Time to Break Some Rules

Change happens when rules are broken; when an upstart group of people rebel against broken systems and rote habits and try something radically different or  brand spanking new; and when people have the courage, if not the audacity, to throw away failures and seek a better way to frame and reshape, if not reinvent,  how we live together.

Yeh, I know we need rules. I am not an advocate for anarchy. But I am not keen to nod up and down like the proverbial bobble head grinning from ear to ear and surrender my ability to think critically and creatively for the sake of preserving the myth of an orderly, predictable life.

Actually, if you think about it, anarchy  as a way of thinking resembles how we see and define innovation, especially disruptive innovation.

Setting aside the negative imagery of anarchy, its definition, “a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority,” could be applied to the process of disruptive innovation.  Disruption upsets the status quo and can create a lack of order. To think and act in new and better ways, is it not often the case that those in authority, the ones who make and enforce the rules, are obstacles to such efforts?

While anarchy is seen as the absence of government, it is also touted by its advocates as a state of absolute freedom for people. I am not interested in either extreme as a political remedy for what ails us; however,  transformational change requires people to at least suspend the current order of things, the current ways that life is governed, in order to be free to truly explore the what-ifs that can lead us to a new order of things.

I believe in the power of,  and the possibilities inherent in, Wicked Questions and Upside Down Thinking. The former is a tool of inquiry that forces us to address opposing elements of how we live and act. The latter is less about inquiry and much more about posing heretical proposals that prompt us to consider the unthinkable or at least the unacceptable.

How do we enforce rules while being open to the possibility that the rules we have created are harming progress or change? That is a wicked question. It is a provocative question which by nature has no pat answer. Its intent is to remind us that often, if not most the time, those trying to effect change are also the ones making and enforcing rules that stop or significantly block change. While we might find it difficult and a bit unnerving to tackle such a wicked question, the question itself is not likely to piss us off.

Poverty exists because those who are not poor have a vested interest in keeping poverty around. That’s a heretical proposition, reflective of Upside Down Thinking. Also provocative, but more than that and more likely to make us angry, defensive, and more than a tad resistant to even considering there might be something wrong with how we help others.

While a wicked question calls for possible answers,  heretical propositions challenge us to prove the heresies to be true. The exercise requires participants not to debate the statement or find arguments that prove the statement wrong, not to resist it, or counter with reasons why poverty still exists. The focus is on proving that folks like me (perhaps you, too?) help to perpetuate poverty.

The intent of a heretical proposition is not to demoralize ourselves or condemn our good-intentioned actions. Instead, the intent is to force us to consider how and why and when and where we create programs and services or other efforts that in effect help perpetuate poverty societally.  The idea is that by working together to prove the heretical proposition to be true we uncover “truths” or “circumstances” or “values”  or “practice” and so on that work against ending poverty in our community.

Consider these heretical statements:

  •  Income security programs are designed to prolong and deepen poverty.
  •  Philanthropy is the process by which the “Haves” regulate what the “Have-nots” need and then govern how help is delivered.
  •  Intake systems are design to exclude people, not help them.
  •  Soup kitchens and homeless shelters and food banks permit us to ignore the root causes of why they exist.
  •  Fundraising tends to cater to funders and donors more than focus on what people who are suffering need and deserve.

If you think any of or all of these are absurd or over stated or if you think such statements are disrespectful or outright insults, I can understand the reaction, but also, perhaps your reaction is precisely why you should spend some time proving those “heretical propositions” true.

I developed Upside Down Thinking as a transformational tool, but also see it as a mindset that we use individually and together to actually pull off the big changes we want or at least say we want. It is one more way to move beyond status quo thinking and habits and craft strategies that actually upset the apple cart we are pushing and buying from.

We know systems need to change. We know that policies need to be reformed, thrown out, or replaced. We know that giving a family a food hamper is brief relief but not an answer for that family’s situation. We know that income security programs fall markedly short of offering anything but income insecurity.

Even our “advances” are not as successful as we claim they are.  The Living Wage Movement, for example, is actually about a wage that partially supports living. Did you know that the calculations used to identify a living wage across Canada’s communities do not consider saving for retirement or one’s children’s education or any debt. We mollify concerns about this by reminding one another that we are identifying a living wage that allows a family a “modest” income. Of course, those of us earning well above a living wage define what “modest” means. Does this mean we accept there is a “class” of people who do not deserve retirement or an education for their kids? Could it be that the “Living Wage” is a premium version of the legally set Minimum Wage?

A living wage wicked question may be: How do we advance the value of employers paying a living wage while the living wage movement is  marginalizing a certain class of workers.?

The heretical proposition might be: The Living Wage Movement  is creating a system for keeping wages lower than people need to have a decent life. The call to action here is to prove the proposition is true – not so we can abandoned the need for a living wage, but rather to identify how our thinking is biased and our actions are just not good enough to pull it off.

Transformational change requires provocative, if not inciteful, thinking. Thinking like a heretic is one way to do that. But I am also talking about other forms of thinking like Creative, Critical, Systems, Integrative, Lateral, Divergent and Convergent thinking.

For example, our funding systems tend to exist within a matrix of funding streams focused on sets of priorities identified by funders and partner institutions. Fundraisers package answers to poverty that will resonate with donors, replete with happy faced poor people, as well as awards and recognition programs for the donors.

Ending poverty resonates with people, donors included, but to what extent do our funding priorities, systems, and allocations resonate with the people we are trying to help?  Where are they when the deliberations take place and decisions are made? Many institutional voices call for the inclusion of people with lived experience in addressing intractable problems,  but walking the talk is difficult to do, can disrupt our “best-laid” plans, add time and expense to our efforts – and besides what do “they” know about systems change, impact investing, and the like?

In 1899 Jane Adaams wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly, in which she identified philanthropy as an Us and Them undertaking, a system of those who “have” determined the types and depth of help that will be delivered to those who “have not.” One can acknowledge that philanthropy is a system reflective of advantaged people caring for other disadvantaged people. I don’t question the intentions, but good intentions do not necessarily manifest as good actions that create lasting change. Witness what Canada did to Indigenous children and their families when the nation decided Indigenous people needed to be fixed – fixed meaning stripped of their dignity, spirituality, language, and culture.  I imagine there were a good number of advocates for residential schools who felt their intentions were good., but in the end, those intentions produced a movement of cultural genocide. I wonder how many donors contributed to that effort.

No one gets an award for living in poverty. Awards exist for us, the ones trying to address poverty even though we have not come close to ending it.  There is a plethora of reports and research and evaluations that we create that point to our successes on the poverty battlefield, but make nary a mention of how we screwed this or that up. Sure, success needs to be identified though I think more so to understand what works in order to scale up solutions than hanging a certificate on our office walls.

Progress is about more than identifying success. It’s about recognizing failures and obstacles and circumstances that continue to cause and perpetuate human suffering and then doing something big about them, even if that means we have to dramatically shift how we think and act in our systems and organizations. Such shifting necessarily means we have to admit we are wrong, have been wrong for a long time, and we have to dramatically change not just what we do, but who we are.

From a neighbourhood perspective, the quest for the future of one’s community will not be won by creating and advancing  NIMBYism versus YIMBYism battlefields that do little more than polarize people and prohibit alternative ways to engage one another about  what to do and why and how.

One heretical proposition I have posed in the past is this: Community engagement is the means by which institutions (“us”) preserve their authority and their decisions about the future of  “them.”  If you invest time in proving this heresy to be true, you might uncover better reasons to undertake authentic community engagement in order to increase the capacity of the populace to grapple with issues and problems and work to co-create solutions. While the solutions will not mean unanimous affirmations, perhaps taking leadership from neighbourhood residents and stakeholders has more merit than we care to consider. Perhaps those in power and those who have influence on systems and policies and programs should trust communities more instead of prolonging the mythology of “we know better than they do.”

The biggest barrier to transformational change is that those with power don’t want to give it up or share it with others.

Prove that to be true and then, if you are actually serious about change, deal with your findings and get on with all the important changes you want to effect.


Upside Down Thinking

Upside Down Thinking

Upside Down Thinking: Funders Should be Rebels

Upside Down Thinking: Funders should be Rebels

Disruptive Innovation: A Type of Upside Down Thinking

Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking

Upside Down Thinking: Disrupting the Status Quo (Slide Deck)

Upside Down Thinking: Disrupting the Status Quo

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