Preaching to the Converted and the Path to Unlearning: this week’s random conversations

Had some interesting if random discussions this week – I work from home a lot, and then get far too excited when I actually end up in a room with interesting people.  Two thoughts (among many) seem worth capturing:

Preaching to the converted: This is something we’re not supposed to do – waste of time all preaching-to-the-convertedagreeing with each other, right? We need to get out there and engage with the Other, the heathen, the unenlightened etc. Well (channelling Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction), allow me to retort. Most Imams and priests spend the vast majority of their time preaching to the converted, and they seem to have a pretty solid business model. Preaching to the converted plays an essential role in consolidating commitment and attendance, both inspiring and training activists, it builds a sense of belonging and engagement (depending on whether the preacher is any good, of course). However, it may be worth drawing a distinction between preaching to the converted and ‘preaching to the choir’, which I take to be the US variant of the phrase. Preaching to the choir – as in your hard core, totally committed activists, may indeed be a bit of a waste of time – NGO full timers telling each other stuff they already know (‘agreeing violently’) springs to mind.

But where does that leave the discussion on getting out of our filter bubbles? Sticking with the religious analogy, should we all be doing 90% preaching to the converted, and 10% trying to proselytize among the heathen? Or should we be looking for hard core missionaries to live outside the bubble full time? Who/what would they look like in political terms?

How does Unlearning happen? Next up, if we are going to try and get aid agencies to ‘do development differently’, we will be asking people who have had logframe thinking drummed into them for decades to start behaving in a drastically different fashion. To caricature (hey, it’s what I do…) people who count beans, tick boxes, hit deadlines and implement The Plan will suddenly be expected to be cool, entrepreneurial, improvising risk takers and surfers of unpredictable events.

unlearningIn many cases, I have serious doubts that this is possible – we may just have to employ different kinds of people as jobs fall vacant (change happens one funeral at a time etc). But if we are going to try, then existing staff and partners will have to ‘unlearn’ a lot of what has gone before.

But how does unlearning even happen? Thinking about it in my own life, I can identify a few processes which lead to me jettisoning ways of thinking and working:

  1. Humiliation and defeat: Here’s how I learned to let go and devolve power. Newly arrived at Oxfam, I was sent on a deeply traumatic management training course at an outward bound centre in the Lake District. One of the exercises was a giant outdoor chess match. Each team had a couple of people moving the pieces around, and a couple of remote ‘managers’ who were told they were in charge. They communicated with the players via a walkie talkie, which was tied to a tree, and a runner who carried messages from the walkie talkie to the players. I was a manager, and we duly set up a dummy chessboard and sent messages via the runner (who in our case was Jo Cox, during her period at Oxfam). As the delayed results filtered back via Jo, we watched horrified as our side was destroyed by the opposition. We later found that the enemy manager (Kate Raworth) had used the walkie talkie to ask her players if they were good at chess. When they said ‘yes’, she said ‘right, over to you’ and went and had a cup of tea. She had no problem letting go/devolving power, whereas it had never occurred to me. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. I could tell a lot of other stories along these lines – regularly making a fool of myself seems to be my prime personal driver of change……
  2. Success stories on the ground: But screwing up is not the only way; there’s nothing like the demonstration effect of seeming something innovative working on the ground – Chukua Hatua in Tanzania, TajWSS in Tajikistan, Community Protection Committees in DRC
  3. Paradigm shifting overall narratives: I get ridiculously excited by big picture books that shift my way of thinking – Robert Chambers, Ha Joon Chang, Eric Beinhocker, Donella Meadows, Jerry and Monique Sternin, Portfolios of the Poor. They not only critique a standard way of thinking, but offer a convincing and original alternative.

In terms of promoting new ways of thinking and working, it feels like lots is happening on (2) and (3), but what about (1)? Do we need to think about how to engender a personal sense of crisis, shock, fear or whatever before people will really abandon tried and tested (but failed) approaches? How to encourage those moments in a reasonably humane fashion?

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8 Responses to “Preaching to the Converted and the Path to Unlearning: this week’s random conversations”
  1. Ross Clarke

    I don’t think unlearning is the problem, it’s more promoting and providing incentives for the change you want to see. More carrot, less giving the carrot and then taking it away. Why did logframe thinking become the industry norm? Not because it is intuitive or fit for purpose. Because people were told to do it, funding became contingent on it and people fell into line. (And there was never any serious push back until recent times given the relentless search for the next grant).

    Behaviour learned can equally be relearned in a similar fashion and I would not blame the individuals carrying out these approaches but the systemic conditions that put them in that straight jacket. Who you recruit is key of course, but I’d suggest so is the enabling environment any organisation provides for staff to act on their political acumen, adapt their work where necessary and not feel constrained by a project design generally externally driven and out of date. If the type of support and incentive structures changed toward more of a DDD approach, I think we’d see change quite quickly.

  2. Matt

    Indeed .. … my new grandson swears by the importance of number-ones. We need to move fast on this – there are so few people now on the beltway who can lead or tolerate number-ones. Could be useful to unpack the conditionality of “humane fashion”.

    By definition, 90+% of the people breathe, live, struggle and agitate outside of our filter bubbles. No need to look for missionaries to live outside our bubbles. They are already there. We simply need to step outside ourselves?.

    Great post.

    • Ross – in your comment you accidentally bring up another cause of the need for unlearning without intending to. That cause is taking something useful and – simply because it is useful in one way in one place and time, insisting that it must be useful more widely, or even universally. One of the key features of _complexity_ is that repeating the same action does not produce the same results each time. In Duncan’s earlier example of handing over the chess game: to always hand over the chess game is no more of a solution than to never hand over the chess game, the handover only works when the players are better at chess than the manager. Embracing the need to always discover what is going on, to explore the dynamics of power and culture, to “probe – sense – respond” (as Cynefin puts it), in order to produce a possibly unique and novel (“emergent”) solution is really a big challenge for most people. But addressing this challenge of complexity is a key part of the solution. The ideas that there is not going to be a predefined solution available, and that cause and effect may often only be seen in hindsight (another feature of complexity), are far removed from the conventional structured thinking that is driven by a constrained view of efficiency. So, there _cannot_ be a simple answer to this question of unlearning that fits a blog, because any answer that works this way can’t cope with the emergent unpredictable part of unlearning that is complex and not bloggable.

      What prompted me to comment was that you said the logframe is “not fit for purpose”. I wish to disagree: the logframe was designed to be a one-page summary of a project working in an ordered domain, that shows the link from purpose and activities, to results – and was intended to be updated throughout the project life to reflect reality. As such it was, and still is, a tool that is indeed fit for purpose. If you, or anyone else, tries to use it as a substitute for participatory process during planning – for which it was never intended – then it is like using a sharp knife as a hammer and it isn’t surprising the result is messy and unpleasant. Even worse is to try to use any form of linear planning for a non-linear situation – don’t blame the tools when you use the wrong one. But you are of course right in saying that too many organisations insist that a sharp knife is the best tool for forcing nails into a piece of wood and challenges are not tolerated even if there is blood flowing freely from cut fingers. And with the logframe nearly 50 years old we have demonstrated a remarkable ability to repeat the failure that misusing it will bring so it is unlikely to change soon.


  3. Your intro about working from home and then getting really excited when finally discussing things with competent people is what got me to read this post – I so relate to that!
    Unlearning is indeed difficult. From what I’ve seen, first in a very large INGO, now in a medium-sized foundation, I find that a lot of organizational change comes from changing people… so the ‘one funeral at a time’ theory might be the most realistic… but for those impatient among us, this is also highly unsatisfying…

    And finally reg the chess game – wonderful example, sometimes a metaphor speaks more than a thousand words!

  4. Dear Duncan

    I’m working for a Oxfam fair trade shop in Hasselt (Belgium). I like your blog very much. I experienced the power of blogging first hand. It’s a valuable (underestimated, though) tool to stay away from preaching to the converted and indeed to Unlearn. Thanks for this post.

    (1) Humiliation is a constant ever since the Fairtrade Mark – promoted aggressively as ‘the new easy to choose fair trade purchase‘ – took over the control of the fair trade grass roots movement. (2) I got ‘excited’ while rereading No Logo during last Xmas holidays. It was very helpful for me to understand what was going on, when the Fairtrade Mark recently formed a Synergistic monopoly („synopoly‟) with Mondolez. (3) Many schools around Hasselt are engaged in Fair Trade activities through face- to-face discussions with the volunteers at our worldshop. One of our important success stories on the ground.

  5. Isolated bubbles of full agreed, like-minded individuals? –Mr. Green, you have just described social media.

    There is indeed a risk of stagnancy when you stick with people who agree with everything you say or think. There is no growth. No new knowledge creation, etc. People stay isolated and cosseted in their bubbles.. and their minimal interactions with people from other bubbles enrages them… and makes some even call for their “safe space”, where there feelings aren’t hurt by disagreement.

    The NGO/development world, it seems, is a mix of this collective groupthink and perhaps more pernicious, a fear of admitting failure. The combination of the two leads to stagnancy.

    I read somewhere that the four stages of learning can be described as:
    1. Unconscious Incompetence.
    2. Conscious Incompetence.
    3. Conscious Competence.
    4. Unconscious Competence.

    If one cannot make it to step 2 (knowing that you don’t know something or knowing that you’re bad at it, how the heck can you correct it and improve.

    Maybe the development sector would be better if it did this. Maybe people will start reading those ‘oh so complex and long’ project/program evaluations. Maybe organizations can admit failure or that they don’t know something.

    Here’s to hope. Happy New Year.

  6. Interesting as ever, Duncan; but let me suggest a slightly different perspective, just to jolly things up….
    Nearly all my life I’ve tried, successfully sometimes, but other times not so, to ‘do my bit’.
    There is however nothing like being a small, female ‘volunteer’ in a room full of paid / well-positioned male operators (think, for instance, economic regeneration…), for discovering that you have to have pretty convincing ideas, and that even then only sheer persistence, forceful will, (apparently) thick skin and guile will get you anywhere at all. Or else some chap will pick up your better propositions and go for them as though you don’t even exist.
    I could give examples, but should I name the ‘guilty’? Or is just mentioning this enough to spark a thought or two? I expect this same scenario applies also to others who, individually or as a social group, are by some deal of fate defined as ‘minority’.
    I suppose what I’m saying is that there are very few instances in which gender and other intrinsic personal / social factors are irrelevant to experience and outcome. But I expect you’d agree about that anyway.

  7. Duncan – how about a bit of LISTENING to the unconverted? As we would do in a project in country (sorry, I know this is a non U term now). We need to beware of being too quick to defend our values against attack by the other. Because if Brexit and Trump have shown one thing, it is that the the other, sooner or later, gets to speak. Of course, if they have power, they speak sooner and we hear plenty. But time invested in skilful listening is rarely wasted.

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