Rhetoric and Reference Points

What’s ballet got to do with social labs? Well, it wasn’t until I experienced a different kind of ballet class last Saturday that I realized what’s been missing all these years. My reference point changed. How can we reset reference points? Of the Job Centre professionals we shadowed last week? Or of the civil servants and politicians responsible for social policy? And most of all, how can we reset our own organizational reference points? Have a read of some of the questions we’re asking in 2014. And add your own.

“I want you to jump like a cat.” Annamora demonstrated. She leaned forward ever so slightly, gazed firmly ahead, and smoothly glided across the wooden dance floor.

I summoned my inner American bobtail. And leapt forward, coming down with a soft thump. I was no Margot Fonteyn. But I was at my weekly ballet class. I’ve been going since I was a little girl with dreams of pirouetting en pointe. Turns out, I can’t really bend backwards. Now I go to class with a different goal: To get lost in my body. Not in my mind. To be graceful. And escape my trademark klutziness.

All ballet classes follow the same sequence. You start at the bar. You move to the center. You do jumps. You turn. You cool down. But last Saturday’s class was different. Annamora led us through the usual drills. But with a different approach. A different language. A different segmentation.

Annamora got that I didn’t aspire to be a professional. Nor was I just another crap amateur. I was there to move. So she used plain-speaking metaphors. She provided feedback about my body alignment. Instead of the technicality of my steps. And she modeled the combinations the whole way through. Rather than one meager time.

I didn’t realize there was something missing in prior ballet classes. Until I tried this one. What made it such a good quality experience was that it felt like there was a match. Between her expectations and mine. Between her methodology and my learning style.

This difference between something average and something good quality can be subtle. And not easily described. Until you feel it. That’s what makes observation such a powerful method.

On Monday, we observed a local job centre (Werkplein). From the perspective of Maria, a new arrival to the Women’s Shelter. A few weeks back, we had met one of the Job Centre managers. He used the words personalized, customizable, and client-centred to describe the service. And yet the actual experience didn’t seem to fit these words. Maria trained as a doctor in Mexico, and has a basic mastery of Dutch. But because she isn’t fluent, the job centre put her in the ‘doesn’t speak Dutch’ box. She has to attend a group language course. Even though that modality hadn’t worked for her in the past. And they recommended she take a part-time job with a pre-approved training provider. Where she could serve food in a cafeteria. Or sort used clothes. Maria’s shoulders slumped in reaction. She looked downward. None of the opportunities leveraged her interests or capabilities.

I was puzzled. How could the very friendly, well-meaning manager describe this service as personalized and customized?

That’s when I remembered ballet class. It’s all about your reference points. Until I experienced something different, I didn’t even know there was something missing.

Compared to the usual service, what the manager offered Maria was flexible. There were no firm requirements or time frames. Speaking Dutch was placed ahead of job seeking. It’s just that the segmentation was not at the right level of granularity. Managers & staff made the assumption that everyone who couldn’t speak Dutch was in the same boat. Rather than looking at how to use their language learning as a lever to develop their interests, draw on their capabilities, or to build a relevant network.

So how do we move beyond the words – like customized and personalized – and reset reference points?

That was the question we asked 10 thought leaders on Monday night. Just hours after shadowing Maria, Kennisland and InWithForward co-hosted a pizza night (See the Invite) for key folks from local government, the not-for-profit sector, and think-tanks. Folks like Arre Zuurmond, the Ombudsman for Amsterdam; Marco Pastors, a former politician and Director of a big project to improve living in South Rotterdam; and Marienne Verhoef, the Director of the not-for-profit Spirit.

Using a handmade table cloth as a conversation prompt, we asked for reactions. What did they think of our analysis? That the Dutch have adopted all the right rhetoric – localized, strengths-based, family-centered, co-created, and collaborative. But that existing systems have no shared reference points for what these concepts look and feel like, and for whom. Yes, there are some nice initiatives and one-off projects in communities. But there is no infrastructure for creating shared reference points. No methodology for bringing policymakers, professionals, and every day people together to re-make services, systems, and policies. That’s why we are setting-up a Social R&D Testbed.

There wasn’t much disagreement. Just a strong dose of reality. How do you develop a business model for such an infrastructure? So that you’re not stuck doing nice one-off projects outside the system? Or trapped doing politically tepid projects inside the system?

This is a profound challenge. There are a growing number of lab-like spaces. That aim to be the innovative infrastructure. But few that manage to work inside and outside of the system at once. Or that have found a business model that gives them the independence to start from the bottom-up with everyday folks, as well as the leverage to shape and dismantle policies getting in the way.

If anything, we see a lot of the lab-like infrastructures replicating pretty traditional organizational structures and business models.They’ve got lots of salaried staff on payroll. A conventional management hierarchy. And a closed-door governance board to report to. Not surprisingly, they end up spending a lot of time applying for traditional grants and are then left to deliver on output-driven contracts. With all the standard risk management, hiring, and accountability clauses. When times are tough, they turn to running workshops and taking peripheral consultancy assignments to pay the bills.

Of course, some amount of compromise is required to balance short-term realities with longer-term ambitions. We @ InWithForward keep wondering how we can build up new practice without becoming yet another pricey professional layer. How do we organize ourselves in a way that allows us to work a bit closer to our values? So that we are redistributing power, authority, and yes, money, to folks on-the-ground?

So here’s what we’re going to try: personally investing in Starter Projects. To enable us to work with groups of people that are truly left out. We’ll package and hopefully monetize the outputs of these projects – like the stories, and share some of the earnings with the folks who made the stories possible. And we’ll try to always have a shadow team, made up of local people in existing organizations, so that we’re not becoming the permanent on-the-ground team.

Whether we can make a living working in this way remains to be seen. We’re fortunate that all of us partners behind InWithForward are willing to wear the risk and the incredible uncertainty. At least for the next year. It’s a lifestyle. Not just a job. It’s liberating. And it’s exhausting. We’re having to come up with a bespoke solution to everything from how we negotiate contracts with partners to how we deal with liability insurance. Particularly as we work across international borders.

It’s these nitty-gritty details that we think make the difference between perpetuating and challenging the status quo. We’re going to try to document and make public our behind-the-scenes conversations and business decisions. Many of which won’t hit the mark. Indeed, one of our big goals in 2014 is to close the gap between our rhetoric, and our organizational practices. We’ll need all the help we can get. And no doubt we will open up a few new gaps along the way.

Got good organizational reference points for us? Please get in touch….