Deep Adaptation is Up to You as Founder Transitions

In the year-and-a-half since we launched the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF), I have been impressed with the creativity, compassion and wisdom of a wide range of volunteers from around the world. People have come together because they feel moved by the possibility of being together differently, of speaking truth courageously, of exploring ways of being in pain together, of not turning away from the horror and grief of the shitstorm that modern humans have created for ourselves and the rest of life on Earth.Already the Forum is far more than I could have imagined it to be. It is in a position now to support the community to launch new projects to reduce harm in the face of further disruptions to societies. Therefore it is a suitable time for me to step back from the daily operations of the Forum at the end of September 2020. I will remain as one of 14 members of the DAF Holding Group, with no special role. I believe this change to be a helpful step towards more people instinctively understanding that Deep Adaptation is a framework and community for people with any level of collapse anticipation who wish to come together and work out what that means for themselves and each other. Many people are already stepping up and helping to shape this emerging field of collapse anticipation. Long may that continue, with the aim of embodying and enabling loving responses to our predicament, while returning to compassion, curiosity and respect along the difficult paths ahead.

I am looking forward to some more headspace for free thinking, future writing and documentary making. The people I have met through Deep Adaptation remain very important to me as I continue to pursue my own Deep Adaptation. I intend to support people who serve in this field, with three leadership development activities per year. One is the online leadership course in November, another is the in-person leadership course in April, and the other is a Deep Adaptation retreat in June. I will explain the approach to these in a Q&A on leadership on 27th August (which you are welcome to join). 

I thank everyone I work with in the Core Team for what they have done to get the Forum this far: Katie, Dorian, Zori, and Matthew. I have also been grateful for the input and support of wonderful volunteers, including Chloe Greenwood, Naresh Giangrande, Toni Spencer, Dean Walker, David Baum, Aimee Maxwell, Jane Dwinell, Nenad Maljkovic, Brennan Smith and Charlotte Von Bulow. There are too many volunteers to mention here, so if you have contributed to any of the groups, thank you for helping create this community and movement. I am also grateful to the Holding Group members Sean Kelly and Kat Soares for taking on my previous responsibilities going forward.

As I make my personal transition, I would like to offer some reflections on the future of the Forum. Rather than seeking to influence the future agenda, I prefer to provide reflections on how to maintain the space for ongoing emergence. Whereas effective management is not a replacement for keeping the ethos of the Deep Adaptation community alive as we engage in it, simply focusing on the ethos and spirit will not sustain it. Just as a kite can only fly high when it is connected to the ground, so any community rising through love and creativity also needs connection to the ground of good organisation. Because any initiative must exist in the real world of our human imperfections and persons from outside who seek to disrupt or control. That is why I am choosing to summarise areas of potential organisational challenges and their potential remedies in this ‘handover’ message, rather than share positive rhetoric about the future. The Love in Deep Adaptation is so important that the systems for its cultivation demand our fierce protection.

Therefore I will now share some thoughts on the risks to maintaining the Forum as a space for emergence. By focusing on risks, this message may read like the most anti-charismatic handover message ever – though I hope it may become a useful tool to refer back to over time. I am sharing this assessment with anyone who is interested, rather than just Core Team, Holding Group and volunteer groups, because it is important for anyone involved in the community and movement to be aware of how the apparently boring bureaucratic stuff is important for the continued growth of communities and movements. 

So now to the boring bureaucratic stuff. I recommend you read on only if you are interested in the development and management of purpose-led organisations… 

My assessment of the risks to such organisations is based on my work in civil society for 25 years, including grassroots activist groups, mainstream NGOs and political parties. As a sociologist I have studied New Social Movement success, limitations and failures. Not only did I experience positive change, I often witnessed actions and inactions that led to ineffectiveness, disruption and division. As I saw those disappointments, I was contrasting it with what I learned about organisational development and decay from scholarship and consulting. So as I leave the Core Team of the Forum, I will share a summary of those insights for participants’ future reference.  

Here are 13 ways I have seen activist movements, political movements and NGOs decay, and some suggested remedies against that decay:

  1. Compromised Agility. Unclear or insufficiently rapid decision making can lead to the inability to respond in the moment, such as a crisis communications situation or internal financial crisis. Whereas participative processes are really important, there needs also to be effective delegation to relevant experts in various fields. Just as we don’t do annual accounts or surgery through, for instance, sociocracy, so various functions need to be recognised as specialist, such as a PR and media response. One potential remedy for this problem is for teams of people to be delegated to have specific decision-making authorities. 
  2. Navel Gazing. Extensive internal process can become a requirement for engagement by anyone and thus useful people leave the process because they experience it as being too demanding of their time and capacity. That can mean the initiative becomes less interested or connected to external trends and issues, as it turns inward, and therefore becomes out-of-step with the wider lives of its participants. For instance, internal rules and preoccupations can prevent evolution according to changing needs and opportunities. Internal preoccupations are typically the personal interests, habits and security of paid staff in any activity. One potential remedy for this problem is for the board, in this case the Holding Group, to include people with varying levels of engagement, from active volunteers to people who simply observe the activity. 
  3. Organisational Drift. New non-core ideas and projects are supported because they are well-intentioned or topical, and so focus is lost and the organization becomes bogged down in intricacies of various other topics, while participants become confused about purpose. Even if new non-core ideas and projects are discussed for a while before being declined, that process distracts people from core focus and leads to discord (as everyone cares about many important issues beyond the core focus). One potential remedy for this problem is to have a legitimate and clear process for strategy development which leads to a clear strategy that is referred to regularly by colleagues in order to remind people what the focus is and the processes available to seek to alter that focus. A ‘strategy options dialogue’ once every year or two may be the best way to address that within the Forum. 
  4. Internal Boundaries. As specific roles are created, and their associated silos, so people can focus only on their particular area of work and an initiative can lose a sense of team spirit. That means people don’t flow to where the support is needed and some people become overworked while others create extra work for others. In addition, a lack of team spirit can lead to rumours and complaints without full information and opportunities for resolution. One potential remedy for this problem is to encourage people to be open about their workload and to ask how they can help others in a team with their own workload. That is helped by people remaining committed to the overall purpose of the endeavour rather than their own part of it. 
  5. Resource Disruption. An initiatives’ basic resourcing model can be changed so that the operations are disrupted. For instance, decisions that reduce volunteer commitment, or reduce the likelihood of key income, or mean the organisation must spend time focusing on donors or clients rather than serving its mission. One potential remedy for this problem is for a governance board to be clear that any change in approach to finances will have implications for the way the organisation works, and so invite attention to potential unintended consequences of any proposed changes in resourcing. 
  6. Sabotage. Disaffected volunteers and staff can leave in a way that disrupts activities, such as by maliciously or negligently deleting or stealing databases, not handing over passwords, retaining domain names, taking key staff or volunteers or badmouthing the initiative in the media. One potential remedy for this problem is to be careful about data management and have a clear public record of all decisions about the ownership and control of key assets. Another remedy can be to help people create satellite initiatives, so that there are a range of organisations within a movement. 
  7. Marginalisation. Partner organisations can take on roles that mean an initiative becomes dependent on the partner for information technology, staff and so on, so it then loses its own impetus and control. One potential remedy for this problem is to have a clear policy on how to manage organisational collaborations so that there can be synergy without losing autonomy or control of key assets.
  8. Hijack. Mistakes can be made in governance which means an individual or small group takes over and changes everything. That can even happen in organisations that specialise in democratic accountability, because their legal formulation, for instance as a limited company or registered charity, is different from their chosen ways of working deliberatively. Hijack can also occur in more subtle ways, whereby one person manages to coalesce power into their own role and not be removable. One potential remedy for this problem is to seek to codify in legal documents of incorporation the ways that an initiative is choosing to operate, and include measures so that no one person has too much power and is always accountable to colleagues and participants.  
  9. PR Disasters. A person with a high-profile does something, or is accused of doing something, that is criticised publicly, so some people consider that the reputation of the whole initiative suffers. The initiative then spends time in internal disagreement on how best to respond to an apparent PR disaster. One potential remedy for this problem is to ensure there are diverse voices representing the initiative and that as soon as one person becomes well-known as a voice of the initiative, they voluntarily reduce their media-facing activities. That goes against the way the media works, who may specify who they want, and so requires some internal discipline to refuse some interviews. 
  10. Vested Interests. An initiative becomes important for the income or professional standing of some people so when it becomes the centre of controversy those people seek to resolve conflict to protect those vested interests. One potential remedy for this problem is to keep reminding people who relate to the initiative that it is focused on its mission and must not seek to serve the personal professional interests of people who engage in it. It will require some enlightened self interest from people with vested interests to realise this is important. 
  11. Ossification. An initiative becomes well-managed but focused on a particular class, race, or demographic. For instance, many organisations were vibrant in the 1990s but their participants have aged without attracting a younger generation and so the nature and significance of the initiative has changed, or it has literally died out. One potential remedy for this problem is to have an active focus on constant diversification, where people from diverse backgrounds are given significant roles in an initiative. 
  12. Paranoia. The key organisers become understandably concerned about infiltrators and disruptors and therefore do not trust anyone from outside their old circle of contacts (prior to expansion), and therefore do not seek the best people for the required tasks. Sometimes they are right to be suspicious, but the fear of infiltration is a separate problem to infiltration itself. One potential remedy for this problem is to normalise the perspective that there will be infiltrators and so it is ordinary good management to create systems that are robust enough for infiltrators to arrive and not be able to damage the initiative. That requires understanding how infiltrators might seek to obtain power to be able to disrupt an initiative at some future date, and putting in processes that avoid that power. Which brings me to a 13th mechanism of decay – the paranoid bit. 
  13. Infiltration. It should not be controversial to state that the environmental movement is riddled with infiltrators from governments and corporate interests. To think that issue is something not to consider would suggest a lack of knowledge on the history of environmentalism and any social movement. Successful infiltration can bring down organisations without them ever understanding why. So what do we do about that?
    • First, we get more professional. Because infiltration to sabotage a movement is a professional practice. Therefore they are likely to be undertaking behaviours, decisions and indecisions which lead to organisational decay, in the twelve ways I have just outlined. Therefore, being smarter about what is good and bad organisational practice and articulating that is important.
    • Second, we can become more diverse. The useful way to avoid successful subversion of any movement by vested interests is to seed a number of diverse organizations with different forms of resourcing and audiences, and seek a movement mentality across them, rather than slide into competition.
    • Third, we can remain vigilant whenever we are invited to see an issue a certain way, or to feel disgust at certain people or ideas. There will always be vested interests either deliberately fuelling certain agendas and disruptions or attracting people to support that for their personal needs. When being asked to view something differently it is useful to ask a few questions. Who benefits? Am I being asked to dislike someone or group? How do I know what I’m being told is true? What’s the bigger picture for my values and the movement?
    • Fourth, we can promote the view that because we all face a rather awful future, it invites us to live for truth and love, so we would expect infiltrators to rebel against their employer and help social movements as double agents. 

I hope this summary will be useful to refer back to as the DAF grows and evolves. However, I am under no illusions about the future. Even if the Forum is well managed, both it and the idea of Deep Adaptation will have a shelf life in the world of social discourse and social change. Therefore it is heartening to know that what can remain is the caring consciousness that we will be experiencing due our coming together around this topic. That consciousness is prior and beyond all concept, initiative, strategy, and organisational success or failure. Thank goodness for that 🙂

Dr. Jem Bendell, founder of Deep Adaptation and the Deep Adaptation Forum. 

colorful kite flying in blue sky
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