‘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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3 thoughts on “‘Scale up’ your empathy, not your ‘pilot initiative’

  1. Thank you for your comments and for your link Peter!

    What does that mean for global development?
    Well a lot of what stands in my post is directly targeted at global development too. And the implications that I see are:
    – A lot of global development has to focus on interpersonal dynamics and how we are able to work with each other, understand each other, and more generally function collectively – by learning the techniques that lead to collaboration and developing our process literacy
    – This also means that we have to connect with peoples’ inspirations rather than jump straight away into the ‘what are we solving here’ which tends to be the focus of too many development organisations
    – So instead of coming up with the manipulation that comes from the external agendas imposed by the Global North (or West) we need to focus on the inspiration and needs from the people that are supposed to be the ‘beneficiaries’ – and actually start by seeing them as the lead actors or at the very least partners of their of their own development, rather than beneficiaries

    So yes that might mean that a lot of global development organisations need to move away from their current approach and agenda to do that mental shift. But it’s a more profound change that pervades to all areas of our life. Global climate change is affecting everyone, not just developing countries and development cooperation work for instance.

    And in that process, what the article you shared pointed out (“But manipulation involves deliberately using such influences to hamper a person’s ability to make the right decision – that is the essential immorality of manipulation… For it is the intention to degrade another person’s decision-making situation that is both the essence and the essential immorality of manipulation”) needs to be unpacked by healthier approaches to collaboration and collective problem-solving.

    What do you think? How does this resonate with you and what are your own thoughts of how global development needs to change its approach?

    Ewen

  2. The question is what are the implications for ‘development cooperation’ (assuming that that is still the realm for which this blog is meant?)? To me it means we need a major paradigm shift in ‘development cooperation’. And maybe in a way globalisation and social media are already showing at small scale (‘a punto’) how to go about it. It may mean the end of most (large) development agencies or at least a profound reorganization from agency to networked individuals, whereever they operate?

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