Oh, ye of little brain: acephalous groups and being the bull Bos

A sure sign of fall in the Delta is gun blasts at dawn. I’m down in the Delta right now and the hunters are just getting warmed up.  Every day when it’s just barely light, their guns start roaring.

09 Prezantasyon Union des Fréres--17 patisipanSince they are pretty far off in the distance, they are harmless, much like politician’s speeches.  I don’t like to hear the guns boom, but it’s much harder to listen to a politician talk.  I don’t know why they want those jobs so bad they are willing to tell so many lies.

When asked to be chairman or president of a group, most intelligent and experienced people run the other way.  Some inexperienced but intelligent folk might think they want the job, but they will quickly learn otherwise. Unintelligent folk may never learn.  The latter want to be boss but they are only the Bos (Latin for cattle) bull.

If you have to do it because no one else will and it needs to be done, it’s best to become a facilitator-in-chief.  Then you get to play around with fun stuff like trust and community.  I started trying to do such in Appalachia in the early 80s.

Like most young people, I was a Democat and close to a socialist.  I believed in developing cooperatives and worker-owned businesses.  I believed in sustainable rural development.  These beliefs arise from a corpus of untested assumptions that young people osmose.   Many millenials today have gotten the same illness.

The affliction results in working for nonprofits, NGOs and charities at low pay.  But you enjoy life.  The NGOs I worked for needed to have publications as deliverables for a grant, so I wrote a little treatise on “Evolving Local Agricultural Strategies.”  I posited five areas crucial to sustainable rural development: agrosystems analysis, identification of accessible and sustainable technologies, facilitation of innovation groups, integrated training/credit systems, and agricultural enterprise creation.  The organization’s most successful rural development programs focused on all five areas.  That NGO had quite a system of programs succeeding in 41 countries using these five components.

Central to those five was facilitation of the innovation groups.  If the group had five basic characteristics, they could almost always succeed in such a system.  Self-reliance, dedication to careful work, encouraging and working together, knowing everyone can learn something from everyone else, and dedication to consensual decision-making.

The latter was the toughest in some countries.  In Haiti, when one person gets in charge he really becomes the boss.  He lords it over everyone and often takes most of the money they are able to make.  It’s engrained in Haitians.  If you get in a position of power, you must use it to help yourself and your family.

So, we started a different sort of group: acephalous or headless groups.  Someone was elected secretary, but their sole job was to take notes on the meeting.  No one was elected leader.  A leader always emerged, but the right kind of leader.  Unless he knew how to establish consensus, they would never survive as leader.

This little book got published in the early 90s and distributed pretty widely in the nonprofit world.  By and by, I got tired of working for a large bureaucracy and went off on my own.  Working with a bunch of local groups in the Southern US, I got a chance to observe when those groups were really clicking, running on all cylinders.

When they were, they showed six qualities: open stance (conceptual pluralism), systems thinking, common assumptions, outcome instead of problem directed, integrators were valued and synthesis of new paths.  Each of these topics has been the focus of dozens of dissertations.  Applying them to sustainable rural development could have been another dissertation, but I didn’t have any desire to do that much academic writing.

If I had to pick one of the six as most crucial, I’d certainly pick “being outcome instead of problem directed.”  All too many sustainable development folks focus on problems.  Black land loss, poverty, low quality of life, food deserts, on and on.  Vulnerability is the term those sorts of folks love to use.  We all should protect and help the vulnerable. The problem with this approach is that it focuses on something which isn’t there.  How can you define and measure something which isn’t there?  If you can’t define and measure it, how can you be sure you are doing any good?  Well, these folks don’t have to be doing any good.  They are funded because the problems are really bad and they are working on the problems, not because they are fixing the problems.

Resilience looks at from the reverse angle.  Resilience defines what is.  This much pressure, this much disturbance and the system reorganizes based on existing subsystems and then comes back to its original state.  Too much pressure, too much disturbance and it can never come back to what it was because a subsystem is destroyed.  Even more disturbance than than and all subsystems may be wiped out.

The weak shall be destroyed. It’s the way things must be. Can we help them become stronger?  Empowerment is a term bandied about by rich people wanting to help poor people.  But empowerment is something you do to someone else.  It creates dependency. Strength only comes from within.

Some folks got interested in my approach and gave us some grants to try to train people in the skills needed to help groups get cooking.  It didn’t work.  One student got a dissertation and doctorate out of it, but he turned out to be a pretty lousy facilitator.  He just wouldn’t listen.

It’s a problem most people have.  We are so wrapped up in our inner monologues and personal agendas, that we don’t really hear what others are saying.  Much less what they are really feeling.  Or what could really help them be more effective.  Even if we do listen to their words, we miss a lot of what they are communicating.

A good facilitator knows about communication beyond words.

Once I came to Ecuador to help a rural development program which had just been visited by a consultant fluent in Spanish.  I didn’t know any Spanish to speak of.  When I left they said, you understood us and we understood you better by far than the previous consultant.

I think it was because I like to read nonverbal behavior and really listen.

We’ll get lots of chances to do both at our workshop coming up next weekend.  It’s all on building trust and teams.  Should be fun.


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