Create a stigmergy, not a strategy
Sector transformation doesn’t need a strategy. A strategy requires a single coordinated vision and centralised control. The sector doesn’t need that. It needs different thinking. So, instead of a strategy, the sector needs a stigmergy.
A stigmergy is a “mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action. Stigmergy enables complex, coordinated activity without any need for planning, control, communication, simultaneous presence, or even mutual awareness. The resulting self-organization is driven by a combination of positive and negative feedbacks, amplifying beneficial developments while suppressing errors” (Heylighen, 2015).
Originally a term was used in biology, and then the early 90’s saw the notion applied to other self-organising systems. Soon it became a useful model in a number of fields that attempt to understand self-organisation including artificial intelligence. A stigmergy offers an understanding of how to enable a self-organising movement to create change where no single vision for that change can either be agreed or coordinated. It offers a different way to consider change from our tendency to regard change as successful when everyone has agreed, actioned and conformed to the same change. It allows us to consider our notions of change more diversely and encompassing a range of actions, opinions and attitudes, to accept that perhaps change can be different in different circumstances but still be considered successful.
How can a stigmergy be created? Easy. Accept a diverse range of voices, opinions, ethics, values. Even those that at first glance appear in conflict with others. Don’t allow a single voice or opinion to dominate. Don’t look to leaders to make change happen. Avoid leadership in all it’s forms. Do lots of different things. Collaborate. Share. Co-create. Encourage everyone to look and listen to what is happening across the sector. Let simple, and even unconscious, ‘rules’ emerge from the actions and interactions people have. Let actions be seen by others, and responded to, creating feedback for the actors, and driving more action. From this others are inspired to act, to do their thing, sometimes in concert, sometimes in conflict. The positive actions, those that the sector accepts and amplifies through feedback loops gain ground whilst those attempts that fail become diminished and lost.
Favour collectivism over individualism
Pandemic times have shown us that our society that prides itself on individualism (Hofstede, 2020). Every person that went to a crowded beach or didn’t wear a mask in a shop did so because they live in a society that, even if it doesn’t say so explicitly, values individual rights over collective responsibility.
Third sector people and organisations are no different. Individualism is ingrained in everyone one of us, every organisational strategy, every decision that each employee takes. It is how we have been trained to think. The Charity Commission’s rules on what makes a charity state that, “Your organisation’s ‘purpose’ is what it is set up to achieve… to be a charity your organisation must have charitable purposes only. It cannot have some purposes that are charitable and some that are not.” (Charity Commission, 2013). This tells charities that they have a legal obligation to look inwards, protect their own resources, focus on their individual mission. This is just one example (there are more) of the mindset that subtly compels organisations to prioritise their own (perceived) needs ahead of those of the sector, society or the whole world.
If the mission of all third sector organisations was to first ‘make the world better’; to save the planet, tackle the inequalities in society, etc… before then attending to their individual mission, then we’d see a very different third sector.
It’s easy to blame individuals. And why not, after all what is an organisation if not just a collection of individuals (Heath, 2020). But it’s important to remember that those individuals are as constrained by the systems of the sector and society and everyone else. Individualism is the problem, not the individuals. To think that change can be brought about by changing the individuals is to fall into Pirsig’s rationality trap.
Pirsig said, “But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government.” If the systems that created that individual remain then another, similar, individual will come to replace them.
The problem is not the individual charities and third sector organisations either, the problem is the individualistic thinking that occurs in them. The established organisations are not the enemy of the sector, they are as much part of and victim of the worldview that the dominant voices of our society hold. Charity laws express that same thinking. The theoretical models applied to our economy express the same thinking. Individualism is deeply ingrained in our worldview.
How can a mindset be changed to be collectivist? Not so easy. It takes decades or even centuries to change the worldview of a society, but if ever there was a time to start that change, it is now. Charities and third sector organisations can think about the needs of other organisations along with their own. They can develop innovation eco-systems that work together and share resources. They can collaborate. Sometimes they can make self-sacrificing decisions that are better for communities or the environment. They can partner with other third sector organisations that might need support. They can think about whether the notion of a charity as focused on a single charitable purpose is really fit for the future.
Go forth and spontaneously act positively
To change the sector is to change society. To improve the sector is to make our society better. To lead the way is not a small task. But the third sector has a huge part to play in creating a better world. It cannot be left to politicians and billionaires, so who else is going to do it?
Heylighen, F. 2015. Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: Definition and components. Cognitive Systems Research. Volume 38, June 2016, Pages 4-13.
About charitable purposes. 2013. What makes a charity (CC4). Charity Commission.
Heath. J. 2020. Methodological Individualism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy