When two tribes go their way - RSA

When two tribes go their way

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  • Public services

Over fifty years ago, in a famous lecture, CP Snow identified and bemoaned a gulf between the two cultures of science and the humanities.  In particular, he berated the liberal intelligentsia for its ignorance of scientific basics. 

In the world of public service reform there is another cultural divide, one that stands in the way of change and may even contribute to the ever growing cynicism about mainstream politics.  

The divide is between the ‘networker innovators’ and the ‘hierarchical managerialists’. On the one hand, there are more and more people wanting to be innovators for public good. These are the budding social entrepreneurs to be found meeting up at RSA Engage events or tapping away on their devices at Impact Hubs. They tend to be young, impatient of the old ways of doing things, sceptical about traditional politics. They love big data, social media, hackathons and service design. They spend hours a day on Twitter sharing information about new apps, social movements and examples of clever ways of doing things developed in Scandinavia, South America or San Francisco. If only they could get some start-up funding and prove their concept, it could be scaled up to change the world. 

On the other hand, there are the politicians and bureaucrats who run public service institutions and systems. They are middle aged, care worn, always tired and rarely with time for anything more than coping. Somewhere deep down they retain their idealism, but they have long since become reconciled to fulfilling their public service ethic through crisis management and marginal improvement. They don't have time to read about social enterprise in the Basque Country because they are focused on local conditions, relationships and power structures. They see the biggest barrier to change not as the absence of new ideas, but the preponderance of old politics. When they do hear about bold new ideas they question whether they would work here.  

The zeitgeist honours the former group and disparages the latter but arguably true heroism lies in the grind of making systems work against the odds. The bureaucrats openly envy the youth and enthusiasm of the networkers, the networkers silently crave the power and inside info of the politicians.  

Into this divide falls a huge amount of potential. Bright people and bright ideas fail to mature. Big systems and institutions fail to improve. Innovators add their voice to a lazy cynicism about 'the system’ while bureaucrats pay lip service to innovation but think it is marginal to their day to day lives. Second rate ideas and second rate practices survive unchallenged, each justified by their own self-serving discourse.  

The RSA spans both cultures. Too often when we have been asked to foster change in large scale organisations we have found our work hampered by institutional inertia and parochial politicking. Equally, sitting in my top floor perch in John Adam Street, I hear many interesting ideas from networking innovators whose naivety or ignorance when it comes to large systems means their impact is likely to be marginal at best.  

So what can be done? Simply, we need to find ways of sympathetically crashing the two systems together. The networkers need to be challenged to understand the constraints of big systems, big budgets, complexity, risk and public accountability. The managers need to admit that many aspects of politics and public service are only the way they are due to historical accident or the positioning of vested interests.  

As the General Election campaign sees national politicians fail and fail again to put either the strategic needs or the country of the moral claims of the most vulnerable first, progress relies increasingly on board level and street level change-makers. 

The RSA’s top strategic priority for this coming year is to achieve a qualitative step change in Fellowship engagement, making Fellows absolutely integral to our model of change. But this is not just about our desire to improve as an organisation. 

The RSA Fellowship contains literally thousands of members of the two camps I have described. A key social purpose of richer Fellowship engagement is for the RSA to provide multiple spaces and platforms for the innovators and the managers to listen to each other, appreciate each other and start making change real for the people who need it most.


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  • Hi Matthew,


    Yes excellent post. I recognise this dilemma from previous roles but particularly in current role at a major University. Trying both to work within the system to ensure ideas and innovations are worked through, but also be open enough to challenge and remain sympathetic to new thinking which may turn out to be mush, is something I'm finding hard work. Somethings its not just the slog, its the questionning as to whether trying to be at that inferface is some way, is a useful or necessary role.

  • I think the answer - for trendy networkers, for bureaucratic battlers, for RSA Fellowship engagement alike - is rather simple, and is staring us in the face (as we've successfully used it before!).

    Some of the most fruitful and energising meetings the RSA has run (including internally across different Directorates) have used large group methods such as the ICA's 'Technology of Participation' tools.

    Instead of us all running our meetings with the 4 or 5 standard, usually de-energising and rather unengaging structures we're all so used to (powerpoint presentation, managed discussion, brainstorm etc), we can simply begin to use the best of the various engaging and creative tools that are out there.

    This website shares 33 different such facilitation structures to try: http://www.liberatingstructures.com/

    They take from 12 minutes to 2 hours and can help to solve problems, surface insights, generate ideas, identify best practices, strategise, or help people see what they can do to make change happen. They don't require trained facilitators.

    The current structures we use in our workplaces rarely foster such creativity and widespread engagement.

    The RSA needs to take the lead in using and advocating such liberating (micro-)structures IMHO.

    One of the 33 liberating structures - TRIZ - is specifically designed to safely and gently stop counter-productive activities and behaviours to make space for innovation: http://www.liberatingstructures.com/6-making-space-with-triz

    A good one for the managerialists, perhaps!

    Many of them relate to how best to work within the current constraints etc - '15% Solutions', 'Ecocyle', 'Discovery & Action Dialogue (DAD)' etc.

    No need to over-think this, let's just start trying out liberating structures, one by one - and see what happens…! It can't hurt...

    A couple of us are even looking at whether a simple version of Robert Kegan's 'Immunity to Change' map could be turned into an additional Liberating Structure to use…!

    Matthew Mezey

    PS This doesn't mean that bigger facilitation processes - that do need an expert at the helm - aren't fabulous too. As I've pointed out before, 'Future Search' for example is one of the approaches recommended by Cultural Theory researchers as one of the few approaches that balances top-down/expert-driven motivations with solidaristic, with individualistic etc etc. Future Search would be a fabulous and novel way to engage a sizeable groups of Fellows on a pressing issue…

  • As a Fellow of the RSA I applaud the current approach of RSA regarding "a qualitative step change in Fellowship engagement, making Fellows absolutely integral to our model of change". I recognise so much of what is said above, and appreciate the way it is being expressed. 

    I agree about the RSA's potential to "span both cultures" and the challenge of finding  ways of "sympathetically crashing the two systems together".

    To use your words I'm a "networker innovator". (I'm also currently doing some consultancy work for a "big budget" project so I'm getting to "understand the constraints of big systems, big budgets, complexity, risk and public accountability." )

    I'm also a Fellow who is keen to connect more actively with other Fellows through the RSA. Obviously I would gain personally from tapping into their wisdom and experience, but I also hope such connections will help to open up channels whereby, along with other Fellows, I'll discover how to usefully contribute to the RSA's model of change and its role in spanning the "two cultures". There is a desperate and urgent need for the two cultures to achieve collaborative action and the RSA is the ideal and natural space to attempt deep systemic change "to listen to each other, appreciate each other and start making change real for the people who need it most"

  • I too recognise this situation, having worked for 7 years in community regeneration after founding my own town centre regen model. My view is increasingly that this is about understanding roles and responsibilities, sometimes simply the wrong people are doing the right job, and creating a space I refer to as being on the 'Edge of Bureaucracy" where real magic and change can happen.  I've seen just what can be achieved within this space, and how little is achieved without it. There is need to create a new mindset about empowering, respect and the importance of the 'light touch'. Happy to discuss further if interested.

  • I very much relate to this. Just arrived in East London from fairly trad quango / partnership CEO role in Midlands. A tad weary,  yes, but still believe it can't just be bottom up, certainly middle aged, slowlying learning new skills. Don't actually understand Nesta's conference programme, let alone the presentstions, doubt that beards and stripey scarves could save us, hope that RSA has a game plan for bringing the two camps together. 

    • Hello Sophie

      I saw your comment on "When two tribes go their way' (I commented on that post as well).

      As far as I can see there is no way as yet to "like" your post and connect that way, so this a "smile and a wave" because I appreciated what you wrote.

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