Consultation needs to be genuine

Consultation needs to be genuine

or…

The power of listening

 During my work history I have heard the term ‘community consultation’ bandied about freely. The meaning of the term should be pretty obvious, and it doesn’t take much cogitating to understand why it is so vital a component for success when planning a policy, strategy or project. If you are wanting to reach or empower a certain community of people and engage their support and/or develop their capacity in some area, you need to really understand them first. You need to do this by talking to them, and developing a variety of means and forums in which to do this that allow this community to speak honestly and without fear or anxiety. You need to be absolutely open minded about what the community has to say, even if they are proving your assumptions wrong or saying things you are uncomfortable hearing.

Listen and truly connect
Listen and truly connect

However, I have seen instances where the community consultation strategies that have been mapped out in funding applications or strategic plans have been carried out in a way that is tokenistic, unthinking or even manipulative. The word ‘consultation’ carries with it connotations of thorough communication and having deep conversations. But I have seen people in charge of running projects who have talked up their ‘community consultation strategies’ in front of their reference groups or Boards and then, in practice, just have a few superficial conversations with some cherry picked community members, fishing for vague statements that suited their own personal agenda. Sometimes I feel as if the words ‘community consultation’ have become weasel words – words that no longer carry any real meaning, words that have been appropriated by managerial or bureaucratic types to mean anything they say they mean.

By carrying out community consultation in a rushed or insincere way, talking at (rather than to) a few bewildered community representatives, these workers or managers rob the community they are supposed to be empowering of the opportunity to be really involved with projects that should engage them. Not being listened to, in the first instance, is extraordinarily disempowering; to then have your presence at some half-baked conversation be appropriated to endorse the planning of a project that has no appeal for you or your community, and to then have that project promoted to you and your community as an opportunity for your development, just adds more layers of insult to deeper layers of injury.

Remember when you’re designing for social change – you’re not necessarily designing for people like you! – Chris Vanstone

What is behind this trend of shallow or insincere attempts at consultation? I am sure that I have seen a couple of people deliberately manipulate the community consultation process so that it gave them answers that furthered their own selfish agendas, but I think the majority of people who stuff it up don’t even know that they are doing it. I think it has to do with the fact that, as a society, much of our history of leadership and organising groups of people has been done in hierarchies, with information and decision making flowing from the top to the bottom. Even well-meaning people can be guilty of riding to the rescue of other folks in such a way that they undercut their own good intentions. Flushed with the confidence of knowing they intend altruism, they can rush in to inflict ‘solutions’ on the beleaguered that arise out of their own assumptions as to what is needed. The problem with this is that these assumptions can be based on a lack of deep understanding, and a feeling of pity rather than empathy. Thus power can continue to be hoarded by the empowered, and denied to the disempowered, and all because of a lack of will to really make the time to talk and listen. Those in authority or vested with societal privilege have got to stop seeing themselves as above or separate from unfortunate or inferior others. Regardless of the sector, the success of group undertakings relies on a flow of knowledge and empowering activity.

Empowering groups: getting a delicate balance of power just right
Empowering groups: getting a delicate balance of power just right

When designing for social change, you must step outside of your own concerns and be prepared to lay aside your own assumptions. Only by adapting your communication methods and really listening to others can you be assured of successful consultation.

I will talk about the importance of community consultation, along with other things central to starting up a project or organisation with social outcomes, as part of my workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – on Friday 24 October 2014.

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Ramblings from a self confessed structure freak

Ramblings from a self confessed structure freak

I have always described myself as a ‘structure freak’, that is to say someone who is fascinated by the shape of things and the frameworks we develop around our activities to express our ideas. When I was working as a choreographer I was as intrigued by the challenge of developing the structure of the narrative or flow of impressions of a piece as I was with coming up with the right combinations of movements.

'Sarabande pour Femme' from Receuil De Dances, dance notation by Raoul-Auger Feuillet, pub. 1700. Image sourced from publicdomainreview.org
‘Sarabande pour Femme’ from Receuil De Dances, dance notation by Raoul-Auger Feuillet, pub. 1700. Image sourced from publicdomainreview.org

As much as I am this structure freak so too am I creative, in love with ideas, my own as well as those of others. I started moving into project and business planning and strategizing via working in arts management, where I was supporting other creative minds in realising their projects even when I wasn’t working on my own.

In working with various groups and organisations in different contexts I experienced and witnessed how much power underlying structures could have. “Culture follows structure” (Craig Larman) does the rounds a lot on Twitter, and culture is not the only thing.

But the imagination doesn’t follow any damned thing and new ideas can be odd, awkward, engrossing and compelling things that take some careful handling when they emerge out of the glorious protective sanctuary of someone’s head and start getting manhandled through brainstorming sessions or operational procedures, being judged, all the while, against a context and agenda set by the structures defined by an organisation’s governance model or business strategy.

The trick is to come up with structures that define space into which new ideas can emerge, and then provide a supportive and protective framework within which these new visions can be worked on. If the structures are too rigid, tight or proscribed then any creativity will be squelched; too lax or inconsistently applied then unproductive chaos can ensue.

Getting the balance between structure and creativity can be tricky, especially when by ‘structure’ you could mean governance or business models. These things belong to the world of logic, and can seem to be opposite to the world of creativity (although some of us creative find an organic flow between the two as was the case with my own choreographic practice). I have come across both business people and artists who talk as if the two were mutually exclusive.

There is often a tension between addressing the need for both structure and creativity but I don’t believe that this has to always be an unhealthy tension. The right kind of tension can, itself, be a spark that ignites more innovative thinking and elicits intelligent problem solving. I think the answer lies in thinking deeply about both. Spend the time understanding what the glorious images on that cinema screen inside your head are really trying to tell you. Don’t treat choosing your governance structure or writing your business strategy as a tick the box activity; do your research and think about the ramifications.

My workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – is part of the Changemakers Festival. It is free and will take place at 6pm on 24 October 2014. For more information look here; RSVPs are required and you can do that here; to check out the Changemakers Festival program go to their website here. The workshop venue is at Naturalis Clinic, and you can find their website here.

Another of M. Feuillet's beautiful notations
Another of M. Feuillet’s beautiful notations
Yearning for meaning

Yearning for meaning

A couple of weeks ago I was following #TEDatIBM on Twitter, as you do, and this video from youtube was shown on the big screen at one stage:

 

You may have seen it; apparently it’s gone viral and seems to have garnered much admiration. Which is interesting. Obviously most of us are ready to admire people who find original and perhaps even cheeky ways to do things, like putting together a self-made dance clip to replace the traditional resignation letter. But I think that this video has tapped into an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with work felt by too many employees today. Future of work expert Jeremy Scrivens (@JeremyScrivens) has tweeted the statistic that 87% of employees are disengaged from their work; it is stunning to think that this many people are bored, uninspired and perhaps even unhappy with their jobs and / or workplaces.

Plenty of us will know people who find their day to day work routine tedious, or who fret that their talents are not fully utilised or recognised, or who feel alienated by an unsupportive workplace culture, or who perceive that they are bumping their heads against a glass or bamboo ceiling. I have met those, too, who seem to be asking themselves “is this all there is”, who question whether the seemingly endless quest for profit is a fulfilling enough way to spend their working lives. There are also people out there who are worried about the plight of those less fortunate, and who chaff at the idea that their current jobs do nothing to alleviate the suffering or constraints experienced by others.

Image from 'Mr Galliano's Circus' by Enid Blyton
Image from ‘Mr Galliano’s Circus’ by Enid Blyton

I find myself wondering how many of these dissatisfied employees are harbouring what I call “Run and away and join the circus” or “join the foreign legion” type yearnings. Not everyone wants to quit their jobs, and many will want to stay for the security and in the (forlorn?) hope that something will shift in their work conditions to help them bring some sense of meaning back into their lives. But there are those brave folks who would like to make a career shift so that they can do something that engages their heart, mind and souls and who envisage a life in service of deeper inspirations and ennobling values.

NOT a realistic depiction of life in the social enterprise sector, I'm afraid
NOT a realistic depiction of life in the social enterprise sector, I’m afraid

I am thinking about this a lot as I am currently fine tuning an introductory workshop to help people who want to start a social enterprise or community based organisation. During the past year I have encountered people who wish to cross over from the corporate or bureaucratic worlds into the social enterprise and community sectors to run projects or enterprises. They are doing this not just to try something new, but also to explore their talents, express altruism and give meaning to their lives.

I acknowledge that this may not be the path for everyone but I think this is splendid. Instead of giving into feelings of cynicism or pessimism, these people are daring to dream and experiment. They will bring some new energy, enthusiasm, insights and skills into a sector that is facing huge challenges and doing a lot of heavy lifting for our nation at the moment. We will all benefit from their innovations and efforts.

My workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – is part of the Changemakers Festival. It is free and will take place at 6pm on 24 October 2014. For more information look here; RSVPs are required and you can do that here; to check out the Changemakers Festival program go to their website here. The workshop venue is at Naturalis Clinic, and you can find their website here.

Recommended read: The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions.

Recommended read: The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions.

My recommended read is The brilliance of asking incredibly naïve questions by Megan Hustad. I am preoccupied at the moment with putting together a workshop I will be presenting in October called Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise in the Changemakers Festival. This workshop is aimed at people who want to leave the bureaucratic or corporate spheres and set up a charity or social enterprise, but who don’t know where to start. During the workshop I want to help these people clarify what it is that is driving them – their passions, their inspirations, the shape in their minds that their sense of altruism and / or adventure takes – and then to give them some context and some practical suggestions as to where their researches might start. The challenge for me as workshop facilitator will be in making sure that I ask the right questions. I checked my email shortly before starting to write this and found that a good friend had sent me a call for papers for a conference on “The role of design in building a competitive business advantage” which seeks to “examine how design as a strategic resource adds value to business.” She did this because she knows that design thinking – what I have been used to calling ‘my choreographer’s brain’ all these years – in business is something that fascinates me to the extent that I have been doing a lot of research on it this year. The idea of submitting an abstract made my head buzz simultaneously with terror and delight. I think I might set myself the task of developing an abstract, just for the challenge of forcing myself to get some of my observations down in tangible form. The key to writing a good abstract and paper will be to ask myself the right questions. Furthermore, I would like to use a paper to ask my audience (at this stage, hypothetical audience) the right questions. But what are these ‘right questions’. The welcome discipline of both of the above is the necessity of winnowing down my thoughts to their clearest and most essential forms. The challenge of asking myself “but what does that really mean, why am I lead to think that?” is helping me to locate and articulate ideas that have had to be teased out of years of personal history, experience in multiple work places and different sectors, and learning both formal and informal. I was looking in my scribble library today when I came across an article – The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions – published in Fortune Magazine and written by Megan Hustad. It’s a really nice piece, and discusses the need for a “questioning culture” in our workplaces where folks feel free to ask each other questions without worrying about whether those questions are too simple or make the asker look dumb. It makes the point that ‘simple’ questions can highlight essential gaps in knowledge and / or elicit profound answers. It was a good piece for me to read today because it reminded me that what I am doing right now, in putting together workshops or writing papers, is trying to find a way to ask myself the right questions so that I can ask these of others. If you want to read Megan’s piece, click here.