Tag Archives: smugosphere

Terrible meetings? Here’s a nesta reasonable ideas…

According to the American humourist Dave BarryMeetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot masturbate.” (As in, meetings aren’t just ego-potlaches, they’re also for the recycling of anxiety and responsibility).
While meetings might be full of wankers, they’re surprisingly joyless experiences. “Nesta”, a UK think tank, thinks it has some ideas on “Meaningful meetings: how can meetings be made better?

meetingslonelyThey sort of do, but the paper, as it states is “part of a larger research programme” and couldn’t/is not intended to stand on its own.
The author, Geoff “Connexity” Mulgan explains that we have “old formats and new tools”, ponders on “why so many meetings?” and then offers advice on “linking meeting format and purposes” (see Barry above) and gives some recommendations;

  • The ends and means of meetings need to be visible
  • Meetings need active facilitation and orchestration
  • The best meetings are often multi-platform, and use visualisation as well as talk and paper

Good meetings make the most of their participants – and rein in the extroverts, and the most opinionated and powerful

“one recent psychology study found that three factors were significantly correlated with the collective intelligence of a group: the average social perceptiveness of the group members (using a test also used to measure autism, that involves judging feelings from photographs of people’s eyes); relatively equal turn taking in conversation; and the percentage of women in a group (which partly reflects their greater social perceptiveness).” [Woolley, A. W., et al. (2010) Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. ‘Science.’ 330(6004): 686-688.]

    • Good meetings begin and end with a deliberate division of labour
    • Good meetings benefit from a conducive physical environment that heightens attention
    • Good meetings apply ‘Meeting Maths’: balancing time, scale, knowledge and breadth
    • Good meetings are cumulative – part of a longer process
    • Some of the best meetings don’t happen (or why you shouldn’t hold unnecessary meetings)

Mulgan then goes on to give succinct explanations of flipped conferences (send in youtubes of your presentations first, then turn up and engage), world cafe , dynamic facilitation, open space technology, the revolutionary thinking method (no, I am not making this up) , De Bono Six Thinking Hats, Sytegrity (see above for RTM), buurtzorg, holocracy governance meetings and agile.
As he drily observes
“There is relatively little evidence about when these work and when these don’t, and an odd feature of innovation in this field is that new models quickly crystallise as highly prescriptive methods, with little feedback to help them improve, or create hybrids, and very little formal testing or evidence.”

So, this is definitely worth a read, and perhaps thrusting into the hand of the stale activocrats who run stale meetings (for all the good it will do). As to what’s missing-
Parkinsons Law of triviality
Any sense that the radicalism of the “open space” will be captured, co-opted and used as a marketing gimmick, or just done so cack-handedly that it will empty the terms of meaning (Instead of ‘how not to be bossy‘)
The psychological needs of both the bosses (to be in charge) and the attendees (to be infantilised)

“The rest of us, with less responsibility in our day-to-day lives, are able to regress merely to being a school-child, sat in rows, listening to the Clever Parent at the front. No jobs, no direct-reports, no kids to look after, we can, for the length of the event, just be the docile/obedient Child.
Attempts to turn us into Adults in this setting will be resisted, both by those who wish to be Parents, and by those who want to be Children. Efforts at de-ego-fodderification are, thus, futile.”

I think there is a glancing reference to Jung [can’t find it now], but nothing on the fantastic psycho-analytically informed work of Rosemary Randall – “Collective and Community Group Dynamics… or your meetings needn’t be so appalling”- which someone has helpfully scanned and uploaded onto the interwebs

Other concepts worth exploring


On (failing at) piercing the smog of the smugosphere

The tl;dr is this – we come up with all kinds of rationalisations for the dismal failure of our social movement organisations to either change/modify government policy or even retain the talent that passes through its meetings and slip through its fingers.  When someone tries to raise it, there are a variety of defence mechanisms and blame-shiftings. NB Lots of quoting of comments I’ve recently posted on facebook – #selfplagiarismupthewazoo

The smugosphere is a fine and semi-public place, but none do there I think embrace the measures of success and progress towards the world we (1)  need.  In fact, that’s the definition of the smugosphere

smugosphere-page001The Smugosphere is not a place you’ll find on a map. It’s a state of mind: it’s the place where deeds are done not so much because they might actually have a positive effect on the world but because they will raise the status or self-esteem of the person/group doing them.

Why am I writing this?  Because in the aftermath of Jezza’s win, and in the tedious ‘build-up’ to Paris (2) there are a lot of people saying things like  “We need to build a climate movement.”

As they were saying TEN YEARS AGO, when we all (cough cough) got involved in the first Climate Camp. And we failed. And we will continue to fail, because we refuse to learn. We just do the things that make us feel good. Emotathons. Smugospheres. Sage on the Stage and Ego-fodderfication. Rather than actually engage with the facts that social movements are losing – because they’re obsessed with a small number of comfort-zone repertoires  – state and corporate – have (long ago) learned how to contain us.

the same contained and constrained and constipated repertoires over and over again, because we can, because they make us feel good, because they are easy.” Right this very minute, for example, I can ‘hear’ someone giving a speech at the rally. Lousy amplification, but no loss, because I am sure they are mouthing exactly the same pieties and banalities and exhortations that have always been mouthed, to people who already totally agree (why else would they be on the fricking demo?). Shepherds and sheep. Yawn yawn yawn.

egofodderSo like (as) a fool, I’ve been trying to have this conversation on Facebook. Yeah, I know.  And there are certain patterns which I’ve noticed.  I’ve listed them below as a) change the subject, b) reject the idea of critique (including ‘it’s not our job’),  c) construction of false binaries and d) ad hominems (you’re mad, you’re middle-class).  You’ will be delighted to learn that, after using a quote from 20 years ago, I close out with a modest proposal.

a) Changing the subject (from the thought that we have failed/the current uptick will fade)

  1. “I am growing food and encouraging other people to do the same”
  2. There are new people

To which I replied

Did I dispute there were lots of new people? Why not address the *actual point I made* – that we don’t have open cultures that ‘exploit’ – as in KEEP these people involved? We have been here before, with surges of numbers and optimism, and we’ve learnt nothing from those moments’ passing, I fear. And yes, marches are a lot like therapy.

b) Rejecting the idea of critique of social movement activity

  1. Chiding people for “negativity” when we should all be “positive” and “loving”
  2. We should do what we love
  3. “It’s not our job”

“a lot of advocacy groups get blamed for climate change – like blaming a firefighter, the person at the end of the hose, for the fire, or the ambulance driver for the heart attack… “

So, just accept that protest movements are the “theme park” of late consumer capitalism and identity crisis, for most people briefly and for some people for decades.

c) Creating a binary between “doing exactly as we have been doing” and “giving up”

To quote “What then?! Recognise its a life-long slog or give up letting the powerful know we know what they are up to. Do nothing is giving that inch that turns into a mile.”  [Actually, I think the powerful know that we know what they are up to.  And they know that, as currently behaving, we won’t stop them.]

My favourite here is ‘the only way forward is [my kind of group]’ – “how else are people going to organise outside of their union’s?

And the reply I gave (it sank without trace, of course)

Well, there are church groups, environmental groups, all sorts of ways that people can organise. Tenants associations, community-based groups, shared-oppression types of groups. Not just unions. And to be clear (I had hoped that I was). I am NOT opposed to organisation, or unions. I am opposed to boredom, and I am opposed to wasting the enthusiasm and energy of ‘newbies’. What I am saying is that the existing formats of meetings is intensely alienating unless you are an insider (and probably even then), and ‘newbies’ tend to not stick around when they realise that the talents and skills they have are not going to be tapped into, and their desires for learning new skills are going to be ignored.

d) Ad hominems

  1. “You are depressed”  [To which the actual reply is ‘mostly by your defensiveness and unwillingness (inability) to engage in a critique of the way we’ve been failing for decades, you walking Dunning-Kruger example’.]
  2. “You are middle-class” Personal favourite example – “And I don’t come from some toffy nosed middle class never left university background either!!”

Twenty years ago someone (and I now know who) wrote an anonymous analysis of the climate ‘movement’ – or rather, the hypocrisies and evasions of those who Care. It’s called No-one ever is to blame. After recounting his inability to get people interested in the concept of personal carbon allowances, he moves on to thinking about the dynamic of how we choose Bad People to hate.

Perhaps these career scapegoats [corporate and state] even encourage us, by adjusting their rhetoric so as to continue to attract our anger. After all, they wouldn’t want us to face reality, would they? Whatever the case, having established our supply of excuses, we continue to buy whatever we like for ourselves, rewarding the politicians with votes for a job well done, and blessing businessmen with an uninhibited market. Even the environmental pressure groups now find a comfortable nest in this collective rottenness. They soon learned that subs and fame came only from telling the sort of truth that people wanted to hear. We were thus instructed to direct our hatred at governments and multinationals. With our lifestyles quantitatively exceeding sustainable levels many times over, the most that mainstream environmental groups thought we should have to cope with was the suggestion that we put our bottles in a different shaped bin, or pump up our car tyres properly. Pleased with their words, we gave them some money. Pleased with our money, they gave us newsletters full of invective about big business, and coloured stickers to stick on our unsustainable cars.

It is logical enough, I suppose, that our environmentally corrupt society should have an even more corrupt environmental movement to protect it. Perhaps everyone else has known this for years, but it is new to me, and something of a shock.

But why give someone else the last word? I should always have the last word. On the question of what we could do differently, two quotes;

Hi xxxx, my question is this – what have you seen that has been learnt by the organisations that have to now try to absorb/sustain/amplify the energy and hope of those who felt battered, from previous failures to do so? How will they hold their meetings differently, measure success differently, build their campaigns differently? Because if they HAVEN’T learnt, and they HAVEN’T got plausible plans in place, then there is every likelihood that they will simply go through the same miserable emotathon cycle, as they did the last five years, and the five years before that, and the five years before that. And it’s for you to decide, but it’s interesting that you rule out psychoanalysing your love of demos. Surely we should be suspicious of that which we ‘love to do’? But that’s for you


Crucial things, imho, is legitimate peripheral participation – people being able to feel useful and part of a group without having to come to (endless) fucking meetings. And the other thing is to find out what skills people have and people WANT, and then work to use their existing skills and design mentoring and apprenticeshipping so they feel they are learning. And as a plus, your group ends up with three or four people who can, for example, do websites, instead of only one. Fewer single points of failure…


(1) Our species, its future generations, other species

(2) Seriously?  Anyone want to bet me that the November march in London will be bigger than the 2009 ‘Wave’? And if it is, so what?

To read
Dauvergne, P. and Lebaron, G. (2014) Protest Inc:The Corporatizatio of Activism Cambridge: Polity Press

Weaver, K. (1986) The Politics of Blame Avoidance’ Journal of Public Policy 6:4

See also

“That’s a courageous decision minister”

Folk Song Army by Tom Lehrer –

Remember the war against Franco?
That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.

Coda: The inspiration for this post was the pointless facebook interactions, the more interesting face-to-face interaction yesterday morning and this – Blame Games and Climate Change: Accountability, Multi0Level Governance and Carbon Management, a fascinating and useful article published this year in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.  It has a good literature review on the mechanics of blame avoidance (as this relates to politicians and bureaucrats). This could usefully be applied to social movement organisations. I haven’t done that here, but I have written the first draft of the first draft…. I need to talk more with people about ‘the wrong kind of guilt’…

Oh, and this, from 2006.