Complexity on purpose – Participation, platforms and power

This article is the third in Firetail’s series on making strategy in social progress organisations.

It explores three recurring themes in our conversations with our clients – about participation, platforms and power – and draws five practical implications for people trying to make an impact in the world.

Our first article in this series argued that the traditional model of “doing strategy” isn’t working for most charities and social progress organisations. The challenge facing these groups is to move from “strategic planning” to “strategic thinking”.

But as our second article argued, this is really hard in practice.

In the summer, we brought twelve senior charity executives together over breakfast. They shared their thoughts about strategy, the real choices they were facing in their roles and some of the new approaches they were taking to “making strategy”.

This article tries to put some of those challenges in context.

Why is strategy for social progress so complicated? 

Participation, platforms and power are important because society has changed tremendously in the last 30 years.

We won’t attempt to do a full landscape analysis, as most of these big changes – in society, technology, demographics, globalisation, politics and the economy – are well documented. Other issues, such as the challenges of fundraising and cuts in public funding, fall particularly hard on charities and others dependent on voluntary income.

However, four trends that have particular impact on social progress organisations are worth noting, because they raise fundamental questions:

People are organising themselves

People are engaging, mobilising and organising themselves in ways and speed we haven’t previously seen, largely facilitated by technology. This is fuelled by a highly values-driven generation of young people with a strong sense of agency. Greta Thunberg’s school strike for climate, the Hong Kong protests, Extinction Rebellion and the student-led anti-gun rallies in the US are just some examples. In a world where people are more likely to live their values, social progress organisations have to think harder about what they add to the conversation. Will your organisation become irrelevant, like travel agents and other middlemen?

Globally, the space for civil society is closing

Paradoxically, whilst people are more likely to express themselves, organisations such as CIVICUS Monitor and Freedom House present repeated evidence of a shrinking civic space, and retreat of democracy and freedom almost everywhere in the world. Most social progress organisations are grounded in fundamental assumptions about rights, democracy and freedom of association that cannot be taken for granted. What does your organisation need to do if this “operating system” for civil society is under threat?

The interaction between the public and third sector is complex and unstable

We’ve written before about how the boundaries of the state, business and civil society are blurring. Nowhere is the complex relationship between a charity and the public sector more apparent than in a developed country like the UK. The “proper” role of the public sector and the charity sector in most areas of UK life is a question better answered by an understanding of history than any fundamental principle or distinction between the two. It seems in lots of cases this relationship has become unstable in the last ten years, raising complex questions about who’s job is what. Funding is a huge part of this, but authors like Nicholas Colin have described how the social contract between the state and its people is designed for an industrial society, and is poorly designed for a fast-moving, innovative and connected society. Does the relationship between the state, the market and civil society face many of the same challenges?

Charities seem disconnected from the people they seek to serve

Organisationally, many charities seem stuck. In a report from 2018, Civil Society Futures argued that charities risk becoming irrelevant unless they drastically change their current approaches. It described a trend of increased centralisation, prioritisation of corporate-like expansion and brand emphasis at the expense of those it seeks to serve in the first place. This has made them increasingly disconnected from local communities. In addition, they report how challenging funding environments have increasingly made charities service providers rather than champions and advocates, compromising their independence. How can charities that are stuck like this escape from the spiral?

Together these factors – the emergence of a self-organising, values-driven generation, empowered by technology in a rapidly changing global society, ask profound questions of a sector many accuse of having grown complacent.

Platforms, participation and power 

We think that future approaches to strategy require new ways of thinking about participation, platforms and power. As will be clear, these ideas do not operate in isolation and the boundaries between them are blurry.

New thinking about participation

No one person or group can accomplish everything on their own. Sustainable and meaningful impact, that is both systemic and at scale, requires a variety of resources, different skillsets and diverse perspectives.

Genuine co-production, collaboration and coalition demands inclusivity. It requires the participation and representation of different actors from across society – the public sector, funders, community groups, civil society organisations, the private sector, academia and crucially – those on whose behalf they claim to act. 

Only this way can the sum be greater than its parts. 

Yet to do this demands a renewal of civil society, a rediscovery of community and a rebalancing of the relationship between state, market and community. How to do this is explored in a number of new books and articles.

Raghuram Rajan, in his book “The Third Pillar”, argues that strengthening and empowering local communities is the antidote to social unrest and division currently facing society.

He believes the social sector has a large role to play in overcoming the societal challenges of today, and that overlooking communities is dangerous. 

Similarly, Civil Society Futures, highlighted that the most successful charities are reconnecting with grassroots networks. They understand that most campaigning energy lies in communities, and this is where change happens, trust is renewed and legitimacy earned. 

Others describe how the state has to create the conditions for a more collaborative relationship with civil society. Compass’ recent report on “45 Degree Change” suggests that collaboration between traditional- and non-traditional actors – facilitated by technology – will generate the innovation and experimentation needed to solve social problems. The “45 Degree” is the meeting point where the state, national and local meet the bottom-up initiatives to achieve a good society. State support can resource, regulate and legitimise new approaches, increasing their chances for success at scale and in a systemic way.

The idea of balance and renewal is explored by management thinker Henry Mintzberg’s concept of the “plural sector”. He believes that societies go out of balance at times. Beyond the public and private, there is the “plural”. This constitutes associations and encompasses civil society, communities – anything not owned by either the state or private investors. All three sectors are needed for society to be balanced.

Imbalances, he says, contribute to the destruction of democracies and the planet. There are many historical examples of national imbalances – in the US there is imbalance caused by a too strong private sector, in communist Soviet Union in favour of the public sector. But while historically these imbalances have been national – they are now global.  

Mintzberg suggests that radical renewal is needed to rebalance society, in his book with the same name. Mintzberg also believes leadership is overemphasised at the expense of “communityship”. Leadership implies one person, and top-down approaches. It is the plural sector’s role to challenge destructive practices and advocate for their replacement with constructive ones. He believes that community movements are the basis for all social unrest that have led to change.

The role of the state in many of these models is to enable a flourishing, plural civil society. The role of civil society is to rise to the challenge.

New thinking about platforms

The changes in society requires new skills and a new model of working. Successful organisations have picked up on the changes in mobilisation and organisation of communities. They have moved from “speaking to” their audiences, to having a dialogue and involving them in developing solutions. They have learnt how to become platforms to enable people to organise and mobilise.

Most traditional organisations are still top-down hierarchies with central planning systems. They aren’t set up to work this way.

What sort of leadership does an organisation like this need?

The implications for organisational change needed are well illustrated by Joichi Ito and Jeff Howe in their book “Whiplash”. They argue that we need to approach leadership differently, and suggest nine principles to navigate and succeed in today’s unpredictable world:

New principles of leadership

Source: Joichi Ito and Jeff Howe, Whiplash

Source: Joichi Ito and Jeff Howe, Whiplash

This model emphasises bottom-up approaches, authentic co-creation and experimentation by complementary actors to make systemic change. Traditional structures and leadership models can’t do this.

These principles align with the lessons from our first article about the need to experiment, adapt and innovate, but also some of the things our senior leaders were describing in our second article. 

While this framework is a useful new way to think about platforms and leadership, it is impossible not to mention the shadow cast over it by the recent revelations about Joichi Ito, whose choices have inevitably tarnished its value. The theory stands in stark contrast to the reality (see footnote 1).

New thinking about power

Participation and platforms are central to Jeremy Heiman’s and Henry Timms’ concept of “New Power”. While “Old Power” is held in the hands of a select few, is protected and inaccessible, “New Power” is open, participatory and collaborative and most forceful when shared by many. 

New Power gains force from people’s sense of agency and willingness to participate, especially seen in the younger generation. New Power stretches from sharing, to funding, contributing content on (potentially market-disrupting) platforms like YouTube or Airbnb to co-ownership in open source systems. 

It gets its strength from the passion and energy of the “crowds” and is enabled by the power of technology. The examples given earlier in the article (Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion) and others like #metoo and Ice Bucket Challenge are examples of New Power. Unfortunately so are less benevolent examples such as the spreading of misinformation, the rise of populism and even the rise of ISIS. 

For the authors, understanding that the battle is for mobilisation and participation, and adapting to this, can be the difference between succeeding and being left behind.

New Power embodies almost everything that many traditional charities struggle with: it is inclusive, it has no borders, it’s relevant, it’s innovative, it’s expandable, it’s enabled by technology, and it’s attractive.

What are the lessons for making good strategy?

Where does this leave us? If traditional, top-down organisational models won’t work, traditional strategic planning won’t help, and the job of strategy for social progress is getting more difficult, then what should we be doing?

1. You need to be clear about the change you want to see in the world. 

Being guided by a purpose is crucial to navigate through all of this new complexity. Your strategy should be based on a clear sense of how the world works, the change you want to see, and your best way to make change happen. The best way to make change happen might not be the way you have always worked.

2. You need to challenge your most basic assumptions. 

Good strategies struggle when organisations won’t grip the real, deep-seated issues. It often needs an external perspective, or a critical friend. Going back to basics and holding uncomfortable, difficult conversations that take you outside your normal frame of reference is a first step to more ambitious – and often more radical – strategies for impact.

3. You don’t need to be big to be successful, but you do need to play nicely with others

Small organisations that are clear about their purpose and their contribution to a wider network can be much more effective at changing systems in this new world than much larger, more bureaucratic organisations. Understanding how to partner and how to act in coalition are core skills for any social progress organisation. A big part of successfully partnering is recognising what you don’t do, and what others are better placed to address.

4. “Nothing about us, without us”  

Representation matters. Trust matters. Too many social progress organisations are still trapped in a parochial way of thinking, or an “us and them” mentality that assumes people don’t know what’s good for them. This issue often runs deep in the culture of an organisation and the implications of addressing it can be significant and uncomfortable.

5. Authentic collaboration leads to new insight and systems change

Not only does representation matter, representation will win. Inclusivesolutions generated by and with communities will be richer, more legitimate, more innovative and more effective than solutions imposed from the outside.

In the end, as our first article argued, strategy matters. In this new world of participation, platforms and power the organisations that thrive will be the ones that can tackle this complexity on purpose.

Links and further reading:

·       Firetail – How can we make better strategy?

·       Firetail – Making better strategy; a breakfast discussion

·       Nicolas Colin – Hedge: A greater safety net for the entrepreneurial age

·       Civil Society Futures – The Story of Our Times

·       Compass – 45 Degrees 

·       Raghuram Rajan – The Third Pillar

·       Freedom House – Freedom in the World

·       Henry Mintzberg – Rebalancing Society

·       Joi Ito and Jeff Howe – Whiplash

·       Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms – New Power

1) In September, Ito stepped down as the Director of the M.I.T Media Lab after an article in The New Yorker revealed his efforts to conceal the Media Lab’s continued relationship with banker Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein, with sexual abuse charges going back over a decade, committed suicide earlier this summer as he was facing sex trafficking charges. Despite M.I.T’s disqualification of Epstein as a donor years before, Ito continued to take his money in the millions for years and went to great lengths to cover up its origin. 

Thanks again to all those that read earlier drafts of this post.

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