‘Scale up’ your empathy, not your ‘pilot initiative’


I always felt there was a problem with scaling up.

And this week it dawned on me much more clearly what the problem was.

For a while, I thought that while the activities of a given initiative could not easily be scaled up, perhaps the conditions in which they were taking place could be scaled up.

But this week I just went through an amazing and mind-boggling training course on Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration offered by Community At Work.

And what this has taught me is a gazillion of things. But among others, more to the point for this post:

  • Even for a pilot project, the process literacy of people involved in multi-stakeholder collaboratives is usually quite limited
  • This means their ability to think at all kinds of levels (from the ‘here and now’ all the way to the ‘big picture’) in relational terms may be quite limited
  • And it also means their ability to understand group dynamics, how long it takes to create a safe space and what it takes to build and earn trust may be limited
  • Which means their ability to plan realistically for such multi-stakeholder collaboration is also very limited – among others because they may not be able to visualise the intensity of collaboration required throughout the process (and certainly on some crucial moments)
  • And that translates into vastly unrealistic plans that want to achieve big picture goals over ridiculously short periods of time with minimal resources that are mapped on a (calendarised) timeline that fails to represent the true time investment that all of this represents
  • And at the same time these people may – at least at the onset – not be very receptive to revising these vastly unrealistic expectations towards a much more realistic (and also costly) approach that would actually mean something and ensure that whatever investment reaps some real returns
  • And not only that, but also because of typical interpersonal dynamics of conflict and mis-communication, lack of listening skills and of a learning attitude, it becomes starkly daunting to dream of a multi-stakeholder collaboration taking off nation-wide after three of four large meetings in a given area?

How can this fallacy of scaling up, over and out not be doomed even after a very successful pilot initiative?

Before I move to a more optimistic piece of this post, let me also add a distinction here: Our world is still largely dependent on world views inherited from the XXth century – the century of large scale engineering (think massive war machines, the revolution of transport, space conquest, all the way to IT engineering of the network of networks, the Internet, and much much more)…

The Cynefin Framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

The Cynefin Framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

So is our view of social initiatives too often still: we can engineer social change. Firstly I think we simply CANNOT. But in any case you also don’t go about scaling up a social initiative the way you might scale up a large engineering initiative (ie: expand production line, replicate and roll out at larger scale).

Scaling up an engineering initiative is a very complicated matter. But it can be done, with the right amount of expertise and resources (money).

But there are simply too many factors at play in the complex realm of social initiatives to readily scale them up without a serious investment in time, trust, capacity and a host of other things.

The Cynefin Framework reminds us that we in the complex realm we have to deal with emergent approaches, responding to what we sense. And that is thus one other inherent limitation to the unrealistic expectations of social initiative ‘upscalers’.

Now: despair not!!

What this week’s course also taught me, is not to despair, is not to give up. The world is indeed full of examples of successful complex social initiatives (from Gandhi’s Salt March movement to Black Lives Matter, from the advent of social security to the creation of the United Nations Organisation… there is a plethora of inspiring initiatives to follow).

Our trainers even invited us to not only not despair, but to take our destiny in our hands, without waiting for benevolent billionaires, superminds or charismatic leaders and enlightened nations to show us the way.

Donald Trump mural (Credits: Matt Brown / FlickR)

Donald Trump mural (Credits: Matt Brown / FlickR)

The social of social change starts with our immediate vicinity, with our family, with our friends, with our neighbours, with our communities, with our networks. Our everyday activism is the only thing that gives us better chances to rebuild the social fabric that is destroyed by the ugly cynicism, egoism and malintentioned stupidity of the big and small Donald Trumps of this world.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, We are the 99% (5 of 27) (Credits: Glenn Halog / FlickR)

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, We are the 99% (5 of 27) (Credits: Glenn Halog / FlickR)

So let’s rethink how we want to ‘scale up’ social change. Let’s go slowly, let’s do it thoroughly, let’s knit our networks locally, and let’s bring the fire of our intentions globally. If there is only one meaning to keep from the current doomed equation of

Pilot  >> Scaling up

…it is that intention to pilot our lives, to take control, or co-ntrol, together. And to scale up our empathy, and then our process literacy, capacity, drive and effectiveness in joining hands and working collectively on fixing some of that misery in the world.

What are we waiting for?

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