consolation of small failures is that it mitigates the risk of having a major one. But “failure” is still a contaminated word and I think it’s unfortunate that we have tied it to experimentation and innovation. If we used “testing forward,” no one would blink an eye because testing implies uncertainty and experiment, and because it’s primary function is learning. “Failure,” on the other hand, implies one has completely and utterly screwed up. Within an experimentation context, some failure may come from sloppiness, and some from hunches that simply don’t get traction—but conflating the two is the problem. They are not both “failures.”

    “Failure wakes” might be construed as a therapeutic ritual to purge shame, find humour in screwing up, and/or to salvage some learning. But it’s typically only successful people who take the stage—those whose wins are a little more widely celebrated and who enjoy established reputations. We want to learn from successful people who have failed, not unsuccessful people who have failed, because the former is alchemy and the latter is the spectre that haunts us. But even the occasional failure wake is a trickle compared to the tsunami of demand for successful case studies. That is telling.

    And let’s face it: successes are rarely successful.

    They almost always fall short of how they are being represented, especially if it is a solution to a complex problem. Truly innovative solutions are often messy. They consist of things like burnout, conflict, instability, sloppiness and haste, strategic blunders, bad hires, bad management, paper-and-tape prototypes, naiveté, serendipity, bad timing, good timing, casual-but-significant influence from others, etc. But we don’t tell those parts of the story—we talk about linear historical development, defined roles, particular activities and outcomes. Barriers overcome. Creative ideas made real. Powerful partnerships. Gumption. Why? Because we want to be inspired and because those telling the stories are expected to have something inspiring to say.

    But if the frame is “success,” and if the story is alleged to be a description of what is true, then there is a problem. Most of us are a little cautious about what people claim as true because we’ve been around for a while. We’ve seen enough gaps between rhetoric and reality, including our own, to know that we’d be naïve to be so easily taken in. Plus, it’s hard to believe that others have nailed it so perfectly and deserve acknowledgment while we are still struggling. Why them, anyways? Why hasn’t our work been noticed? It’s fertile ground for peevishness, pettiness and sabotage. People who may have peeked behind the curtain of someone else’s success, or who have heard rumours of what lies behind it, or who feel threatened by them, are sometimes only too happy to provide a counter-narrative and let the air out of the balloon. And we all feel a bit deflated, even resentful, but not really sure why.

    The frame of “success” is not helpful because it’s not accurate, because it constricts the range of available learning, because it suggests completion, and because it can foment disillusionment, unhealthy competition and envy.

    I’d like to propose a different word-pair, something a little closer to what I think is actually happening: something like Aspiration-Trying. I don’t know if that’s quite right, but it’s something like that. In other words, “x” is what we are aspiring to do, and “y” is how we are trying to do it.

    The stories shared by presenters are not the full stories, and nor are they exactly “true.” Neither are my own stories, even though I believe in them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are being hypocritical or deceptive or pretenders, or that they haven’t accomplished something potent, interesting and unique. Their stories have been mischaracterized as descriptively true“success” stories rather than something aspirational that has been given concrete form; an act of reification. Will and imagination transmuted into form and content.

    These aspirational stories are neither quite fiction nor non-fiction but have a mythological structure—one part historicity, one part personal experience, and one part yearning. It’s like an archetypal quest, a risky journey to create a better world, and it’s saturated with the truths of human experience—there is loss; there is overcoming; there is destruction and creation, capriciousness and tragedy, prosperity and beauty, a little luck and a little fate. And now there is a song sung about it, because it is a quest that stands out from other quests. The facts may be sketchy, or selective, but the truth is still manifest: a bold yet all-too-human undertaking to reshape the world. Something interesting is happening.

    Aspirational stories are stories about intentions-made-real. When told, they are meant to inspire us and to teach us even though they are imperfect and incomplete. They reference new things in the world, new journeys, and invite us to find some meaning and inspiration from it. There will be takeaways, not born of capital-s “Success,” but of accomplishments and struggle. Making these stories visible is important because they provide exemplars of new approaches, perspectives, and languages, and because they illustrate what sorts of solutions might exist, what sorts of strategies and methods might be applied, and what forms they might take. There is a lot of good learning to be had, both for those who are reflecting on their own journey as well as for those who are open to hearing about it.Everything is on the table for learning because everything is about trying to do something. It’s not just how one overcame some obstacle or other.

    These stories are worth paying attention to, though they mustn’t be confused with success. If a person tells a success story as a success story, and wants to write his or her own song, one invites a different kind of scrutiny. Truth has an uncompromising standard, after all, and there is the risk of being regarded as a braggart or a fraud and to have one’s good work ignored (unless one nailed it, of course). But if one acknowledges one’s stories as aspiration and effort, one is released from the tyranny of success and truth-mongering. It can be a triumphant story while also messy, unfinished and imperfect. Because that is what a quest looks like. And anyone who sees that as failure or unworthy is in the wrong business.

  • Prototyping from the Inside-Out

    It’s not that I’m not a believer, it’s just that it’s hard.

    I work for a social service organization (posAbilities) that has partnered with two other organizations (Kinsight and Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion), to invest in social research and development. We call ourselves “Degrees of Change” (DoC) and hope to publish something of a declaration or manifesto this summer around the sorts of pivots we think are needed in the social services sector. We’re going to try to open up a window on our efforts and what we think we’re learning—stay tuned!

    We also have a sister organization in Ontario (West Neighbourhood House) who has been at this for as long as we have (about 4 years). And there are other organizations coming online with Grounded Space who are making similar investments in social R&D. InWithForward has been provided guidance for this work, and it has resulted in learning and results unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

    So we’re grateful for that. But it’s hard. Really hard.

    Here are just some of the pain points.

    1. Resources. We’re not funded for social R&D and we’re not private corporations; we’re charities. We don’t have drawers of cash, and even if we did, there would be an expectation that those monies would get spent on concrete service needs and priorities rather than on an R&D process that has no explicit outputs or outcomes. There is extraordinary pressure to address exigent needs rather investing in processes that might shape the future.

    As you know, there is no government infrastructure for social research and development, so we have to cobble funding together however we can—grants, loans, lean administration budgets, etc. And because sustained funding isn’t a given, it adds stress because it means that everything we build feels fragile and vulnerable. It’s like we’re building sand castles as the tide comes in.

    And it’s so hard on our leadership teams. They were stretched long before social R&D happened. Their other responsibilities meant workweeks that regularly exceeded 40 hours. It’s no easy task to run programs or organizations, never mind retooling and repurposing them. Getting involved in social R&D adds 10 – 20 hours a week to schedules. It’s not sustainable, but what do you do when there is a vision and an imperative, but no funding? You do what you can.

    1. Pace. There are a lot of roles, processes, and structures that comprise an organization. Especially if it has been around for a while. It needs time to make things work—re-allocating resources, recruiting internal teams and freeing up some of their time, aligning incredibly busy schedules, sorting out internal and external messaging, coordinating logistics, etc. And of course, none of these pieces are static when we are iterating the R&D model itself. There is a steep learning curve for organizations and it takes time to do R&D properly.

    Organizations require at least 5-year time bites for undertaking social R&D, not 1 – 3 years. Short-term funding puts pressure on organizations to go through an intensive R&D process that chafes against multiple organizational and regulatory systems and functions. It burns people out and builds resentment. There is an urgency to produce something worthwhile before the money runs out, something that would justify the need for social R&D and associated expenditures. But it means 5 years of work gets compressed into 2 years or less.

    To compound this, the learning/iteration cycle that we do manage to eke out is too long. A single cycle of research, analysis, playback, idea generation and prototyping can take several months to over a year. That’s too way long. The cycles should be shorter and there should be more of them. But so far, it’s been hard to make that happen. The problem doesn’t lie with the method itself, but with the need to conduct it at a pace that is both effective and that is manageable by organizations. We haven’t found how to do that yet.

    1. Communication. Leadership and managers are accustomed to knowing what is going on in their agencies, what sort of decisions are being made, and the rationale behind them. Rapid-fire iteration means completely new directions or 180’s can occur in a relatively short period of time (hours or days). That is hard to take in high-risk, high-accountability systems. Leadership/managers feel constantly behind and may feel slighted or upset that they haven’t been part of important decisions or iterations. Or wondering why some people were somehow involved, or knew, but not others. They worry that perhaps they haven’t given their best, or been sufficiently available. If only they could keep up. They want to contribute and open doors, but they can’t flip the pages fast enough.

    Change is hard to take, especially when it is happening in one’s backyard and one doesn’t feel in control of it. “When did that happen?” “Who decided that?” “I thought we agreed/were told we were going to do ‘x’—why are we talking about ‘y’?” This is only exacerbated when research, playbacks, decisions or iterations produce a “problem” for the organization that make more work for leadership/managers and which may require them to go into damage control mode.

    Such problems are bound to occur when local and quick decisions are part of the process, versus consensus or authorization, and when the method itself is about surfacing gaps in one’s agencies, questioning conventional values, roles or practices, and when it is not a system-managed process. This sort of thing triggers an impulse to better manage R&D processes so that these problems don’t occur, so that there are clearer processes in place that will prevent their recurrence. Which, of course, is a hazardous approach. Once R&D processes become the legitimate subject of systemization, it is hard to know when to stop; there is so much clarifying, structuring, and cleaning up that could be done. But then, not being on the same page with everyone else, not knowing what changes are happening, not knowing who knows what or has been part of what decision, is hard.

    It is hard enough to explain what we are about to our internal and external stakeholders—how much more so when everything keeps changing? Things like our learning, hunches, roles, models, prototypes, narratives, etc.

    1. Culture clash.The cultures of social service organizations are about predictability, consistency, quality and control. The culture of social R&D is about interrogation, emergence, creativity and experiment. Social services are complicated and interconnected systems that require skilled managers, navigators and adjustors. Social R&D requires fearless questioners and makers. Social services try to avoid problems, eschewing mistakes that add more work/trouble to an already stressful environment; social R&D encourages and requires lots and lots of failure. Social services is about nurturing and supporting one another and celebrating what is done well; social R&D is about naming gaps and pain points and mobilizing against the status quo.

    The very concept of “innovation” has a structural prejudice against what exists—that it is somehow insufficient, inadequate, and needs to be improved upon and/or surpassed. There is an inherent tension between what is on offer and what is being envisioned—how this unfortunate tension is handled is critical because, done poorly, it can alienate employees and teams who are doing excellent work.

    At some point, leadership will face a threshold around their personal and professional comfort levels. How much interrogation can they tolerate? How much unpredictability? How much emergence? How much change and upset? What is required to run an organization is quite different than what is required to disrupt it.

    All to say, it ain’t easy. Even though everyone knows it’s important.

  • Problematizing Scale in the Social sector (Part 3): Process v. Products

    This is the last, I think, in a series that critiques our preoccupation with scale, especially within the social sector. It’s not that scaling is a bad thing, it’s just not nearly as simply as it’s being portrayed. In this last piece, we argue that because the social sector is deeply relational, the conditions under which solutions emerge are as much part of the intervention as the solution itself, and that this is what gives it legitimacy. Further, in those rare instances where charities and non-profits do engage in rigorous social R&D, the result may not themselves be scalable because the specific contexts of the work are unique. More importantly, there are qualitatively distinct characteristics of human-centered design and co-creation that resist scaling, especially when compared to traditional top-down pilot programs that are wholly baked within the system and don’t involve users until it comes time for program enrolment.

    Some of these characteristics are as follows:

    1. Relational legitimacy. Contextual research, especially deep immersive methods such as ethnography or cultural anthropology, are deeply curious epistemic dispositions that build rapport and credibility between local representatives of “the system” and user groups. The representatives are not problem-solving, counselling, or imposing a professional narrative; they are paying attention. When people spend time with users groups in their everydayness, across programs, contexts and time, the stiff conventional roles are discarded and authentic connection and relationships emerge. These relationships, rooted in vulnerability, goodwill and trust, are the cornerstone to whatever solution emerges.
    1. Method as Intervention. Human-centered design and co-creation are exceptional examples of promoting self-determination and person-centeredness because they invite user groups to articulate the problems and to shape the solutions. This invitation, this empowering of an often oppressed and disempowered population group, is itself a powerful intervention. It is part of the final product and yet cannot be scaled when the solution is exported to other jurisdictions.
    1. Ownership. These methods create a sense of local ownership because stakeholders have participated in the solution from the very beginning. It is a community solution, one wherein professionals may have played a role but they are not the sole owners. The moment the system undertakes to scale a solution that has been birthed under such conditions, it presumes the conceit of ownership and users in new jurisdictions are again relegated to the role of helpees who can enroll if they qualify. Unless there is some sort of adaptation methodology that allows for a transfer of ownership, the solution will belong to the system, not a community of stakeholders.

    When a solution is grown in a local context and then scaled to a different one, there is a presumption that the solution is discretely bound such that it can be extracted and replicated without any loss of fidelity. This is rarely the case in social services.

    For starters, the new context is probably anything but receptive; it could even be toxic to the solution. Organizations, their employees and user groups will likely experience any new program or service, even ones that are not particularly innovative, as an imposition from without—as yet another example of those with institutional power blundering into regional complexities. The prevalence of wariness and mistrust between most governments and service organizations, and between organizations and user groups, can salt the soil against any program replication–especially if it signals a future trend preferred by decision-makers, or if it is associated with having to give something up/closing other programs.

    More importantly, the originating conditions involved methods, competencies and relationships that are essential to solutions taking root. Unless the new jurisdiction has these characteristics, it is unreasonable to think that any scaled solutions can be adopted, adapted and continuously iterated. Instead, as suggested in a previous post, the solution will be “frozen” in some form that won’t be particularly well adapted to local conditions, and which, when introduced, will exacerbate misgivings around agendas and applicability.

    The social sector is heavily relational. Irrespective of the expert knowledge, competencies and credentials that are brought to bear, such characteristics are virtually always mediated by relationships. Too often, these relationships are saddled by dynamics that are not particularly constructive—where power accrues to the professional, deficit lenses prevail, and the relational binaries are restricted to humiliating ones of helpers:helpees.

    Involving user groups in defining the problems and outcomes, and developing solutions and testing them, changes power dynamics and relationships. It becomes an integral part of the intervention. In those rare instances where co-creation does occur, we cannot assume that the solution that emerges can be disentangled from its origin, from the relationships and processes that gave it birth, and embedded in new sociopolitical and relational contexts.

  • Inviting Arts & Humanities into Social Services

    This piece of writing was first produced for the Centre for Welfare Reform on August 23, 2017. I am republishing here as I am hoping to advance this topic in a series of experiments and writing over the next while.

    From June 12-14th 2017, we spent time with Exeko, an organization in Montreal that uses the arts and philosophy to advance social change. Sounds esoteric and highbrow – but it wasn’t. It was the opposite of that. It was about reclaiming our collective humanity, and with it, recovering a more productive ground to our work. Too often, the social services sector gets stuck on basic needs – food, shelter, clothing. Safety. Getting By. Coping. Our craft has been about supplying that stability.

    But somewhere, we lost sight of the deeper things.

    Beauty. Meaning. Hope. Mystery. Love. 

    We forgot that these things are perhaps more basic.

    Without them, we cannot live.

    Without them, the other things merely prolong our deaths.

    The arts and philosophy are ways we have always tried to uncover, recover, create and cultivate meaning. Perhaps it is time to bring them into our everyday practice. To see if we can blend it into our professional codes and training, our protocols and strategies. This shift is about asking whether we might do more than feed and clothe the body, but whether we might also feed the soul, nourish the imagination, strengthen the spirit, and engage the intellect. This shift recognises that the levers of change lie less in things, and more in how we see our world and ourselves.

     June 12th

    At the Museum of Vancouver, and against the beautiful backdrop of an ocean inlet and the North Shore Mountains, about 100 people gathered to hear how the arts and humanities might assist them with the change they want to see in the world.

    A couple things stood out from this presentation.

    First, the notions of intellectual marginalization and intellectual emancipation. The former is about how our assumptions around people’s intellect inhibit us from having important conversations with them. This includes not inviting them to participate in problem-solving and idea generation, even when the subject-matter is about them. We assume that “proper” reflection and analysis is beyond their grasp, and we dismiss their sensibilities, wisdom and experience as flawed, or not material, or not relevant. In this way we condemn them to powerlessness. And, in our conceit, we don’t invite critical perspectives to help us understand and navigate complexity.

    Intellectual emancipation occurs when one is able to overcome the things that are holding one intellectually captive. This recognises the essential role that thought and imagination plays in dislodging the yoke of oppression–to understand the shape of the barriers within ourselves and within the world, and to cast our vision past them. It enables us to discern the gaps between what is and what could be, and to become active agents of change. There can be no overcoming or self-overcoming if we are unable to problematize our circumstances nor imagine our possibilities.

    When one is intellectually marginalised and treated as intellectually inferior, it is impossible for intellectual emancipation to occur. One is not invited to criticize, construct or negotiate our institutional norms and social conventions. When we assume the intellectual inferiority of the people we serve, we strip them of voice. Of power. Of their futures. In this way we diminish ourselves as “oppressors,” and we diminish the greatness in “other” and the world.

    Second, the notion of the presumption of intelligence. This is not a philosophical or scientific proposition; it is an ethical posture. It is a conviction that (1) all intelligences and perspectives matter and are needed to co-create a better world and (2) emancipation is the moral rejoinder to oppression and (3) treating others as intellectual equals–that is, as persons whose perspectives, sensibilities, and experiences are just as relevant (and irrelevant) as others–expands the possibilities of self and world, which is morally preferable to restricting them.

    Where notions of intellectual inferiority are imputed, intellectual marginalization prevails, and possibility is severely constricted. The Pygmalion effect means that people internalise and perform the perceptions we have of them. When we treat people as inferior, which is how perception is manifested, they come to embody those preconceptions and the possibilities for themselves and their role in the world are greatly attenuated. When we treat people as equals, their possibilities greatly expand. One disposition shrinks opportunity, one opens it up. What does our duty require of us?

    Sure, someone could always ask:

    “suppose there were ways to definitively measure all aspects of intelligence? Wouldn’t we then have to concede that some intelligences are superior or inferior to others? In such a case, wouldn’t we need to dispense with the presumption of intelligence and realign our attitude to recognize the fact that some people might be less intelligent than others?”

    The answer is: “I don’t care” (regarding perfect scientific measurement) and “no” (regarding the attitude adjustment). It doesn’t matter.

    The deficiency that matters is around inclusion, not intelligence. It is a choice whether to organize the world along superior and inferior lines, or among lines of equality. When we choose the latter, we grow possibility, inclusion and the foundations of a democratic society. When we legitimize marginalization as a natural and logical state of affairs, we dehumanize and disempower others, and our society is the poorer for it.

     June 13th

    With this as background, what are the implications for the disability sector? With some leaders and thinkers from disability organizations, we parsed through what the implications of this might be for us.

    The first observation is that this notion of shifting practice so that we can more intentionally address deeper needs such as meaning, beauty and hope, is neither a criticism of what we do, nor a replacement for it. It is completely complementary. Our work until now has been important work. Critical work. At the same time, the focus of the social services sector on basic needs has created the gap that small organizations like Exeko are trying to address. Can we create a model in BC that infuses arts and philosophy into our everyday practice so that we are addressing both basic needs and the deeper ones?

    Once upon a time, our organizations were among the champions of change. We stood with families to close the institutions and turn social conventions and expectations on their heads. Can we do it again? And what would our role be?

    Certainly, it is not our role to intellectually emancipate others–that is an absurd pretension. We can only emancipate ourselves. However, we do have a role in constructing the conditions under which people can have opportunities to pursue self-overcoming and empowerment, to pursue beauty and meaning. But what is that role? Is it just about getting out of the way? A resourcing role? A credo? Pressing for systemic shifts in practices or assumptions?

    Every locality is different–each has it’s own history, it’s own collection of people, assumptions, values, protocols, norms, culture, etc. This is, in effect, is its terroir. What is the terroir of British Columbia, and the disability sector more specifically, that will allow experimentations to fill the gaps in our present system? Our intent is not to simply import Exeko’s approaches and to transplant them into our local context. The context is so different, they may not take. Rather, we should be thinking about what would make sense in BC and what would be more readily nourished, adopted and/or spread. What is the soil of our system, and what can be more readily grown in it?

    In Exeko’s context, it made sense for them to become event-peddlers. They were not delivering services, rather, they were showing up in the contexts of services and prompting completely different conversations. They opened up space to talk about things like story, music, and justice–not accidentally, or on the fly, but with forethought and intent. They brought in subject-experts to participate. Over time, attendance grew, self-expression grew, everyday conversations changed, culture changed. People changed. This should not be surprising. While the meeting of basic needs keep us alive and safe, it is the confrontation with beauty, meaning and love that summons us to our lives. That instructs us in our own value and worth. That urges us to wrest back control from the people and things that are stealing our futures.

    Can we introduce something like this into the context of our services, though preferably not as a traditional sort of program or curriculum. Can professional staff, rather than observing these conversations, convene them? Can the people we serve convene them? Can we fill the gap with something different than what usually fills gaps in our professional systems? For example, do we need to assign a trickster role within our organizations (a character in aboriginal mythology that disrupts norms and conventions and prompts change)?

    And where better to begin than with the language of “disability” which captures and ensnares people, which makes them, represents them, and situates them in a specific sociocultural context? Language is powerful; it is a power that the ancient spell-casters intuited. Today, within the disability context, it is our social, academic and professional Institutions that cast the spells of making and unmaking. Is it time to invite our poets, musicians, story-tellers and philosophers to make the incantations? To teach people with disabilities to become their own spell-casters? Is it time to be enchanted by new meanings? What if we invited them to reflect with the people we serve on language and identity and to create new meanings, new inflections, richer nuances? There is much ado on identity and representation politics within the academic literature and popular media, but persons with intellectual disabilities are severely underrepresented in those arenas. Do we bring arts and philosophy to bear, first, on language and identity? Self-discovery, excavation and creation?

    Lastly, we will need to keep evaluation in mind–it’s a tricky thing. How do we measure culture shift? Social transformation? Emancipation and opportunity? Are there ways to get at flourishing and happiness (yes, though they may be onerous). That said, what matters to whom, and how we count it, is often about power and politics. Can we see evaluation less as a funder-driven requirement, and more of a means of enquiry that helps us to detect patterns around shifts in identity, emotions and wellbeing? And over time? Can we avoid the philosophical debate between positivism v constructivism (and the rabbit hole of what is knowable and how), and take a pragmatic position that focuses simply on learning and growth in individuals?

    So, what next? 

    It seems that we are agreed that it is time to address deeper needs, and that to do so, we will want to draw from the wisdom of the arts and the humanities. Do we begin with a creed? An invitation? Another conversation? Or do we each undertake to try something ourselves or within our organizations, something that adds light to our path?

    While the existential imperative to live fully must not be held hostage to a planning process, but must be answered daily, the more that we can plan and strategize together, the better hope we have of being able to create abundant conditions for human flourishing.


  • Searching for Chaos in the Chaordic Design Process

    “Chaordic” is a term coined by Dee Hock to refer to the state of optimal equilibrium between chaos and order. Too much disorder (lack of rules, policies, procedures, etc.), and employees don’t know what they are supposed to do or how they are supposed to go about doing it. Too much structure, on the other hand, produces a rigidity that stifles creativity and initiative. Both are demoralizing for employees. Both squander talent and opportunity.

    Hock recommends a “chaordic design” process that will establish this equilibrium and that will result in fostering a dynamic and thriving organizational ecosystem. That process goes like this:

    1. Everyone getting crystal clear about the purposes of the organization
    2. Establishing principles that will support those purposes, and which provide a framework for decision-making
    3. Identifying the participants/stakeholders who should be considered as a result of those purposes and principles.
    4. Determining and establishing the organizational concept [or structure and functions] that will best deliver on the purposes and principles.
    5. Establishing a constitution that embodies all of the above and which details everyone’s rights and duties and the nature of the relationship between participants.
    6. Develop the suite of practices to achieve the purposes of the organization.

    Because everyone is participating in these exercises, and because they occur over long and/or intense stretches of time, Hock believes that they will produce a sense of internal coherence and trust that will produce the right environment for both cooperation and competition, for following the rules and exercising creativity and initiative.

    In this blog I argue that the chaordic design process is really just a recommendation for an optimal ordering process. It does not contain any mechanism to sustain the tension between order and disorder over time, nor is there any test to know when that equilibrium has been lost, nor is there any corrective process for re-establishing that lost equilibrium.

    1. Both the purpose and principles are processes that bind employees into a unified and coherent direction. The principles are the criteria against which decisions are framed and action is judged. But principles are curious things. When they are highly entrenched it is less about coherence and more about conformance. And it is a more insidious kind of conformance than conformance to practice. Breaches to principles or values are far more serious because it is a threat against the purposes and collective meaning of the tribe. They are characterized less as performance errors and more as ethical shortcomings. They invite judgment and censure. Employees who question principles or who don’t observe them can become ostracized, stripped of career advancement opportunities, and/or terminated. This only drives deeper cultural conformance. It does not supply a space for plurality or eclecticism, and it does not legitimate the existence of constructive tensions.

    When principles are mostly dormant and are not enforced, it may be because the organization recognizes complexity. Of the hundreds of principles and values that may be called upon to support “purpose,” it is unrealistic to think only a handful are sufficient, or that the decisions being made across the organization are not informed by myriad principles and values. The insistence of conformance to a handful of principles is also dangerous because it can legitimize a particular ideology or the appropriateness of ideological entrenchment.

    In establishing a binding sense of purposes/principles, chaordic design provides for potent coherency and order, but it does not create conditions to nurture their opposites. Should there be a principle around questioning principles? Around drawing from other values or principles when the purpose calls for it? Or, when there are higher purposes that are greater than an organization’s purpose? Are the principles something to inform thinking or are they absolute? Should there be routines to regularly challenge/question them? Are there additional principles that should be swapped in or trialed? How do we know when the purpose or principles have become too dogmatic and restrictive? What do we do then? It can’t be simply about establishing a new set of principles or we are just making an adjustment to the ordering process.

    1. The constitution, organizational concepts and practices help to order operational processes in order to deliver on the purpose. They are about adding “the right kinds” of structure—policies, processes, functions, etc., that will serve the purpose pronounced by the collective. None of these processes introduce any inherently destabilizing mechanisms or functions; they are all about consolidation. In time, as it goes with organizations, there will be accretions of structure—more policies, more procedures, more roles, more codification of how the parts relate, more practice definition, etc.

    The natural predilection of systems is towards order. Policies get written and amended, they don’t get unwritten. We add to our processes and procedures, we don’t eliminate them. We introduce more and more training regimens, communication protocols, and labour rules. Getting better is about getting clearer; it’s about consistent practice. It’s about saying more, not keeping quiet. Whatever the stated purpose and principles of organizations, the systems that underpin them have tacit values around predictability, consistency and control, and this is what they are driven to achieve. How else can the purpose be consistently and excellently achieved?

    There is nothing intrinsic to Chaordic Design that answers this tendency. It speaks more to what sort of ordering process will give an organization a great start, but it fails to recognize the forces and currents that drive increasing order in systems, and it does not recommend measures to countervail them.

    I like to use the analogy of an empty room to signify a start-up organization or project. The tendency is to fill it with functioning furniture (mission, purpose, values/principles, roles, policies, procedures, practices, etc.). Once you begin, three things happen: (1) the furniture has a rebound effect on setting the possibilities and culture of the space, (2) the furniture determines what other furniture is needed/missing—logical concomitants that reinforce the shape the organization or program will take, (3) the furniture keeps coming until the room gets too cluttered to move. I suspect this trend is unavoidable, but chaordic design does not slow the trend of cluttering the room, it doesn’t introduce random furniture that can provide creative tensions, it doesn’t recommend culling of the clutter that accumulates, and it doesn’t throw a switch that tells us the room is a disgrace and it’s time to start over in a new one.

    It is interesting that to be human is to experience oneself as a contradiction. These contradictions lie at the heart of religions and the humanities. We are free and not free, divine and fallen, body and soul, animal and moral beings, etc. We have conflicting needs, desires and beliefs. The lack of a sense of a coherent self results in anxiety. How shall we act under such circumstances? Yet while these tensions are features of being human, we do not tolerate them in our human systems. They are emphatically resolved or ignored. This is probably why we see pendulum shifts in organizations, sectors and industries—because we cannot occupy the space in between. The trick, the greatest trick of all, will be legitimating angst in organizations. It will be about:

    • learning to erect enough structure, but not too much
    • providing the necessary clarity, but leaving behind the necessary ambiguity
    • everyone being a little unhappy and uncomfortable, but understanding why
    • managing through a combination of standards and curious conversations
    • having guides to one’s job but not instruction manuals
    • preserving the balance between techne and experiment.

    Unfortunately, while “chaord” is a useful metaphor with which to think about organizational dynamics, and while it recognizes the need to sustain the tension between order and disorder, “chaordic design” does not supply that equilibrium. It doesn’t confront the ordering forces at work within human organizations and it doesn’t know how to guard against them. While ad hoc solutions may be proffered by some of the more thoughtful practitioners, they are not integral to the process.

  • Problematizing Scale in the Social Sector (Part 2): Different Economies

    Social innovation discourse has a persistent intoxication with big, scalable ideas. But in our mind, social innovation has patterned itself after idealized private sector models without critical discernment about what might be applicable and what might not. One cannot simply supplant “financial return on investment” with “social return for investment” and then run a social proposition through the same private sector mechanisms. The ecosystem is different. The ends are different. The market is different. While the private sector provides reference points with which to think about social innovation strategies, they ought not to be applied wholesale.

    For starters, the validation of goods and services in the free market lies in the demand for them. The more a service is purchased, and the more purchases are sustained over time, the more that service is validated. In the social economy, because the government is the customer and not the end user, there are different market implications and effects:

    1. The needs of service recipients do not completely align with those of governments’ and service providers, and yet those receiving services are excluded from the transaction. This bizarre omission in the demand and supply chain presents a material aberration from what occurs in the free market economy. The intended customer—those accessing services—are disempowered rather than empowered, and the experience is often one of humiliation as there is no reciprocal exchange of something of value.
    1. It becomes trivial to say that services are validated because there is a paying customer (government). A social return on investment is different than a financial one and consists of different validation criteria. What are the outcomes? What is the impact? And yet, program evaluation is notoriously inadequate. The things that usually get counted are things that don’t really get at effectiveness or impact at all—things like satisfaction surveys, number of hours of service, number of consumer touch points with a service, etc. Outputs and efficiencies tend to be the measurements of social service systems, while a better life is the hope of users. It is no wonder that existing solutions don’t respond to user needs and yet still persist.
    1. The urgency of the problem is confused with a demand for existing services. It is a confusion that occurs frequently in the minds of service providers and funders. The desperate need for solutions, even when paired with capital flow, is not a validation of the solutions already in place.
    1. Demand is artificial because end users are driven to only a handful of solutions (versus nothing at all). The volume of people in services produces a false sense of service validation—something that is only exacerbated and exaggerated when there are waitlists.
    1. An extensive and uninterrupted flow of capital into the social sector diminishes the imperative to innovate—especially when an ecosystem is developed and consolidated around this capital flow (policy, procurement, delivery, accountability, messaging, etc.). What is the urgency to innovate when the taps are always on? During periods of budgetary contractions, agencies tend to apply political pressure to get funds to preserve the status quo, rather than re-imagining solutions. Concerns over system sustainability begin with the assumption that the system is working; it just lacks sufficient funding. Rarely, if ever, is the generative question asked: “ought the current system be sustained?”

    The absence of a social R&D function means that the imperative to innovate is unlikely to come from within. Irrespective of where that imperative comes from, there is little or no in-house competency to deliver it. These are key reasons why there are so many static programs and services within the social sector.

    These conditions in the social economy can make the scaling of solutions particularly hazardous. This is because they are more likely to be adapted to the needs of existing institutions and their interconnected systems, which will all have a role in shaping them, rather than to end-users. They are more likely to be appropriated and adapted to the very system(s) they are supposedly disrupting.

    Further, when a solution is scaled-out, it needs to be codified for the purposes of replication—purposes, policies, procedures, employee roles and training, and so on. This codification only hastens it along the conservation continuum and, without any capacity or competency within the host organization to meaningfully iterate, evaluate or embed innovative solutions, it will quickly come to resemble the sorts of familiar offerings we see in our social institutions—offerings that are rigid, unresponsive and requiring reform. Scaled solutions in the social services are at risk of ossifying quickly, which means they will more quickly become part of the problem rather than being part of the solution.

    Unless an organization is prepared to firewall the new solution and develop a secondary operating culture and system (organizational policies, processes and roles)—one that is designed to specifically support and iterate the new solution—then it is likely to be ground down within the machine of the system until it resembles every other sort of program or service. Creating that secondary operating system is a Herculean task because not only do organizations have an imperative to achieve consistency and continuity, but they exist within a giant ecosystem where funders, regulators, licensors, labour and accreditors are invested in achieving some form of collective stasis or equilibrium, to become collectively coordinated and coherent. Attempts to shake up the status quo bump up against countless systems and sub-systems such that, after decades of consolidation, there is very little room left to support genuine creativity or novelty. It is in this context that we are contemplating scale. It should be no surprise that those who try to be creative within complicated systems typically must do so “under the radar,” because it requires non-compliance with one or more sets of rules.

    In sum, the conditions that legitimate scale in the free market economy may not be in force in the social economy, and the conditions in which scale is achieved in the social economy may actually neutralize the effectiveness of the solution.