I have written before about my obsession with small group dynamics. Then three things happened which made me determined to research and write something more substantial on the issue.
First, I spoke to my wonderful mum about a community group in which she is involved (one of many for her). She had just been at a meeting. As I discussed with her some of the reason for it being less than fully successful, I was strongly reminded of some of the ‘tragedies’ of voluntary groups which I identified in my NCVO lecture last year.
Third, on the way back from Any Questions in Norwich last Friday, I discussed the core idea – understanding and overcoming the pathologies that stop most small voluntary groups working effectively – with Phillip Blond the Director of Res Publica. Albeit that he is a nice chap and was stuck in a car with me for three hours, he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the project.
In between my great friend Tessy Britton FRSA sent me a link to the website Citizen’s Handbook . As I browsed it I came across a reference to an issue I had independently identified in the NCVO lecture; the bad apple problem. In essence this is that one disruptive person has a disproportionate impact on a group. It turns out that Professor Will Felps has undertaken a study which seems to prove the bad apple thesis. Not only do bad apples have more influence than they ought, but they make other people start behaving badly too.
I think this is one of a number of systematic risks and barriers to group functioning. I mentioned another in the NCVO speech: people who are obsessed with rules and process tend to end up with more influence and power than those focussed on making change happen in the world.
Maybe readers can think of more?
As usual it is a busy week with a lot going on for the RSA , but I want to dedicate my posts to digging a bit more deeply into the small group issue. Here are a couple of slightly pedestrian points with which to start.
Every day up and down the UK (and across the world) hundreds of groups of people meet to try to make the world a better place. There are four main generic reasons why groups - largely if not exclusively - made up of volunteers decide to meet up:
* To try to get something going – perhaps a neighbourhood watch group or wanting to promote community sustainability
* To try to stop something – perhaps a library closure or a plan for a metro supermarket chain to locate in a local street
* As a branch of a national membership organisation – the RSA, Friends of the Earth or the Conservative Party perhaps.
* As an adjunct to a public or publicly funded service – a parents association for a school for example
(People also get together for activities like book clubs but, drawing on existing friendship networks, these are more about sociability than social change.)
Some of these groups will succeed amazingly, others will make more modest progress, but too many – and probably, I fear, most – will end up failing. Not only will this mean the change has been frustrated but it may be that those involved, some having made the effort for the first time, may be turned off activism for good. If we could find ways of making many more groups succeed and fewer fail badly, it could have a huge impact on community capacity.
A crucial (dare I say it ‘Big Society’) task is to identify what goes wrong, try to understand why and then to explore how to make groups more resilient and likely to succeed.
The voluntary sector has stepped up and worked together during the crisis. For the challenges ahead, it needs to make decision making more democratic.