Dis-organizing our way to balance

12 August 2016

We are masters at running successful experiments in failed events. On Wednesday, as part of the World Social Forum in Montreal, our event in the McGill University football stadium was entitled “On the earth, for the Earth: acting together for a cool planet.” We had no way to know how many people would attend.1 I predicted between 50 and 5000, which made our organizing rather difficult. Suffice it to say that we did not hit the high side.

Undeterred, we improvised. We adapted much of our design to the numbers present. It worked, rather well in fact. The intention was to self-organize in small groups, to come up with cool ideas that could be taken home for dealing with climate change. That we did, albeit with few groups, including our super-enthusiastic volunteers. Each focussed on one of four questions:

  • Getting it about climate change doesn’t mean we live it. How can you and I live it?
  • What can we do with food: producing, processing, distributing, consuming, and wasting?
  • How can the plural sector [civil society] get its collective act together?
  • How can we build societies of better and better instead of economies of more and more?

What we lacked in quantity (more and more), we made up in quality (better and better). The discussions were great, and animated: we had to stop them after 90 minutes. I joined the group on getting the plural sector act together, a conversation I have had with many other groups, but never this good. All the groups shared what they found, and everyone seemed to leave on a high.

Was this event a failure? Not for the people who attended, and not if, as an experiment, it leads to something more successful. (One attendee hopes to use the design in an event he is organizing later. And we shall be doing so as well, and capturing the learning, in a forthcoming GROOC—a MOOC for groups—in the Spring, probably under the same title. (Check it out on edX in the new year.) But yes, it was a failure by the standards of more and more.2

So, the next time I consider doing something else unusual, should I be asking myself “Why?” instead “Why not?” Never! We have too many events that succeed in numbers—look at the turnouts Trump in the U.S. and Erdoğan in Turkey have been getting lately. We need many more successful experiments, and thoughtful ideas, to make the world a better place.

Later in the day we held a more conventional event—a panel on how the plural sector can get its collective act together. That succeeded both ways: about 200 people turned out, for 90 minutes in a McGill amphitheater, and the discussion was stimulating and animated. Ian Hamilton, who heads up Equitas, the International Centre for Human Rights Education, explained why the sector often does have its collective act together, while Alex Megelas, of the Office of Community Engagement at Concordia University, claimed that one of the great strengths of the sector is its messiness. The five of us were one about the need for pluralism in the plural sector! Yet we live in a world in which the dominant private sector is highly organized. How can dis-organization correct that? This is our dilemma, all too evident in both these events.

And all too evident as well in the coverage of the Forum by the Gazette, Montreal’s English-language daily. It is part of a chain of most of the country’s dailies that were ordered to run the same editorial in the last federal election, endorsing the Conservative Party. This we call a free press. Aside from an initial article on August 4 (straight reporting, that mentioned our event), the Gazette has run only two pieces on the Forum, both about the same issue.

Yesterday the headline read “Protesters hurl insults outside the World Social Forum in Montreal.” Ten members of the Jewish Defence league were yelled at by a number of pro-Palestinians. So many other events during the day, and this received the only headline. A few days earlier, an opinion piece was headlined “World Social Forum shouldn’t grant a platform to anti-Israeli agitators.” True enough. But hardly true enough was what the piece went on to proclaim: “The tone of the conference is fundamentally at odds with” the WSF’s belief in living together. How did this become the tone of the conference? Thousands of concerned and well-meaning people doing wonderful work to make the world a better and more balanced place all dismissed by the excesses of a few. So much is happening in this Forum: discussing youth inequality in Peru, promoting people’s rights to affordable housing all over the world, facing the problem of climate change and of the demise of democracies, even questioning the Canadian government’s refusal of visas for many people trying to attend the Forum itself.

It’s as if the newspaper was sitting in a tree like a panther, waiting to pounce on some cause célèbre to reinforce its own agenda. The first reader comment on the opinion piece tells it all: “This [Forum] is just a platform for socialist ‘anti-everything’ agitators.” Mission accomplished.

Here we have a perfect reflection of the imbalance we live with every day. In Canada we may get to elect our government, but our corporate press continues to use its power to sway public sentiments in favor of private interests—by what it reports, and especially by what it does not report.

The World Social Forum is eclectic. All kinds of tones and voices are being heard inside of it, a few that I personally don’t care for. Yet all but one of these get ignored by a newspaper acting as a platform for its own agitation—essentially to intensify the existing imbalance. Concerned people will have to learn how to use dis-organization to rebalance a world headed for disaster, environmentally and politically.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. My thanks to Debbie Hinton, Karla Flores, Laura Cardenas Berdugo, Jessica Xiao, Calolina Cruz-Vinaccia, et al. for so wonderfully organizing our experiment, to Joe Ross and Clelia Cothier for so enthusiastically animating it, and to the Office of McGill’s Vice-Principal External Relations and its Desautels Faculty of Management for their support. 

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1 The Forum keeps track of registrants—there were about 15,000 before the start—but no-one signs up for particular events.

2 Several things can explain the low turnout. The McGill stadium is on the edge of downtown, up a hill, a significant walk to reach. The schedule of 9:15 to 3 in a conference of 90 minute events was probably too ambitious. Our marketing was hardly stellar. And then there is getting that act together: a mistake in the printed program also showed our event taking place in a classroom several kilometers away.