When to Tweak and When to Start Over…
“Mum, what do you think they would do if they found out there was some big problem with the programme?”
The question was from my son, on our way home from the regular Impact Circle I chair.
It was the first time he’d come with me and I was curious to know how he’d found it — tonight’s topic had been all about the pros and cons of cash transfers to households in developing countries versus project-based support.
What caught his attention more than anything was that there hadn’t been a whole load of negatives in the evaluation of the support — so far anyway — it had only been running a few years. He brought up a topic that I think a lot of us struggle with — how to know when to tweak, versus when to start over.
What if it All Goes Pear-Shaped?
When he’d been asked about negative implications the founder presenting to us had laughed and said that they outsourced their evaluation to academics and there was nothing academics liked better than some controversy.
“They’d love it if it turned out everyone spent the money on alcohol.” he said, “Imagine the headlines and the kudos for the academic!”
My answer to my son’s question was that the sensible way forward in that situation would be to pause and re-evaluate, maybe change the programme, or even close it down.
“Yeah, mum,” was his retort, “but it’s that guys organisation, he isn’t going to want to close it down altogether.”
“Well, yup,” I replied, “it’s definitely human nature to want to hold on to what we’ve started. But who knows… Maybe he’ll be different”
And that’s the nub of what happens in life: we become attached to the things that we’ve created and the stories that we’ve woven around ourselves. We take on those stories like a personal cloak of identity, failing to see that they are simply stories and can be unwritten or re-written as simply as I can back-space this story.
Change is Easy? Or is it??
I thought back to the conversation with my son as I read the Facebook posts this from friends rallying support against (and occasionally for) the Brexit process as we draw every closer to the March 2019 ‘deadline’.
Like all deadlines, and like all processes in our lives, this one was made-up by someone.
Just like the question my son was asking, and the response I gave, so too, can we turn around and recognise that we’ve become attached to a story of our own creation.
— Brexit is a good thing, it will give us independence.
— Brexit is a bad thing; open trade is good for the economy and society.
— Or, on a more personal level, perhaps it contains flavours of “I can’t back down, my reputation depends on X, Y, Z…”
If only we could see that our stories are simply stories and have no more validity than a five-year old telling another five-year old about the tooth fairy.
We live into them for as long as we believe them to be real.
When we see that we’ve embroidered a mythology around them, or built a structure out of words which can be undone in the same way I can back-space on this email, then perhaps we can start to see that reinvention is always possible.
All journeys begin with the best of intentions. Just like the cash to households’ project started with good intentions to allow household choice in how they spend, to share resources with dignity, unconditionally.
And, should it turn out that the intervention promotes rancour and alcoholism, well, the obvious response, is to pause, to say,
“We tried the very best we knew at the time, now we know more we can do better.”
And, perhaps this is a phrase we might want to be open start to use around the Brexit process.
Whatever side of the debate you fall on, I’m sure you had good intentions. But where are we now? Do we want to be in the hole we seem to be digging for ourselves? Sometimes it’s a good idea to transcend the story we’re telling ourselves; to see that it’s a story and, therefore, we can do better.
What Does ‘Do Better’ Even Mean?
But what does ‘do better’ even mean…? This was another segment of the debate we had with the founder of the cash-to-households project. What did those poor households spend the money on? And did we, sitting around a table in a fancy legal firm in the City of London, judge it to be ‘good thing’?
The conversation turned to what it is we value. In the case of the project that evening, a reduction to almost zero instead of closer to half of all children going to bed hungry. And mattresses. Whole villages buying mattresses.
Sure, we could (and some did) argue that there’s a greater benefit to purchasing a productive asset than using the money for consumption. But is there though? Who are we to say someone in extreme poverty shouldn’t have some comfort. The point, surely, is to spread a sense of shared humanity and the feeling of being alive.
Back, to Brexit, then…
Sure we want the economic impact, we want the regulatory freedom, we want a vibrant society and a balanced world outlook. But why? My sense is that it all comes down to those very basic things that all human needs can be turned into. Just like the poor households in Africa, which of us doesn’t want to live from joy with a sense of a shared humanity.
What if it’s time to press pause on Brexit, just for an instant, and return to that feeling of what it means to be alive. What it means to live in community. What it means to love our friends and neighbours, both near and far. What it means to be one human in a sea of humanity?
Might we return to the debate with a different narrative?
Perhaps a ‘better’ narrative?
It certainly looks that way to me.
About the author
Cathy Presland is an expert in human-centred leadership and transformative change. She has more than two decades of experience in government and international organisations and her focus as a coach is to support impact-driven individuals and organisations to improve their performance, leadership and peace of mind to enable them to make more of a difference with the work they do.